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India Report #2

July 14, 2001: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see <>.

The last three days were among the most interesting in my life. I visited two fascinating technology projects for rural development in India.

The trip started on Tuesday afternoon, July 10, when I caught an afternoon flight from New Delhi to Indore.

Indore is a city of some two-to-three million people that virtually no one in the US has heard of (nor had I before a few months ago). It’s the capital of Madra Pradesh, a very poor state in central India, whose second largest city is Bhopal (site of a deadly accident at a US plant some 17 years ago). The state is also the site of one of the most interesting IT projects for development in the world, the Gyandoot project in Dhar.

Indore was blissfully cool after the torrid humidity of Delhi. Located on a plateau, the area is filled with cooling breezes. I breathed a sigh of relief at the fresh air and thoroughly enjoyed the windy 2-hour taxi drive to Dhar.

Dhar is a primarily rural district of some 1.7 million people, with a capital city also named Dhar. My contacts there had booked me into a hotel that is a converted palace. It had cavernous rooms, lots of archways, old wooden doors, and a canopied bed. I looked out my window on nothing but palm trees and fields of green. I was the only guest in the hotel (!), and there was no television, radio, music, or working telephone (!!), and my computer wasn’t working either (!!!), so I was quite removed from the world for a couple of days. (Haven’t heard any American news in a week or so, so please let me know if there’s any crisis I should know about!)

There are several projects of technology for rural development in India, based on the development of Internet kiosks in rural villages, with most started by non-governmental organizations with generous foreign backing. The Gyandoot project is perhaps unique in that it was launched by a local Indian government (that of the Dhar district), with little funds and no foreign backing. It’s a very low budget operation -- a small team at headquarters has developed local content and maintains an intranet server, and one-computer kiosks have been established in 36 villages. What’s special about it though is the (Hindi-language) content that has been established on the Intranet, as well as some special e-governance features that allow, for example, direct individual complaints.

Content includes prices on agricultural goods from local markets (allowing farmers to make informed decisions about where and when to harvest and sell their goods), a host of public and personalized government information (such as all-important land records, which used to require several visits to district offices, usually accompanied by bribes), and some special activities for children (quizzes, exam scores, etc.) One of the most interesting features to me is the complaint section, a menu-driven system allowing direct complaints to government officials on a list of hot-button rural issues (e.g., the village hand-pump is broken and nobody has come to fix it).

For those of you interested in technology and school reform, Dhar provides a new wrinkle on the issue. Apparently lots of rural teachers (especially in one-room schools) simply don’t show up for work. The complaint system finally allows villagers to easily notify government authorities about this. Responses to all complaints are guaranteed within 7 days (and a list of unanswered complaints is maintained on the public intranet, thus providing powerful incentive for reply), and so far all complaints have been answered within the required time. And several villages have reported that schools are functioning a lot better now!

Dhar is really poor by the way. Fully 1/3 of the kiosk users reportedly earn less than $70 US per year (no, that’s not a typo). You can imagine that they haven’t had prior computer experience. Gyandoot services are cheap -- 10 to 20 cents US -- but even that’s a lot for people there (though not in comparison to the bus fare, bribes, lost wages, etc. they might have to expend otherwise).

That’s all on Dhar for now, but remind me to share with you later pictures of the “healthiest baby” contest, sponsored by Gyandoot as a way to jointly publicize the kiosks while also raising awareness of children’s health issues.

On to Pondicherry. The Pondicherry project is sponsored by the MS Swaminathan Foundation, a large research foundation in Chennai (Madras) with 350 staff and loads of great projects on sustainable development. Pondicherry is a two-hour drive away in a very pleasant fishing area near the beach. Again, very poor, but apparently with relatively decents social conditions: good roads (in Dhar, it takes 2 hours to drive 12 km on some roads), well-clothed children (due to government funding for children’s clothes), and clean, if spartan, thatched huts for houses. The Pondicherry Village Knowledge Centers have been established in 10 local villages, on a somewhat similar basis as in Dhar. One of the well-publicized and neat uses of these kiosks (at least the one in the fishing village) is the downloading from the Internet of US Naval sea information (e.g., local wave heights and patterns) and the subsequent translation into the local language (Tamil) and then broadcasting over loud speakers several times a day for local villagers. There are other wonderful features of the Village Knowledge Centers, including very prominent involvement of women, and a nice link between the content provided and some ongoing research done at the research foundation's nearby biovillage project. There's also some very nice community development dynamics. MS Swaminathan has organized women's self-health groups in the area for years to promote develop. Groups of 10-15 women work together to learn alternate income-generating activities (aquaculture, flower cultivation, mushroom growing, etc.) and also learn how to develop micro-lending schemes among themselves to avoid using high-interest money lenders. In one village, a women's self-help group is now running the village knowledge center. In addition software is being developed to assist the self-help groups in keeping their books. Software is also being developed to address other issues that women feel is important, such as women's and children's health (i.e., instructional software with lots of pictures).

Another interesting note is that, keeping with Swaminathan Foundation's environmentalist approach, all their centers have have solar panels and cells. They supply 60% of the centers' electricity and can manager 100% for up to 11 hours, thus obviating the need for UPS backup systems (power is out almost two hours a day in this part).

Both the Dhar and Pondicherry projects are increasingly emphasizing entrepeneurship. The Dhar kiosks were first under community ownership, with newer centers under private entrepreneurs. The Pondicherry centers are run by volunteers, but the volunteers are now allowed to have additional profit generating activities. One originally unplanned but now big aspect of both Dhar and Pondicherry projects is their role as computer training centers, with a lot of children and teenagers coming in daily for a tiny fee for individual computer use and training.

Pondicherry, by the way, used to be a French colony (I’ll bet you didn’t know there was a French colony in India) until (at least according to what I heard today) 1962! The French apparently pulled out after the British did, but had some administrative role for another 14 years (don’t quote me on that, but that’s what I was told).

The two-hour ride home (well, back to my room) from Pondicherry to Chenai was pure heaven to perfectly wrap up the three days. Again, lots of cool breezes in the taxi as we cruised by lush green fields, loads of exotic vegetation, and thousands of palm trees. Clean, simple thatched huts dotted the roadside, with stray cows (that’s a collocation I don’t use every day) wandering across the road like the kings that they are in India. Men, women and children, dark, slender and strong, meander down the road on bicycles (often two on a bike), mopeds and motorcycles (often a family of three on that), or on foot. Dignified elderly women in graceful and colorful dresses walk back from marketplace. Younger women in sarongs walk back too, carrying straw baskets or metal pitchers of water on their heads. Young girls meander from school, with cute uniforms, flip-flops or bare feet, and flowers in their hair. Reed-thin male laborers, deep black from the strong sun, stride by, wearing nothing but short wrap-around white shorts. If I were to talk to these people, I bet they would express many identities, thinking of themselves as Hindus, Indians, men, women, girls, boys, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, farmers, fisherman, or laborers. But I bet not a single one would identify himself or herself as an "information have-not" or as a "digitally disconnected". Something to think about.

My computer is still down so forgive me if I haven't answered individual messages. It's been all I can do to occasionally find an Internet cafe to send these reports. (But I do still look forward to receiving your messages!).


Mark Warschauer

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Last updated: July 14, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0