November 2006

Taking ICT to Marginalized Communities

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Taking ICT to Marginalized Communities
Marginalized communities are generally excluded from development processes, more so in the case of ICT for Development. Paradoxically ICT can be of maximum benefit to such groups. Abhiyan's pioneering efforts to extend the benefits of ICT to marginalized communities is helping to bridge the divide.


Isa Ibrahim is in his mid-thirties. The sun and wind have etched his features and his gaunt weather-beaten face makes him look much older. “We have been fishermen from three generations and the sea runs in my blood,” said Ibrahim kaka (as he is locally known). He operates from Randh bandar (wharf) off the coast of Kutch. Traditionally fishing communities in Kutch migrate for eight months from their villages to the coast for fishing. They live on the beaches in temporary ramshackle huts made of jute sacks and plastic sheets. They lack even the most basic amenities like drinking water, sanitation, electricity, health and education facilities. During high tides it is impossible for the community to reach for help if there is any kind of emergency. Women and children suffer from high levels of malnutrition and the whole community is stee-ped in debt. The price that they get for their catch is Rs. 800 for 40 kgs. while the same sells for Rs. 4,000 in markets like Mumbai, Vijaywada and even as far away as Banglade-sh. The price for their catch has remained unchanged over the last ten years while prices of inputs have gone up thus pushing them further in debt. Their social and physical exclusion is complete despite the fact that the wharf is barely five kilometers from the road connecting Bhuj to Gandhidham.

Support to Marginalized Communities
The Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan (popularly known as Abhiyan) works with the fishermen and other marginalised communities like salt pan workers, 'maldharis' (cattle herders), dryland farmers, rural artisans, etc. As part of the ICTD (ICT for Development)  Project being executed by NISG Abhiyan is working to bring the benefits of ICT to such marginalised communities. Information kiosks named Mahiti Mitra (MM) have been set up at strategic locations. These kiosks are set up at public places like bus stands, markets, etc and serve a cluster of villages. Typically one kiosk serves 15-20 villages. The Mahiti Mitra kiosk closest to Randh bandar is in Bhadreshwar village. This kiosk has facilitated the fishermen to obtain necessary permits like Creek Pass, Sailing Licence, Vessel Licence, Fish Sale licence etc. Earlier the fishermen would run from pillar to post to obtain these. For example the creek pass is issued by the Customs Department; the Boat Licence is issued by the Gujarat Maritime Board while the Sailing Licence is issued by the Fisheries Department. Added to this is the fact that palms have to be greased for each licence. For this fishing season the MM kiosk at Bhadreshwar helped them get all necessary permits/licences without having to go from place to place and without paying any extra money. In addition the fishermen get weather data and other necessary information through the MM kiosks.

Abhiyan is a coalition of 28 civil society organisations who came together after the 1998 cyclone. After that came the cyclone in 1999, drought of 2000 and the devastating earthquake of 2001. Immediately after the earthquake within three days Abhiyan set up Setus (Setu means a bridge) to coordinate relief and rehabilitation work in Kutch. After the relief and rehabilitation phase was over the Setus moved into development activities. Initially 33 Setus were set up which were later consolidated into 18 Setus covering 320 revenue villages. Each Setu works with a cluster of 15-20 villages acting as a bridge between the community and the government and channels all development work in the cluster in a coordinated manner. Setus also provide technical assistance to the panchayats. For e.g. currently under the 'Hariyali' programme of the Government of Gujarat, each village is being given Rs. 30 lakh for watershed development. The panchayats in turn approached the Setus for technical assistance in planning their watershed development. Setus in collaboration with K-Link (the IT arm of Abhiyan) used GIS mapping techniques to draw up the watershed development plan. The entire watershed was mapped in terms of geological formations, dyke formations, soil structure, surface and sub-surface water flows and a watershed development plan was drawn up. This ICT intervention helped the panchayats make the best use of the funds available.

Innovative Support for Rural Artisans
To leverage the widespread social base and acceptance of the setus, the Mahiti Mitra kiosks were planned to be located in the same villages where the setus are located. Mahiti Mitra kendras have ready community acceptability as a result of the excellent work done by the Setus during the earthquake. The Dudhai Mahiti Mitra kendra is an information hub for the community. Set up in Aug 2005, the kiosk is popular not only with students who come for computer training, downloading exam results, etc. but also among the artisans. Dudhai Mahiti Mitra kendra serves the Dhamadka cluster with a population of 15,000. This is a cluster of 28 villages populated mainly by artisans specialising in block printing work. This kiosk hit upon an innovative idea to help the artisans. Earlier the artisans had to carry many samples of their designs to show the clients. This entailed a cost in terms of time and money.  Now they scan the designs on the computer, transfer it to a CD and mail it across to a prospective clie- nt. The orders along with instructions for the colour scheme are received on phone or email. This saves the artisans a lot of time and money.

The MM kiosk is the focal point for the community looking for information related to government schemes, agricultural inputs, guidance on legal issues, information on available loans, employment opportunities, etc.  The age profile of the users ranges from 11 years to 60 years with 10 percent of the users being women. The younger users demand services like computer courses, educational material, career guidance, etc. while the older generation need information on government schemes, agricultural information, etc.

Status Update
Under the Mahiti Mitra project it is planned to have 18 kiosks

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