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Mission 2007: every village a knowledge centre

M.S. Swaminathan

Convergence and synergy among the numerous on-going as well as emerging programmes is needed to provide knowledge connectivity to every village of India by August 15, 2007. While the green revolution helped improve the productivity and production of rice, wheat, and other crops, the knowledge revolution will help to enhance human productivity and entrepreneurship.

AT THE World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held recently in Tunis, a programme titled "Connect the World by 2015" was launched. The aim is to ensure the benefits of the digital revolution reach every country and every part of each country by the year 2015, which is also a benchmark year for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. At a function held in Tunis on November 15, 2005, the International Telecommunication Union recognised India's Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre, as the flagship of the "Connect the World" movement.

Mission 2007 aims to provide knowledge connectivity to every village of India by August 15, 2007, which marks the 60th anniversary of what Jawaharlal Nehru called "India's tryst with destiny." A National Alliance for Mission 2007 was formed in 2003 to provide a platform for multi-stakeholder partnership. Seemingly impossible tasks can be achieved by mobilising the power of partnership, since irrespective of the individual strengths of the alliance partners their collective strength becomes considerable.

The National Alliance currently includes 22 government organisations including the Department of Information Technology, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited; 94 civil society organisations; and 34 private sector information and communication technology (ICT) leaders such as NASSCOM, TCS, HCL, and Microsoft. Besides, 18 academic institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, and the Indira Gandhi National Open University; and 10 financial institutions such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) and the State Bank of India are involved.

In addition, an international support group has been formed to provide technical and financial support to Mission 2007. The group is chaired by the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme. It has the active participation of the International Development Research Centre and the Canadian International Development Agency, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, the World Bank, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Food Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the McArthur Foundation, the Jhai Foundation, and the Global Knowledge Partnership.

Following the launching of Mission 2007 over two years ago as well as the recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers that village knowledge centres (VKCs) should be established as soon as possible for the knowledge and skill empowerment of rural families, some developments have taken place that give hope that the urban-rural digital divide can be substantially ended by August 15, 2007. These include:

The decision to establish 100,000 ICT-based community service centres by August 15, 2007, by the Department of Information Technology, Government of India. Leveraging SWAN (State Wide Area Network) infrastructure, community service centres will provide reliable broad-based connectivity to remote villages.

Setting up village resource centres at the block level by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in collaboration with appropriate public and civil society institutions to provide a wide range of services including tele-conferencing facilities.

The decision of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to establish Internet connected ICT centres in all the 240,000 panchayats and local bodies in the country by August 15, 2007. This will help to provide a public space for VKCs, characterised by access for all sections of rural society.

The rural information society initiative of BSNL which will aim to set up 100,000 VKCs each covering a population of 2,000 or more.

Support by NABARD through the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund to State Governments to organise ICT self-help groups to establish and manage VKCs.

Promotion of e-governance as a key component of the National Common Minimum Programme and the proposal to include knowledge connectivity as an essential component of the Bharat Nirman Programme.

Setting up of public tele information centres (PTICs) through the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

Inclusion of e-health facilities under the National Rural Health Mission by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Enactment of the Right to Information Act (2005).

What is important is to ensure that all such initiatives designed to help rural and tribal families are pro-poor, pro-women, and pro-livelihood in both design and implementation. There are many other initiatives by both the Centre (for example, the Department of Science and Technology, and the Council for the Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology) and the States. In addition, both private industry and academic and civil society organisations are actively involved in bridging the urban-rural digital divide and in assisting rural families to have access to the information they need in relation to health, livelihood, food, water, and income security. Well-known initiatives by the private sector include the e-Chaupal of ITC and Microsoft's unlimited potential capacity building programme.

It is obvious that if we can achieve convergence and synergy among the numerous on-going as well as emerging programmes, the goal of achieving a rural knowledge revolution by August 15, 2007, can become a reality. While the green revolution helped us to improve the productivity and production of rice, wheat, and other crops, the knowledge revolution will help to enhance human productivity and entrepreneurship in every sphere of human activity.

The VKC is based on the principle of an integrated and appropriate use of the Internet, cable TV, cell phone, community radio, and the vernacular press. To begin with, VKCs will be established in the 240,000 panchayats and local bodies. With the help of loud speakers and FM radio, they will be able to cover all the 600,000 villages in the country. Internet-community radio and cell phone-community radio are powerful combinations for reaching the un-reached with timely information. The spot prices of agricultural commodities monitored on a cell phone can be communicated to several villages through a low power FM radio. A group of VKCs will be supported by a block-level village resource centre, which will also provide tele-conferencing facilities.

Apart from a sense of ownership by local women and men, the other major requirements for the success of the village knowledge centre movement are in the areas of connectivity, content, and capacity building. Fortunately, the more than 670,000 km of buried fibre optic cable network nationwide offers the capability to connect an estimated 85 per cent of the villages.

The relevance and timeliness of the content will determine the interest of rural families in VKCs. The content should be demand driven and area, culture, and time specific. The National Alliance has suggested that at the level of each district a content consortium may be organised to enable VKC managers to access the information they need in the area of weather, health, entitlements to government projects, e-governance, credit and insurance, agriculture and market. The managers of VKCs will have to maintain active contact with the content consortium. To facilitate the availability of the right information at the right time and place, it is proposed to organise national digital gateways for agriculture, education, health, and livelihoods.

In the area of capacity building, it is proposed to train at least one woman and one man from each village in computer literacy, under the auspices of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity (NVA). Those who reveal the capacity to become master trainers will be elected Fellows of the NVA. The experience gained under the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation's VKC programme during the last eight years shows that rural women in particular are able to master ICT within a fortnight provided the pedagogic methodology is learning by doing. The NVA Fellows will be the torchbearers of the rural knowledge revolution.

The Tunis World Summit on the Information Society demonstrated the spectacular progress made in technology development since the 2003 Geneva Summit. The world is thus witnessing two opposite trends. The explosive progress in science and technology is providing uncommon opportunities for health, food, water, work, energy, and literacy for all. On the other hand, a considerable proportion of humankind living under conditions of poverty, hunger, and deprivation feel a sense of social exclusion and injustice.

Consequently, there is a growing violence in the human heart. While the WSIS was in progress in the midst of a feeling of a brave new world of technological breakthroughs, the main news in the media every day was the loss of innocent lives caused by bomb explosions in different parts of the world. The extensive co-existence of unsustainable lifestyles and unacceptable poverty is not conducive to either harmony with nature or with each other. This is why the success of Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre is so important for human security and well-being in our country.

(The writer is Chairman, National Alliance for Mission 2007.)

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