From all sides…

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The first part of this article, titled White Revolution was posted last week.
The Warana Wired Village Project was launched as a pilot project by the Information Technology Task Force of the Prime Minister's Office (India) in 1998. Its aim was to demonstrate the use of IT infrastructure to boost the socio-economic development of a cluster of 70 villages around Warana river in the Kolhapur and Sangli Districts of Maharashtra. The first part of this article touched on the project's features, its aim to help rural cooperative societies, including milk and sugar units. In this second and concluding part, let's take a look at other aspects, beginning with the problem areas. The main reason for the village kiosks not being used for Internet access is poor telecommunication infrastructure. Dial-up connections frequently break down during or after connecting. Hence people cannot access information that will, they are promised, change their lives. Lack of awareness is another reason. A majority of sugarcane farmers were not aware that the computer could be used to retrieve information from diverse sources. For them, it was just a trustworthy and accurate billing machine. People are not willing to pay for Internet access unless they are convinced that they stand to gain something tangible from it. In a few kiosks, a campaign with prizes to be won was launched during the cricket worldcup but enthusiasm for the Internet waned after the scheme came to an end. The original software developed for the sugar factory had to be replaced since it was not found suitable in terms of taking into account all transactions. A similar problem was felt in the dairy software too. Some of the software had English numbers or letters that were difficult for local literates to read. Also, the salaries paid to kiosk operators seem to be too low for them to develop any enthusiasm for the job. Sustainability, and flow of benefits It would not be correct to say only the rich have benefited from the project. Benefits flow to those who are in a position to use the facilities. We frequently came across small and marginal farmers for whom the savings from not having to go to the sugar factory for information were more crucial than for others. A significant proportion of members of village dairies where computerisation was done were small/marginal farmers/widows/landless households. While landless labour did not directly benefit from the sugarcane software, their payments were also computerised centrally through their respective labour contractors who kept track of their payments. In this case, computers not only appear to be more scale-neutral, but also the savings in time and money are more crucial for the poor and the marginalised than for others. Some broad conclusions can be made regarding aspects such as sustainability of the project and its usefulness as a model/pilot project. The financial sustainability of the project in its present form is assured since it has more or less become an office software for managing sugarcane cultivation, harvesting, and processing. According to the Finance Manager of the Sugar Factory, Ram Mahuli, the expenditure on the entire project is on average only Re 1 per tonne of sugarcane processed. Thus, contrary to the views of those who argue for an individual entrepreneurship model, this seems to have financial sustainability built in. It also has the added advantage of social sustainability, since farmers have an interest in using the system from which they have something tangible to gain. Other than profits or costs saving, trust emerges as a key issue in sustaining use of the technology. Information access by itself, as a key to rural development, seems to be based on a western or developed country's model. It is a market-driven, individual decision-making model of development. But here, responding to specific questions on this issue, the farmers said information on market prices, emerging markets for crops etc, is not very useful under conditions of low production, absence of market development, and lack of infrastructure. Prices may change by the time a farmer goes to a distant market, futures markets haven't emerged, infrastructure problems (no roads or transport) may delay or prevent commodities from being taken to markets, and individual farmers may produce too low a quantity to make it economical to transport to distant markets. Hence, a cooperative model, where many of these problems are taken care of at a centralised level and an economy of scale is simulated, not only makes sense but also enables better uptake and use of technologies, including information and communication technologies. Rather than providing access to ICT and wait for people to benefit in the long run, the Warana Wired Village Project provides a model where ICTs can be used to link existing networks of people, and make more efficient an economic process that is already existing. Success or flop? It would be simplistic, as some people have done, to assume that the Warana Wired Village Project has been an unqualified success. On the other hand, it is not fair to dismiss it as a failure owing to the failure of the kiosks to function as full-fledged telecentres. In terms of the first two objectives of the project: a) utilise IT to increase the efficiency and productivity of existing cooperative societies, and b) provide greater transparency in the working of cooperative societies, the objectives have been substantially achieved in the case of sugarcane cooperatives, partially in the case of the dairy, and improved the efficiency of working of some other cooperatives by introducing computers in their working. There's also the dimension of trust. For the Indian rural poor, for long used to exploitation, and discrimination, any technology that generates transparency, and de-personalises operations, at once induces trust. As such, while each cooperative is led by a dominant caste, attempts are made to woo other members irrespective of caste, class or gender. It was very evident from our surveys and interviews that the poor, women, and landless, especially, flock to cooperative societies that promise greater profits, efficiency and transparency. ICT technologies take some time to be accepted by the people, and there are also `computer phobias' to be overcome, before people learn to access and use them. This applies, especially in rural areas, to the older generation. By introducing such technologies as part of existing business enterprises, people accept them more easily, and there are fewer barriers to technology adoption, transfer and diffusion. There seems to be a feeling that ICTs necessarily involve dynamic, real time networking, and so in the absence of suitable infrastructure, some facilities are not used. Information that is sought to be provided should be distinguished into static and dynamic information at the technology design stage. This can then be provided on compact disc to be regularly updated, so information can be accessed even when networking is not available or breaks down. Also, the involvement of NGOs or social science personnel would have substantially increased the success and positive impact of the project. The Warana model of linking telecentres to an ongoing business activity in which a majority of local people are involved seems to be a more worthy model in terms of financial sustainability, social acceptability, and enhancing people's direct benefits from it. Considering the hierarchical and divided nature of the Indian rural society, commerce can be a better social integrator than information access and education. Finally, the project had two very broad areas of intervention: Warana people and Warana complex interface, and Warana people and Government interface. The project has been able to improve the level of interface between the farmers and Warana cooperatives. However, the people-government interface has been largely a failure, because of the inability of the government to set up its databases and Web sites, and identify officials to provide the government end of the interface. This is, however, likely to change because of recent initiatives to provide government services through computers at the sub-district level. The author is with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, and can be reached at Business Line

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