Wired Up Hillbillies

India’s ebullient and dynamic minister for IT, Pramod Mahajan, will be
remembered for many achievements, but none as significant as bringing the
prestigious MIT Media Labs—Asia to India. Amidst all the hype and hoopla
created by the software exports industry and the ups and downs of the Indian
economy, here is one entity, which has made a quiet beginning and is doing
pioneering work in enabling IT to reach out to the heartland of India.

I had the privilege of attending an outstanding session titled ‘Digital
Village—Towards a Sustainable Future’ at the recent conference sponsored by
Media Lab Asia and the UN ICT Task Force in New Delhi. At this gathering, Ashok
Khosla, the leader of the path breaking Development Alternatives made a very
valid point that the Internet is "possibly the only technology of the last
5000 years that could bridge the digital divide". In his enlightening
exposition on the activities of his group in places as remote as Bhatinda and
Bundelkhand, Khosla brought home the point that IT would be really worthwhile,
not if they helped half a dozen American Investment Banks to make a few million
dollars more of profit, but if a few hundred underprivileged children had access
to education.

“IT would be
really worthwhile if just 100 underprivileged children get better access to
education and information”


And for the skeptics and naysayers who are abound in our country, Subbiah
Arunachalam of the Swaminathan Research Foundation presented a compelling case
study of the real successes achieved in a clutch of villages in the Union
Territory of Pondicherry. The establishment of ‘knowledge centres’ in each
village has enabled online access to commodity prices, government entitlement
schemes and even real time prediction of wave heights for fishermen in coastal
areas. In a particularly evocative statement, he talked about elderly women
grasping the intricacies of keyboard navigation in a language (Tamil) that
contains many more alphabets than the traditional keyboard encompasses. ct.

The success of some of these pilots was echoed by Chandrasekhar, the man who
made Andhra the front runner in e-governance during his tenure as state IT
secretary and is now the joint secretary in the Ministry of IT. Speaking at a
round table on e-governance organized during the CII Annual Meeting at New
Delhi, he talked of the success of Maharashtra’s Warana Village project, the
Karnataka BHOOMI software and the Andhra e-Seva initiative and appealed to
industry to participate wholeheartedly in making India truly IT enabled.

A national effort at e-governance could be a daunting task since it will need
in excess of 40,000 crore even without considering the computerization needs of
the defense, railways and public sector undertakings. As Chandrasekhar pointed
out, the strategy would need to include but not be limited to government to
business and government to citizen initiatives in addition to government to
government interdepartmental efficiency improvement.

The only route to success is to work towards an integrated state and national
strategy by delivering and publicizing many little successes on the journey and
to ensure that the bureaucracy as well as the politicians stay committed to the
wired society mission.

The ‘must do’ applications in this national endeavor must include
healthcare and education in addition to the provision of government access and
information services. It is only when the rural poor of this country are able to
see the benefits of tele-medicine and distance learning for the present
existence and future dreams of their children that any e-governance or wired
village initiative will truly have a lasting impact on society.

And finally, one of the unforgettable vignettes of the Media Lab Conference
is that of a response given by Arunachalam to a query on scalability of the
digital village experiments. He reminded all of us that achieving anything
worthwhile needs patience.

What the country really needs is more successful projects and pilots that can
demonstrate real value before we start telling the world about the
transformation. Is there a message in this for all of us as we move up the value
chain towards solutions rather than bodies?

The author is chairman of the Maharashtra Council of the CII and deputy
chairman and managing director of Zensar Technologies

BY Ganesh Natarajan
He can be reached at ganesh@dqindia.com

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