It has been a widespread misconception that Information Technology (IT) is for urban, better-off, literate and technology-savvy people. Is IT any use to poor, uneducated rural populations? One Village One Computer is turning the conventional wisdom on its head, getting near-illiterate, simple village folks to not only handle computers but also solve some of their pressing problems through computer applications.
In the village of Manvat, in Maharashtra's Parbhani district, the local youth generated a computerized database of unemployed persons eligible for the central government's Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) and communicated through the Internet with the administration. This two-way flow of information brought the area around Rs.70 lakhs worth of development investment in agriculture, water works, and sanitation, employing 4000 persons from 22 villages around Manvat.
In Nitrud, in Beed district, villagers collected 4 lakh litres of water through a simple percolation technology after applying Jal Chitra's software (see box) for water mapping and auditing that identified key shortages and possible solutions to meet the demand.
In Rodpali, in Raigarh district, villagers' land was acquired by the government during the development of New Bombay. The village youth prepared a computerized database on their educational background and negotiated placement of 21 young persons in the company that came up on the land they once tilled.
These examples - and there are many more - are proof that information technology, when unleashed in villages, can do as much for development as in urban areas. But Anil Shaligram, the brain behind 1V1C, worked hard for five years to realize his dream project with the initial help of the Maharashtra Foundation in Washington. Now 1V1C is a multi-agency, multi-location joint venture planning to go into action in 500 villages this year. Already it has taken root in 70 villages in Maharashtra with IT training provided to over 1600 persons, young as well as old. Even shy and coy village women are getting comfortable in front of the TV screen with typewriter.
1V1C now has IT Sewa Kendras (service centers) in Murbi, Rodpali (Raigad), Karad (Satara), Manvat (Parbhani), Alangul (Nashik), Nitrud (Beed), Dara, Padalada (Dhule), and Mod (Nandurbar). Its list of partners includes Virtual University (A UN-led University online for mitigation of droughts), Asha for Education, the S.P Jain Business Management School, Marathmoli - an organization specializing in gender issues - and Cyberscape Multimedia Ltd., a leading multilingual Indian language solutions providers, among others. These partnerships have contributed greatly to ensuring direct benefits for communities and many grassroots organizations. 1V1C has also been selected as a lead partner along with Jidnyasa - an NGO in Thane working to mould students scientifically - in the Central Government's initiative declaring Year 2004 as Science Awareness Year.
1V1C's core competency is in training and capacity building of village volunteers who are trained in short duration camps to themselves act as trainers all over Maharashtra. Empowered with knowledge, training, hardware and software, these volunteers form a network to solve village problems. As part of Year of Scientific Awareness 2004, recently 1V1C organized three camps in New Mumbai - the first for 10 days providing training in computer operations and the use of Jal Chitra software. The second camp for five days was exclusively for 150 women from all over Maharashtra. The third for five days was open to all and was attended by 125 persons from all walks of life - farmers, village youth, activists etc from all over Maharashtra. From hereon, the training will be held in different districts, aiming to spread computer literacy throughout the region.
1V1C makes special efforts to help women and young girls jump on the bandwagon of the IT revolution in villages. One can see illiterate village women learning to use these computers on a village paar (an elevated platform around a tree trunk where village folks get together informally). In Murbi village, six young girls man - nay, woman - the IT Sewa Kendra. Even the state level resource center in New Mumbai is being run by all women activists. In Manvat's IT Sewa Kendra, sweeper women volunteers have taken a lead role. The IT Sewa Kendra in Tuljapur is a women-only centre in collaboration with Marathmoli, and is supported through a grant from the Pan Asia Network.
The requisite software is developed by the collective expertise of technologists, villagers and others with functional expertise. Some of these products handle Employment Guarantee Schemes, Right to Information and Financial Auditing of village Panchayats, providing market rates of commodities to farmers, water management, and a range of other community activities. For example, in Manwat the Computer Support Team of farmers works on agricultural information; they have prepared a proposal for the government's Krishi Bajarbhav Kendra scheme, to establish a market rate center for agricultural products.
Dr Vikram Vyas, a physicist comfortably settled abroad, decided to return to India about a decade ago. Struck by the extreme hardship in pursuit of drinking water in Rajasthan villages, Dr Vyas started developing a software module with help from Tilonia's Barefoot College. He experimented and achieved remarkable results in mitigating communities' hardships in some villages in Rajasthan. His software Jal-Chitra has been adopted by 1V1C and was successfully implemented for solving water problems in several villages.
Some of the salient features of Jal Chitra:
- Allows the users to make an interactive water map of the village.
- Allows the community to keep record of amount of water available from each of the water sources.
- Facility for keeping record of water quality testing.
- Facility for keeping record of maintenance work required and the maintenance works that has been done.
- Estimates the water demand for domestic use, for livestock, and for agriculture. This is done by keeping record of human population, livestock population, and farm records.
- The farm records also suggest the optimal water irrigation required depending on the crop planted and the amount of rainfall.
- Generate future monthly water budget based on the past records, as more monthly records are kept the corresponding budget become more reliable.
- Informs community as to how much of its annual water need is being met from underground water and the approximate amount of recharging that is taking place.
- Finds out the reliability of covered rainwater harvesting systems.
- Shows the amount of the community's need that is being met through rainwater harvesting systems and how it compares with total potentiality of rainwater harvesting in the given village.
Since the software was based on Rajasthan villagers' needs, its application is limited to local ground and surface water resources and does not take into account other resources like irrigation and pipe water supply. Also, the software purely targets drinking water demand and not the irrigation, industrial or commercial water needs. However, Dr Vyas has kept his technology accessible to anybody who wishes to improvise it to suit the regional requirement.
Anil Shaligram's vision is to form a group of socially-inclined persons conscious of the digital divide and the role of technology in future development. If successful, the group would create a networked society where knowledge takes central place in economic opportunities. This group will have online as well as offline presence and will consist of intellectual youth volunteers from IT, management, media, academics, and other backgrounds who are willing to contribute their knowledge and skills. So far 30 young professionals have shown interest in becoming members; Shaligram expects this to grow to more than 500, and invites everyone with an active interest to join him on his journey, laying the bylanes and the side-roads of the information highway.