By Ms. Sudhiti Naskar & Ms. Amrita Chowdhury

From August 1, 2007 to August 3, 2007 Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) organised a conference on ICT based developments in grass root level in collaboration with Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy. The conference, officially named as “4th Convention of National alliance Mission 2007: Every village a knowledge Centre”, saw a great gathering of academicians, industrialists, IT professionals, politicians, social workers, intellectuals and people in general. The conference witnessed extensive media coverage. Organizations like International Development Research Centre (IDRC),, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Tata Education Trust, Microsoft, Media Lab Asia, Intel, Open Forum and QUALCOMM were among the main participants.

The 5th convocation of the Fellows of Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy was a befitting commencement to this three day long conference, owing to the fact that different social activists from within the country and the neighbouring states were honoured for their outstanding contribution towards the betterment of the rural economy and society. The ceremony made one realise that neither age nor physical challenges could destroy the will of those wishing to contribute towards the advancement of mankind. The entire experience was very inspiring.

The main focus of the conference was on disseminating information and ideas about various efforts mobilised throughout the country in order to make latest developments in technology, available to the grass root level. There was also an effort of looking back to the history of villages in context to the national economy in order to have a fair and comparative understanding of the progress.

The first session included distinguished speakers such as Dr. Swaminathan, V. N Rajshekharan Pillay, in the panel. The focus was chiefly on using ICT for a greater social inclusion of the rural people. It was accepted by general consensus that technology needs to reach the lower most section without which, India will fail to sustain the developments it is witnessing for about last eight years.

However, it was felt that there is no fixed model or means of spreading the benefits of ICT to the villages. Every village has diverse needs; hence the stakeholders should provide technologies commensurate to the requirements of the people. Therefore, it was felt that working in close coordination with the local people was important, as representation from the target group or community would be the best way to understand their need.

The usability of ICT in the development of all the sectors related to rural life, such as education, irrigation, farming, communication, economic upliftment was elaborately discussed and stressed upon. Prof V.N Rajshekharan Pillay stressed on the role of society and the state in spreading awareness and education in the rural societies.

IGNOU has been entrusted with the responsibility to implement the Distance Education Programme under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (DEP-SSA) at the national level by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India. The convergence of telecommunications, audio-video and computers has a tremendous potential to revolutionize education and transform the teaching-learning process. From being a silent listener taking down the notes to an active participant in the study, the use of technology has caused almost a paradigm shift in the way the kids learn in classroom.

Mr. Champak Chatterjee, though, reflected on the fact that such technology enhanced teaching methods are more suitable to the class room environment; where there are lack of teachers since softwares are made to teach the students through self- learning process, such methods do not add too much value to a teachers’ teaching process. However, DEP-SSA is responsible for looking into the training needs of elementary school teachers and other SSA functionaries working at different levels right from the state head quarters to the village level.

Prof. Pillay too stressed that the real work lies not only in providing technology but also in capacity building. ICT has proved that learning is possible any time and any where. But it does not automatically add quality to teaching and learning; rather its application to the core business of teaching. It can accelerate and improve learning on a number of aspects from basic skills to problem solving, work habits, information management and the business of educational delivery. To achieve this purpose they are setting up technology knowledge centers in various villages which would not only include education, but also awareness programmes about general health, contagious diseases like HIV AIDS, animal health, farming etc.

Some software companies too are taking measures to spread education in the rural areas. Mr. Alok Vargava of TCS talked about their work in the grass root level through the TCS Academic Liaison Managers who are responsible for tying up with the rural academic institutions for providing inexpensive user friendly software to schools in order to facilitate easy and scientific learning to the village kids.

Apart from education, various speakers discussed about the infrastructural and economical developments achieved by ICT. Ms. Tara Gandhi talked about her real life experiences in relation to development seen over various parts of the country. She narrated how ICT is making considerable change in people’s lives.

The few corporate partners like TATA, QUALCOMM, ITC Group of Industries had the chance to talk about their activities and achievements in rural communities in context of development. Dr. Swaminathan too emphasized on the responsibility of the business houses to give back to the society, reminding the audience of Sri Manmohan Singh’s appeal in which he asked the corporate houses to contribute to the country.

The ITC Chairman, Shri Y.C Daveswar narrated their activities in rural areas and emphasized on the fact that all they need is to create “a human infrastructure and not a technical infrastructure” in which the technical knowledge is tailored according to the human need. In fact in last ten years, many pro people measures have been introduced, a few of which was mentioned in this conference. ITC mentioned the phenomenal e- chaupal that they introduced. More recent devices such as Fisher Friendly phones by QUALCOMM and few other gadgets by TATA and other NGOs had been showcased in this conference and were available for live demo.

Some relevant issues could be highlighted during the discussion and one of these issues was “how to create a market for corporate social responsibility”. Mr. Daveswar reflected when one company donates to the society; the other companies will also have a pressure from marketing and public relations point of view; and to sustain this competition they need to donate a part of the profit back to the society.

At the same time it was also felt that contributing to the society does not necessarily mean non profit activity. It can also mean a “commercially value added move”, as opined by Mr. Kanwalinder Singh from QUALLCOMM. It was unanimously agreed that with the right approach taken, all the stakeholders of rural economy will reap profit.

There was a major discussion about the initiatives taken by the government of India and various important stake holders in uplifting the infrastructure through ICT and providing development to rural areas. Ministers and top notch officials from Ministry of Water Resources, Department of Information and Communication Technology, Ministry of Panchayati Raj gave keynote address. It emerged from their speeches that in governmental level a number of initiatives are being taken to change the face of Indian villages prioritising on the village education, health, IT enabled financial access. They leverage various schemes to encourage village entrepreneurship.

Big NGOs like NASSCOM also made the house aware of their activities. Mr. Saurav Srivastava, Chairman Emeritus, NASSCOM, gave a thoughtful insight about the emergence of ICT in India, the present scenario and a vision of the future. He also talked about their Rural Knowledge Network Program - a community-centric initiative that is designed to engage industry, civil society, and governments in synergistic interventions through partnership. One of the activities undertaken by NASSCOM is establishing, revitalizing, and fostering a national grid of over 100 rural Knowledge Centers in over 65 districts across 10 states. They also channelise the IT Industry’s talent pool to develop innovative and challenging IT products that will serve the rural sector overcoming barriers such as language, connectivity issues and disabilities

ICT4D, IDRC, an international organisation which seeks to building capacity in the networks or organisations around the world by supplying both human and financial resources, expressed keen interest in contributing to the rural development of India by growing partnerships in terms of research, fieldwork etc.

It was also pointed out that education sector has been benefited amply, and attention should now be diverted towards agriculture, healthcare and jobs. Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala from IIT Chennai mulled over the possibility of outsourcing urban works such as shoemaking, garments industry to the rural areas. He talked about distributory work policy in rural and urban areas; laying bare the hinderances for development i.e. lack of adequate, standard power. He also talked about bringing some security to the village professionals by establishing decentralized power plant in every village, introducing rainfall insurance, weather forecasting machines. But at the same time it was felt that solutions fit for one village may not be suitable to another one. So there is a strong need of articulation of their particular needs by rural people, as stated by Dr. Kiran Karnik of NASSCOM. And for this purpose there is big role that the policy makers have to play, as pointed out by Prof Subbiah Arunachalam of MSSRF. Hence, the solution lies in creating “synergy between demand and provisions”, said Dr. K Balasubramaniam, Consultant L3 Framers Project, COI, Chennai. He said that the context of ICT lies in quick dissemination of knowledge and technology. During the day long sessions it was also stressed that the utility of knowledge rests in implementing it; fulfilling the need of the local life.

A detailed discussion took place about the influence of ICT on medical system of our country. DR. Prathap C Reddy, Chairman Apollo Group of Hospitals stressed the need of providing subsidised health care to the poor. He also talked about the “health super highway” concept, a system that would facilitate easy and fast access to healthcare even in the far flung areas.

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director, Tuberculosis Research Centre, Chennai had been very articulate about the immensely beneficial role ICT can play in healthcare. Because people have never ending questions about their health; effective contents can provide sound knowledge to them. At the same time, these contents can be very effectively used to spread awareness and eradicate stigma about highly sensitive diseases like HIV AIDS, tuberculosis etc. But for that “proper locale specific content” is the primary need. It can also make people aware of where is what particular treatment available. Web camera can be used to reach out to those disadvantaged sections which do not have direct access to the doctors, and this way the doctors will be able to diagnose and provide treatment from a distance.

During these three day long sessions and discussions a few questions came up as general concerns. For example, a number of people raised the issue of “evil effects” of science. A majority of farmers and small scale rural entrepreneurs expressed that hybrid crops have a negative effect on the atmosphere and our health, which Dr. Serageldin thought was a misconception. He referred to available scientific tests, which so far, has not detected any negative effect of the hybrid crops in human body. At the same time he appealed that everyone should set the perspective of any scientific or social activity keeping in mind the betterment of the poor, women and kids.

Even after such jubilant celebration of development, this feeling was tantamount in the house, that the fruits of advancement have reached a few. A large section of humanity is still outside it, a situation that has created rich poor, rural urban divide. But of late, there has been considerable effort in providing the benefits of development to the poor and the villagers. Efforts of making technologies available are manifest in the effort of providing the grameen phone, 100 dollar computer etc.

It has been observed during the sessions that initiatives are being taken on an international level. Dr. Harsha Liyanage, Regional Coordinator South Asia, Global Knowledge Partnership talked about sharing knowledge on an international level.

With today’s immense power of science, comes the question of our direction and the objectives behind it. The intellectuals felt that we should give today’s science a pro people perspective.

Looking at the developed nations like UK, US and China one may feel that development means more per capita income and intake of natural resources. Prof Jhunjhunwala of IIT Chennai warned about such situation, his thought – provoking speech sent out the message that development should not necessarily mean large intake of natural resources; because that would happen at the cost of the deprivation of the developing or developed nations in terms of natural resources.

The conference has been very effective in terms of providing knowledge and information about the initiatives being undertaken and the vision of the stake holders. Though, one feels, some more time could have been invested on general discussions. Though the main focus was on providing technology to the disadvantaged rural areas; the logic behind identifying the “disadvantaged” section was not very clear. The tenor of the conference made one feel that “disadvantaged” people would include digitally divided rural people; an idea that seemingly overlooks the fact that digital divide means different degrees of access to ICT, irrespective of location or economical situation.

Also, it made one feel that the introduction of ICT would solve all the existing troubles including problems related to employment, farming, education, healthcare, and electricity etc – a concept that would unduly priorotise ICT as a cure-all to every modern- day- problem. One should be cautious enough to understand that ICT is just one of the many tools which humanity can effectively use to solve its problems. Though, it is a much potent tool than radio or television; nonetheless, it has its limitations. And the limitation is greatly influenced by the politics it is used with. Just like any other tool, it can be used for mass betterment or personal gain. So, the power politics behind the usage of ICT needs to be carefully looked into. One would be wise to remember that ICT does not work as an “external variable” that can be injected into the society to bring about positive changes.