ROLE OF ICTS IN INDIAN RURAL COMMUNITIES

Role of ICTS in India Rural Communities

Siriginidi Subba Rao

Central Leather Research Institute

<siriginidi@gmail.com>

Introduction

Information is the key to democracy. With the advent of Information Technology (IT), it has become possible for common man to access global information. Information in a broader sense includes oral communication, voice in telephony, text in fax and newspapers, images in video and television broadcasting, and data in computers. All information can be digitized, transported, stored, retrieved, modified and then distributed. Emerging digital techniques, new network alternatives including intelligent networks, high bandwidth communication technology and state-of-the-art software for network functions and services, are the new technology trends evident in the development of electronic communication systems. The swift emergence of a global “information society” is changing the way people live, learn, work and relate. An explosion in the free flow of information and ideas has brought knowledge and its myriad applications to many millions of people, creating new choices and opportunities in some of the most vital realms of human endeavor. Yet most of world’s population remains untouched by this revolution. The paper discusses the need to focus on Indian rural communities to empower them to access information, knowledge and poverty alleviation among them by deploying the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Analyses the factors preventing rural communities from reaping the benefits of ICTs, Indian initiatives to overcome the factors, ways and means of poverty alleviation and sustainable development; identifies the bottlenecks and solutions, and lessons learned.

Need to Focus on Indian Rural Communities

Even after 57 years of India’s independence, the country is still facing pressing problem in dealing with its rural poor and how to increase their income level. The rural-urban distribution of population in India and select states is provided at table 1 (Census of India, 2001). Out of 1027 million (102.7 crore) population, 742 million (72.2%) live in rural areas and 285 million (27.8%) in urban areas. The rural populace are living in 600,000 villages spread over 27.60 lakh sq km, across India with very poor or no infrastructure like roads, transport, power supply, clean drinking water, healthcare, education system, communication network, etc., further pushing them to poverty.

According to India's first Social Development Report a large proportion of Indians are still below the poverty line: 26% or about 260 million (193 million in rural and 67 million in urban areas). The poverty is increasingly concentrated in a few geographical locations and among specific social groups. The incidence of poverty as per 1999-2000 figures, Punjab state has the lowest of 6.16%, followed by Haryana at 8.74% and Kerala at 12.72%. Orissa state has the highest incidence of poverty of 47.15%, followed by Bihar at 42.60% and Assam at 36.09%. Though, poverty levels have shown a decline, there is huge disparity among social classes with percentage of the poor among Scheduled Tribes being 43.8, Scheduled Castes 36.2 and Other Backward Classes 21 (Dhar, 2006).

India/State/Union Territory*

Population

% Rural population

Total

Rural

Urban

India

1,027,015,247

741,660,293

285,354,954

72.22

Jammu & Kashmir

10,069,917

7,564,608

2,505,309

75.12

Punjab

24,289,296

16,043,730

8,245,566

66.05

Delhi*

13,782,976

963,215

12,819,761

6.99

Uttar Pradesh

166,052,859

131,540,230

34,512,629

79.22

Bihar

82,878,796

74,199,596

8,679,200

89.53

Assam

26,638,407

23,248,994

3,389,413

87.28

West Bengal

80,221,171

57,734,690

22,486,481

71.97

Orissa

36,706,920

31,210,602

5,496,318

85.03

Madhya Pradesh

60,385,118

44,282,528

16,102,590

73.33

Maharashtra

96,752,247

55,732,513

41,019,734

57.60

Andhra Pradesh

75,727,541

55,223,944

20,503,597

72.92

Karnataka

52,733,958

34,814,100

17,919,858

66.02

Kerala

31,838,619

23,571,484

8,267,135

74.03

Tamil Nadu

62,110,839

34,869,286

27,241,553

56.14

Pondicherry*

973,829

325,596

648,233

33.43

Table 1: Rural-Urban Distribution of Population – India and Select States

Mass poverty is affecting India’s ability to compete against countries with better physical infrastructure for connectivity, informed citizenry and more educated population for foreign direct investment that India needs to face a fiscal deficit. With its current rate of growth, existing work culture and policies, it would be difficult to keep pace for poverty eradication, until government redefine its policies and strategies dramatically, apply ICTs innovations with application and active participation from private sector, Community Based Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations. When India tries to push its growth to 8-10% in the next ten years, lives of the poor would remain visibly unchanged. Even in the best-case scenario, per capita income in India would rise from the current US $ 300 per year to all of US $ 500 per year a decade from now (Jaggi, 2003).

ICTs Role in Rural Communities

ICTs play a major role in a nation’s politics, economy, social and cultural development. These fuel the global economy and relate to human rights, helping at best, to support freedom of expression and right to information according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. About 1.2 billion people are experiencing extreme poverty that is considered by many to be the worst human rights violation in the world. Consequently, the global development community has endorsed in the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals its commitment to halving the number of people living under one dollar a day by 2015 (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/; http://www.undp.org/mdg/, accessed January 30, 2006). To achieve this, how far ICTs will help in decision-support systems? Do ICTs have any role in improving services to citizens? Do ICTs aid in empowering citizens to access information and knowledge? Do ICTs create new divisions between rich and poor or reduce existing socio-economic divides? Do they have any direct role in poverty alleviation or just a luxury that the poor can ill afford? The paper presents that ICTs, if supported with right policies, crosscutting and holistic approaches, will complement and strengthen other multi-sector efforts that are required for poverty alleviation. It is essential to define ICTs, before discussing the issues further.

ICTs broadly cover the set of activities that facilitates capturing, storage, processing, transmission and display of information by electronic means. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2002) defines ICTs sector as a combination of manufacturing and services industries that capture, transmit, display, data and information electronically. This definition makes a useful distinction between manufacturing and service dimensions of ICTs and paves way for understanding multi-dimensionality of ICTs and its applicability to help reduce poverty across various sectors. The service role of ICTs can enhance rural communities opportunities by improving their access to market information and lower transaction costs (for poor farmers and traders); increase efficiency, competitiveness and market access for developing country firms; enhance ability of developing countries to participate in the global economy and to exploit their comparative advantage in factor costs (particularly skilled labors); health and education. Furthermore, ICTs can promote greater transparency, speed-up decision-making process of governments and thus empower rural communities by expanding use of government services, and reduce risks by widening access to microfinance. However, barriers to access, high costs and minimal human resources often prevent those living in poverty in reaping the benefits. When private and civil sectors work together as partners, benefits of ICTs can be greatly enhanced, returns to the community improved and profits increased.

Factors Preventing Rural Communities to Reap Benefits from ICTs

There are a number of important factors preventing rural communities in developing countries from reaping benefits of ICTs. Without developing access models that can address these factors, rural masses will be left far behind urban dwellers closer to digital opportunities. The basic indicators (population growth of 2004, GDP of 2003 and teledensity of 2004) and IT indicators of 2004 (number of hosts, users and PC penetration) for select regions/countries have been provided at table 1 (ITU, 2005a & b).



Regions/

Countries

Indicators

Basic

IT

Population (in millions)

GDP per capita (in US $)

Tele-density

No. of Hosts

Users (in k)

PCs per 100

Americas

869.94

15,249

76.51

205,480,386

245,752.2

12.52

USA

293.66

36,273

122.71

195,138,696

161,632.4

65.89

Europe

801.31

14,353

111.58

29,040,707

250,239.4

28.48

UK

59.80

26,369

158.51

4,173,453

37,600.0

60.02

Asia

3,717.79

2,361

33.56

27,986,720

305,242.2

6.39

India

1,081.23

560

8.44

143,654

35,000.0

1.21

China

1,299.88

1,096

49.74

162,821

94,000.0

4.08

World

6,359.70

5,528

46.41

267,541,177

841,757.3

9.63

Table 2: Indicators for Basic and IT for Select Regions/Countries

Deploying ICTs to empower poor and lead them to the road of prosperity can be achieved through poor-oriented governmental policies rather than corporate-oriented. The constraints are:

(i) Lack of awareness about benefits of ICTs:

Despite growing number of people who own a computer and have Internet access, most people in developing countries have little opportunity to connect to the Internet. They are unaware of socio-economic benefits and stimulus to good governance that ICTs can bring. The quasi-absence of demonstration projects in some countries, very limited information is available to assess and to advocate the impact of ICTs for development.

Though India has a strong and fast growing IT industry, access to ICTs remains very low, particularly in rural areas. The present indicators of IT penetration in Indian society are far from satisfactory. PC penetration is 1.21% (China with 4.08%, Asia at 6.39% and world average at 9.63%). The installed base of computers is more than 13 million (ITU, 2005b). To demonstrate awareness and impact of ICTs among people, projects such as Hole-In-The-Wall Training System (http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/, accessed January 30, 2006) for slum area boys and girls who has no knowledge of English and WorldCorps (http://www.worldcorps.org/, accessed January 30, 2006) for imparting technical and business skills that promote employment such as Internet centres to economically poor, are already functioning.

(ii) Lack of access facilities:

The access facilities mainly comprise computers and connectivity in rural areas. The Internet and computer are expensive to be accessible to ordinary citizens. It is often available only in urban centers, where most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have their market.

Despite the ongoing deregulation of India’s telecommunications sector, its national teledensity is one of the lowest in the world at 8.44 (China with 49.74, Asia at 33.56 and world at 46.41) (ITU, 2005a). The Department of Telecommunications, India has set a target teledensity of 22 by 2007 by observing the increasing trend of 11.4 in 2005 due to mobile boom. Currently, teledensity of rural stands at 2 in comparison to urban of 31 (Singh, 2006). The Internet arrived in India during 1995 for public use through Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited. The current Internet subscriber base is 3.24%, in sharp contrast to Asian countries as Korea with 65.68, Malaysia with 38.62 and China with 7.23% (ITU, 2005b). At present, there are 390 ISP license holders, 64 in Category ‘A’ and 135 & 191 each in Category ‘B’ and ‘C’ and the operational ones are 189. The Indian government has been propelling towards “Information Age” and “Convergence” with an ultimate goal of “Internet for All”. However, implementation has been beset with various operational, procedural, regulatory issues and supporting legal framework that is inhibiting reach and benefit of the Internet to masses in the country (Internet Service Providers Association of India, 2005).

To achieve “IT for All by 2008”, India Society for Electronics & Computer Technology (http://www.aisect.org/, accessed January 30, 2006) has setup 4000 multipurpose IT centres in rural and tribal areas in 29 states of India through 4500 training centres. It provides a variety of training and servicing modules in Indian languages and nurturing entrepreneurship in electronics and IT. It enrolls 150,000 students each year for courses covering school to university level and include a special training programme for women. Further, a National Centre for Electronics and Information Technology has been set up to support and continue the programme.

The decision of Government-Industry Committee on “Improving PC Penetration” for a more affordable and 'no compromise' PC at INR 9,999 (US $ 229) to reach a target of 65 PCs per 1,000 people by 2008 bring relief to affordability of computers (Steve, 2005). In the arena of connectivity, Simputer costing less than US $ 200, with capability of reading a smart card and Indian language processing, provide connectivity to several rural users (http://www.picopeta.com, accessed January 30, 2006) and provision of voice and Internet services in undeserved village and small towns using corDECT Wireless in Local Loop (WLL) technology (http://www.indusscitech.net/ashokJ.htm) accessed January 30, 2006); facilitates easy access.

(iii) Language barriers in using the Internet:

These prevent people from familiarizing themselves with benefits of Internet based information resources that invariably require an ability to understand international languages, especially English. As a result, most people in developing countries cannot read and understand most of the Internet content. Another factor is high illiteracy rate among rural people.

In India, adult literacy rate is about 58.8% and female literacy rate is about 47.3%. There are 18 languages officially recognized, each having a different character set. About 66% of Indians speak Hindi and less than 5% of Indian population understands English. Realizing the need to overcome language barrier and offer IT to the masses in their own language, the government initiated a Language Technology Mission to make available these software tools and fonts in the public domain. The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (http://www.cdac.in/, accessed January 30, 2006) has developed these, initially in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu languages. Similar efforts are in progress to develop software tools, utilities and applications in other Indian languages. HCL (http://www.hclinfosystems.in, accessed January 30, 2006) has taken leadership initiative to preload this revolutionary offering across all its PC brands. This will go a long way in bridging the digital divide (i.e. gap in technology (computing and communications) usage and access between urban and rural people in developing economies) that to a large extent created by the language technology barrier (http://www.hclinfosystems.com/news41.htm, accessed January 30, 2006).

(iv) Lack of local language information products:

Lack of suitable information products tailored to the needs and assimilation capacities of rural people in developing countries. In order to better adjust their investment decisions people need updated information on market prices, new agricultural technologies and methods to raise quality of their products, adapt to changing climatic conditions or demands of agricultural markets.

Several projects successfully generated and made available locale specific information on network in the native languages including weather information, entitlements to rural families, prices of agricultural inputs, etc., in Information Village Research (http://mssrf.org/iec/601/index.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) and poor people’s innovations and traditional knowledge visibility through a multimedia and multi-language database of solutions to local problems in Honey-Bee Network (http://www.sristi.org/honeybee.html, accessed January 30, 2006), etc.

(v) Non-availability of government information through online:

Most countries do not have pro-poor ICT policies (e-governance and rural commerce) and plans to reorient relevant government institutes as electronic service providers to boost rural development.

The efforts of providing government information in the form of improving administration of land records, caste certificates, health services, information on government programmes, online public grievance redressal; etc., has tremendous success at Wired Villages of Warana (http://informatics.nic.in/archive/inf2kapr/cover.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) and government-to-citizen e-commerce activity at the doorsteps of beneficiaries in Gyandoot (http://gyandoot.nic.in/, accessed January 30, 2006).

(vi) Lack of motivation to use information over the Internet:

In spite of connectivity, people will not use ICTs unless they are motivated to do so. Community ownership of access facilities and availability of facilitator are key factors to induce motivation.

In TARAhaat (http://www.tarahaat.com/tara/aboutusEnglish, accessed January 30, 2006) the in-built motivation has empowered people to eliminate middle men in marketing their produce directly over network, online services to several rural communities and consumer-to-consumer, and e-choupal (http://www.echoupal.com, accessed January 30, 2006) has successfully bridged the gap between rural community and buyer, to increase income level of farmers.

India in the Context

India is emerging as a testing ground for new technologies and business models that aim to narrow the digital divide. Limitations in electricity, telephony, Internet connectivity and other kinds of basic infrastructure in India’s rural areas are a key challenge for a number of development organizations (Rao, 2002). The corporate sector too is discovering that bridging this digital divide could translate into new market opportunities (Ribeiro, 2002). A number of innovative experiments already under way indicate that achieving global digital access and jump starting development may not be as difficult as many think. There are more than fifty grassroots projects in India that are using modern ICTs for the benefit of urban and rural citizens. In the long run, rural ICTs projects could prove to be the most effective means of driving changes in rural areas: (i) Socially: by ensuring equal access for less privileged groups; (ii) Economically: by creating new kinds of work and financial transactions; and (iii) Politically: by improving the quality, speed and sensitivity of state apparatus to the needs of local citizens. The success of a rural networking initiative depends on how far it progresses down the stages of IT and information diffusion: initiation, adoption, adaptation, acceptance, regulation and infusion.

ICTs Enhances Access to Information and Communication

Spreading the telecom revolution to rural communities of India, Grameen Sanchar Seva Organization (GRASSO) (http://www.grasso.in/, accessed January 30, 2006) established in 2001, intends to establish physical, electronic and knowledge connectivity for economic development of rural population. It deploys 7,000-strong network of self employed people riding out on bicycles, carrying mobile phones equipped with CDMA WLL into 5,000 West Bengal villages. These men get profits from all calls made while bringing telephone services to villages for the first time. GRASSO made it possible the mobile phone reach to 93% of West Bengal’s 34 Blocks, 46% of its Gram Panchayats and 14%t of its villages. Further, in association with Microsoft, IBM, Wipro and TCS, GRASSO intend to setup 500 common service centres (CSCs) in the state’s 3,357 Gram Panchayats. Each CSC acts as hub for about 20 services, ranging from electricity bill payment, tea and coffee to commodity trading, warehousing and cold storage. The plan is to have 3 phones in each Panchayat, totalling 12,000 phones, resulting in 100% telephone coverage. The idea is to use telecom and IT to strengthen distribution network of agricultural produce and make it more profitable (Singh, 2006).

Infothela (http://www.iitk.ac.in/MLAsia/infothela.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) initiated in January 2002, to deliver information and spread knowledge at village level where fruits of modern technology have not reached yet. The unit is basically a pedal driven vehicle like a common cycle rickshaw but with a PC having Internet access through wireless technology, on board. An added pedal generator is designed to recharge the battery pack that powers computer while the vehicle moves from village to village. The unit serves a variety of purposes including education or entertainment applications, providing agricultural, weather and government information. Further, it accommodates diagnostic testing equipments like blood pressure, blood sugar, some other primary health diagnostic and testing equipments. Infothela was designed as a self-sustaining project and generate a self-employment avenue for urban and village populations.

Sustainable Access in Rural India (http://edev.media.mit.edu/SARI/mainsari.html, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated in November 2001 to demonstrate that creation and deployment of information and communication services and technologies (WLL and information kiosks) in poor rural areas lead to improvements in health, empowerment, learning and economic development amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities. Initially, it provided Internet access and applications through 1000 connections in 350 villages in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu. SARI was later extended to 10 more districts and renamed as RASI (Rural Access Services through Internet). Touch screen Internet kiosks were installed through public-private-partnerships in all taluks of the state.

ICTs in Education

Increased and improved education through computers or about computers or both would contain the poverty in all fronts. There are several successful initiations to demonstrate the role of ICTs to promote education among poor and preventing poverty.

Hole-In-The-Wall Training System (http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated in 1999 as a minimally invasive education technology to incidental learning with minimum human guidance. It comprises of an unmanned, Internet enabled computer with a track ball housed in a slum area. The continuous monitoring of use of computer through video capture showed that young boys and girls from the settlement became highly proficient at using graphic interface and in surfing parts of the Web, regardless of their lack of proficiency in English, or the absence of any direct instruction. Thus, the experiment demonstrated that children, irrespective of their social, ethnic or educational identity, learn to use computers by themselves, thereby closing the digital divide. About 40,000 in-school and out-of-school children have been directly impacted. This technique is being made available to the world through Hole In the Wall Education Limited by NIIT (Kataria, 2005; World Bank, 2006).

Computer-based Functional Literacy Programme (http://www.tataliteracy.com/index.htm, January 30, 2006) was launched in February 2000 in Beeramguda village in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh (AP) to combat illiteracy with a new approach to learning, using multimedia and flashcards to fortify learning experience. The lessons focus on reading, tailored to fit different languages and even dialects and are based on the theories of cognition, language and communication. The programme is currently operational in 1000 centres in several states of India and helped more than 20,000 people to read. Tata is of opinion that if implemented properly, the project can make 90% of India literate in 3 to 5 years.

Schoolnet India Limited (http://www.schoolnetindia.com/, January 30, 2006) was initiated in 1998, to support education infrastructure for enhancing the quality of human capital of India. K-Yan (vehicle of knowledge) is a low-cost new-media product for community learning that aims to bring benefits of information age to the masses across the country. Learnet India Limited is one of the leading e-learning service providers in the country, such as Learnet’s Info Quest, Continuing Learning Management System, Assessment Online System, SchoolTrackTM, etc. Further, commendable work was done in the field of K-10 education, the content of which is curriculum-mapped to identify different teaching aids.

ICTs in Economic Interventions/Entrepreneurship

ICTs play an important role in direct poverty alleviation by enhancing activities of poor and increasing their productivity by way of new credit and financial services, new opportunities to design, manufacture and market products through the Internet or intranet systems, etc. These interventions can be successful only when accompanied with other supporting infrastructure consisting of access roads, storage facilities, competitive markets and opportunities to global market. The impact of select projects demonstrates various levels of reducing poverty.

ITC’s e-choupal (http://www.echoupal.com, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated in June 2000 and empowers farmers with expert knowledge by innovatively leveraging IT. It regards poverty, farming and rural livelihoods as interrelated issues. It provides farmers real time access to customized knowledge on specifically designed Web sites in their own languages and helping them align farm output to market demands and secure better quality, productivity and improved price recovery by eliminating middlemen. It has enabled over 3.5 million farmers to lift themselves out of poverty through 5,250 e-choupals in 31,000 villages in 6 states of India. The empirical analysis of the impact of e-choupal shows that income from farming and support services rose by over 38% since 2000 and from farming alone rose by about 10% in 2004. Over the next decade, it plans cover 100,00 villages, representing 1/6 of India's villages to create more than 10 million e-farmers. The model has also generated various employment oportunities in central and northern India for rural educated youths (Ramachandran, 2005; Raturi & Shukla, 2005)

Development of Humane Action (DHAN) Foundation (http://www.dhan.org/adhan.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated in October 1997 and primarily involved in promoting community-based organizations in microfinance with an objective of bringing out new innovations in rural development and for upscaling development interventions to eradicate poverty. In its networked microcredit programme of community banking, handheld devices are used for faster data processing. It has promoted more than 5000 Self Help Groups (SHGs) with over 80,000 members and 20 federations. The SHGs have INR106 million (US $ 2.6 million) in savings and have obtained INR 169 million (US $ 3.69 million) as loans from formal financial institutions. The federations have around 200-250 SHGs as members. DHAN’s federation model is a nested one - all SHGs in a block are members in a block level federation and SHGs in a cluster of villages are members in Cluster Development Associations. It has reached to 326,158 families in 35 districts of 7 states in India.

Information Village Research (http://www.mssrf.org/, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated in January 1998 and connected 10 villages near Pondicherry in southern India by a hybrid of wired and wireless network, consisting of PCs, telephones, radio devices and email connectivity through telephone lines. It empowered villagers to access necessary information to improve their lives, with involvement of local volunteers who gather information, put the information on an Intranet and provide access through nodes in the villages. The project uses local Tamil language, while the local communities have participated right from beginning with the project. Most of operators and volunteers are women, empowering them with both status and influence. Information provided in the village knowledge centres is locale specific and relates to prices of agricultural goods, market, community information, health care, cattle diseases, transport, weather, etc. The project is an inspiring example of how breaking the information barrier can change rural lives (Balaji, et al., 2001; Rao, 2004).

AsCent (http://www.toeholdindia.com/people.html, accessed January 30, 2006) implements Kolhapuri, the traditional handcrafted footwear, emphasizing ethnicity and natural finish, by deploying computer aided design to enhance artisanal production of kolhapuri style of cheppals and hosts on the Web site. Motivation and enabling has made it possible for the artisans to promote their own signature brand ToeHold; become a fashion statement and all set to secure a foot hold in the global market, adding a whole range of new designs to the existing traditional ones. The artisans believe each of their SHG, formed as saving and credit affinity groups of 15 to 20 women, to be a tiny company and they will soon have a big company to take up all marketing and development activities. ToeHold Artisans Company will be the first grassroots women majority company.

ICTs in Health Programmes

There are many successful initiatives to demonstrate the role of ICTs to promote health of the poor and preventing poverty that originate from poor health by way of providing superior medical advice, diagnosis or knowledge in their locality.

Sisu Samrakshak (http://www.cooptionstech.com/SisuSamrakshak.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) initiated in October 2000, provides ICTs enabled child health care aimed at accelerating delivery of child development, health and protection services. Data is collected by using hand held devices and communicate it to nearest rural centers. It also, provides access to information on health, education, agriculture, water supply and sanitation, public services for economic and social development in rural and underserved sections of AP, India. The UNICEF plans to train and appoint from rural communities as anganwadi workers, frontline health workers and auxiliary nurse midwives, to monitor maternal health, nutritional development and childcare (Thompson & Khara, 2003).

Networked HIV/AIDS Intervention (http://www.itforchange.net/ict4d/display/117, accessed January 30, 2006) initiated in 1989 by Samuha (http://www.samuha.org/, accessed January 30, 2006) uses ICTs and GIS technology for HIV/AIDS intervention and awareness program in Devadurga, Karnataka, India. Networked intervention cells offer outpatient services to afflicted persons, provide awareness, prevention counseling to vulnerable communities and serve as an interface with local community. The resultant effect would be that afflicted persons might enjoy wider community support.

To enable Government-run Primary Health Centres (PHCs) that serve medical needs of the rural population, George Foundation in 2000 co-managed Bagalur PHC comprising of 80,000 people in Tamil Nadu by deploying a computer software Early Detection & Prevention System 2000 that consists of a database of disease characteristics and conditions, and the logic to diagnose symptoms (http://www.tgfworld.org/edps2000.html, accessed January 30, 2006). It facilitates early detection of diseases and nutritional deficiencies among rural population. The foundation started its own Baldev Medical & Community Centre, to demonstrate how healthcare, health education and many essential rural community services can be delivered in a cost-effective way within a private model, serving a rural population of over 15,000 in 17 villages.

ICTs in Governance

ICTs facilitate improved access to government and quasi-government resources and services. Good governance ensures transparent use of public funds, growth of private sector, effective delivery of public services, rule of law, etc. It also facilitates pro-poor policies and foolproof macroeconomic management. The factors that have influence on denial of basic services to the poor are lack of investment, institutional structures that lack accountability, domination by local elites and well-to-do, widespread corruption, culturally and socially determined inequality, and lack of participation by the poor (Asian Development Bank, 1999). The lack of systematic, transparent recording and public documentation of government data also affects poor, as in the case of land records. Without land records as collateral, poor cannot obtain loans and often cannot get assistance from government poverty alleviation programs intended for small farmers (Warschauer, 2003). ICTs aid to facilitate speedy, transparent, accountable, efficient and effective interaction between public, citizens, business and other agencies; promote better administration and business environment, and saves money in costs of transactions in government operations (Backus, 2001).

Drishtee (http://ind.drishtee.com/, accessed January 30, 2006) was initiated as an organizational platform for developing IT enabled services to rural and semi-urban population through the usage of state-of-the-art software. It offers services including access to government programmes and benefits, market related information and private information exchanges and transactions. It uses a tiered franchise and partnership model. It aims to create 50,000 Information Kiosks all over India within a span of six years. These kiosks potentially serve a market of 500 million people. Drishtee has demonstrated its concept in over 90 kiosks across five Indian states within two years (http://www.dpindia.org/pub_case_drishtee.htm, accessed January 30, 2006).

The Computer-Aided Administration of Registration Department (CARD) (http://www.ap.gov.in/card/abt_card.htm, accessed January 30, 2006) initiated in August 1996 in AP, India, deploys networked computers to reform the processes of registering deeds and stamp duties, and completes transactions in two hours. By traditional methods, this involves 13 steps in opaque process that involves bureaucratic delay and corruption, resulting a delay of 3-15 days. Annually, over 120 million documents need to be processed.

ICTs in Promoting Democracy

ICTs play a major role in supporting the culture of democracy, democratic processes and civic values that uphold a democratic system. Interventions in e-democracy involve processes on electronic interaction between government and citizens. The aim is to: provide for citizens access to information and knowledge about political process, services and available choices, and facilitate transformation of passive information access to active citizen participation by informing, representing, encouraging to vote, consulting and involving citizens. Thus, ICTs aid in creating well-informed and active citizenship, undermining closed and undemocratic regimes, and supporting watchdog role of citizen groups. Often the poor know their problems well, but they lack knowledge of larger socio-economic context of their poverty and various options to improve their situations. It is essential that development planners need to have direct contact with poor, to link development programs to realities.

Akshaya (http://www.akshaya.net/, accessed January 30, 2006) an implementation of Kerala State IT Mission, aims to set up a network of 6000 information centres that would be able to impart basic IT literacy to at least one member in each of the 6.5 million families of Kerala. It will also provide services like data entry, desk top publishing, computer training and Internet telephony; generate and distribute locally relevant content; improve public delivery of services for networking and computerizing 1214 local self-governing bodies to expedite transactions like issue of certificates, licenses, tax collection, etc. The existing centres are also being tapped to serve as agri-business centres for providing more services to citizens such as agriculture related information and inputs to the farmers.

Baatchit (http://www.jiva.com/enterprise/baatchit.asp, accessed January 30, 2006) initiated in November 2001, aims to facilitate Information access, communication, entertainment and socio-economic opportunities within villages, while promoting Indian heritage and cultural values. It empowers villagers by providing them with easily accessible information through iconic Baatchit Community Software. The priority areas are government, schemes, employment, animal, agriculture, banks, vehicle, health, and housing, transcribing into the local language, so that the literate villagers can understand the information being provided to them. Audio-visual presentation of the information helps the illiterate users.

Bottlenecks and Solutions

The basic requirements for successful implementation of rural ICTs initiatives are electricity, hardware, appropriate software, telephony, network connectivity and policy guidelines.

The electrical supply in many rural areas will be restricted to only 6 or 8 hours with varying voltage and frequency that are far outside the acceptable limits of hardware. Often grounding is not available. For most rural ICTs projects, battery back-ups, universal power supplies, solar power panels, circuit breakers and voltage stabilizers are necessary. Several hardware innovations are emerging in the country to function for 4 hours and more without recharging.

On the hardware front, PCs remain expensive, fragile, quickly obsolete, English-centric and complex in operation. The human-mediated computer kiosks, shared among multiple users of a rural community, could in fact prove to be most inexpensive and inclusive form of rural infrastructure. This, means moving from a PC paradigm to a Community Computer (CC) platform. The investment (hardware-cum-software-cum-connectivity) on CCs shared by the citizen-consumers that it serves 500 to 2,500 every week. Thus, the hardware cost per capita reduces to miniscule. Further, a number of technology companies including Hewlett-Packard (http://www.hpl.hp.com, accessed January 30, 2006) are developing products and services (a 4 in 1 computer that splits a conventional Pentium IV Linux-operating machine into 4 separate workstations); PicoPeta Simputers (http://www.picopeta.com, accessed January 30, 2006) developed a Simputer or Simple Computer for less than US $ 200, that can read a smart card, has advanced audio and text processing capabilities in several Indian languages; Via Technologies (http://www.via.com.tw/en/index.jsp, accessed January 30, 2006) and Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology, IIT Mumbai (http://www.it.iitb.ac.in/, accessed January 30, 2006) jointly developing a rugged (designed to withstand heat, dust and power problems, common in rural India), low power consuming PCs (run up to 30 hours on a 12-volt car battery) for the rural India and other countries. (http://www.channeltimes.com/channeltimes/jsp/article.jsp?article_id=70917, accessed January 30, 2006). These initiations can prove to help bridge the digital divide in emerging economies like India.

On the software front, lack of standardization of code for major Indian languages creates inter-operability problems between programs involving distinct codes. Centre for the Development of Advanced Computing (http://www.cdac.in/, accessed January 30, 2006) has been working on Indian language fonts and software for over a decade. Many rural ICTs projects use its fontographic standards or text-processing software. A machine language translation project, Anusaraka (http://ltrc.iiit.net/, accessed January 30, 2006), promises to allow Indian language users translation between various Indian languages, as well as access to English language resources on the Web.

Many villages lack landline telephones still. If they are available, they often go down for weeks at a time and may involve various kinds of incompatibilities that prevent data transfer. A wireless CB-radio-type system for relatively slow data transfers using fax protocols (used in Information Village Research), VSATs that connected directly to communications satellites (used in TARAhaat) and telephone access in proximity to optical-fiber cable routes (used in Gyandoot project) may be chosen as alternative means.

The Internet subscriptions do not always cover rural areas and connectivity will be achieved by making long distance calls to nearby cities. This results in slow and unreliable access. New developments in the area of connectivity are providing optimism, viz. WLL systems are up-and-running in several districts across peninsular India from n-Logue (http://www.tenet.res.in/Activities/Products/doc/bbCordect.php, accessed January 30, 2006; Jhunjhunwala, 2004) service provider; private radio link installations that operate on 802.11 wireless protocol, demonstrated an operating range of up to 10 kilometers; prospects of mesh networks using either Bluetooth or one of the two wireless standards; WorldSpace (http://www.worldspace.com/about/, accessed January 30, 2006), the satellite-radio broadcaster offers data and audio broadcasting capabilities, etc.

Observations/Lessons Learned from ICTs Projects

The experience with ICTs projects in India is a mixed one and few projects fared well. While initiation and implementation of these projects, various perspectives have to be taken into account, viz. technological, organizational, economic and social.

The factors that contributed to the success of select projects are: (i) for e-choupal – ease of replicability and scalability model, customization of technologies to meet specific local needs, organizational commitment to success, involving local community members for training and selecting one of them as a coordinator and infusing high trust by profit sharing between platform holder and beneficiaries; (ii) for Information Village Research – community readiness to accept innovations, economic benefits, high trust among the community, inclusion of gender sensitivity to take care of women empowerment and assurance of equitable benefits to the participants; (iii) for AsCent - intensive skill development efforts, high returns from new technology and reputation of implementing agency; etc.

Most of the projects rarely publish and publicize about their activities, except few. With no comparative study or linking across projects, the lessons learned by one project are not transmitted to the others. Appropriate technologies are rarely evaluated and financial sustainability; scalability and cost recovery are seldom addressed. Hence, opportunities to learn from the diverse, creative experience remain unutilized. The scalability of ICTs projects depends on levels of transaction costs involved in operations of the project. The project plans frequently ignore harsh realities and very few have substance for implementation. Most of the projects are late and run into unexpected problems. Every state in India has an agenda on computerization of land records and most of the records are legally contested.

Economically responsible projects are already proving more successful than charitable or free models. Projects that identify and cost the services they provide are more successful. The sustainability of ICTs projects is high when external component of the project funding is of a reasonable level and the activities are sustainable. The Wired Villages of Warana (Cecchini & Raina, 2003; Katakam, 2002) was initially funded by the Maharashtra State and Central Government and is currently maintained by sugarcane cooperative in the area and offers tangible benefits to sugar producers, and sugarcane growers. The presence and convergence of interests and expertise of existing corporate entities and beneficiaries enhance the chances of sustainability of ICTs projects. The E.I.D. Parry (http://www.eidparry.com/agriland.asp, accessed January 30, 2006) has set up a series of info-kiosks in villages, partly to provide better information to farmers about agricultural inputs, harvesting of sugarcane and other matters. Some projects disappear once the initial funding disappears, as the case of an Apple project for rural health workers in Rajasthan a few years back that was only recently taken up again by Computer Maintenance Corporation (http://www.cmcltd.com/, accessed January 30, 2006). 

It is highly essential to initiate projects by consulting at grassroots level for their success - top down approaches do not work. These results in providing information that people do not really need or use; at an incomprehensible level of technical detail and terminology, or in a literary language that local people do not understand. An intimate understanding of the social and economic parameters of rural India gives connectivity providers a significant advantage. The initial information requirements may change over a period of time and therefore periodic assessment must to be undertaken. The systems for participation of beneficiary upfront enhance effective functioning of the ICTs projects, substantial benefits accrue to the poor only when beneficiaries are identified and involved at the project conceptualization stage. The successful projects are the ones that have regular review systems to assess the realization of benefits across different beneficiary classes.

The content creation in local language is a prerequisite for project success. It is imperative to develop locally relevant content in local language and to present it intelligibly as well as offering suitable and adequate training. Also, the nature of local content varies from region to region. Without accessible, local content that addresses the real problems of local people in their own language and in terms that they can understand, the ICTs projects are bound to fail. The radio programs, especially designed to appeal to ordinary people are more effective than computers in reaching people about topics like best agricultural practices, family planning services, etc., since about 100% of the Indian population has access to radio.

The scope of IT must be seen as reaching beyond that of just computers and the Internet to include radio, TV, microchip technology, etc. The use of automated butter fat assessment equipment, as part of the Akashganga (http://www.akashganga.co.in, accessed January 30, 2006) project is a classic example. The most promising uses of ICTs is in e-governance that involves two distinct activities: computerization of government functions (connecting state government head quarters to district officials, computerized registrations, land records, etc.) and provision of G2C and C2G connections through that citizens can obtain access to a variety of information (information about entitlements, access to records, rules, etc.). The Gyandoot Project makes available more than a dozen official documents that are legally valid if obtained from village cyber-kiosks under the right circumstances. The rural entrepreneurs and crafts persons are saving time, travel and effort. Greater benefits will be felt when wired micro-credit accounts come into use for online or distance transactions amongst or within village communities.

The creation of assets and training of people enhances the sustainability of ICTs projects. These projects work effectively when training is an inherent component of the project and skill development ensures rapid diffusion of innovation through interactions and communication.

ICTs projects have assisted rural communities by providing them with news, information, advice and knowledge that has hitherto been inaccessible to them. This information has allowed rural citizens/consumers to make more informed economic decisions: landless laborers have negotiated their daily wages more effectively; and tractors, threshers, old television sets, cattle and motorcycles have all been traded across towns and villages due to online advertisements. Until the cost of basic IT devices that deliver the ‘last mile’ of connectivity and local language software is lowered, the goal of wiring rural India will remain a dream.

Conclusion

Creating information-rich societies is a key element of poverty alleviation and sustainable development. To empower poor people and to reduce digital divide, ICTs projects should be developed in local language prioritizing local needs and content; be a model of low cost solution so that poor people can replicate this model or can own or share the system; be owned and participated by community in general; be sustainable in long terms; be able to adopt and utilize innovative ICTs; and be supportive to local and public access points as in rural areas where divide is the widest. A national agenda on a C-8 thrust towards: Connectivity provision, Content creation, Capacity augmentation, Core technologies’ creation and exploitation, Cost reduction, Competence building, Community participation and Commitment to deprived and disadvantaged would definitely help in meeting the socio-economic aspirations of rural communities.

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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441