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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
problems for ICT deployment
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).
The government needs to go beyond the 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks
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
Solutions: Projects are thought in isolation while the computing
infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost
|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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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: 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.
the possible solutions...
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
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
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.
sharing: Seamless information sharing will help to avoid mistake and
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.