From on-site to online: How startups in India are bridging digital divide across - Hindustan Times

From on-site to online: How startups in India are bridging digital divide across

BySharmita Kar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Jan 30, 2022 10:49 AM IST

While a digital divide between top cities and remote areas existed before, the pandemic put the spotlight on the urgent need to bridge this gap.

The Covid-19 pandemic in India gave a fresh lease of life to budding startups to maximise the potential of a global shift from an on-site and in-person reality to a digital reality. In times like these, a major challenge has been to reach out to the far and wide parts of a country which is still in its formative years of technological advancement, especially at grassroots levels.

The digital divide in India starts at the foundational level and a pandemic was enough to put the spotlight on it.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The digital divide in India starts at the foundational level and a pandemic was enough to put the spotlight on it.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

While the top cities are well surrounded and fairly informed to ease into the online space, the pandemic has made it challenging for those located in remote and rural areas.

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“The pandemic has been a watershed moment for the global economy. Due to lockdowns, the digital divide further escalated only to highlight the lack of connectivity, mobility, and insufficient awareness in the rural areas,” says Jani Pasha, CEO and co-founder at Lokal, a hyperlocal social platform that aims to reach out to the non-English speaking population in tier-2 and tier-3 cities.

Being India’s first ‘super app’ for towns, Lokal strives to empower local businesses and entrepreneurs by helping them reach the right target audience and help the vernacular population get their regional updates on jobs, matrimonial, real estate, and classifieds.

Ultimately, Lokal aims to become a “one-stop multi-featured application” for towns and villages that allows its users to harness the true potential of the internet beyond just entertainment.

Speaking on roadblocks in extending content to a less-versed audience, Pasha, who was on the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia 2020 list, said it was important to close the connectivity gap and opportunities between India and ‘Bharat’ so that non-metro cities could also reap the fruits of digitalisation.

“For the longest time, WhatsApp has been the equivalent of the internet for most of these users. The biggest hurdle has been diverting consumers' usage from entertainment and networking purposes to explore meaningful opportunities as the users were inherently inclined towards consuming content for leisure,” he said.

It all starts at the foundation

The digital divide in India starts at the foundational level and a pandemic was enough to put the spotlight on it. With schools shutting down, the education sector faced an immediate need to transform and nurture a symbiotic relationship with technology.

“Edtech for India will be the real game changer,” says Gaurav Goel, founder of Samagra, a mission-driven governance consulting firm that works with central and state governments across domains to create an impact in the country.

Even before the world knew about coronavirus, Samagra started bridging the digital gap by collaborating with the bureaucratic leadership of states to solve complex governance problems at scale in domains such as education and employment, among others.

As part of an initiative called ‘Saksham Haryana’, the company has collaborated with the Haryana government to give away five lakh tablets free-of-cost to students of classes 11 and 12 and another three lakh tablets to students of classes 9 and 10 in the forthcoming academic session to facilitate remote learning.

In Uttar Pradesh, the company has imparted foundational literacy and numeracy for 1.2 crore primary government school children under an initiative called ‘Mission Prerna’. “This is the cornerstone of the NIPUN Bharat mission launched at the national level, many guidelines of which are inspired from Mission Prerna,” says Goel, who left his high-paying job at McKinsey to follow his passion.

Samagra has also developed the ‘Prerna Lakshya App’, in collaboration with Google, to be used by parents and teachers to assess students and also help them practice weaker competencies.

Besides, the firm has also worked across agriculture, health, public service delivery, and skilling sectors. It introduced the KALIA scheme in Odisha which provides a life insurance cover of 2 lakh at a nominal premium to cultivators and landless agricultural labourers in the 18-50 age group with a savings bank account.

“We played a role in changing this narrative by working with the Government of Odisha on conceptualising and facilitating the implementation of its flagship KALIA scheme. KALIA was also the precursor to the Central government’s PM-KISAN,” Goel adds.

However, none of it was simple as they had to make a “mindset shift” from customised, service-based, proprietary tech solutions to open source product-based tech solutions, with respect to how governments approach technology currently.

The road ahead

With the Budget day closing in, Indian startups have now raised hopes for a lower tax load, and increase in funding and incentives to embrace digital practices for banking and beyond.

“In the last few years, it has been observed that the government and investor sentiment has been highly favourable towards the booming startup ecosystem. The growing industry is already being projected as the backbone of the economy; several policies and initiatives have also been introduced to boost progress,” says Pasha.

“Compared to the last few years, now seems to be the perfect time to strike the iron,” he said for entrepreneurs looking to work in India.

“The journey from India at 75 (years of independence) to India at 100 is going to be transformative. This is the time to return and contribute towards making the next 25 years matter,” Samagra founder Goel sets straight the vision for those aspiring to join the ecosystem.

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