A vision for rural India

Print edition : September 24, 2004

With its grand Mission 2007 project, the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation plans to promote rural prosperity by focussing on an information and knowledge-led rural economy.

MORE than six decades ago, Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of gram swaraj and, in recent years, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has often articulated his pet theme of providing urban amenities in rural areas. Their dream of rural prosperity is all set to materialise in the current decade, thanks to the formation of a national alliance to make every village a knowledge centre by 2007 and the launch of Mission 2007 to achieve this goal.

At the inauguration of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Food Security and Rural Prosperity in Chennai in August 2003, former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.-VINO JOHN

The move to mobilise the power of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to meet the basic human needs in villages, initiated by the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Food Security and Rural Prosperity (NVA) set up by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), has not come a day too soon. Five decades of Independence have witnessed overall economic growth, but acute distress and deprivation continue to haunt the rural areas. Various strategies for rural development have failed to make the desired impact. There are several reasons for this. An analysis of the maladies afflicting rural areas has brought out the need to develop an information and knowledge-led rural economy as an important means to promote rural prosperity. It has been found that knowledge transfers between, and across, rural communities, scientists, educators, administrators, health care providers and technology enablers on the agro-ecological and socio-cultural conditions of each village and on matters such as farming methods, health issues and entrepreneurship opportunities could play a crucial role in such a process.

The seed of the present mission was sown in 1998 when the MSSRF launched the Information Village Research Project in three villages near Pondicherry with financial support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The information centres set up under this project were subsequently re-christened as knowledge centres and the coverage was expanded to 12 villages. These centres converted generic information into locale-specific information and trained local men and women in adding value to information. They deployed a variety of media, including notice boards, public address systems, community newspapers, the Internet, spread spectrum technology and the Motorola two-way radio. It marked a blend of the old and the new to ensure that the village residents got access to health care, education and livelihood opportunities.

Essentially a people-centred project, it focussed on their needs while concurrently paying attention to connectivity and content. Social scientists and workers first assessed the needs of the local population and the level of their familiarity with sources of information and the technological means to gather the needed information. The village community provided accommodation and volunteers for the centres and met the expenses on their upkeep. The volunteers were trained to operate computers, maintain the equipment and gather information.

The rationale underlying the project is that mere provision of information is not enough to empower the people but that information has to be linked to the means of its use. For instance, mere knowledge about cataract would be of no use unless one knew where one could get a surgery done at a low or reasonable cost. It is here that ICT has a crucial role to play. One could use it to bridge gender, social, economic and technological divides. The challenge lies in adopting a holistic information access-enabled development strategy and using ICT as a cross-cutting instrument in various aspects of the strategy. This is precisely what the MSSRF has been seeking to do through its Village Knowledge Centre project, which envisages building around the knowledge centres self-help groups (SHGs), and programmes on skill building, micro-credit, market information, literacy, farming techniques, health information, governance and entitlements. The idea is to bring about a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work and from routine on-farm work to value-added non-farm activities.

The experience gained in the project shed light on the need for linkages between, and among, laboratories and farmers. While the lab-to-lab linkage would involve organising a consortium of scientific institutions and data providers, lab-to-land linkage would bring together providers and users of information so that the information disseminated is relevant to rural families. The land-to-lab linkage would enable technical experts to learn from traditional knowledge and experience and take steps to conserve the dying wisdom and crops. The land-to-land linkage would promote lateral learning among rural families.

This project evoked considerable interest even abroad. Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the United States-based National Academy of Sciences, who has visited the project villages at least thrice so far, is all praise for the underlying concept. Drawing on the concept of this project, he has envisioned a global electronic network that would connect scientists to people at all levels. He has noted that such a network would allow the rural population to access easily the scientific and technical knowledge that they need to solve local problems and enhance the quality of their lives, as well as communicate their insights and needs back to scientists.

Within the country the concept has found takers in other regions too, though not all have followed the same model. While some of these are government-supported, others adopt a business model - for instance, ITC's e-chaupal and Hindustan Lever's iShakti projects. The former has brought about a paradigm change in the lives of farmers, enriching them with knowledge and elevating them to a new level of empowerment. This project represents a unique harmonisation of the pursuit of business objective with broader socio-economic development. Another company, n-Logue, which has been set up by the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, follows a franchise model which provides an info kiosk (personal computer with Internet, video conferencing facility, a scanner and a photocopier) at a low cost. The kiosk owner earns a reasonable income. More than 1,500 such kiosks have already been set up. Microsoft Up (Unlimited Potential) has launched a programme of providing technology skills to disadvantaged youngsters through Community Technology and Learning Centres. Under this scheme, Anganwadi workers in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have been trained in IT skills. TARAhaat, a social organisation, has been providing villagers access to information and livelihood opportunities through a network of franchised telecentres - TARAkendras - in Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched a Village Resource Centre project to provide geo-spatial information and services such as non-formal education and health care to the rural population.

While the initiatives taken so far have demonstrated the potential of ICT to accelerate the development process in rural areas, these could touch only the fringe of the problem. The MSSRF rightly felt that the time had come to cover all the 600,000 villages in the country within a reasonable span of time. This is no easy task and it calls for a mass movement. As a first step the MSSRF set up the NVA with support from the Tata Social Welfare Trust. It sought to bring together experts and grassroots-level people in a two-way communication and enable farmers' organisations and village women to access easily the scientific and technical knowledge required to solve their day-to-day problems, with emphasis on fostering sustainable livelihood options in both the farm and non-farm sectors.

FOLLOWING the establishment of the NVA, a policymakers' workshop was held to review the experience gained and chalk out the course of action to make every village a knowledge centre. The workshop recommended the formation of a National Alliance to achieve this goal. The NVA's steering committee endorsed the suggestion and organised a national consultation which decided to set August 15, 2007, as the deadline to achieve the objective. It was suggested that the alliance should be set up in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), the 11 Open Universities, the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), the IITs, Microsoft, ITC and other appropriate government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Following this, the MSSRF, along with One World South Asia (OWSA), organised on-line discussions with policymakers, and members of the civil society and academia on the issues of scalability, sustainability and collaboration, which need to be addressed if every village is to become a knowledge centre. The discussions brought out the need to work with large populations to achieve greater benefits and synergy. It was noted that operating on a large scale would tend to lower the unit costs in the long run. The National Informatics Centre (NIC) has already set up a vast communication network and it should be utilised. The stakeholders should develop action plans to increase the cost-benefit ratio of info kiosks in the villages.

The discussions also brought out the need to focus on the latest technology inputs and make available information in local languages. It was noted that Simputors showed promise in taking the ICT movement to its next stage and that more intensive research was required to overcome software-related problems arising from lack of standardised codes, agreed fonts and usable operating systems in local languages. Local experiments using Paninian grammar and Sanskrit have shown signs of success in overcoming some of the problems. The need to remodel and customise technology to suit local requirements was highlighted. It was pointed out that the various technology options to deliver knowledge through an info kiosk should be assessed.

Members of a women's self-help group in Tamil Nadu's Vellore district accessing information about government schemes through the Internet.-A. MURALIDHARAN

As collaboration and support at all conceivable levels were essential to realise the objective, it was recommended that the info kiosk model, design and action plans should be embedded in the institutions of local government. Hence the existing networks provided by panchayati raj bodies, post offices, and branches of nationalised and regional rural banks should be involved in this movement. Another point that emerged from the discussions was that care should be taken to avoid the danger of the profit motive of an exclusively private entrepreneurship model deepening the social divide in the rural areas. In this context, it was noted that under the e-chaupal initiatives, the dominant castes and the rural elite had often cornered the benefits. Drawing lessons from this, it was recommended that the info kiosks should be set up at locations that would ensure their widest reach and penetration.

As regards resources for the project, the consensus was that active involvement by the government was essential. One should, of course, take cognisance of industry-initiated ventures in this regard, but the scalability and sustainability of the info kiosks would depend on the manner in which they are marketed to the rural audience. It was felt that the best agent for the project could be the government. The participants in the discussion agreed to create alternative revenue models suitable to different regions and social contexts across the country. Experience has shown that the info kiosks would start earning revenues within a year of installation. Some prerequisites for the effective implementation of the project were also identified.

THE series of discussions culminated in the national policymakers' workshop in New Delhi in July 2004. The workshop formalised the national alliance and drew up the framework of a joint action plan. It was decided that the Mission should be implemented on the principles of social inclusion, social relevance and gender equality. Transaction costs would be kept low and ICT-SHGs would be fostered to create a sense of ownership in the centres among the local community. There would be informal organisational structures at the national, State, district and local levels to plan and implement the goals. The aim is to provide a platform for symbiotic partnership at each level. At the village level, a committee will be formed in consultation with the gram sabha for managing the knowledge centres, besides helping in organising training and capacity-building programmes.

It was decided to cover 25,000 uncovered villages in the current year itself. To achieve this, target resources would be pooled in from various sources and consortia of content developers and providers would be formed.

The workshop decided to promote ICT-enabled services from rural to urban areas to bring in revenues. Multi-stakeholder involvement in spatial data planning and usage would be encouraged and the local community would be encouraged to collect local data using these applications for local, regional and national planning. It was felt that the government should encourage convergence of technologies and facilitate the functioning of the rural knowledge centres, the operators of which would be trained by community-based capacity-building organisations. It was also recommended that the panchayati raj institutions, SHGs and the postal network should be encouraged to function as knowledge centres.

The workshop recommended that financial resources made available to government departments, through corporate social responsibility funds and international donor agencies, should be directed towards Mission 2007. In addition, it was proposed that the existing material resources available with government agencies, academic and technical institutions and civil society organisations should be harnessed and value added to them. In this context, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan has mooted the establishment of a Rural Knowledge Centre Fund by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), with a matching grant from the government to the tune of Rs.300 crores a year, to cover 100,000 villages within a period of three years. NABARD-supported centres would work towards creating sustainable livelihood opportunities and function as service providers and communication enablers for the most vulnerable groups.

The national alliance, which began with 40 members, now has over 100 partners, including government departments, public sector enterprises, industrial houses, philanthropic bodies, NGOs and international development agencies. The village knowledge centres will be organised and managed by ICT-based SHGs and NABARD is expected to provide Rs.1 lakh as loan to each centre. A cadre of one million grassroots level fellows would be created and they would function as the torchbearers of the knowledge revolution. Other key aspects to receive attention include gender mainstreaming of content, assured and remunerative market-linking of producers and purchasers, outsourcing of work from towns to villages, fostering SHGs and organising technical, financial and infrastructure resources.

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