What use is e-governance if citizens aren't computer literate? To make technology more relevant to rural population, Kerala's State IT Mission wants to spread computer literacy.
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Enter Malappuram. Albeit backward area in Kerala, it has one of the highest density of computer-literate citizens in any district. With nearly 350 active e-kendras, the district is proof of the success of Project Akshaya. All thanks to state's determination to spread computer literacy before ignorance becomes a block to development.
Kerala's department for IT is hard at work on information and communication technologies (ICT) initiatives, with an eye on its 65 lakh potential users. The Akshaya initiative was launched in November 2002 primarily to address the need for e-literacy. The pilot project took off in Malappuram in 2004.
And interestingly enough, since then, all the e-learning has begun with a computer game! Designed to improve mouse control and acquaint users with the hardware, the computer game makes the 15-hour training module fun and informative. "The computer classes got well accepted," says Anvar Sadath, manager (e-governance) of the Kerala State IT Mission. "We don't tell learners that they are using a mouse or a monitor. In time, they achieve a level of comfort with the computer. We then introduce them to the infinite possibilities of the Internet," smiles Sadath who is also the director for Akshaya. The pilot in Malappuram evolved so because of public-private partnerships (PPP). Each center has five computers and other infrastructure installed at a cost of up to Rs 4 lakh per center, located within a 3-km radius of every household.
The second phase of the initiative in July 2005 entailed building a wireless network to enable G2C, G2G, B2B and B2C services to complement the e-literacy plan. Around the same time, collection of utility bills as well as issue of documents related to tax, which were earlier done at FRIENDS (Fast, Reliable, Instant and Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services) centers, was integrated with Project Akshaya.
With 345 functional e-centers today, we have an average of three centers per local body.
The response of the locals in Malappuram has been very good. In fact, I started making profits two years after setting it up.
Each Akshaya e-kendra is a self sustaining unit with the computer literacy initiative as an assured source of revenue. To leverage commercial interest and attract investors, the government advertises details of the courses at the centers. The investments, as current operators point out, have not been huge, but the benefits are significant. The government initially spent up to Rs 4 crore to create awareness among entrepreneurs and interested parties. Malappuram received an investment of Rs 6 lakh, apart from the support of local bodies towards training operators. Further, the Kerala IT Mission has invested up to Rs 5 crore for software development. Each e-kendra employs up to 4 people, creating about 2,400 jobs.
Things appear organized today on the Akshaya front. But a politically-sensitive state like Kerala has the tendency to generate opposition against such ambitious e-government projects. Sadath agrees, "The challenges had more to do with changes in attitude. Initially, we faced a lot of opposition because the state is still fighting to provide clean drinking water and other basic amenities. So, there was a feeling that spending on computer education isn't justified." The Akshaya team began to tackle these apprehensions after a series of meetings with stakeholders. Sadath attributes the success in convincing the public to the local bodies.
The IT Mission team made customized ICT programs for fishermen and farmers. Another barrier to change was language, for which the State IT Mission developed multimedia course formats in Malayalam. With the first phase of Akshaya operational, the original plan did undergo changes.
Going forward, Akshaya seeks to provide an even wider umbrella of services, in the expectation that Kerala will have at least five computers per village with minimum connectivity band of 256 MB. Akshaya is ready to offer services, including an agriculture information system that provides a framework to connect farmers with public research institutions to share technical information and knowledge. Health data is also available to locals through dedicated kiosks.
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