Recently, Intel set up a state-of-the-art, high speed internet network to connect a community computer center and public kiosks in Baramati, Maharashtra. The company also announced that to improve rural education, it would help the government equip 100 mobile computer labs in vans throughout the country. Microsoft has also started a community computer programme in Maharashtra. The company plans to set up 50,000 IT kiosks in the country as part of this program. Not to be left behind, Hewlett-Packard has also started an iCommunity echoupal. The iCommunity project, at Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, includes tele-medicine, online farming information system, an electronic employment exchange solution, among other things.

As the companies see it, the next wave of growth is going to come from the rural segment, and they're making plans to bridge the digital divide. After taking over and in effect redefining the urban landscape of the country, the information technology companies are turning to the rural parts of the country. Not without reason; the rural market is virtually untapped and potentially huge, and everybody wants a piece of this pie. "There are around 5,000 small towns and cities in the country, but there are 6.5 lakh villages. More than 70 per cent of our population is in villages. It is a big opportunity for the IT companies. It is also going to be a big segment for upgradation," says Pradeep Lokhande, founder of Rural Relations, which is implementing Microsoft's project in Maharashtra.

A number of factors are responsible for the digital divide - multiplicity of languages, cultural diversity, low literacy rates, price sensitivity, and the low usage of personal computers. It is in these areas that Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, apart from other IT companies, are creating technologies specifically for the Indian subcontinent.

A number of factors are responsible for the digital divide - multiplicity of languages, cultural diversity, low literacy rates, price sensitivity, and the low usage of personal computers.

 •  Rural Relations
 •  One village, one computer

"We are focusing on ways and means to make IT accessible to common man. The high cost of hardware and software makes it difficult for poor people to afford IT. We are working on affordable access devices, which will make IT accessible to the common man," HP Labs Director, Ajay Gupta says.

One such access device recently launched by HP is Scriptmail, which makes electronic communication easier for people who speak languages that can't be typed on a standard keyboard. Language is a big barrier in the Indian scenario with less than 5 per cent of the country's population able to transact in English. Scriptmail totally eliminates the need for a keyboard, a fundamental obstacle in a country with more than a dozen official languages. Field trials of this device are ongoing, and the company is in advanced discussions with potential manufacturers. Clearly, HP Labs' strategy is to focus on the multi-language problem and make the underlying systems modular and easily extensible.

The language barrier is the pre-occupation of Microsoft Labs as well. The company is currently working on Textless User Interface, which will use the infrastructure of mobile telephony. "There is a high number of illiterate people in the country, and visual language would be just right for them. We plan to use the ubiquity of the cellphone and wireless infrastructure to address their needs," says P Anandan, Director of Microsoft Research in Bangalore.

IBM's India Research Laboratory, located in the Indian Institute of Technology campus in New Delhi, is working on speech recognition, which aims to 'provide an easy interface for interacting with computers, particularly for those unfamiliar with computers and/or English', the company's website says. IRL is extending IBM's ViaVoice recognition technology to build a speech recognition system for the Hindi language. Like HP's Scriptmail, this will also eliminate the keyboard.

HP is also working on a project called Educenter, which proposes to use the existing communication broadcast infrastructure to disseminate content. "We are working on how to distribute content using the existing communication broadcast network to libraries. We are targeting colleges and state institutions. For instance, farmers might go to some institute where they can receive a body of knowledge. This is also at a field trial stage," Gupta says. The company is also working on a technology where bills can be paid through the cellphone infrastructure. "This technology can also be used for the delivery of micro-finance. In this respect, we are in a position to leapfrog [legacy] technologies since the penetration of mobiles is quite high." The company has already piloted a similar project in Japan.

Establishing direct contact with potential customers is a big part of the approach that companies are taking; establishing computer kiosks, therefore, is an important step in this direction. Microsoft Research has partnered with a number of organisations - in India as well as in several African countries - in an effort to assess the real computing needs of rural villagers and to determine the efficacy of rural computing kiosks. Given the prohibitive cost - for most villagers - of purchasing a computer, these kiosks often serve as the only way rural villages can benefit directly from advances in information technology. One aim of the project is also to uncover the socio-economic concepts underneath IT as we know it today, and Microsoft is working with ethnography experts as well. Often the kiosks also serve as a place for children to receive informal computer training.

No widespread socio-economic impact

Putting computers in place is only a small step in a long journey for IT in rural areas. One community computer is simply not sufficient to meet the requirements of villagers. A visit by this correspondent to a small village in Maharashtra - Bhivdi, near Saswad, about 40 kms from Pune - was illustrative. The village has just one computer installed at its high school as part of the Non-Resident Villager project run by Rural Relations. Under the program, a donated computer is installed in a school with around 200 students, having at least one computer literate teacher. The computer teacher at Bhividi, Abhang C S, is self-taught. The Pentium II system installed in the staff room of the school has a sickle besides it, reflective of the agriculture-based economy of the village.

"The computer was installed to teach the basics of computer use to the students of VIII, IX and X Std. Earlier we were teaching them on the blackboard. The students are very eager to learn but there are 152 students in the school and only one computer," says Abhang. "We would love to have more computers and also Internet access in the village. Thanks to television, many farmers are aware that they can get agriculture information from the Internet but they don't know how to do it," he adds.

According to a study conducted for the National Informatics Centre by Stanford University, Enabling ICT for Rural India, "none of the (nine) projects studied by them had a general, village-wide impact, and none offers a replicable or catalytic model towards achieving such impact. Usage is low, with some sites averaging five users per day and most having fewer than 25." The study also concluded that most of the projects are experimental in nature and don't have any widespread socio-economic impact. Against this background, the IT companies' efforts can appear hopeful, or even wildly optimistic. They may be playing an important role in introducing a computer to countless illiterate villagers, but nearly everything else depends on the villagers themselves, at least for the time being.

Lokhande maintains his faith in the effort to introduce computers to villagers, notwithstanding these limitations. "I have installed 375 computers in the villages, which had none. The success of the programme is reflected in the fact that out of 375, 189 schools decided to buy a new computer, after seeing the interest of the students," he says.