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CTA. 2002. Village-life.com. ICT Update Issue 9. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
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Village-life.com, New Scientist, vol. 174 issue 2341, 4 May 2002, page 44 Unlike the thousands of other Indian fishermen who venture into the Bay of Bengal, Raja knows the latest weather forecasts and wave-height predictions, downloaded fro
EVERY morning, Perumal Raja sets off to lay his nets, sitting on a boat made of a few rough-hewn logs lashed together. At first glance it looks like a piece of driftwood. But while his boat may be low-tech, he is armed with information from a thoroughly high-tech source. Unlike the thousands of other Indian fishermen who venture into the Bay of Bengal, Raja knows the latest weather forecasts and wave-height predictions, downloaded from a US Navy website. Raja lives in Veerinpattinam, a village of a hundred or so brick and palm-leaf houses on the lush coast outside Pondicherry, just south of Chennai (formerly Madras). The people here are partners in an experimental network of village centres that share information via computer. The aim is to show that giving rural people access to information, both local and global, can really make a difference to their lives. The information comes from the hub in nearby Villianur. Here, four full-time staff gather information, translate it into Tamil and send it to the villages, each of which has two or three computers. The weather reports are relayed to the fishermen every morning and evening via a loudspeaker perched on the knowledge centre´s roof. Villagers also go to the centres to find out the going rates for fish, rice and other produce in local markets, as well as what government benefits they´re entitled to and how to tackle crop diseases. They can even find adverts for brides and bridegrooms. "It is very useful for all kinds of things," Raja tells me through an interpreter. "I can find out the times of buses, and how much they cost. If I´m not feeling well, I can call a doctor." Such information can save people a lot of time, which is important when you have to work long hours to make ends meet. Half the households here earn less than 1220 rupees (?17.50) a month. The centres also offer computer courses for just 50 rupees a month?about 70 pence. Villagers can also print out letters, say, for just 10 rupees, or surf the Net for 30 rupees a month. Volunteers have few problems acquiring computer skills. "I knew nothing about computers," says Boobathi Kasthuri, one of eight women volunteers who run the knowledge centre at the nearby farming village of Embalam. "Now I can type and operate them." One of the keys to the network´s success is that although the PCs run Windows in English, the volunteers are taught in Tamil. At a meeting with local government officials, Kasthuri showed them how to type in Tamil script using a QWERTY keyboard. They offered her a job on the spot, but she didn´t have time to take it up. In Embalam, the centre was filled with barefooted children. The computers here occupy one room of the Hindu temple, and brightly painted gods look down from above. The teacher, Muthukrishna Reddiar Sunder, uses CD-ROMs to show the children things like cell division and the workings of the heart. "I couldn´t explain these things before," he says. "Now I can show them an animation. It is easy to understand." It´s not just education that´s changing. The knowledge centres are challenging the ancient Indian divides of sex and caste. "Three out of the 10 centres were failures," admits Santhanakrishnan Sethilkumaran, a researcher at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, who helped to set up the project. They failed because they were in buildings owned by high caste families who wouldn´t let people of low caste enter. In Embalam, however, the people chose to devote a room of the temple to the project and allow everyone to enter, even though only high castes are usually allowed into Hindu temples. MSSRF also wanted women to run the centres, because women are more likely to pass on knowledge to others, especially children. But in a country where many women are not allowed to leave their villages, this idea didn´t always go down well. Two villages insisted that most of the volunteers be men. Despite these setbacks, the project is transforming lives. Working at the centres has given the volunteers confidence and earned them the respect of local officials. Now when they visit the local government office, the director sees them straight away and is much more willing to help. There are also plenty of small success stories, from people getting jobs they found out about through the centres, to groups of villagers discovering how to set up cooperatives to raise money for new businesses. But could it work elsewhere? Trying to get similar schemes off the ground in less developed countries would be difficult. India has the advantage of a high literacy rate. Yet even in India, where there are 600,000 villages, the problem is finding someone to pay for the centres. The Pondicherry project, which is part-funded by the International Development Research Centre in Canada, was intended only to show that the concept works, says Subbiah Arunachalam, an information scientist at the MSSRF. "Success lies in convincing funding agencies to take it further." In northern India, a group called Technology in Action for Rural Development is taking a radically different approach that owes more to McDonalds than to Gandhi. For the past year or so, a branch of TARA called TARAhaat has been setting up franchised knowledge centres called "tarakendras". The organisation is setting up centres around Bathinda in Punjab and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. The idea is to make money by selling cheap services to villagers, including computer courses, Internet access and even children´s computer games. "We´re following the ´sachet model´," says Rakesh Kanna, chief operation officer of TARAhaat. When people tried to sell villagers bottles of shampoo for 40 rupees, nobody bought them, he explains. When they sold sachets for 5 rupees, it was a huge success. To set up a centre, local people must raise the money, so TARAhaat helps them obtain loans and computers and provides support. The hope is that as centres become profitable, they will provide money for new centres. In Punjab on a dry, dusty plain near the village of Lehra Mohabbat, 15-year-old Jagsir Singh creates a PowerPoint presentation at breakneck speed. It´s hard to believe it´s only four months since he first touched a computer. "My family sent me here to learn," he says. The centre is a shop in a small arcade next to a power plant. Getting people to come was a problem, admits Sarjinder Sethi of TARAhaat. Villagers had to be tempted with free sewing classes or movies. But after a year things picked up. Those who come find it a real confidence builder, Sethi says. "They used to think only city people could learn computers," he says. "Now they can do better than the city people." It has mainly helped girls, Sethi adds. Most could not leave their villages, so the tarakendras opened up a new world to them. There is no doubt that information centres are changing people´s lives. In every village, some are benefiting already and, given time, more should gain. And once people get the hang of the Internet, the only limit will be their imaginations. In Pondicherry, some villagers value the centres so much they´ve volunteered to pay some of their costs. Aid agencies and governments are unlikely to be able to fund centres in every village. And it´s doubtful that big bureaucracies can ensure the centres stay responsive to local needs?one reason for their success. By contrast, Tarahaat´s model might just let centres flourish on a grand scale. Not everyone is convinced. While Arunachalam wishes TARAhaat well, he is sceptical. "The business model won´t work," he says. "People in these villages have been poor for too long." Indeed, some of the centres are struggling. Even so, the McDonalds approach seems to offer the best chance yet to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor.
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