E-governing 'God's own country'

IT IS 9 a.m. and already the first dozen students from the nearby University College are trooping up the stairs of the Saphaliyam Complex in Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram. Their destination: the cool interior of the Kerala Government's Citizen Integrated Service Centre better known as FRIENDS, acronym for Fast, Reliable, Instant, Efficient, Network for Disbursement of Service. Here, the 20 terminals are already manned and ready to provide service.

It is the last day for remitting fees for Kerala University's graduate examinations and by the close of working hours (7 p.m.) nearly 2,000 students would have paid the fees: no student spending more than five minutes inside the Centre.

``What a blessing this has been for us!'', says Revathi, a final year Commerce student. ``Earlier we had to wait almost half a day in a queue of pushing and shoving students, missing half a dozen lectures in the process. Now we can come before or after college hours and pay the fees without hassle.''

For Ms. Revathi and thousands of other students, the use of Information Technology tools is finally delivering a tangible benefit. And not just for students. ``Friends'' which was inaugurated this June, provides a common window for citizens to make remittances towards building taxes, electricity bills, water bills, driving and learning licence fees and other payments to the Regional Transport Authority; professional taxes, and payments connected with ration card applications. There are 352 different categories of fees for Kerala University alone, and 142 for the motor vehicles department.

According to Mr. M. A. Zubair, Project Manager, Saphaliyam Complex Centre, the average daily collection is Rs. 5-6 lakhs and the facility - open seven days a week - is a great boon to those who find time only on a Sunday for such chores. The University and the RTO who attract almost three-fourths of the customers have set up help desks to assist the public in making the right payments.

Within the next few months, similar Friends centres are expected to come up in the State's other cities - Kochi and Kozhikode - and thereafter during 2001, in all 14 district headquarters. For Kerala's highly literate population, this may be the first visible proof that the State finally means to reach the benefits of IT to the broad mass of its people. Indeed, talking to the hundreds of software and systems professionals who are putting together the nuts and bolts - the bits and bytes - of the State's multipronged initiatives in e-nabled governance, one hears one common refrain: We will have to do things differently here because our ``100 per cent saksharatha'' population demand that the benefits flow to them. If we talk about attracting foreign IT investments to Kerala, they are not impressed. They ask: what's in it for us?Inevitably this earthy pragmatism is reflected in the State's vision of what IT can do for it: the two thrust areas are decentralised government and education.

When the Kerala Government took the radical step of decentralising its planning process and allowing panchayats to decide how their budget should be spent, there were many whistle blowers who predicted that newly empowered bodies at the bottom of the Peoples' Planning process would go on a wild and unprofessional spending spree. Quite the contrary happened: many panchayats displayed a mature and pragmatic attitude particularly with regard to technology - which, at that time, was sadly missing in the highest echelons of the State government.

The Ernakulam District Panchayat was a striking example: Soon after the planning process was decentralised three years ago, they set up a scientific society to promote Electronic Industrialisation Infrastructure Development (EIID) to link government departments into a panchayat-level information network - agricultural offices, panchayat, veterinary and primary health centres, village offices and schools. Spearheaded by two professionals who took a sabbatical from their respective government jobs - Mr. M. Krishnadas and Mr. Joby John - EIID planned to cover 20 gram panchayats in the Ernakulam district. Youngsters in each village volunteered to do the data entry work. The software was developed inhouse using freely available `Open Systems' such as Linux.

To enable data entry in Malayalam, a phonetic keyboard layout was created. The relational data base thus created will form a key planning input for all developmental activities in the district panchayat and the people would be the custodians of this tool for enterprise resource planning. Today, when the State government initiates its Information Kerala Mission for e-governance from gram panchayat level, the panchayats in Ernakulam have a head start of about 24 months: the pilot scheme covering three panchayats is almost over and work is on in 17 more. When the time comes around next to decide which villages need new roads or wells; which primary health centre is short staffed; where the new X-ray machine should go, which school needs a PC and a printer, the decision makers in Ernakulam's district panchayats will use their precious resources scientifically, professionally, and hopefully without political bias.

On a larger canvas, the Information Kerala Mission (IKM) hopes to link 1,214 local bodies including 990 panchayats, with the district and State planning boards, thus supporting the substantial devolution of financial resources with some information muscle. One advantage that this process had in Kerala was a history of such planned development strategies, beyond government corridors.

In 1995, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), the globally respected NGO, developed a participatory technology development application at its Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC), which today serves as a model for the government exercise. The Kumarakom grama panchayat in Kottayam district is the crucible where the new model is being tested.The creation of these data bases is itself a tool in the State's poverty eradication programme: over 50 data entry units have come up all over the State and another 250 are in the pipeline. Each provides employment to 10 women. If this pattern of computer-enabled planning is to be realised, two things need to happen: the PC culture needs to pervade Kerala life and the infrastructure needs to support the resultant growth. The State has set itself a challenging target which is double that of the national average: a PC for every 100 of population by 2001. This may well happen, not so much because the Government willed it but because the middle class Malayali family, keenly aware that its children need the tools to live in a competitive job market, is ready to make sacrifices to buy that first PC.

High growth predicted

An International Data Corporation (IDC) study earlier this year revealed that the city which is slated to witness the highest growth of 51 per cent, among 25 cities polled for IT purchases - mainly home PCs- is, not Bangalore, Mumbai or Chennai but Kochi. The penetration of PCs here is the highest in the State nearly two lakhs or a quarter of all PCs installed in Kerala.

Unfortunately the State government has not had the vision to encash this level of public participation by encouraging the local manufacture of a standard affordable home multimedia machine or even by offering substantial tax concessions. In informal discussions many state officials responsible for shoehorning IT developments admit that the stumbling block is KELTRON the State owned electronics enterprise which in an earlier age was a pioneer in publicly owned high tech undertakings.

Today Keltron is a shadow of its earlier self, dependent on the regular doles of the Government to keep afloat. The undertaking direly needs to reinvent itself for a new millennium and providing the manufacturing muscle that will feed the hunger of the State's public for a foothold on the cyber bandwagon.

A sound hardware vision will also help realise the State's pragmatic vision in IT education. And the vision runs like this: `Total literacy is yesterday's story. Now we are aiming at 100 per cent computer literacy'. The State's Education Minister, Mr. P. J. Joseph, is in that minority of politicians who is ready to enthusiastically espouse a professional task whose roadmap extends beyond his own term of office. And he has not been inhibited by any ideological considerations from seeking help from where best it can be obtained. So we have this supposedly Marxist-led State joining hands with Microsoft to train over 50,000 school teachers: the first batch of 1000 has already completed its training. Many schools in the State, especially those under the CBSE stream, are also benefiting from the teacher training schemes launched by U.S. chipmaker Intel. Computer Science will be taught in all State schools from Class 7 beginning with the 2001-2002 academic year.

To support this, the Minister speaks of installing half a lakh PCs in Kerala's schools though there is less clarity about how this is proposed to be done: he speaks of computers donated free by Kerala-based NRIs.

When it comes to higher education, too, the State has moved rapidly in recent months after a long stretch of indecision. The archaic provisions of the Kerala Education Rules have been revamped by a committee headed by Dr K Gopalan, a former Cochin University Vice Chancellor, NCERT director and one of the early visionaries of a technologically strong Kerala.

The number of engineering college seats has been almost doubled from 6000 to 10000 and the overwhelming majority of the new seats will be in IT disciplines. But here too the State has exercised caution: ''We are not just after numbers but after IT-enabled learning``, was the refrain one heard quite often. The State Institute of Education Technology and the Kerala SCERT are jointly working to push the State's learning modules firmly into an Internet Age.

Kerala has been tragically complacent when it came to setting up higher educational institutions of a national calibre: read any national survey of top Indian colleges, technical or management institutions and the ``Nnooru shathamanan saksharatha" (100 per cent literacy) State is nowhere in the reckoning. Now at last the first Indian Institute of Information Technology - Kerala is due to come up within Thiruvananthapuram's Technopark and the first batch of 60 students will be admitted from January 2001.

Here too Kerala's notorious ''attitude`` problems have been shelved and the help sought from the University of Maryland's School of Software Engineering to beef up the programme and provide a curriculum of a global standard. In another initiative, IIT Kharagpur has been approached and has agreed to help set up post graduate IT and management courses in the State, with the final semester spent in Kharagpur.

Kerala's rubber farmers now use the Internet and the country's first online rubber exchange to transact international business. A Kochi-based IT company, ''Soft Systems``, a charter member of the STPI here, creates an ERP tool for the plantation industry that is used in dozens of countries and is adjudged the best software product of its kind by Microsoft.

The State-based private IT enterprise, Network Systems and Technologies (NeST), only a decade old, becomes the largest exporter of software from Kerala and one of a handful of global companies to have won the CMM Level 3 certification. The State's premier software and hardware technology park, Technopark, a pioneer in the area, recently put up a `house full' board and swiftly launched into putting up a few thousand square metres of new office space.

Meanwhile the park is the training base for IT companies like the no. 1 Indian exporter TCS and the crucible for new wave enterprises like the Indo-American animation studio Toonz. In the last six months alone, at least half a dozen computer supermarkets have opened in Kochi - the latest this month is HCL/Frontline - all doing brisk business selling to a techno- savvy middle class. The Government may yet take Kerala to the frontline of IT-enabled states. But a decisive push will also come from its intensely aware people.

Crafting an information society

IN AN earlier age she was Collector of Thiruvananthapuram - the welcome broom that swept this laidback city clean and refurbished its institutions. Today Ms. Aruna Sundararajan is Secretary to the Kerala Government, holding charge of Information Technology. In an exclusive discussion with this correspondent on the eve of the State's most ambitious IT event so far - the international conference: `IT Kerala 2000' being held between November 23 and 25 - she revealed the State's plans which will help craft an `Information Society in the 21st century'.

Once this was considered a Cinderella State when it came to dividing the telecom resource cake: Kerala's allocation of Internet bandwidth was an eighth of its requirement while metros like Mumbai enjoyed a surplus. But soon that will change. Ms. Sundararajan revealed that by January 2001 the State will be the landing point for 155 MB of international bandwidth. The VSNL will receive the bandwidth by undersea cable at Vypeen island off Kochi from two of its commercial enterprises - from FLAG (Fibreoptic Loop Around the Globe) and SEA-ME-WE3 (the undersea link: South East Asia, Middle East and Western Europe). Once this broadband pipe terminates in Kochi, the State will effectively enjoy a surfeit of telecom bandwidth that will kickstart its various IT enabled projects. ``Our major focus will be Kochi", Ms. Sundararajan added, the city that is already the de facto IT capital of the State.

In recent weeks the Kerala Cabinet decided to offer free right of way to private players who were willing to extend broadband connectivity across the State. The companies in the running include BPL and Escotel which are already present as mobile phone providers; BPL and Dishnet which are Kerala-based Internet service providers (ISPs); Asianet and Zee whose cable TV networks cover many Kerala regions; and new players like Reliance Telecom and Finolex/Lucent. Once the bandwidth is in position, we are confident IT software and service companies will enter in a big way.

The State's major attractions - a highly literate human resource at all levels and its image as a clean and green corner of the corner will then leverage it into a commanding position in the competitive marketplace, adds the officer who has been quietly facilitating this transformation by a series of presentations to the IT community both in India and abroad. Her own working style signals the change from the State's traditional image where outdated ideologies held back pragmatic progress: she has shifted her main office out of the State Secretariat and spends most of her time in a modest suburban bungalow which houses the Mission Group on IT which she heads.

Many initiatives from local government to health to e commerce have been started in Kerala, all avowedly ploughing the same electronic furrow. To keep the various wires uncrossed, to motivate a dozen ministries to pull together when the goals are not too tangible, all this calls for patient and skilled handling and sound technical support.

A dozen networked PCs work round the clock serving as the nerve centre which monitors every small development that will take Kerala a step nearer to its chosen future - a cyber nirvana where technology is just one more tool albeit a crucial one to empower its citizens and enrich their quality of life.