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  A digital rural market covering 6000 villages

ITC, the diversified Indian corporate is growing a digitally networked rural market, titled ‘eChoupal’. Choupal is a village’s traditional central meeting place where villagers exchange notes. eChoupal is however an intranet connecting villages. To overcome issues of literacy and computer skills, there’s a trained interpreter-technician called a ‘sanchalak’ at each eChoupal. Beyond the splash page is Hindi-only.

Originally a tobacco giant, ITC [-it was ‘Imperial Tobacco Co.’, then ‘Indian Tobacco Co.’ and now just, ‘ITC’] has over the last two decades diversified into consumer goods and commodities among other things. With tobacco industry on the back foot, ITC probably wants to develop newer interests. But the urban consumer market is a pretty crowded scene. Hence ITC’s rural initiative.

It began with 6 eChoupals in June 2000 to prove the idea. ITC says it now has 1200 such kiosks covering 6000 villages mainly in UP, MP, AP and Karnataka. Thrusts into Kerala, Bengal, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are planned. Each eChoupal --which is a desktop with Internet access, really-- costs between Rs.1-3 lakhs to set up. Through the network ITC buys from villages as well as sell to them.  It also claims to offer the best ‘gate prices’ for all products bought for re-marketing. From Kerala it expects to buy spices, from Maharashtra horticultural produce, from Bengal aquaculture products and Rajasthan wheat and oil-seed. In turn, eChoupals sell branded oil, salt, flour --and insurance products!

ITC’s agribusiness is Rs.1000 crores and expected to grow 60% this year. How much of that will be put through eChouplals is not clear, but the growth in the numbers and future plans would indicate that the initiative has been a success. ITC Chairman Y C Deveshwar says eChoupals will arrive in 100,000 villages within a decade.

Information technology tends to squeeze out middle men. Farmers long squeezed by them will like that.