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Apps fill gaps in India's medical, agricultural services

The riceXpert agricultural app makes it easy for farmers to consult with experts about pesticide use and other agricultural matters.

NEW DELHI -- A new breed of apps is cropping up in India, one aimed solving the problems unique to a rapidly developing -- yet still emerging -- country. India has the world's second-largest population of mobile phone users, but it also suffers from insufficient social infrastructure and a deep digital divide.

     In February, San Francisco-based MUrgency began offering an app for emergency medical care in the northern state of Punjab. Users contact the company using the app, which is free to download, and doctors and nurses are dispatched to the scene. The service has some 36 hospitals and more than 350 doctors and nurses, and charges start from as little as 350 rupees ($5.22).

     MUrgency was founded in the U.S. by Indian-born entrepreneur Shaffi Mather. Investors include Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons, the holding company of India's largest conglomerate Tata group. Mather told The Nikkei that his company will soon launch services in the northern state of Haryana and near New Delhi, with plans to expand the service to the rest of the world by 2020.

     In May, the National Rice Research Institute, part of India's agricultural ministry, began offering an app for rice farmers called riceXpert. The app provides farmers with information about rice varieties, pests and post-harvest operations for free. Experts respond to questions sent by farmers using pictures and voice messages. These services are available on Android-based smartphones.

Meeting needs

These new apps are designed to make up for structural deficiencies in India's health care, agricultural and other sectors.

     India has just 0.7 hospital beds per 1,000 people, far fewer than Japan's 14, China's 4 and Thailand's 2. This underdeveloped health care system makes it difficult for many Indians to receive proper medical attention. MUrgency's app aims to provide a minimum level of emergency services to such people.

     

RiceXpert, meanwhile, is aimed at addressing digital divide issues, which hamper social development in rural areas. Many farmers in India depend on the brokers who buy their crops for information on pesticides, as they have no other means of obtaining such information. As a result, many find themselves getting deeper and deeper into debt, having been tricked into buying pesticides and other products they did not need. In the worst cases, some farmers end up committing suicide when drought or other factors cause crop yields tumble. The mobile app, it is hoped, will help farmers avoid getting into debt in the first place.

     As of the end of March, India's mobile phone subscribers stood at 936 million, far exceeding the 25.22 million fixed-line subscribers. Low mobile charges and a drop in handset prices are providing a boost. Previously, smartphones were priced at more than 10,000 rupees, but now some Android handsets are available for as little as 2,000 rupees.

     "Information technology could help overcome delays in India's social systems and build new social infrastructure different from that of Japan and the U.S.," said Hiroshi Mikitani, chairman and president of Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten.

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