//Kerala bridges digital divide

Kerala bridges digital divide

Sangeetha Nair, The Statesman , Dec 3, 2006

MALAPPURAM (Kerala), Dec. 2: Akshaya, India’s first district-wide e-literacy campaign aimed at providing basic computer education to 5.9 lakh people, is probably the biggest success story of decentralised planning in Kerala. The project was conceptualised in 2002 when officials of the Malappuram district panchayat approached the Kerala State IT Mission (KSITM) with Rs 60 lakh in their pockets and a request to bridge the digital divide.

The response from the state government was positive. However, leasing 7,000 computers for the purpose, as initially requested by the panchayat did not appear to be a feasible long-term option. The state government decided to adopt an entrepreneurial approach instead and offer the unemployed youth of the district an opportunity to build a business.
Banks agreed to loan the Rs 2 lakh needed to set up an Akshaya e-Kendra without surety. This resulted in the opening of 630 centres across the district. For every citizen trained, the Panchayat released Rs 120 to the Akshaya centre. This ensured a steady flow of income for the entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, 199 centres shut shop within the very first year due to heavy financial losses. Many of the entrepreneurs complained that the banks took long to process loans and thousands of rupees were spent on handouts and books supplied by the Akshaya project authorities that could not be sold. The worst hit centres complained that people just refused to travel two kilometres to learn how to operate a computer.

He took a chance

When Mr KT Moideen Kutty decided to quit his teaching career to sign up as an Akshaya entrepreneur, little did he know that his decision would one day put his village in Malappuram, Kerala, on the world map as the first to achieve e-literacy in India.

It has been two years since Mr Kutty’s Akshaya e-Kendra, a rented room equipped with five computers, in Chamaravattom village, achieved the task of educating at least one member from 1,1819 households that lie within a two-kilometer radius of his centre. “It was no easy task. Unlike with most ventures where problems can be solved with business acumen, running an e-learning centre meant that I had to convince people who were 60-plus years of age that operating a computer would make their life simpler,” he said.

It was easy for the entrepreneur to find keen youngsters but many of the households with elderly members would promise to come by the centre and never show up. “There are 30 lakh families in the district with at least one member living abroad. But I had to spend hours trying to convince them that it is cheaper to use Internet telephony to make long distance calls to their children abroad.” When he ran out of resources, he relied on students from Calicut University who had to undergo compulsory social work as part of their curriculum to market the idea. “People started showing interest in e-learning but the centres were difficult to access during the monsoons, therefore I set up sub-centres once the students were through with 65 per cent of the course material,” he said.

Mr Kutty’s dedication has paid off but he is yet to receive any official recognition from the state or the Central government. “It does make me sad but I am hopeful that someone from the KSITM would recognise my efforts one day.”

A new age society

What started as an e-learning centre with a dial-up connection, today facilitates e-governance and is one of the world’s largest wireless Internet Protocol-based networks covering a range of 3,550 square km and connecting 47 police stations, 37 government taluk offices. The entrepreneurs have initiated various add-ons to enhance the functionality of the centres, such as an e-pay provision. “The e-pay facility has been extended to 163 centres out of the 319 centres, to help people pay phone, electricity and water bills. The total amount collected via e-pay from Malappuram district is Rs 82,237,520,” said Mr M Salim, district secretary, Akshaya.

The entrepreneurs deposit an amount at the State Bank of Travancore and when a bill is presented at the Akshaya centre, the entrepreneur releases the specified amount from his account, pocketing the money paid to him by the user. The service charge for a transaction is Rs 5.

The avenues opening up for Akshaya entrepreneurs seem endless.The Akshaya centres are now gearing up to digitalise rural land records and according to Mr Salim it would be completed by March 2007.The Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana uses the wi-fi Akshaya kiosks as its nodal office for online registration. There are talks of introducing an online fee payment facility for students of Calicut University. And more recently, they launched they an e-krishi website implemented by KSITM and Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Kerala in collaboration with Department of Agriculture. “It’s an UNDP sponsored project aimed at helping farmers in Malappuram. Around 7000 farmers have registered their names. The plan is to help them sell their produce online. The KSITM have entered into an agreement with Multi-Commodity Exchange of India to provide commodity price information for the e-Krishi website,” said Mr Salim.
With so much going, it is easy to lose focus that Akshaya was started to aid e-learning. The task is on; its latest project is a 40-hour session to educate all SC girls (between classes 8-12) free of cost.