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How Kerala gave India its first e-literate district

India's first district with a computer literate member in every family heralds a bottom-up approach to planning. Malappuram, in the state of Kerala has long been a model for people-centred development.

On the day when Pushparaj, a 28-year-old manual worker, sat in front of a personal computer for the first time, Shantakumari – 32, homemaker, little daughter on her lap – took the last of ten self-paced computer tests.

The monitor flashed the message: "Congratulations you have now attained computer literacy!" It was accompanied by a triumphant clap of music from the PC's twin speakers, so all the other students in the crowded classroom stopped what they were doing and joined in a round of applause.

It's a little ritual at the Akshaya e-Kendra (Inexhaustible e-Centre) in Mannupadam, a village nestling on the slopes of hill forests in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Shantakumari's place on the roster will be given to the next student in the waiting list.

The Mannupadam centre is part of a dynamic self-financing experiment encompassing Kerala's Malappuram district. With five PCs, a printer, a scanner and a webcam all linked to a Pentium 4 server, the centre hosts 12 classes every day – one of 600 centres across the district.

Time is short and space is limited in the one-room centre run by the local village council. Sometimes during rush hour, a couple of students will cheerfully share a PC. Though that can cause problems when it comes to taking online tests, no one complains: there's a real learning zeal among Mannupadam's 1,200 families, who are eager to bootstrap themselves into a 'connected' future.

The scheme, which was created by locals, allows one member of each family to undergo training in e-literacy – at his or her own pace – for a fee of just Rs 20 rupees ($0.40). The course includes basic computer skills, letter-writing, Internet and email training, creating pictures with an imaging software and making international calls using the Voice over Internet Protocol.

Every time a student completes the course – it typically takes six to eight weeks – the e-centre operator, usually a villager who has bought the equipment and rented the classroom, receives Rs 120 ($2.60) from the village council, paid out of local taxes. The operator is committed to training every family in the village and with the money coming in from training 1,000 or more students, they can pay back most of the loan that went into setting up the centre.

Although the state government does have a role to play (it acts as surety with the banks), this is a scheme that is entirely run by the villagers for themselves.

By the time you read this, the Malappuram experiment may have finished: by Christmas, most of the 600 centres will have completed their training and Malappuram will proudly stake its claim to be called India's first computer-literate district.

It couldn't happen too soon for Abdul Rahim who runs the Eranjimangad village centre.

"Most of my students are housewives, some are grandmothers," he says. "They take the course so that they can exchange emails with their husbands or sons in Dubai or Sharjah. Now so many of them come back to download their mails or make cheap Internet telephone calls that I have installed an additional PC just for this business."

The Akshaya project has been working in imaginative ways:-

One village holds midnight classes just so auto-rickshaw drivers – who ply the Indian three-wheeled taxis – can attend classes after their day shift;

In another, members of an indigenous tribe offered their ramshackle community centre for free, provided the operator of the nearest e-centre – nine km away – set up a sub-centre in the village. Now the operator trucks in his PCs and printer thrice a week to coach the 150 indigenous tribal families.

And the Kerala government is now planning to develop the Malappuram IT infrastructure as a single district-wide network capable of delivering a number of online public services such as tax payment gateways, land records maintenance, birth and death registration and a telemedicine and health alert backbone.

Malappuram's success needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the Indian federal government's ambitious initiative, 'IT For All By 2008' – launched in 1998. Although IT is now motoring much of India's economic growth, half way through the initiative few targets have been met: in a nation of over a billion people, the teledensity – the number of telephones for every 100 persons – is a lowly 4.89.

The PC population is even lower – one in 100. Of them only about half have an Internet connection.

In spite of sweeping reforms in the telecom sector and the opening up of both terrestrial and mobile services to private enterprise, in India's vast rural hinterland, the teledensity is just over one.

Kerala, with 31 million people, has always stood apart from the rest of India for its education and health achievements, becoming India's only fully literate state in the 1980s. Its development is partly fuelled by a huge and thrifty non-resident population that has emigrated to the Middle East and repatriates millions of dollars every month. Not surprisingly the state has the second highest teledensity in India at 10.58.

The district of Malappuram, clinging to the green slopes of India's south-western coast, mirrors Kerala's development pattern. Nearly everyone is literate; a large number of its 750,000 households work in the Middle East; nearly 40 per cent of households have a telephone connection; over half of these are mobile phones.

So when the IT revolution rolled into India, Malappuram was well placed to jump swiftly on board and local governing bodies demanded to be provided community PCs and Internet connections. Asking the state government was a formality rather than necessity: since the mid-1990s, Kerala has devolved much of its administrative power to village-level bodies in an initiative that the then Leftist government called 'People's Planning'.

With Malappuram's eager village councils shopping around for a collective package of 6,000 PCs, the state's Information Technology Mission, an arm of the Industry Ministry charged with encouraging grassroots computerisation, quickly stepped in with a plan. A computer fair was organised, where e-centre operators could strike bargains. Over 80 per cent of the orders were won by Kerala-based small-scale companies, rather than IT multinationals.

It was a bottom-up approach to development – one where vast sums of money would not be doled out by the state buying hardware which may never reach the intended user.

"Compared to most states in India, we have an edge here," says Kerala's IT Secretary Aruna Sundararajan, the bureaucrat leading the state's computers and communication initiatives.

But some respected grassroots workers, like Prof M.K. Prasad, a well-known botanist, educationist and environmentalist, are less optimistic. "If you base a literacy programme merely on the glamour of a new technology like the Internet, you have to ask yourself, 'what next?'" says Prasad. "Unless the political parties keep their hands off, I'm afraid all this infrastructure will go to waste."

Prasad is referring to Kerala's famous 'see-saw' politics of two alliances – specifically the tendency of the electorate to kick out the ruling alliance every time, leading to some fears that every new government may undo some of the reforms of its predecessor.

Happily, Akshaya's initial success has so far remained free from partisan flak, and for very pragmatic reasons: no one wants to be seen to be opposing technology, particularly when the average person – and voter – seems to have embraced it.

But there are challenges. A Times of India editorial highlighted some downsides of Kerala's development record, including high unemployment, lack of social mobility, 'incomplete' families with men working away from home and the "emptiness of living longer without any purposeful activity".

"Malappuram can be a beacon of hope only if the newly-acquired computer literacy leads to productive opportunities that meet the people's aspirations for a better life," the paper concluded.

Kerala's e-literacy drive is not spectacular either in terms of the money involved or the targets. But in a nation short on genuine success stories, Malappuram is rapidly becoming a development signpost of sorts, highlighting the fact that at least one Indian village – that clichéd symbol of economic deprivation – has empowered itself without having to queue up for official handouts.

Anand Parthasarathy covers Information Technology for The Hindu, a national daily.  

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