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Creating `virtual' village wells

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RURAL PROGRAMME: A computer literacy class in a village resource center at Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu.
RURAL PROGRAMME: A computer literacy class in a village resource center at Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu.

ANAND PARTHASARATHY

The rural tele-centre - tomorrow's most inclusive technology initiative

A VILLAGER in Pondicherry, visits a local tele-centre to get advice on land use, a full 90 days before the next crop is due for seeding. An aged woman deep in the heart of the Nilamabur forest in Kerala, enjoys a precious three minute video conference link up with her grandson working in the port of Abu Dhabi. In a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka, tech-savvy monks tap their e-library to impart primary education to a small group of young learners. Radio - not a telephone line - bridges the `last mile' hurdle for a rural information kiosk in Southern Africa. It is not a great solution - being a one-way channel - but it is better than nothing. And Internet is expected in a few months' time.Suddenly, reaching the unreachable, bridging the huge chasm that divides the urban fortunates from the rural underprivileged across the developing world, is beginning to look like an achievable aim - thanks to one emerging technology option: the `connected' tele-centre or information kiosk.

A canny marriage

A canny marriage of computer and communication technology has created a viable option, a means to remove what is often called the `digital divide.' "It's the modern cyber equivalent of the village well", explains Murali Shanmugavelan, Programme Officer for the Information Society Project of the London-based development information agency, Panos."Technology like the Internet, does not discriminate; it excludes nobody, not women, not children, not the poor... now we have a huge opportunity to restructure society, to bring those on the periphery to the very centre, so to speak. But tele-centres need to be implemented sensibly," he adds. It took six to seven years before the first such centres, created with the help of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation really took off in Pondicherry... the model is being replicated with great success under the National Mission 2007 of the Indian government. But as experience in some southern African states showed, such technology cannot just be parachuted down from the sky by multi-donor agencies. Local people will feel threatened, unless they feel a sense of trust and ownership in the project.Speaking to Mr. Shanmugavelan at the end of three days of interchange, on the sidelines of a gathering of over 300 caring agencies who had came to Colombo, Sri Lanka this week, all members of the Global Knowledge Partnership, an international multi stake holder network committed to harnessing Information and Communication Technologies for sustainable development, one got the impression that if one had to identify one compelling idea that seemed to hold out the most promise as a global equaliser, that seemed to be the tele-centre. Blessed with a rapidly improving communication infrastructure, Indian initiatives in rural tele-centres - whether they were the Akshaya e-learning `kendras' in Kerala or the e-chaupals, triggered by the private sector initiative of ITC to drive rural e-commerce - were generally seen to be success stories, albeit patchy, and thin on the ground. While respected civil society agencies like the Sarvodaya had joined hands with the state's own Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) to set up over a 100 tele-centres in Sri Lanka, the GKP event also saw the formal launching in the island state of Telecentre.org, a global initiative first mooted last year at the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.

A pool of expertise

Jointly funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDRC) and Microsoft, Telecentre.org, offers for many developing economies, the benefit of seed funding and a pool of expertise, that might help them leapfrog the learning stages that many early starters like India had to go through.And every nation has to find its own cultural path to such empowerment. For Sri Lanka, it made sense to use places of worship - Buddhist monasteries, Hindu kovils or Muslim madrassas to anchor some tele-centres, because ordinary citizens trusted religious leaders more than bureaucrats, says Science and Technology minister Tissa Witharana. The very look and feel of the devices used in such centres might change with time and technological advance. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab has unveiled a prototype laptop that should cost $ 100 when made in millions - it comes with a hand crank to power it when the batteries or mains power fails. Earlier this week, the GKP forum saw Dr Philip Hui from the Hong Kong-based Associates for Millennium Development, showcase an innovative Chinese PC device called `Mnicator' which is fuelled by an indigenous 64-bit chip from Godson, and a Linux flavour called Thinix.

The Achilles heel

It is already available from the makers, Yellow Sheep River, for the equivalent of $ 150 plus another $ 45 for a laptop sized screen. A Microsoft study (Karishma Kiri and Deepak Menon/GKP) conducted in India across 300 e-kiosks, revealed that low revenue flow might turn out to be the Achilles heel of the entire e-kiosk concept. As Akshaya showed in Malappuram, e-ducation can indeed be a driver - but for how long? Soon, the educational aspirations will be met, then the kiosks must find other sustainable business models. When they do- the telecentre might indeed turn out to be the most inspired idea yet to recreate the bonhomie and the earthy practicality of the village well. But digging a well is always a hard task - even when the life-giving water is virtual.

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