Beyond the ‘Laptop Gowda’



Intervening in a discussion on the role of corporations in
supporting introduction of IT for rural development at a conference organized by
Seattle-based Digital Partners and the VIIT Baramati, one myopic NGO said,
"What has IT done for India except create Laptop Gowdas"—read
computer toting citizens who have no real feeling for rural development but
treat IT as a fad. Going on to decry the entire Indian IT achievements as moving
from English speaking serfs to the British, to back office clerks to the world,
this gentlemen introduced a strident note of self criticism in what was
otherwise an excellent discussion on the larger benefits of IT.

If you take the angst out of the "laptop Gowda"
statement, there is a lot to be said for pointing social development through IT
in the right direction through well planned and executed partnerships between
corporations, NGOs, academic institutions, governments and organizations like
Nasscom, CII, Ficci and Digital Partners.

The
future of the world lies in the hands of the market-based social
entrepreneur but these entrepreneurs will need financial,
technological and strategic support from businessmen to make the
real difference
Ganesh
Natarajan

As Akhtar Badshah, the erudite CEO of the Seattle
organization said in his summing up, a legion of computer literate villagers and
farmers could transform the economic landscape of large parts of the country and
create experiments that could be replicated around the world. But for this to
happen, the deep rooted distrust that many struggling NGOs have of the
successful IT sector will have to be replaced by a genuine feeling of trust and
mutual support.

Look at just the area of setting up and proliferating
Information Kiosks, which was the prime theme of the Baramati conference and the
corporate showcase that followed in Mumbai. ICT kiosks are part of a worldwide
effort to go beyond the urban cybercafe to bring access, information and
education to remote and poor communities that are otherwise unable to
participate in the growing knowledge based economy. Drishti, set up by Satyen
Mishra, shows that village telecentres do not need subsidies and can be self
sustaining in their own right, and can provide e-services and e-information in
varied areas such as health, education, agriculture, commerce and governance.
Worldwide experiments presented at the conference from Chile, Indonesia, Peru
and of course India demonstrated the power of entrepreneur-led kiosk projects.

Perhaps, equally intriguing to understand was the successful
commercial experiments of the corporate sector in India in using Information
kiosks to improve the lot of the common man on one hand and increase shareholder
value on the other. The much lauded e-chaupal experiment of ITC , which has
already covered five states with over three thousand kiosks that enable a
de-layered supply chain for farmer produce to reach the distribution points has
apparently been such a success that the company plans to expand to 15 states
with five times the number of kiosks in the near future.

Can the twain meet—sure enough, as many of the global
delegates pointed out while praising the scale and vision of Indian corporate
experiments.

An interesting construct that emerges, which many of our
e-Governance planners can heed is that, for every self sustaining model like e-chaupal,
there will be others like Drishti and Tarahaat that will be profitable in a few
cases, but will need some support from both IT corporations and the government
for extensive proliferation. Indeed as Bangladesh’s Mohammad Yunus, with his
famous Grameen Bank experiments with micro credit has pointed out, "The
future of the world lies in the hands of the market-based social
entrepreneur," but these entrepreneurs will need financial, technological
and strategic support from businessmen to make the real difference. Our own
experiments in Pune, running Akanksha centers for educating slum children,
supporting self help groups and girl child programs and just providing IT
Education to NGOs and the underprivileged have shown that the potential of IT to
transform large segments of the country’s population is immense.

Ganesh
Natarajan

The author is deputy chairman & managing director of
Zensar Technologies and chairman of Nasscom’s SME Forum for Western India

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