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eGovWatch: Rural village gets a digital makeover

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A two-hour drive from Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s administrative heartland, is the small, nondescript hamlet of Akodara in Sabarkantha district.

With a population of just 1,054 as per the 2011 census, the primary occupation of villagers here is farming and dairy. What has catapulted this progressive little village on to the national map as a model for villages and towns across the country is its adoption and metamorphosis into a digital village, providing services ranging from cashless banking to digitised school teaching by the country’s largest private bank, ICICI Bank.

Today, thanks to ICICI Bank’s initiative, technology is an integral part of life in Akodara. The move is a first step by a private entity towards realising the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of Digital India, an initiative of the government to integrate government departments and the masses to provide efficient governance.

Akodara incidentally happens to be the same place where Modi started Gujarat’s first animal hostel in 2011 when he was the chief minister of the state. The animal hostel, a concept conceived by Modi was envisaged as a place where the cattle of the village are kept and maintained together and have all necessary infrastructure facilities to take care of them.

The digital village, as conceptualised by the PM, has three themes—cashless, comprehensive and connected and has three focus areas: enhance access to banking and providing seamless banking services, leverage technology in the social sectors for improvement in the lives of the villagers and to create enabling infrastructure to make technology available and access and disseminate information. Towards this end and to facilitate safe and secure options of savings for the future needs and exigencies of the people of Akhodara, ICICI Bank has provided savings bank accounts to every adult in the village.

Furthermore, to inculcate the habit of savings, the Bank is conducting training and awareness programmes using audio-visual tools. The other features of banking being adopted include accounts opening using Tab Banking solution. The Bank has deployed tablet based savings and loan sourcing solution. The accounts have also been made ready for Aadhaar Payment Bridge System (APBS) payment and with this villagers can receive government benefits directly in their savings account through direct benefit transfer (DBT).

In addition, the Bank has developed a dedicated and customised SMS banking platform for Akodara. This enables the villagers to do basic four transactions (Balance Enquiry, Mini Statement, Fund Transfer and Prepaid Mobile Recharge) just by an SMS. Here a customer just needs to send a SMS in simplified SMS format to initiate a transaction and on successful transaction customer would receive response in vernacular language. In addition, customers can use banking services with Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) on National Unified USSD Platform (NUUP) with their registered mobile number. With this, they can even undertake fund transfer apart from SMS banking. ICICI Bank has also enabled end-to-end payment solution for various cashless transactions in the village. Customers with their Debit-cum-ATM Rupay card can do debit card transactions at key institution points for transactions.

What makes the system tailor-made for the requirements of the villagers of Akodara, dependent on dairy and farming for their livelihood is features like the provision to buy milk and milk products, cattle feed, pay animal hostel charges, subscribe and renew Wi-Fi services and buy water from RO Water Plant among various other facilities.

The Bank has also developed a micro-ATM based solution to facilitate the local Arthiyas/Mandi Commission agents to make payments to farmers for their produce. This is one of the unique technology put in by the Bank where the financial transaction during the sale happens through the device, where seller account get credited just by swiping Debit card of the seller and at the same amount is debited from the account of the Mandi Agent. This would make Himmatnagar, the first Mandi in Gujarat enabled for cash-less transaction facility. Special technology has also been enabled at local APMC for cashless transactions. Arthiyas/Mandi commission agents can make payments to farmers with a swipe of a card.

The Bank has modified Village Level Cooperative Society (VLCS) software and integrated it with its system to capture the quantity of milk poured by farmers everyday, and the payment due to these farmers. The payment dues are settled on periodic basis, by debiting VLCS account without handling the cash.

The icing on the cake is that ICICI Bank has tied-up with its subsidiary insurance company to offer life insurance products to the villagers. A kiosk based solution with insurance facility has been put up in the Branch. This kiosk will help customers evaluate their needs and life goals and suggest insurance coverage and product.

But its not only banking that ICICI is providing in its Digital India initiative. Apart from banking, the Bank tried to touch upon all the aspects of a villager’s life. For that, the Bank has introduced audio-visual content for Classes I to X in schools of the village. These classes have been provided with an all-in-one device combining the functionality of a computer, projector, DVD player and speaker with internet access. This is in line with Gujarat Board curriculum and is in Gujarati language.

In addition, the Bank is setting up an online spoken English course for secondary education students. For this, a school management system has been installed in the primary and secondary school. This will help digitise the student records and track student & teacher attendance, timetables and examination schedules and results. Existing Anganwadis have been made more children friendly with an ambiance to encourage learning. The Bank has put up LED TV and introduced video based education replacing paper charts and black board based teaching. Focused and customised vocational skill based training has been designed for girl students of Class XI and XIIth. These classes will be conducted over the weekends.

Apart from this, steps will be taken to facilitate infrastructural improvement in the village. ICICI Bank has developed a website and a Facebook page of the village which will provide information about the village. Apart from this, the Wi-Fi tower in collaboration with government of Gujarat will provide Internet connectivity to the entire village on subscription basis. Some other facilities introduced to make their livelihood better are water purification (RO) plant, e-Health centre to provide medical facility and market linkage through access to commodity spot prices. It is also facilitating advisory on farm activities, weather information and agri news to the farmers on their mobile phones through SMS.

Needless to say, the response to the initiative has been overwhelming. “The villagers are very excited about the entire project and it is not only the residents of this particular village, but even those from adjoining areas are coming to us and sharing their excitement. The villagers are getting SMS in Gujarati for their transactions and other digital services,” says Chanda Kochhar, MD of ICICI Bank, adding, “We hope to eliminate barriers that separate rural and urban India. We hope that it will catalyse similar initiatives across the country and recreate rural India.”

By Jyotsna Bhatnagar (With inputs from Nirwa Mehta)

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