Advertisment

Country-Class ICT: What Rural India Really Needs

author-image
DQI Bureau
New Update

IT has come to play an important role in all issues concerning human life, be

it social, economic or political. Information and Communication Technology for

Development, commonly referred to as ICT4D, has become an important part of the

development agenda. The recently concluded World Summit on Information Society (WSIS),

which was a pioneering attempt at working out a global strategy for use of ICT,

devoted substantial attention to the use of ICT in tackling issues relating to

development.

Advertisment

India has been acknowledged as an IT power and some of this strength has also

percolated into the ICT4D sector. ICT has been used in several innovative

experiments (see the previous articles in this series, which have analyzed these

experiments in sectors such as health, education, and governance ). This

has also thrown up a few stalwarts who have creatively visualized and applied

ICT in such experiments. In this concluding part of the series, focusing on

India-based initiatives that seek to bridge the digital divide in different

ways, ITfC spoke to some of these stalwarts who have been working closely with

issues related to ICT for Development, about what they feel about the potential

of IT, what is really happening, and where we seem to be headed for.

What has been the role of various stakeholders like the government, the

private sector, and the NGOs in the scheme of things? Any recommendations for

more valuable participation and contributions of the stakeholders?



Frederick Noronha:
I think the stakeholders have hardly been doing

much and cannot be expected to do much either. NGOs seem to be, unfortunately,

focused on the fact that this field is now luring in funds. The real people who

could contribute–techies, students, etc.–are yet to properly understand this

issue. Links have not been built up.

Sanjay Jaju: The government has been playing a pivotal role in taking IT

to the masses, especially through the expansion of rural telephonic exchanges.

The private sector has also started playing a major role, but is generally

restricted to commercially viable areas. The non-governmental organizations,

especially the community-based organizations, offer huge possibilities. This has

been already felt by us in the West Godavari project wherein we could rope in

their support by giving them stakes in taking ICT to masses.

Advertisment

Satish Jha: While for the businesses, social

activities are plainly residual to their cause, it is a key goal of the

government to constantly improve the social environment. However, governments

are seldom capable of making technology choices, partly because they are not in

tune with what is happening in the market place. But using technology to find

solutions to address the issue of social good or governance is something they

are equipped to deal with.

Satish

Jha
is a management

consultant who founded James Martin & Co in India and is

chairman of Digital Partners, South Asia. Digital Partners

offers financial and professional support for entrepreneurs

interested in utilizing IT to benefit the poor.

NGOs on the other hand are small, have little capacity or

resources to bring the necessary experience base to realize their dreams.

However, they are actively engaged in seeking solutions that are often way

beyond their capabilities. This is generally leading to creating a conceptual

framework that is more theoretical and whose practical rendition does not offer

any real solution except some hype that does get created around some of these

experiments.

Advertisment

Meanwhile, some visionary private sector organizations will

be able to take advantage of these opportunities and move on; ITC’s e-Choupal

being one such example, which is adding on an average six tele-centres a day.

What is needed is that each stakeholder understands its role and brings its

complementarity to the table."

Sunil Abraham: The push in IT has been coming mainly

from the corporates. They say that the turnover of the Indian government equals

the turnover of the nation’s corporate sector. Not surprisingly, this is

considered a huge market that exists for hardware, software and connectivity.

That is why there is so much excitement over e-Governance. Whether it is

Microsoft or HP, all the corporates are talking about the social relevance of

IT. The state and civil society organizations (CSOs) are following suit. But the

manner in which IT is being applied in villages is often inappropriate–there

are speakers but no microphones; there are monitors but no scanners. Most

projects emphasize on consumption of information and do not permit information

production by the target community. This has had a dis-empowering effect on the

rural populace.

Sunil

Abraham
is the director and

CEO of Mahiti Infotech, a Bangalore-based organization. Mahiti

provides consultancy, advocacy and networking services for

non-profit as well as corporate clients. Abraham is also a

strong advocate of FLOSS.
Advertisment

The private sector places ‘profit before people’, but

nevertheless they have made a noteworthy contribution, by teaching us to apply

entrepreneurship to rural ICT. This process must be accelerated.

The CSOs must try to achieve a balance by focusing on the ‘public

agenda’ or the ‘development agenda’. This will mean that all

infrastructure must be developed for and owned by the public. By this logic,

software infrastructure must be licensed in public domain. Access points created

must be affordable by the public.

Rajesh Jain: All the stakeholders need to work in

partnership, but projects should be entrepreneur-led. For example, the RISC

model coordinates the investments of the private sector, the public sector, and

multilateral organizations in rural India.

Advertisment

What critical lessons emerge from the existing models and

approaches to deploying IT for development?



Rajesh Jain:
There have been various initiatives to

take IT to the masses in India. Some well-known examples are Gyandoot, eSeva,

Drishtee, Tarahaat, Bhoomi, and eChoupal. At best, these have been success

stories limited in size, scale or scope. The digital divide is far from being

bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly does not seem to be a lack of

vision, ideas or even resources. And yet, what is missing is a solution that has

been rolled out on a mass scale to make a difference to millions–not between

two generations (25 years), but between two elections (five years).

As we see it, the problems are as follows:

Government as Financer



This is perhaps the single biggest issue that limits scalability. The

government can fund 100 or even 1,000 centers or kiosks

Advertisment
Key

problems for ICT deployment
The digital

divide is far from being bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly

does not seem to be a lack of vision, ideas or even resources. And yet,

what is missing is a solution that has been rolled out on a mass scale to

make a difference to millions—not between two generations (25 years),

but between two elections (5 years).
Financer:

The government needs to go beyond the 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks

costing



Rs 100,000 (USD 2,000) funding model and look at deploying these across a
state or a country.
Pilot Mania: When the

main aim is to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key

decision-makers, it is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled

out rapidly.
Silo

Solutions:
Projects are thought in isolation while the computing

infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost

identical.
PC and Internet-driven: The

common assumption of an Net connection existence, essentially functioning

as Internet Kiosks. Without connectivity, the computer is crippled,

seriously limiting its usage. Also we need to look beyond the PC centric,

which makes it an expensive proposition.
Incrementalist,

not Disruptive:
A fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets

and the technologies suitable for such market is missingPeople problem:

Currently the ‘passionate’ workforce in this area have little

experience with IT and are caught up in learning rather than delivering.

costing Rs 100,000 ($2,000) each. But the need is for many

more access points. That is where the government-funded model becomes

impractical–there simply isn’t enough money to set up so many centers across

a state or a country. And so, without the scale, costs of operation are high,

and villagers have to walk many kilometers to get to the nearest centre.

Demo Mentality



The thinking when the plans are drawn up is to create ‘pilots’. The

reasoning goes: let us do 10 or 50 or 100 such demonstration centres, or

showcases. Once the proof-of-concept is there, we can look at scaling it up.

However, this approach can result in only short-term successes; it will not be

useful in the long term. This is because it is much easier to put in all that it

takes to make a few centers work, as the aim is not to prove commercial

viability but to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key decision

makers. The approach is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled up

rapidly.

Advertisment

Silo Solutions



Many approaches think of the problem too narrowly. We think of solving a

telemedicine problem, a land record problem, an e-mail and Internet access

problem, a literacy problem or the voting machine problem. The computing

infrastructure required for solving these problems is almost identical. And yet,

we think of each in isolation, trying to create economic models that will work

in the silos.

Internet-driven



Many of the current solutions assume the existence of an Internet

connection, essentially for functioning as an Internet kiosk. This is a big

limitation, because connectivity is one of the biggest bugbears in rural areas.

Without connectivity, the computer iscrippled, and its usage gets seriously limited. While

transaction services like bill payments and railway bookings, which need real-time Internet connectivity, can offer immense benefits to villagers, these

services can be hobbled by the lack of connectivity.

Incrementalist, not Disruptive



The need of the hour is for disruptive solutions. Yet, the thinking that

percolates is very incrementalist. That may be because there is an interest in

keeping things nearly the same, or because we look only at the technology that

exists today, and not at what the future is bringing. The solutions tend to be

driven more by what may have worked in the developed world or in the urban

areas, because that’s where the agencies or companies that are either funding

the solutions or providing the technologies are based. The need is for a

completely fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets, keeping in mind

the emergence of ‘cold technologies’ which reduce the total technology

spend.

Satish Jha: The government agencies are singularly incapable of

delivering on the promise of putting IT at the service of society. Some of them

have been seen as exceptions, such as Bhoomi in Karnataka, and in such cases, it

will be helpful to learn the right lessons from them and share rather than

dictate those lessons to other state governments.

Sanjay

Jaju
, an IAS officer

is currently serving as district collector, Eluru, West

Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh. Jaju was one of the

pioneers of e-governance in AP and is responsible for the

Saukaryam and



e-Seva (West Godavari) projects.

The NGOs need tremendous management support across the

nation, and there needs to be a mechanism to build capacity among them. It’s

cheaper, cost effective, engaging and generally a lot good to make the whole

engagement participatory, provided the organizational skills to engage in such

developmental activities are put in place first.

The government must not engage directly in building solutions

with information technologies. Most likely, they will not get it right the first

time.

On the other hand, the private corporate sector should

realize that unless it allows several of these experiments to flourish, it will

not be in a position to create or support viable projects that utilize

information technologies.

Sanjay Jaju: The design of a project should be fairly

simple. For example, it should be able to spread the need for IT solutions and

back-end computerization among the various government departments as well as

provide access to various government services for citizens.

The paucity of funds and limited understanding of IT

solutions are major constraints in implementing such projects.






Sunil Abraham: In the first wave of ICT experiments, there was a big
fetish for Internet connectivity, with everybody wanting to connect the local

village to the global village. Today, when we are more aware of the potential

dangers of globalization, many of us in the ICT4D field now say, local

connectivity before global connectivity; intranet before Internet; internal

commerce before e-commerce, and so on.

The second fetish is to be PC-centric. The next round of

development will see greater use of mobile telephones, which will create new

spaces, be less power intensive, and have an advantage over the PC because of

authentication by voice.

Frederick Noronha,

Frederick Noronha, a Goa-based freelance journalist, started off as a reluctant IT user. As co-founder of BytesForAll, a forum for ICT4D, he is deeply influenced by Free/Libre and Open Source Solution (FLOSS) and its immense potential for India.

Fred Noronha: Keep the big money out. Building better links is a must.

Study of smaller projects is essential. Hype and hope need to be separated. More

critical studies are needed.

What is your perspective on the IT for socioeconomic development scenario

in India?



Satish Jha:
The IT for development segment in India is in a nebulous

state. It is clearly at a stage where the critical mass to intervene in the

developmental process is far from being achieved.

Currently, those with a passion for development do not have the experience to

intervene effectively. As a result, there are hundreds of initiatives that

amount to little. True, a number of people who are addressing these issues today

are learning fast. But what are they learning? Quite often, they end up looking

at the wrong way of doing things and are unable to figure out ways that can

work. As of now, we have a number of passionate people who want to do something

with the aid of IT, but they are all caught up in learning rather than

delivering. And what is being delivered is little more than an equivalent of

school projects in the global IT space.

Frederick Noronha: Lot of potential. Lot of hype. A

field still little understood. Everyone is chasing the big few stories. Techies

who can contribute are not successfully roped in. Excessive funding could

distort this sector, rather than let it grow naturally.

Rajesh Jain: ICT holds the promise of immense benefit

to the rural poor, specifically in India, and more generally in other parts of

the developing world. Focus on the rural population should be greater because

the incidence of poverty is higher there than in the urban population. There’s

a lot more ICT can do... it needs to be a means to the end.

Suggestions for the maximization of benefits while using

IT for development in India



Sunil Abraham:
There’s a need for the greater use of

Free Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and creation of an open content

consortium, given that the 200 or more ongoing ICT experiments across the nation

show ‘lack of content’ as the major crib. And finally, there is a need for

more joyful computing. Most development and e-governance applications fail

because they are uninteresting. For example, many people living in slums may not

be able to afford a square meal a day but they make sure that they pay their

cable TV operator. Therefore, while developing computing applications, the

potential of religion and entertainment must not be underestimated. We must stop

being prescriptive in our interventions and listen more carefully to the needs

of the user community.

Rajesh Jain,

MD, Netcore Solutions, believes in tapping the entrepreneurial skills of Indians to promote rural tele-centers, and is involved with the Rural Infrastructure and Service Commons (RISC) project for building rural ICT infrastructure.

Rajesh Jain: The first application is the use of ICT

in providing education, specifically primary and secondary education, and in

increasing literacy and providing vocational education. The second application

relates to expanding market access for agricultural and non-agricultural

products. This will increase rural incomes and thus alleviate income poverty.

The Internet can efficiently provide access to a vast market for traditional

handcrafted goods, which can be sold worldwide. This can be an effective way of

integrating the rural population with the globalized marketplace.

Satish Jha: Let various experiments being carried out

by NGOs flourish. Please do not subsidize them but offer all other support that

is necessary. Surely, do not shut them out.

And

the possible solutions...
Joyful

computing:
Most development and e-governance applications fail because

they are uninteresting. For e.g. - most people living in slums may not be

able to afford a square meal a day but they make sure they pay their cable

TV operator
Enabling

access to markets:
Expanding market access for agricultural and

non-agricultural products would increase rural incomes and the Internet

can efficiently provide access to a vast market
Experimentation: Let

various experiments being carried out by NGOs flourish. The government



will be in a better position to select what may work and thereby reduce
the risk of making a wrong choice.
Information

sharing:
Seamless information sharing will help to avoid mistake and

imbibe success
Bottom-up thinking:

Top-down solutions simply won’t work

The experiments will create the ground for the next round of

mature work to emerge and they will need more resources and management support

to be piloted and rolled out. The government will be in a better position to

select what may work and thereby reduce the risk of making a wrong choice.

The significant solutions will not emerge until the next

stage. Whatever is done in the initial stages will go to fertilize the

development of real solutions. It is important to appreciate it also because in

the field of information technology incrementalism is very expensive. A bad

application developed today will take a lot longer to fix.

Frederick Noronha: Let’s share information seamlessly, and learn

from each other; rope in many more to make this field touch critical mass; and

keep a lot of space for people to exercise their creativity. Top-down solutions

simply won’t work.

RESHMI SARKAR The author is the program

coordinator of IT for Change,a non-profit organization in Bangalore. ITfC

supports the info-com needs of other NGOs and undertakes research on the social

dimensions of ICT.

Advertisment