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Even as the country looks forward to the riches promised by the infotech age, there are others who warn against the fallouts of a ``digital divide''.

``We might talk greatly about our software exports, but have we invested enough in deploying information technology (IT) to cater to people on the wrong side of the digital divide?'' asked Prof. P. Narasimhan, of the Computer Society of India at the CSI-'99 conference. There are fears of a possible divide between digital haves and have-nots in future society.

Innovations in IT are possible only through large-scale computer utilisation, said F.C. Kohli, who was till recently head of Tata Infotech Ltd. The speakers at CSI-'99 agreed that in a country with 60 per cent literacy and a mere two million Internet users in a population of nearly one billion, the benefits of the IT industry could be realised only if the technology reaches the masses.

It would require a lot of persuasion to convince the masses that far from snatching opportunities, computers would actually benefit them, says Dewang Mehta, President of the National Association of Software Services Companies (Nasscom). He cites the example of a rural embroideress, Maniben, in Kutch (Gujarat). A non-profit organisation, with help from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, had featured her mirror-work embroidered tie on their Web site -- peoplelink.org.

``Today, Maniben has orders from the UK to make `Millennium' ties. Imagine, this lady, sitting in a remote village in Kutch, gets an international order... no middlemen, no marketing expense.''

Another experiment by Nasscom was the video on e-mail, which connected immigrant taxi drivers in Mumbai with their families in Uttar Pradesh. ``Most of the taxi drivers -- around 60,000 of them -- are illiterate. We got them to come to this booth, from where they could actually see their relatives at the other end, in Jaunpur, and speak with them. It was a tremendous experience for them. No letter-writing required and this would work out cheaper than a telephone call.'' The programme will eventually be made operational, says Mehta.

Computers, even outdated ones, are being put to simple but effective use by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). ``We are helping cooperative unions across the country to set up computer systems, connecting the villagers who sell the milk to the union office and the union office itself to NDDB,'' said A. Anand, senior executive at NDDB. NDDB is going to 1,000 villages, he said. Most importantly, the middleman has been effectively sidelined with the help of the computer.

At the milk production centre in Anand, Gujarat, women take the milk to a weigh-bridge where it is weighed, the fat quantity assessed and the payment immediately calculated by the computer. ``Middlemen cannot cheat them saying the fat content is lower than it actually is,'' says Anand. Records, right from quantities sold to payrolls, are automatically maintained and are tamper-proof compared to the time-consuming ledger work in the past.

In Guntur, Andhra Pradesh (AP), the CSI has a membership of 18,000 computer users ranging from students to chief technology or information officers of large corporates. Even policemen are being trained in the use of computers, says R. Srinivasan, president of CSI. ``We also have a veterinary doctor in Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu who is computerising all details of animal and poultry diseases. This will be available in booths across the villages in the area, so that people know exactly what should be done for prevention and cure.''

In Pune, the CSI has started training municipal schools in the use of computers. In AP, CSI member P. Thirumurthy, also professor at Nagarjuna University, is working on the prototype of a software on animal health care; this chiefly dispels misinformation and provides villagers with information on animal diseases. Information dissemination would become simple and speedy, what with every village in AP expected to have an Internet booth soon.

``I am working with NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development), which funds livestock,'' says Thirumurthy. He had earlier worked in Gujarat to help develop a software for adult literacy. The letters of the alphabet are formed very slowly on the computer screen and can be repeated endlessly until the learner gets the hang of it. ``Imagine a real-life teacher doing it so many times on the blackboard.'' This experiment is being repeated in Telugu in Vijayawada.

Anand Mahindra of Mahindra & Mahindra had said at the CSI conference that the benefits of IT should not be confined to ``limited business commerce''. He cited the examples of poor countries such as the Ivory Coast where farmers pool in the money to buy a cell-phone and check up on London prices, and thereby avoid middlemen.

Govts log on

Communications Minister Ram Vilas Pawan has said that he would give priority to the task of taking Internet to rural areas and small towns. He spoke of Internet `dhabas' in rural areas and a phone in every village by 2002.

The Government machinery is one of the means by which IT can be taken to the masses. In AP, for instance, land records have been totally computerised and every district and village is expected to be networked in the future. A video-conference network connects the Chief Minister with 25 key locations in the State.

Other States are following quick on the heels of AP. Recently, the Gujarat Government announced an ambitious plan for governance through connectivity and will soon allocate Rs. 200 crores for an IT network. Three multinational companies -- Microsoft, Oracle and Sun Microsystems -- have agreed to establish an IT network in the State. By March-end, Gujarat plans to provide optical fibre connectivity to nearly 70 per cent of its villages; all Government departments have been instructed to create Web sites providing information on action plans, standing orders and application forms.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) are doing their bit too. In Los Angeles, non-resident Indians (NRIs) have reportedly pledged $100,000 towards the Indian Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Under its `Computers for Schools' programme, the Council has asked NRIs to fund the schools of their choice back in India, preferably the village schools they had studied in.

GoaNet, a mailing network of expatriate Goans and their Net-connected folk back home, plans to bring computers to 400 schools in Goa, simply by shipping older generation computers from the US. The Government's decision to allow duty-free import of second-hand computers, donated by patrons to Government-run schools, has given a boost to similar programmes. However, the mountains of paperwork prove daunting to many a good samaritan.

Although GoaNet claims that many companies in the US are willing to donate used personal computers, the graphic interfaces

required for school education call for more advanced versions. But it is significant that a beginning has been made.

Internet access in every district is also part of the Madhya Pradesh Government's agenda. Sam Pitroda, now chairman of WorldTel, an organisation dedicated to narrowing the telecom gap through commercial ventures in developing countries, has signed a high-profile agreement with the Tamil Nadu Government to set up 1,000 Internet community centres with nearly 20 terminals each. Apart from providing widespread Internet access, the project will also generate 50,000 jobs.

WorldTel has apparently experimented with similar concepts in Latin America, in countries such as Peru and Mexico. The group has also entered into a Rs. 400-crore joint venture with the Gujarat Government to set up a comprehensive information communication network in the State. WorldTel has arrangements with the Maharashtra Government as well. The Maharashtra Government has, in addition, arranged subsidised computer training for its staff at administrative headquarters and networked several villages in the Warananagar district through V-SAT.

The Information Kerala Mission, part of the Kerala Government's IT policy, is a gigantic project aimed at computerising over 1,200 local self-governments, including gram panchayats, and linking them to the district as well as State headquarters. The Government also intends to make all its MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) computer-literate.

`Bhasha' has the byte

Software in the vernacular languages would be a major draw for the masses. The work on multilingual software is proceeding apace. A Pune-based company, Datapro, recently launched a multilingual software called `sub.ki.bhasha' which enables users to work on various operating systems in the local language of their choice. The software has several applications such as bilingual correspondence, documentation, data processing, graph making, table preparations and the like.

The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) has developed `iLEAP-ISP', which is a multilingual, Windows-based word processor that can send e-mail and develop Web pages in 13 Indian languages.

Localisation is a must, says Bhavin Kadakia of CSI. Computers do not understand Indian languages and 95 per cent of the Indian population does not know English. Kadakia belongs to an NGO called Bharat Bhasha whose member Harsh Kumar, an engineer with Indian Railways, has developed a font library of his own which can be used on an English keyboard. Called `Shusha', it is offered free over the Web. Harsh Kumar says that a software developer can use this to create multilingual user interfaces and dramatically increase market reach.

Private Indian companies as well as international companies are doing everything they can to expand the IT user-base in the country, ultimately furthering their own markets. Chip maker Intel has made two inititatives under its Project Vidya. One, with the Department of Education under the Ministry of Human Resources Development, is to determine the effective means of establishing computer-aided learning curriculum and its benefits. Three schools have been identified for the programme -- one in Delhi, the other in Indore and the third in Rangareddy in Andhra Pradesh. Intel will also train the teachers in the selected schools. The second initiative by Intel, in association with the Department of Education, is to set up an Educational Multimedia Centre at the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), to catalyse IT usage across all segments of schools.

Of Net profits

If not altruism, sheer market potential is prompting many private companies to take IT to the masses. ``It is important to grab the future market. People are thinking far ahead,'' says one computer professional. Cellular operator Escotel recently launched what it calls a special project to bring modern telecommunication equipment to about 2,000 villages in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Each village will be provided with one cell-phone package that would be subsidised by almost 50 per cent. Calling it the Grameen Phone, Escotel says the person operating it would charge a service fee to cover his costs and earn a livelihood, thus generating self-employment as well.

Escotel claims that while other operators had launched schemes for public call offices, it was the first to offer such a large subsidy with a social objective. Under the new telecom policy, the Government has promised one telephone for every village, but the cell-phone had brought connectivity to these villages much faster, Escotel claims.

Nokia, too, has introduced a cell-phone that features Hindi as one of the language options for the user interface.

According to the IT industry, the demand often comes from the rural areas themselves. Ganesh Natarajan, CEO of Aptech Ltd., says the company's programme Vidya, which aims at providing computer literacy through training in basic computer skills, is successful even in the most remote among the company's 1,000 centres. ``We have instances of housewives aged over 60 who just want to come and familiarise themselves with computers.''

Dishnet, an Internet service provider, reaches small places such as Baramati, Mettupalayam, Akola etc. The demand is amazing, says S. Ravindran, Vice-President of the company.

When asked what the biggest challenge for his employees was, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Chairman of Infosys, said: ``The biggest problem is that my employees have to leave the safe embryo of their home, look at the tremendous apathy and poverty and lack of services on their way to office, and at office, they are immediately expected to satisfy the customers of the first world.''
Source: The Business Line. January 24, 2000