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India innovates with new technologies!

The other India in the IT age: poor, illiterate but techno-smart

Strange things are happening to the digital divide in India.

For all the tacky infrastructure, poor reach and cost barriers, the benefits of information technologies are being recognised and savoured across India, across income levels.

It all started ten years ago with long distance direct dialling system. Now the whole country is wired up for phone services. There are pay phones everywhere, usage costs are falling, competition is beginning to improve reliability and Indians have moved telephones to the must list.

Then came the satellite television age. Indians everywhere began to be informed: of products, of opportunities, of other lifestyles and suddenly several intervening layers vanished.

India is now in the mobile telephony and Internet age. Is there a digital divide?

Profit versus usage:

Have the monetary gains of IT businesses been shared across the society? The answer is 'no'. But, are the technologies becoming increasingly convivial, affordable and available across the society? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. So, the answer depends on what 'digital divide' means to you.

Let us see some specific examples:

Fishermen in Kerala began about 2 years ago to carry mobile phones on board their small boats. Useful in emergencies, for fishing intelligence and to check which village along the beach bids the best for their catch. The idea is spreading. Similarly, farmers in several states use mobile phones and intranets to find the best prices for grains, milk and whatever else that went earlier through middlemen. Outlook quotes Kaluram Patedar a soyabean farmer in MP: "I want the price in the Chicago market!"

Breaking up:

It is now becoming clear to Indians that access to information is true power. First some barely noticed developments: computerised train information and ticketing drove the touts away; examination results over the Internet stopped mobbing around a few notice boards. They understood the potential and official-dom had to take notice.

Several state governments have begun putting crucial information and services on line. In Andhra Pradesh the TWINS pilot project in Hyderabad is testing the delivery of town hall services over the wire. Rajasthan, MP, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have made most government forms available as down loads. Passport approval status is now available on line. Some of these in the grand Indian tradition, are merely 'me-too' efforts, and several, though earnest have way to go. But the point is, people are asking why can't these be done and governments are responding. Nation wide, computer education in schools is routinely expected. For an overview read this article in this IndiaToday magazine.

Stockholm Challenge Award for Gyandoot:

Perhaps the most outstanding implementation of information services by government initiative is to be found in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. Here a reliable intranet connects villages throughout the district. Access is via numerous cyber-kiosks run by local entrepreneurs. A wide range of services is offered: mandi [market] information, certificates, landholder records, Hindi email, forms and news on employment, matrimonials, education and health. Named Gyandoot ['Messenger of Knowledge'], this project won the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award for the year 2000. Read more about the exciting project here

There are stirrings everywhere.

Pradeep Lokhande runs RuraRelations from the city of Pune. His business is rural marketing, in the course of which he has physically set foot in 4000 villages in five states. He is today an evangelist, determined to bring computers to village schools. He looks for Indians abroad who are willing to donate their used computers. He has succeeded in placing 78 so far. And is looking for more. [ rural@pn3.vsnl.net.in ].

A project similar to the Gyandoot is the the one conceived by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation of Chennai and part-funded by the International Development Research Centre [IDRC] of Canada. About 8 villages around Pondicherry form the test bed for a network. Information on fisheries, agriculture , buses, healthcare, jobs etc. are online. Best of all the project bypasses India's notorious utilities: it is all wireless and driven by solar power! 

Here is a remarkable use of the Internet to leverage primary education. Any village in Madhya Pradesh that enrols 40 children can apply for a school and it is delivered within 90 days. It costs remarkably little to start a school: Rs.16000. And individual sponsors have been sending cheques after the project went on line! It has caught the imagination of a world wide audience and won the International Innovation Gold Medal of the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management in 1998.

So there we have an India astir! You have your doubts? Well, remember the Green and White Revolutions? Our ancestors in the sixties of the last century would have doubted that too.

Let us end with two pieces of breaking news:

... In April a band of dedicated technocrats launched in Bangalore, a uniquely Indian computer called the Simputer. Set to cost under Rs.10000 the target market is rural India, where micro credit and self help groups are perceived to be gathering force. It is the first time hardware design has been released under open licence to promote innovation. The Simputer can 'speak and write' a growing number of Indian languages.

...Elections have just concluded in five states in India. For the first time voting was entirely electronic and carried out on India made machines. No yard long-ballots stuffed in boxes to be manually counted. People everywhere took to it with ease and are convinced 'poll riggers' would soon be extinct. Results were announced within three hours of beginning the software driven 'counting'.

Still doubt?

Post script:

Soon after the above article was completed came the May 21,2001 issue of BusinessWorld. Lead story? 'The new cyberindia'! It concurs with the above article and adds two fresh initiatives of promise. 

One is the effort of Development Alternatives, New Delhi to create a robust information network called TARAHaat. The project's business model has been found viable, attracting international interest and funding .

The second exciting development is that the prestigious MediaLabs of MIT [Boston, USA] has chosen to locate its Asia development centre in IIT, Kanpur. The thrust will be to develop IT for the masses.


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