Who says rural India isn't digital savvy?

By Ajita Shashidhar and Dipak Mondal    New Delhi     Last Updated: February 24, 2016  | 15:17 IST
Photo: Rachit Goswami

All those who think that consuming content on smart phones and tablets or being part of social media groups is an urban phenomena, are surely mistaken. The rural economy is indeed in doldrums, with agriculture (which contributes 17.4 per cent to the country's GDP) growing by just 1 per cent in the last one year, thanks to poor monsoons. Consumption across sectors, be it FMCG, consumer durables, automobiles are at rock bottom. However, the only segment that has grown handsomely (upwards of 50 per cent) is smart phones.   

The Business Today team while reporting for the rural consumption story traveled across the country. Be it the Vaishali district in Bihar, far-flung villages in Andhra or even the drought affected Marathwada region in Maharashtra, where people are cutting down even their daily tea consumption, the only bit of extravagance they are indulging in is a smart phone.

A Vodafone Mini store in the village of Phoolambri, around 50 kilometers away from Aurangabad, surprisingly sells more pre-paid Internet recharge packs.

"Vodafone has a Rs 198 recharge pack which gives data along with talk time worth Rs 53. The pack works for around 21 days and is quite popular," says Raju Phule, an employee at the Vodafone Mini Store in Phoolambri.

Prem Fuke, owner of Sri Sai Mobile Store in Phoolambri claims that he sells over 50 smart phones per month. Priced between Rs 3,000 - Rs 5,000, some of the popular brands include Karbon, Micromax, Intex and Lava.

Kalpesh Walzade, owner of Kalpesh Mobile Shop a Ghoti village, near Igatpuri in Maharashtra claims that he has enough takers for even a Rs 20,000 Samsung smart phone.

Similarly, Sujeet Kumar, a mobile store owner in the Ismailpur village of Vaishali district in Bihar, claims that he sells at least 20 smart phones every month.

"I keep limited number of smart phones as most people buy the expensive phones from Hajipur market, which is 7-8 km from here. Some people even buy phones and other products online," says Kumar.

In all these markets sale of other consumer durables have been flat for over a year. Despite brands deep discounting and offering other freebies, there are no takers.  

So, what do consumers do with smart phones in rural areas?

Punjeram Ramdas Gadve, a farmer who lives in Ghoti village is a proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S4. Gadve, who was bargaining hard to get discounts for a bike at the local Hero dealer, quickly types a message on Whatsapp, asking his friend to come as fast as he could to help him bargain harder. "We have a farmers group on Whatsapp and Facebook, where we share farming related information," he proudly tells us. Gadve also shows the TataSky mobile app he has recently downloaded. "We have lot of power cuts here, therefore, it's easier to watch TV on the phone," he says.

Ganesh Nana Saheb Kale who owns a fertilizer shop in Phoolambri says he finds Whatsapp effective to demonstrate to farmers how some of the products that he sells could help their crops. "I put up pictures of a crop before using a particular fertilizer and how it looks post the use of that fertilizer," explains Kale, who has a 60-member farmers Whatsapp group.

Jitendra Kumar Yadav, son of a farmer in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, owns two smartphones. "I am active on Facebook and Whatsapp and I consume data worth Rs 200 a month."

On the other hand, Vikram Phuke, a resident of Ganori village, travels 60 kilometres to Aurangabad everyday to attend college. Phuke says that he switches on the TV at home only to watch news. Not only does he watch reality shows such as 'Nach Baliye' and Bigg Boss on the YouTube app on his Intex phone, he has also downloaded an online engineering entrance coaching app on his phone. "It's not just me, over 70 per cent of the youngsters in and around my village chat on Facebook and Whatsapp," says Phuke.

Will the likes of Vikram Phuke and Punjeram Ramdas Gadve watch a full-length film on their respective smart phones?

Phuke says he does watch films on his smart phone, but they are pirated films which he gets from his friends on memory sticks. "Watching a film on Internet, will consume lot of data and will be expensive," he says.     

Chatting on social networking sites, consuming entertainment on smart phones has become a way of life even in rural areas, despite mobile internet penetration not being too satisfactory.

"Internet connectivity isn't that good, but we know areas where the signals are better and whenever we have to chat or watch a video, we go there," says Prasad Pawar, a young kirana store owner.  

So what if Internet connectivity is an issue, rural India is consuming content on-the-go. Apart from selling mobile phones, Sujeet Kumar, the mobile store owner in Ismailpur in Bihar, gets a significant amount of his income by selling memory sticks loaded with songs and movies. Kumar charges Rs 20 for 2GB data and Rs 40 for 4GB data.

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