Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons
RISC Schematic Presentation
The problem of the economic development of large underdeveloped economies present unique challenges that require innovative solutions. In an age of increasing specialization, there is a critical need for integration to supplement the specialization. Economies are complex, nonlinear systems and just as they cannot be adequately described by partitioning them into subsystems and analyzing them piecemeal, so also their problems cannot be addressed by partial interventions. This is because the subsystems of complex non-linear systems interact strongly with one another, and even the most carefully thought through partial solution often fails to achieve its intended goal.
The aim of RISC is to address the problems of one such complex nonlinear system — the rural Indian economy — and to outline a solution that addresses the problem of economic growth comprehensively by accomplishing a set of interlinked transitions to a more efficient equilibrium. Economic development is multi-faceted — demographic, technological, social, political, military, institutional, informational, ideological, and so on. Given binding resource constraints, the optimal solution requires the power of ideas for it to be feasible.
The RISC Paradigm
The economic development of India’s 600 million strong rural population presents formidable challenges and also great opportunities. An institutional innovation called RISC — Rural Infrastructural & Services Commons — is presented that has the potential for achieving the multi-faceted goals of sustainable economic development.
Fundamentally, the specific market failure that RISC addresses is that of coordination failure. RISC is designed to coordinate the activities of a host of entities—commercial, governmental, NGOs. It synchronizes investment decisions so as to reduce risk. It essentially acts as a catalyst that starts off a virtuous cycle of introducing efficient modern technology to improve productivity that increases incomes and thus the ability of users to pay for the services, and so on. It creates a mechanism that reduces transaction costs and therefore improves the functions of markets.
Revolutions in the information and communications technologies (ICT) have the potential to remove the barriers to information asymmetries that were impeding the working of markets that are critical for economic growth. The forces of globalization have created opportunities for the integration of rural populations in a larger marketplace than was ever available to them before.
Economic development is both the cause and consequence of urbanization. RISC achieves the urbanization of the rural population without requiring the massive and unsustainable rural-urban migration. It brings urbanization to the rural population by making available to them the full set of services and amenities that are normally available only in urban locations. It works within the constraints of limited resources by concentrating them in specific locations to obtain economies of scale, scope, and agglomeration. It helps lift the population out of a development trap by making available to them the benefits of technological advances and the increased access to global markets that globalization promises.
RISC follows the logical trend of moving away from vertically integrated institutions to one of horizontal segmentation and specialization. Thus, conceptually and operationally, a RISC has two levels: the lower one is the infrastructure level (henceforth, the I-level) which consists of power, broadband telecommunications, and the physical plant (building, water, air-conditioning, sanitation, security); and above that the user services level (henceforth, the S-level) which consists of all services that are relevant to rural economic activity such as market making, financial intermediation, education and library, health, social services, governmental services, and so on.
The I-level provides a reliable, standardized, competitively-priced infrastructure platform. This is achieved by the coordinated and cooperative actions of firms that specialize in the component activities. Co-located on the S-level are all kinds of firms that provide user services. The presence of the I-level reduces their costs and therefore the prices that the users face. Economies of scope and agglomeration are obtained by the presence of the variety of different service providers.
Given that rural populations are very poor, it is reasonable to expect that the aggregate demand of a single village for any single service will be very low. However, the aggregate demand for, say, a 100 villages for a single service could be significant. Aggregating the demand for many different kinds of services of the same 100 villages would translate into lot of services. These services would require infrastructural inputs which can be commercially and sustainably supplied. The total rural population of India can be covered by about 6,000 RISCs each servicing the needs of 100,000 people. The economies of scale are obtained by implementing a few thousand RISCs. Access to a RISC for any rural person is only a ‘bicycle commute’ away.
RISC is not an attempt at social engineering through centralized planning. Neither is it another model of Internet kiosk or telecenter. It aims to solve a problem by appealing to the profit motives of all participants, be they private sector, NGOs, or the public sector. The good that will surely come out of it can only be attributed to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
The foundational idea upon which the proposed solution stands is that of the emergence of complex adaptive behavior from the interaction of agents following simple rules within a sufficiently rich environment. The solution provides a balance between the forces of cooperation and competition, between standardization and specialization, between private and public action, between generalization and particularization, between globalization and localization, between unity and diversity. It is an idea that is at once both blindingly obvious and fleetingly elusive.
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