In an earlier article (Telecentre musings) I wrote about the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in development domains. I had specifically looked at the role that telecentres play in this regard. This article looks at existing telecentre initiatives that have done good work in bridging the digital divide and have positively impacted disadvantaged communities.

The good news regarding these initiatives is that they have clearly demonstrated extensive links between development sectors and technology. These initiatives have ensured that there is a sustained focus on development without being overawed by the technology. These initiatives refuse to see access to development services as a revenue generation activity. A key factor in these projects is that they are either run by the state administration or by NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations). The telecentres have extensive links with the community and hence address the all important question of decentralisation and accountability.

Sadly, such initiatives are few and far between and are not often highlighted. The good work done by three of these initiatives is described below.

The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)

This project is amongst the oldest ICTD (ICT for Development) interventions in India. The MSSRF telecentre initiative was started in 1992 to provide technology impetus in development domains. Over the past decade or so, this initiative has extended beyond Pondicherry and Tamilnadu to other states such as Orissa and Maharashtra.

The good news regarding these initiatives is that they have clearly demonstrated extensive links between development sectors and technology.

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The foundation follows a 'hub and spoke' model for its telecentre initiative with a designated number of telecentres christened as Village Resource Centres - VRC (spokes). These spokes are linked to a centrally located Village Knowledge Centre - VKC (hub). A typical telecentre is run by knowledge workers who are usually drawn from the village itself. A knowledge centre provides information on government schemes, and broadcasts regular news bulletins.

Information about government schemes is available in the local language and in electronic form so people can get information for themselves. In case some piece of information is not available, the village knowledge workers try to procure that information from the village knowledge centre, where staff search for the information and relay it back to the resource centres. The centre also conducts computer training for villagers.

There is no formal setup between the information workers and the government regarding procurement of information regarding government schemes and services. Instead, an informal understanding between them allows the workers to get this information. Because the centre is a storehouse of information, it attracts people of the community, thus giving it legitimacy. The government also realises the importance of the centres and whenever the villagers need to be mobilised for any particular cause, the VRC becomes the space for doing so.

MSSRF is guided by several major principles, including:

  • Inclusion: Traditionally MSSRF sets up its telecentres in rural areas. They do this after consultations with different constituents of the community. One of the MSSRF's key focus areas is inclusion; they do not open telecentres in spaces that are seen to be exclusionary. In many cases, the telecentre is intentionally opened in areas inhabited by disadvantaged sections, forcing residents from the 'upper strata' of society to come to these places. This does help change the power equations, albeit slowly.

    There have been cases in the past where the opening up of telecentres in areas dominated by uppers castes have resulted in restricted or no access to Dalits. Those telecentres have hence had to be discontinued. However, this was the case when the MSSRF initiative first started. Things have now changed such that inclusion of disadvantaged communities is a pre-requisite for the opening of a telecentre in any area.

  • Social Sustainability v/s financial sustainability: The real contribution of MSSRF in the entire telecentre debate has been in the aspect of financing. It is perhaps the first institution to explicitly state that financial sustainability is not the underlying or over-riding principle of telecentre initiatives. MSSRF clearly believes that a telecentre exists to serve the citizens and a price cannot be put on access to knowledge. This key principle has guided and continues to guide the working of MSSRF.

    People do recognise that a dole-out approach won't work for long. When we ask people how the telecentres will survive if and when MSSRF withdraws, they chuckle and reply that they will get funding through the Panchayat, other village institutions or voluntary contributions if necessary. This will ensure funding for the knowledge workers and activities associated with the centre.

  • Community monitoring and ownership: The MSSRF initiative also addresses the all-important question of community monitoring and ownership. The monitoring and evaluation of the centre is undertaken by a joint committee comprising of MSSRF staff and people drawn from the village itself. This committee comes together every few months to discuss the current activities of the telecentre, areas that need to be strengthened and ways to strengthen them, and future activities.

    With regard to ownership, MSSRF has been constantly training the information workers on the managerial aspects of running the telecentres. This gives them confidence so if and when MSSRF does withdraw, the trained workers can run the centres smoothly.

This initiative is one of those rare examples that successfully combines the issues of financing, community monitoring and ownership. This initiative thrives and will continue to do so because it caters to the information needs of the local people, gives them a sense of ownership of the initiative, and the chance to shape its running. This makes the centre indispensable to the lives of the community.

E-Gram - Gujarat

The E-Gram telecentre initiative is a relatively new one, having started in 2001 and piloted in one district of Gujarat. It has since then been extended to all districts of Gujarat. The project aims to digitise all the Panchayats in the state. An E-Gram centre is typically located in a public space, usually a Panchayat office. The centre has a computer with or without an internet connection, and a printer.

The centre is operated by a Village Computer Entrepreneur (VCE), typically a youth from the village who has technical knowledge. The centre offers services like printouts of land records, payment of electricity bills, issue of caste certificates, and information on government schemes. A certain amount is charged as user fees for availing these services, except for the provision of information on government schemes. The user fee is shared between the Panchayat and the VCE

While the aim of E-Gram was to digitise panchayats, it has achieved that and much more (which is why this initiative stands out and must be replicated):

  • Gram Mitras and E-Gram: As part of its mandate to bring in more decentralisation, the Gujarat government has also initiated a scheme which involves the appointment of 'Gram Mitras' (Friends of the village) in the areas of heath, education, agriculture, development & social justice. This scheme has close links with the E-Gram initiative. These Gram Mitras are not employees but are contracted, and their job is to go from house to house collecting details of a family's health, finances and so on. This information is compiled in the form of a family data sheet called a 'Kutumbh Patrak'.

    Once this information is compiled, the Gram Mitras return to the E-Gram and in conjunction with the VCE, digitise this information. A printout is then taken and submitted to the taluk level office, which has a complete record of village level information. Through this data, families eligible for government entitlements are identified, and information regarding these entitlements is relayed back to them through the Gram Mitras.

    While the current arrangement involves mostly offline links, there are plans to provide connectivity with the state wide area network. This will enable the VCE to enter the data on local computers, enabling the data to be automatically available to the administration at the taluk and the secretariat. Citizens on their part will be able to track their records and the entitlements available to them. Clearly, this aspect of the initiative is something that needs to be highlighted and replicated in other initiatives as well.

  • Outsourcing and E-Gram: Civil society groups contend that government must be held responsible for its actions and that outsourcing of any government work amounts to dereliction of duty. While this may be true, the E-gram case study presents a different side to this view, one which must be considered.

    E-Gram operations are outsourced. A private technology company is responsible for the upkeep of the equipment and the supervision of the VLE. However, unlike the Common Service Centre Scheme (CSCs) where private companies own the telecentre and look upon it as a commercial venture, the example of E-Gram is refreshingly different.

    The private company in charge of running the E-Gram only has the mandate of ensuring that the specified functions of the telecentre are being executed. The company has a representative at the taluk, district and secretariat level, and their performance is monitored by the district and state administration. The company is contracted for a certain time period and is paid accordingly; it is not expected to make money from citizens.

When we talk about PPP (Private Public Partnerships), this is the kind of partnerships that I would like to see, where the rein of control still lies in the hands of the government, and governance is not seen as a commercial venture. E-gram stands out in this respect. However, with the coming of CSCs with their accent on revenue generation, and the eventual merging of E-Gram into CSCs, one can only hope that the gains made by this initiative hold out against CSCs.

Akshaya - Kerala

The Akshaya telecentre project initiated by the Kerala administration has been much studied, and findings regarding this initiative have been varied. But two things regarding this project stand out:

  • This was probably the first project that brought together different government departments to provide a range of schemes/entitlements across a single counter.

  • The second and important point being that when the project was initially launched, there was a concerted effort to recruit those disadvantaged as telecentre entrepreneurs, including women and the youth.

A few years down the line, the results have been mixed with a few centres closing down, and some doing reasonably well. This result has not deterred the administration, which has reserved 33% of the centres for women during the expansion phase in the remaining districts.

Going forward ...

These are the stories of the few ICTD telecentre initiatives that continue to inspire hope. They demonstrate that development projects when implemented in the right way with the right technologies can bring about a tremendous difference in the lives of communities. They also demonstrate that ultimately, it is only political will that decides which way a project will turn out.