To bridge the digital divide

Print edition : July 07, 2001

The Government of India and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory enter into a joint venture to make Information Technology serve the needs of the poor.

CAN Information Technology (IT) help solve fundamental socio-economic problems that even the most well-meaning and achievable programmes could not? The answer is 'yes', if one goes by a recent press release from the Union Ministry of Information Technology. Issued on the occasion of the launch of the Media Lab Asia Project in Mumbai on June 24, it says that the project seeks to create a "network of national and international people, projects and laboratories dedicated to bringing the benefits of the most advanced information technologies to the neediest people." The ambitious Rs.5,000-crore, 10-year project, a joint venture of the Government of India and the Massachusetts Institute of Techn-ology's (MIT) Media Laboratory at Cambridge, United States, is expected to provide IT-based solutions in the areas of industry, education and health. Launching the project, Union Minister for information Technology Pramod Mahajan said that the project would belie the notion that IT was the preserve of the elite. Through innovative designs the Lab would prove that "it can be used for the uplift of the poor and rural masses", he said.

Vinay Kohli, Secretary in the Ministry of Information Technology, and Alex Pentland, academic head of the MIT's Media Laboratory, signing an agreement for setting up the Media Lab Asia in Mumbai on June 24. Among others in the picture are Minister of Information Technology Pramod Mahajan, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Deputy Chief Minister Chaggan Bhujbal.-

The project will begin with a one-year exploratory planning phase. Based on an assessment of the results of this phase, the collaborators will proceed to implement the full project. The project envisages the establishment of a network of research laboratories, which will work in close conjunction with educational institutions, industry, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the government. "The emerging solutions," says a report of the Joint Task Force of the MIT Media Laboratory and the Ministry of Information Technology, will "increase the penetration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into the lives of the common man." According to the report, the Laboratory's work will centre around field activities at the village level. Groups of researchers will enter into partnerships with other organisations and work towards inventing technologies and programmes for "services such as health care, public health monitoring, one-room computer schoolhouses, public and postal services, micro-banking, handicraft trading, informal sector manufacturing, and public entertainment and communications."

The report says that the primary spending would be on e-service projects that will help implement ICT projects in villages. The e-service projects will aim to fulfil the following objectives:

* Introducing new generation gadgets and products in the area of health and healthcare information.

* Enhancing the technical problem-solving skills of the youth and thus supporting their life-long education.

* Modernising traditional industries and manufacturing industries and trade.

* Generating employment and promoting entrepreneurship. For instance, this can be done by establishing Internet booths and tele-learning centres in the rural hinterland.

* Evolving a business model that will encourage investment by rural people and the urban poor.

* Developing low-cost computing gadgets that will function satisfactorily in the rural context and address language problems.

If these plans sound somewhat unrealistic, the factor that lends credibility to them is the support of premier institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science. They will work with industry, NGOs and Central and State governments to develop solutions. To begin with, the Lab has identified seven ongoing projects. These are: the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) - Connectivity Centre and Projects in partnership with IIT, Chennai; the Kutch Earthquake IT Rebuilding Centre and Projects in partnership with the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) /Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry; the Digital Finance Centre and Projects in partnership with IIT, Mumbai; the Kanpur-Lucknow Design Centre and Projects in partnership with IIT, Kanpur; the Little Intelligent Communities (LINCOS) Centre and Projects, Maharashtra in partnership with Entebbe, Hewlett Packard the Digital Media Centre and Projects in partnership with the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune; and the E-Government Project in partnership with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

In addition to starting research laboratories, the project envisages a nationwide mass awareness programme with the objective of informing people about the potential of IT to improve their lives.

The project has invited criticism on several counts. Critics say that prior to signing the agreement with the MIT, little effort had been made to understand the problems and needs of the rural population. Another criticism is that since the funds for the project are expected to come from the private sector and international agencies, they will have free access to data and enjoy Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over the technologies that will be developed by the Media Asia Lab. Under the joint venture agreement, the Government of India does not share the IPR and will have to pay for the use of these technologies.

According to the report of the Joint Task Force, Rs.5,000 crores will be mobilised through direct funding over a period of 10 years. Of this, the government is expected to invest Rs.1,000 crores and Rs.2,000 crores is expected to come from foundations and other private sources by way of grants and Rs.2,000 crores from the World Bank and other multilateral or public financial institutions. The research and development activities of the Lab's regional centres are expected to generate between Rs.15 crores and Rs.30 crores a year.

Interestingly, 90 per cent of the funds of the MIT Media Laboratory comes from corporate sponsors. According to the report of the Joint Task Force, 50 per cent of these sponsors have their headquarters in the U.S. and 25 per cent in Europe. The Laboratory currently serves as an innovation centre for 180 multinational corporations. Each sponsor has free access to the research products. Now that India has entered into a partnership with the MIT Media Laboratory the funds raised by the government will be used to develop solutions that will help these multinationals. But India will have to pay for the research products. The joint venture agreement says: "It is a fundamental understanding and agreed that each of Media Lab Asia organisations and the MIT will have primary rights of ownership to the Intellectual Property developed by its respective employees, students, staff and affiliated personnel."

"On paper the project looks good but in reality very little happens," says Anurag Modi, an activist with the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatana, Betul, Madhya Pradesh. For instance, he says, each tehsil office in Madhya Pradesh is supposed to have a computer and a photocopier but Betul, a large district, does not have a single computer. Besides, he says, even if there is a computer and even if it works, there will be only one or two people who operate it. "If that babu goes out, you don't have much hope of getting your information," Modi says. Similar is the experience with the computerisation of land records. Often, says Modi, the records cannot be accessed owing to power failure or the absence of the bureaucrat who is supposed to operate the computer."

The report of the Joint Task Force compares the Media Asia Lab Project to projects such as C-DOT. Modi says that one of the aims of C-DOT was to ensure that every village was connected through wireless technology. "Hardly 10 per cent of the towers function," he says. In areas where they do work, the telephone is kept in the house of the most influential man in the village - usually the patel or the local politician. "How can an Adivasi or a Dalit who is not even allowed to use the village water pump access this phone?" They are among "the neediest people" the Lab project is supposed to help. "If they are planning to bring IT to the rural areas, they must first address some key issues," Modi says.

RESPONDING to some of the issues raised, Alex Pentland, academic head of the MIT Media Laboratory, says the purpose of the project is to understand and solve the problems faced by the poor in the rural and urban areas. "We have to try. Nobody has all the answers but an effort has to be made." According to him, the lab concept has succeeded in extremely poor countries such as the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. For instance, he says, Intel Corp. invested billions of dollars in the Dominican Republic to manufacture semi-conductors. The economy, which was primarily based on agriculture, particularly banana cultivation, has seen an increased rate of growth because of the semi-conductor industry. Admitting that India is a much more diverse country beset with many complications, Pentland says that that is what makes it even more challenging - "to be able to innovate programmes for a land with 870 live dialects." India, he points out, has an advantage in that it has a large number of highly qualified scientists, skilled people and people with an entrepreneurial spirit. If this human resource is tapped to produce constructive ideas for the masses, the country's growth potential is enormous, he says.

Pentland says the Media Lab concept requires that all innovations and technologies developed are first tried in the field, redesigned, tried again and then sold or installed.

"The personal computer," he says, "is all wrong for the rural hinterland. It is meant as a desktop and for those who are not intimidated by it." The Media Asia Lab will seek to design a gadget that can be used by a cross-section of people. According to him, the rapid fall in the prices of electronic goods will enable a huge percentage of Indians to have access to goods that they do not have now.

India will be the second international hub for the MIT's Media Laboratory, next to Ireland. Pramod Mahajan said that after a visit to the MIT Media Laboratory last year he felt that given the country's growing stature in the field of IT, it would be a good idea to set up a similar laboratory in India.According to Mahajan, India's reputation as a major player in IT was the main reason for the MIT deciding to locate the Media Asia Lab in the country with Mumbai as the headquarters. According to Yashwant Bhave, Officer on Special Duty at the Maharashtra Industrial Develop-ment Corporation, Media Lab is a revolutionary concept that will change the lives of people in areas that remained untouched by progress until now.

The MIT Media Laboratory was established in 1985. It consists of consortiums that are corporate-funded. These consortiums develop technologies and applications for industry as well the community. The Media Asia Lab Project is part of a new consortium called Digital Nations, which aims at addressing major social challenges through innovative design and use of technologies. Among the projects taken up by the media laboratories in various countries, two have gained international recognition. These are the Computer Clubhouse Network project and the LINCOS project. Under the Computer Clubhouse Network project, facilities that impart education and skills have been set up in extremely poor areas of the U.S. The LINCOS project, in collaboration with the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Costa Rica, has created economically sustainable connectivity that provides, among other things, technologies relating to healthcare and education.

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