During the 1970s social activists were urged to “think globally and act locally”. Over the past 10-15
years a vibrant NGO community has emerged in the South with a profound impact on development
practice and thinking. Alternative NGO sponsored conferences took place alongside all the global UN
conferences of the 1990s. Activists from both South and North joined to lobby governments and an
international agency to give greater priority to the world’s poor and marginalized.
In response to lobbying against some of its policies, the World Bank reached out to its NGO critics,
which now play a much bigger role in Bank-funded projects. Other changes include the appointment of
NGO liaison officers in most Bank country offices and a grater recognition of the importance and input
of NGOs to the Bank’s work. NGOs have also held the Bank accountable to its own procedures and
policies. NGO submissions to the World Bank Inspection Panels on the Arun III Hydroelectric Project
in Nepal weighed heavily in the Bank’s decision not to finance the project.
NGOs have put pressure on all the UN agencies as well as governments to follow up the goals
and commitments of the global conferences.
For the Kyoto protocol, NGOs have been pushing for an agreement that will have a significant
impact on global greenhouse, and gas emissions rather that one that settles for cosmetic
changes. At the Kyoto meeting NGOs pressured national governments and multilateral
agencies to release a 10-point call for action. The declaration forms the basis for ongoing
NGO advocacy and lobbying on climate change. Similar declarations have been submitted by
a group of NGOs from Eastern and Central Europe. Friends of the Earth and the World
Wildlife Fund for Nature have been active in raising awareness about how private sector
concerns appear to be dominating the discussions on how the protocol is to be implemented.
They have also raised concerns that the final outcome will have no meaningful impact on
greenhouse and gas emissions.
In the following subsections we discuss the role of ICTs in different developmental sectors. Both urban and rural citizen consumers may benefit from ICT projects by receiving: (i) enhanced access to information and communication across large distances, (ii) improved access to governmental and quasi-governmental resources and services, (iii) opportunities to trade or bank online through kiosks, (iv) opportunities to design, manufacture and market their products through internet or intranet systems, (v) education through computers or about computers or both, and (vi) superior medical advice, diagnosis or knowledge in their own locality.
This listing is by no means encyclopedic, and is intended only as a guide to the unfolding landscape. Social Investors and Social Entrepreneurs are invited to think of these resources as an incomplete tool-kit, or kit-of-parts, that may be assembled together for new and innovative applications, experiments, and project. Certain specialized application areas, including Global Information Systems (GIS), and Agri-input initiatives, for example, have been omitted for clarity and space.
Technology & Infrastructure Developments
The three major hurdles to the use of Information Technology in rural areas of South Asia have been: (i) inappropriate software (ii) expensive hardware and (iii) weak telecommunications infrastructure. In each of these fields, however, the landscape is slowly changing.
The Centre for the Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC; http://www.cdacindia.com) has been working on Indian language fonts and software for over a decade. Most state-sponsored IT initiatives, as well as many rural ICT projects, now use their fontographic standards, if not their text-processing software. In another significant development, a machine language translation project based in Hyderabad called Anusaraka (www.iiit.net/anu/anu_home.html) promises to allow Indian language users translation between various Indian languages, as well as access to English language resources on the web.
As even occasional computer users will be aware, the cost of hardware is continuously falling, such that computers that were state-of-the-art 3 or 4 years ago, are now available for a fraction of their original cost. Those computers â€“ or, indeed, new computers configured just like them â€“ are still good for basic text-processing, email, and browsing functions. In addition, however, new entrants into the basic computing market such as the Simputer (www.simputer.org) and the iStation (www.inablers.net) have been specifically designed for a mass market, including both urban and rural users.
As mentioned above, Wireless-in-Local-Loop and related technologies have emerged as a cheaper, smarter form of telecom infrastructure, in comparison with traditional wire telephony. The TeNet Group (tenet.res.in) at the IIT-Madras has been at the frontline in developing technology solutions designed to improve telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. The group has incubated several companies that work up and down the value chain in this sector, including, most recently, n-Logue Communications, which is working as a rural internet service provider.
The three basic infrastructural requirements for rural ICT initiatives are, of course, (i) Electricity, (ii) Telephony (or its equivalent), and (iii) Network Connectivity. The problems associated with these inputs must be recognized as inherent features of the landscape, and tackled as an integral part of the implementation process.
(i) Electricity: In many rural areas, electrical supply may be restricted to only 6 or 8 hours a day. When electrical power is available, its voltage and frequency may vary far outside the acceptable limits of most hardware. Finally, there is often no earthing provided.
For most rural ICT projects, battery back-ups and Universal Power Supply-s (UPS-s) are mandatory. In some cases, multiple tractor batteries have been connected in parallel to create a mammoth UPS that can withstand day-long power cuts. In addition to these battery systems, circuit breakers and voltage stabilizers are also necessary. Several agencies have had to create their own earthing pits outside their village centers, by digging shallow trenches, filling them with salt, and making sure they are watered on dry sunny days. Constant maintenance of this privately constructed earthing pit is necessary to ensure that the equipment within is protected from power surges.
(ii) Telephony: Landline telephones are still not available in many villages in South Asia. Where they do exist they may be down for weeks at a time, and there may be other kinds of incompatibilities, which prevent data transfer.
Several different kinds of short-term solutions are possible to circumvent low teledensity in rural areas. A project in Pondicherry has implemented a wireless system for relatively slow data transfer using fax protocols. Short bursts of these wireless transmissions update the off-line content available at the village center. The various educational enterprises of Zee Interactive Learning Systems plan to rely on Very Small Aperture Terminals (V-SATs), which connect directly to their own communications satellites. The Gyandoot project in Dhar, on the other hand, initially chose its target villages on the basis of their telephone access, and their location relative to proposed Optical-Fiber Cable (OFC) routes.
Although it is possible to design rural ICT projects on the assumption that basic telephony will not be available, there is another, better, approach: Rural ICT projects may be used to test and design new kinds of telecommunications infrastructure, including, for example Wireless-in-Local-Loop (WLL or WiLL) technologies, which offer a cheaper, lighter, and more intelligent type of network. WLL systems allow simultaneous data and voice telephony across long distances (wireless), thanks to a local network of cables provided and maintained by a rural entrepreneur (local loop). Important applications of this technology have been developed at the TeNet Group at IIT-Madras.
(iii) Connectivity: Internet subscription is not always available in rural and underdeveloped sections of South Asia. Even when it should, in theory, be available, long distance calls to nearby towns may be required in order to achieve true connectivity. Poor telephony ensures that modem speeds are often restricted to 28.8 kbps or slower. The wireless-fax system in Pondicherry runs even slower, at under 14.4 kbps.
While WLL technologies will soon be able to provide simultaneous and continuous voice and data connectivity in local areas, computer kiosks in villages can also be designed so as to require only limited connectivity. Projects in Pondicherry and Warana, for example, allow users to access offline content, which is updated several times a day in brief bursts of data. In this way, a range of services may be continuously provided, notwithstanding narrow bandwidth, slow transfer rates, and intermittent connectivity.
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.
As is well known by now, Indiaâ€™s IT sector took off in the early 1980s with the establishment of off-shore development centers. Relatively cheap English-speaking engineering and technical talent were employed at centers in Bangalore and Chennai, then Hyderabad, and now in the suburbs of New Delhi (NOIDA). Since the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s, the Indian government has relentlessly promoted the IT sector as the harbinger of the nationâ€™s economic aspirations. Even though the country possesses only 3.7 million Personal Computers (PCs; Pentium I or superior), it houses the largest number of software professionals outside California, whose efforts might result in the export of software worth 8 billion dollars next year, much of it to the United States.
As of 2001, the initial euphoria surrounding Indiaâ€™s successful software export industry has given way to a new introspection into the reasons why these intellectual and human resources have not driven improvements in Indiaâ€™s public and private institutions, education systems, and infrastructure. These reasons are not hard to find: (i) the Indian software industry solves small components of larger problems for international clients; (ii) this work is usually protected by confidentiality agreements; (iii) many Indian software professionals and companies compete for the same international contracts; (iv) the opportunity costs of working for Indian versus international clients is very high; and finally (v) low teledensity, computer usage, literacy, the inadequacies of regional language software interfaces, and other obstacles of Indiaâ€™s developing infrastructure, coupled with regulatory hurdles have inhibited such ventures.
None of this prevented Andhra Pradeshâ€™s Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu from crafting an aggressive state policy to attract IT-oriented investments, simultaneously claiming that this sector served the larger public interest. The constraints of electoral politics in Indiaâ€™s largely rural society have meant that economically liberal and technologically sophisticated leaders could not afford to leave themselves open to the charge of promoting IT at the expense of rural development, and this is a fine line to walk: Even as he invited Microsoft to set up a software center in the Hyderabadâ€™s technology park, Naidu also installed a highly sophisticated network of communications systems in his home constituency of Kuppam, as a model for other regions of the state. Beginning in 1996, he was the first Indian politician to advocate Egovernance for making the state machinery more responsive and sensitive to citizen needs at the district and panchayat level. As of 2000-01, these policies are being emulated at the national level through an â€˜IT for the Massesâ€™ policy statement, as well as a forthcoming policy statement on Egovernance. Neighboring Karnataka is one among many other states of India to have issued an IT policy statement directed towards the â€˜common man.â€™ Naiduâ€™s solution to the political dilemma of promoting high-tech alongside rural empowerment, therefore, long anticipated current international debates on â€˜digital divide.â€™
Despite the on-going deregulation of Indiaâ€™s telecommunications sector, its national teledensity (telephones per hundred persons) has improved very slowly, from .06 in 1990, to almost 3 today (compare with China at around 10). Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and Wireless-in-Local-Loop (WiLL or WLL) technologies, however, now appear set to offer a cheaper and lighter form of telecom infrastructure, that should improve rural access exponentially. New software and dotcom start-ups have begun targeting non-English speaking users, and the idea of non-elites using and benefiting from ICTs has begun to gain currency. Nevertheless, the export-oriented software industry has yet to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the newly networking home market. A new synergy between the Infotech and Telecom sectors in India could create a profound social and economic revolution in rural communities across South Asia.
The idea that the internet and related technologies might have an important role in aiding developmental efforts has captured a central place in international policy debates. Over the course of the last year, statements affirming the need to close the so-called â€˜digital divideâ€™ between social groups with and without access to the internet have been made through several UN agencies, at the G-8 summit, and at meetings of developmental organizations around the world. Many new websites now address this topic, and listserv hosts have moderated endless rounds of debate between digital enthusiasts and digital skeptics.
The idea of digitally-oriented development is as powerful and seductive as the technology upon which it is based. No single technological revolution has changed the lives of current generations in the way that the internet has. No cultural-technological innovation since Television has had this kind of impact on the worldâ€™s economy, its politics and its globalizing popular cultures, or even on our cultural conceptions of distance and time. The promise of digital development is that it might have the same reach as the original internet boom of the mid 1990s â€“ only this time, the most disprivileged communities, those who had missed out on earlier waves of technology, might be able to â€˜leapfrogâ€™ over their more developed competitors. The greatest obstacles to rural development â€“ large distances and inadequate infrastructure â€“ might be obviated by instant access to virtual institutions that provide banking, education, health care, neonatal information, agricultural advice, and so forth. But skeptics also have good reason. Bill Gatesâ€™ now infamous dictum, that a computer cannot benefit someone earning less than a dollar a day, remains a serious challenge to any attempt to ameliorate social and economic disparities through Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs).6 In South Asia, where most rural populations lack running water and sanitation systems, where electricity is still a scarce and intermittent resource, where roads are poor and education a luxury, these technologies truly appear to be far removed from the everyday concerns of the poorest sections of the countryside. This article critically examines the problems and possibilities of digital development in order to reveal the larger impact that ICTs could have on rural economies and societies.
During the X Five Year Plan, UGC has embarked upon promotion of ICT in a
moderate level by providing UGC INFONET, e-Journal Consortia, e-Content
Development and moving towards e-education among the Universities by
spending over Rs 180 crores. The presence of IT culture and use of e-resources,
creation of e-content/digitization has started appearing in the university
campuses by way of having access to about 4400 e-journals to 100 plus
universities covered under UGC INFONET.
There is a vast amount of untapped wealth of contents with the academics in the
Universities and Colleges across the country, which needs to be preserved in the
digital form for enhancing the wealth of knowledge base, which can be shared
through computer based communication networks. So far, under the aegis of
UGC, INFLIBNET and CEC in collaboration with ERNET, India have made
remarkable contributions in 149 Universities during the X Five Year Plan,
covering all the states, using Broadband LL/SCPC/DAMA/FTDMA/RF Open
Network Architecture. Besides , 100 plus Universities were covered with high
quality e-journals in discipline covering 4443 full text titles.