Jaipur, Aug 23, Saturday, 11:45 AM: My phone played my favorite ring tune from an old Movie...
"Hello Abhishek, this is Dr. Gupta, head of Computer Science Department, RKG Institute of Technology. We met a few months back when you were a speaker at The Agile Workshop at our institute. Do you remember?" ... My mind flashed back a couple of months, where I, along with Anurag and Elco were waiting for the already too off the track workshop to catch up on time and we finally get our slots to speak. I quickly scanned the panel of "elite" people adorning the stage, most of them with an experience in their fields that's worth more than my total age. I tried to recall who among them was Prof Gupta - was it the bald headed man in his late 40s who was really optimistic about life and future, or was he the man with all grey hairs in his early sixties, who despite being an expert in his own field was upfront about having no idea what was this "Agile" thing and was enthusiastic to see what it was all about...
"Oh of coarse Dr Gupta, how can I forget you and your ever inspiring youthful energy and charm. Very Good Morning Sir, how have you been?" I was positive I had the right picture in mind.
"Hey I am great, thank you Abhishek. You will be happy to know that we are organizing yet another IT conference on National Technology Day. I would appreciate if you can share your knowledge with my students."
"For sure Dr Gupta, I would love to share whatever I know, when is the conference scheduled?"
"August 30 - Next Saturday"
Next Saturday - another Agile conference. That's exciting. Its been 2 months I last got involved in such things. I remember my senior advising me, when I joined my current project - "2 months Abhishek. That's all we have to deliver, and this is a completely new technology stack. I would advise you to concentrate all energies on this, and don't organize further conferences for 2 months. Of coarse, that's just my view and advise". One of the good things at Xebia, here people advise and don't force anything down your throat. Its been 2 months since that advice came to me, we are at the other end of this project, and we have delivered reasonably good. What a timing of Dr Gupta's call...
Having attended so many of them and spoken at a few already, I know what to present. I know he will next ask me if I can tell him the topic I would be speaking on. Well I can pick Agile, Scrum or XP, or better still - my favorite planning game...
"Its on Applying IT to Rural Development"... "Sorry Dr Gupta , its regarding applying IT to what?"... I was jolted back to reality that people still want to listen about things other than Agile. Non Agile, non JAVA conferences still happen. And more surprisingly, people believe I can "share my knowldge" in one of them!
I tried to quickly recall all my projects in past 5 years, and see if any of them actually helped the rural development - railways, airlines, online shopping, supply chain, mobile photo logging, VoIP and SBC... none! The project for Department of Defense? Not exactly. Of coarse if someone bomb us, it will affect rural people as much as urban, but will it count as applying IT to rural development? So I have done nothing to apply IT for rural development!
And I have already given my word to Dr. Gupta.
It was pointless to think about all this, now that I had agreed and the phone was hung up. The fact remained that I was on a holiday at Jaipur, will be back on Sunday night, will have 5 working days (which means just the evenings) to see if I can come up with something worth sharing....
Monday, August 25 evening: I did what we are best at - Google for the topic. I was pleasantly surprised to see research papers and many other nice documents on this topic. A guy doing his research on the same from the University of California was kind enough to publish his learnings in a white paper giving me enough material to first convince myself as the first step. So there I was - sitting in front of my soul mate - whom people lovingly call 'Dell Vostro 1000" - trying not to let Dr Gupta down.
As is natural, at first I met with all the reasons why IT can NOT be possibly applied for development of Rural India:
Some Real Problems standing in face of applying IT to Rural Development
High rate of illiteracy
Even those who are literate don’t know English – the primary language for computer applications
How many people can actually afford a PC?
Urban Bias - software being written by people in big cities who are far removed from root realities
Computers only provide information, they don’t solve the problem
Ok, so do we still have any hope? Let's see all the potential areas (even if theoretical) where we can atleast think of applying IT for rural development. There were many:
Potential Areas of Application
- Local doctors can access latest information about health schemes and seek advise from specialists. Medical databases enable them to make better diagnosis
- Access to more qualified doctors through streamed audio, interactive web sites and video conferences
- Skill up gradation courses could be organized where doctors could upgrade their skills through lecture sessions, video films and video conferences conducted on line
Development of Education
- Replacing costly books, that never reach the students, with e-Books
- Up gradation of Skills for teachers
- Video-casting sessions from bigger schools
- Online libraries open up a realm of possibilities
Development of e-Commerce
- Fishermen and farmers can get information on weather.
- Information on market prices before fishermen return to shore.
- On-phone transactions, specially for villages having no near by branch.
- Sea change in degree of transparency
- Ready availability of information on examination results, Passport status, PAN Card application …
- On-line Income Tax returns
- Better rate for the yield due to awareness of market rates
- Tips on crops, diseases, weather
- Ideas and instructions on resource-use like manure, rain water harvesting, bio-gas plant
Then do we have any practical solutions to the practical sounding problems we cited above?
Practical Solutions to the Practical Problems
- PC may not be personal computer – but a community machine.
- Dropping rates of hardware – OLPC - One Laptop Per Child ( They aim at $100 laptops).
- State WAN.
- Even if it is a mere information tool, its a great facilitator. Villagers have their own information needs.
- Availability of computers that can run on low power
- To tackle urban bias, develop localize content in local languages. This also provides employment opportunities
- Already in some states all official forms can be accessed on the net, village maps and land records are available in many cases and job opportunities for the youth can be found. And lot of this content is available in local languages.
- School books are not available, replicating them comes at a cost, replicating eBooks is the way to go
- Video-on-demand services. Repetition of classes for different batches with little cost is possible
- Standardization of quality of teacher and materials and more effective pedagogy through better design of visuals can be achieved
- School teachers can use educational CD’s to improve and update the science/arithmetic knowledge
- High school students may benefit from having virtual magazines, newspapers and libraries. Many newspapers and some magazines are already available on the web. These can be downloaded and viewed by group of students, with commentaries from teachers
Right, that means we CAN actually use our knowledge for helping rural development. But if that's the case people should have known this? I cannot be the first to realize this, right? So do we have any concrete example where people have actually done something in this direction?
Concrete steps in this direction - Case Studies
- Has its origins in Gyandoot: a government project in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh
- Gyandoot : provided an intranet for 33 village - information kiosks, offering a range of mainly e-governance-related services
- Drishtee: Rapidly replicate Gyandoot model across the country.
- Currently, over 100 kiosks (CSC).
- Involved franchises on a revenue sharing basis
- fiber optic cable company
- received licenses for laying a new fiber optic network in rural areas
- rapidly laid a large fiber optic network in rural Jaipur district
- initially partnered with Drishtee for the development and maintenance of kiosks: more than 100 kiosks set up in 6 months
- Started by IIT Chennai research group headed by professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, mainly present in south India
- “for-profit corporation”, with majority ownership residing with a nonprofit organization
- responsible for a stream of hardware and software innovations that enable rural IT-based service delivery
- provides joint wireless Internet and voice connectivity
- web cams have been used for remote diagnostics for diseases of people, animals and plants.
- A large Indian corporation serving global markets
- Its kiosks are called e-choupals:designed to support ITC’s agricultural products
- More than 2000 e-choupals: provide price information and therefore price certainty
with solar power backup and VSAT connectivity
- Operated by farmers of high social status
- Achieved good success with Internet kiosks in Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh
- Has an educational content partner, called TARAgyan: developing local language content and software
- Basic IT education, an important part of TARAgyan’s actual and potential offerings
- Government of Sikkim undertook a "Family Survey" of around 75,000 families (population around 3,65,000) to assist planning and monitoring activity going on in the State. NIC developed a comprehensive system for this purpose. This has become very useful for various departments and also acting as a source of co-ordination.
- Education Systems: NIC has developed software and it is being implemented in most of the districts to manage their routine activities like student/ teacher ratio, grants per student, growth in students per session, infrastructure available at schools, et al
- Maintenance of up-to-date land records is the key for revenue collection, settlement of local dispute and for development purposes. NIC and other agencies have embarked on this uphill task of developing computer based land record system which provides all features like Palta number, owner name, size of the patta, location etc., including mutation process. This is being implemented in 20 districts of the country.
I collected all the gray boxes above, and I knew I have enough material to entertain people for 50 minutes (We are accostomed to that time frame because at Xebia, our DNAs are also known by the name - XKE - Xebia Knowledge Exchange - the bi-weekly event hosting 3 sessions, 50 minutes each. Even if I don't want to, my mind stops listening after that, and I need a break).
Now was the time to formalize the collected material into a PowerPoint presentation. Being in this field of IT for quite some time now, a certain element in informality has crept into me - be it writing this blog, or editing an article, or preparing a slide show. But at colleges, where everything is expected to be more formal, where "Guests of Honor" are from Government Agencies... they surely were looking for something more formal. I asked Nancy, who has been writing newspaper articles as a hobby, if she can pitch in.
We went over the presentation once again to smoothen the rough edges, divided the slides that each need to focus on, and were all set.
August 30, Saturday, 12:15 pm: We were at the institute, waiting for our slot at 2:30. We finally got to say something at 4:15, which was incidentally the first session after lunch - Hot Indian Summer, Heavy greasy lunch, and an Air-conditioned room. Perfect environment, so conducive to sleep. And we were expecting the audience to think how can they help developing Rural India. We started with some high notes and good energies. In one of my starting slides, I commented on how people would be feeling like sleeping and dreaming - "By the way, what you see during sleep are not dreams - they are just unfulfilled desires. Dreams are NOT what you see during sleep - they are what keep you from sleeping" I commented, looking at Dr Gupta. Wondering if he ever slept - Ever so full of enthusiasm. We were lucky, people started getting interested. A couple of silly jokes down the line they were really listening. Dr. Gupta was attentive and prompt as always. His energies kept both the audience and the speakers going on.
50 mins down the line I was on my last slide that said "Time to go back to sleep... have a DREAMY weekend", which was greeted with a loud applause. We knew they were happy, one, because it has ended, and two because they can now really go home and sleep.
Personally I felt it was an eye opener as regards to the realm of opportunities we have. I stand to gain more than my attendees. If not for this conference, I would never have thought of googling on such a topic.
Filed under: Role of IT inRural Development