IN a State whose unique see-saw politics has meant wholesale changes in the bureaucracy every five years or so, the Information Technology department has been left largely untouched by the last two governments. Continuity has been provided for seven years now by Aruna Sundararajan, Secretary-IT, Kerala government. The present United Democratic Front (UDF) government, which assumed office over two years ago, retained her as IT Secretary. Earlier stints as Collector of Thiruvananthapuram district and as the Member-Secretary of the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) had established her reputation as an efficient administrator. But IT turned out to be her forte, and she brought a professional, apolitical approach at a crucial juncture. The results are just beginning to manifest themselves. The Minister for IT and Industries, P.K. Kunhalikkutty, has provided support where it mattered and the combination has done much to convince detractors that Kerala today has switched from polemic to progress.
Speaking to Frontline about the State's road map for harnessing IT, Aruna Sundararajan characterised the Kerala government's mission to `bridge the digital divide' through the Akshaya initiative as truly innovative. The project, a combination of e-literacy and entrepreneurial venture, was something no other State has attempted on such a scale, she said. "These are multi-purpose community technology centres designed for citizen training, but we hope that eventually they will function as community service nodes. Once the Akshaya centres are in place across the State, they will form our primary network for providing a wide range of public services, including tele-medicine and farm information," she said.
To knit these 9,000-plus centres by December 2004, Aruna Sundararajan is banking on the bandwidth that will be provided by each of the three private-sector telecom operators in exchange for the right of way the government provided them along the State highways. She hopes that by March 2004, connectivity at 6 megabits per second (mbps) speeds will be available for public purposes.
Initiatives like the FRIENDS (Fast Reliable Instant Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services) e-service centres and Akshaya kendras must be planned so that they touch all 14 districts, 63 taluks and 1,468 panchayats in the shortest possible time, because in a State like Kerala where people's awareness and literacy are quite high, money spent on IT must be seen to touch them in practical ways before their participation is sought.
For this reason, says the IT Secretary, the State has desisted from funding `showcase' projects and creating some pockets of intense IT development to impress visitors and potential investors while leaving the rest of the State untouched. Rather, Kerala will take the less glamorous route of sharing the benefits of IT across the State, albeit at a relatively slow pace.