The problems and potential of ICT-driven projects in South Asia are truly enormous. This region hosts an extraordinary concentration of new technology driven companies, tech-savvy administrators and managers, a political class newly sophisticated to the possibilities of IT, social entrepreneurs and NGO institutional structures that could all come together to bring the benefits of networked technologies to rural and disprivileged groups. And yet, we must face the frustrations of intermittent, inconsistent electrical power, archaic, scarce and unreliable telephony and net-connectivity, neo-feudal politico-business consortia that hinder or hijack developmental efforts, deeply ingrained ideologies of caste-hierarchy, gender inequality, and religious-communal difference, as well as significant deprivations of basic human needs. These limitations cast grave doubt over the optimism of those attempting to use emerging technologies for developmental purposes.
A common objection to IT initiatives suggests that they are premature, or that they â€˜put the cart before the horse,â€™ in as much as electricity, telephony, and connectivity are highly erratic and variable in many parts of South Asia. Moreover, more basic kinds of infrastructure including schools, healthcare centers, balanced nutrition, gender equity, employment, and transportation are lacking. Why should we consider this expensive and elitist form of infrastructure, when more fundamental developmental needs remain unmet?
This criticism assumes that there is a standard sequence and hierarchy for development: first a society must adequately manage its nutrition and healthcare, then it must address education and achieve total literacy, then it must provide electricity to all its villages, then it must install telephones, and so forth. In fact, post-colonial societies in Asia, Africa and the Americas have repeatedly shown that they can be successful in one or another dimension of human, social, and economic achievement, without necessarily replicating a normative European trajectory of industrial development. Diverse social and infrastructural needs must be addressed more or less simultaneously to ensure a nationâ€™s future growth and prosperity.
It is naive to imagine that electricity, telephony and connectivity in rural areas will improve if the demand for these resources does not grow. In addition, information networks can become conduits that allow money to flow into the village through new kinds of non-discriminatory, clean and relatively unoppressive industries. Information and communications technologies can also compensate for other kinds of infrastructure limitations. For example, if online work, trade, or payment were to become available for members of a village community, the poor quality of roads to and from that village becomes less of an obstacle to earnings and employment. Finally, and most importantly, if capital were to become more readily available within a village community through such networked systems, it would then be in a better position to finance the basic infrastructure that it needs, including roads, dispensaries, water and sanitation systems.
It may be correct to say that PCs remain expensive, fragile, quickly obsolete, English-centric, complex and difficult to master, and therefore almost entirely elite in their scope and operation. Nevertheless, networks of human-mediated computer kiosks, shared among multiple users of a rural community, could in fact prove to be the most inexpensive and inclusive form of rural infrastructure possible today.
Although this kind of a public information center would require a hardware-cum-software-cum-connectivity investment of about Rs. 40,000 (appx. US$ 850), this resource could then serve between 500 and 5,000 citizen-consumers. The technologyâ€™s cost per capita is therefore miniscule. The M. S. Swaminathan experiment in Pondicherry, and NIIT experiment in New Delhiâ€™s slums have demonstrated that even those with limited education, literacy, or English competency can quickly master windows-based point-and-click graphical user interfaces. Moreover, the Gyandoot Project in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, has demonstrated that rural citizen-consumers are quite willing to pay for the services of such centers, so long as these transactions make a direct and real impact on their life and livelihood. Here we may empirically disprove Bill Gatesâ€™ theory that the most poor citizen-consumers will not encounter Microsoft or Wintel products: persons making less than $1 per day have regularly come into existing information centers to seek information on regional hospitals and medical centers, to send and receive emergency messages, and to transact with the state machinery in ways that enhance their quality of life and livelihood.
Rural information networks can allow knowledge, services, money, and certain kinds of products to more easily flow from node to node across long distances. Each village node can also serve as a range of virtual institutions, such as a community center, a bank, a medical center, a government information center, a matrimonial office, a public telephone booth, a public library and educational resource center, all at a fraction of the cost of corresponding â€˜realâ€™ institutions. By making these resources available in villages, information centers can alleviate the asymmetry between urban and rural environments. In order to accelerate rural growth, it is essential that we learn new ways of integrating social and human infrastructure development into the installation of basic information and communications infrastructure.