January 2007

Creating grassroots-corporate linkages

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The NASSCOM Foundation (NF) organised a National Consultation “Building ICT Capacities@the Grassroots” on 23 and 24 November 2006 at New Delhi (India). The consultation focused on various aspects of ICT for development projects with a special emphasis on knowledge centres. It addressed issues such as cross-sectoral linkages, content and services, path to sustainability for community based centres and awareness on HIV/AIDS with respect to knowledge centres. The consultation saw the participation of over 70 knowledge centre coordinators, representing over 60 districts from 8 coastal states of India. NF had also attempted to bring the IT industry to the consultation with the aim to explore synergies with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects and ongoing grassroots projects. NF had arranged for simultaneous translation of all proceedings in Hindi as well since most of the proceedings were in English, for the convenience of grassroots level participants.

The consultation began with a welcome note by Saurabh Srivastava, Chairman, NF, where he reiterated NF's belief  that ICT helps under-served population access information, services and opportunities which build their capacities to realize their potential. He informed that the setting up of knowledge centres is aligned with this goal of NF. He told that the consultation was intended to discuss and deliberate on the way forward in using ICT for development and thus called upon the members to participate actively to make the consultation a true success.

Satyanarayana, Chief Executive Officer, National Institute of Smart Government (NISG), in his keynote address remarked that, “ICT has the power that needs to be transferred in a meaningful way. ICTs have made a positive impact in all spheres of development- education, health care, governance and so on.” However, he pointed out that these benefits are yet to be percolated down to the rural areas, which is a cause of grave concern. To rectify this scenario, Government of India has planned to implement, under its National e-Governance Programme (NeGP), 1 lakh Community Service Centres (CSCs), across India with the “goal to take ICT to the door-steps of the common man”.

According to  Satyanarayana, in implementing CSCs, two aspects that are very important but most difficult to implement, are content and capacity building. The content needs to be meaningful and relevant to whom it is intended. Also, awareness creation and building the capacity of people to effectively use these services is imperative. At the same time, there is a want of a yardstick to measure the social return of investments in IT for development.  Satyanarayana urged NF to take up this responsibility.

Maxine Olson, United Nations Resident coordinator, delivered the second keynote address. While congratulating NF for bringing grassroots workers at one forum for an exchange of information, she informed about UNDP which is focusing ICT to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). She gave the example of initiative called Gyan Soochana Kendra in the state of Orissa (India), running with the collaboration of UNDP and NF, aimed for quick dissemination of information among rural population.  Olson put forth that the principal of entrepreneurship is very important for the cost effective initiative of ICT for development.

Olson then launched the ICT for Development Community of Practice (CoP), as part of the UN's Solution Exchange initiative.  Satyanarayana sent the first query on “How to make people the focal point of the CSC initiative?”, to this CoP of Solution Exchange.

Maxine Olson explained that the UN's Solution Exchange initiative builds CoPs, connecting people with similar concerns and interests through electronic mail groups and face to face interactions, with the common objective of problem solving. It has around 5000 members.  Olson told that ICT for Development CoP in Disaster Management and Clean Technologies is UN's tenth such initiative. She hoped that this community will far exceed the HIV/AIDS membership community, which is the largest till now. Being a free-member community like UN's other CoPs, any one could become a member of this community by logging on to www.solutionexchange-un.net.in and filling up one's details in its online membership form.

The morning session concluded with the closing remarks by  Minja Yange, Director, UNESCO.  Yange remarked that the consultation was a common platform, where the participants should make their thoughts and concerns to the forefront and find solutions. UNESCO acts as a facilitator to this solution exchange, told  Yange.

The next session, 'PPPs in ICT: Synergies with PRIs' had leading personalities from the development organisation. The session was chaired by Vikas Goswami from Microsoft. The speakers included  Ashok Khosla of NGO TARAhaat, Magasaysay Award winner Rajinder Singh, TBS and  Basheerahmad Shadrach, IDRC.  Khosla asserted that for good governance there is a need for ICT to build an information network between and among different stakeholders- government, citizens and the industry.

Rajinder Singh, also called as the “water Gandhi” for his pioneering initiative of rain water harvesting in Rajasthan, India, put forth the approach 'development with restoration'. Taking the example of the rain water harvesting efforts by constructing check-dams, storing monsoon-water, he explained how a small change can bring about a revolution.

Basheerahmad Shadrach in his address highlighted the role played by local experiments such as GIS for locating social needs and urged that such instruments should be taken very seriously for their use in decision-making process. The stressed that the public-private-partnerships (PPP) can strengthen the village level governance structure or the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and ICTs can play a major role in this entire process by making the village as the knowledge centre. He however, pointed out to the 5 important tasks that need to be done using ICTs. These include: making the villages literate, screening villages from life-threatening diseases, monitoring public-private services, reporting the problems of the villages and making all village-folks 'knowledge officers' of their villages.

The next session saw the release of NF's book titled 'Rural Knowledge Network: Powered by Partnerships' by NF CEO Rufina Fernandes and Saurabh Srivastava, Chairman, NF. The book comprises of NF's experiences and learnings on its rural knowledge networks.

The session on Sustainability issues in the community telecentre models began with Pradeep Sharma from UNDP sharing his experiences of UNDP in implementing ICT for development projects. He opined that the non-elite use of ICT has become a reality today, and it is time that domain people (from various sectors development, health, education and so on) should ask questions and ICT experts need to provide their responses.  Sharma informed that telecentres provides a wide range of services such as phone, fax, internet, entertainment and so forth, and in this way are distinct from the cyber cafes. He mentioned that currently, there are some 35,000 telecentres in India. Regarding their sustainability, he suggested that village run entrepreneurs are not the best way of implementing telecentres since the financial and technical capacity of village dwellers is limited.

Sharma pointed out that financial sustainability is always over-emphasised in the case of telecentres. He however, cautioned that if one focuses on revenue from telecentre services, one tends to undermine the social returns (such as ration cards, online birth and death registration, details of electoral rolls, e-payments, information on HIV and other such services) of the telecentres, which is huge.  Sharma also mentioned about the other another angle of sustainability, that of capacity building of people. Content is also very important aspect, and it should be not only in local language but also should be locally relevant.

Another speaker in the sustainability session was Srinivas from the World Ahead Programme of Intel, who spoke on the Intel and VIIT partnership for telecentres. Srinivas informed that accessibility, connectivity and education are the three pillars of World Ahead Programme of which VIIT, Baramati (near Pune, India) is a key partner. The programme is self-sustaining with poor farmers willing to pay Rs. 300 per year for the telecentre services. Srinivas also informed about Intel's e-Health initiative called 'Aarogya Jaal' in Pune region, where telecentres are being used for affordable healthcare.

Regarding sustainability of such telecentres, Srinivas talked about some of the key issues and challenges. These include: need for linking local self-governing bodies to telecentres; financial sustainability remains the key concerns in implementing telecentres; in view of the diversity across regions in India, there could not be a single model that fits all situations and therefore no standard content; creating value of telecentres at the grassroots is a challenge as also the connectivity and proper power back-up. In this regard, Srinivas informed that Intel has introduced a low-cost community PC to withstand dusty conditions, high temperatures, and disruptive power supply, to suit the needs of the rural areas.

The last session of the first day of the consultation was focused on content and services. The speakers in this session included: Michel St. Lot, UNICEF;  Ramaraju, Media Lab Asia, Chetan Sharma, Datamation Foundation, Sriram Bharatram, Causeaneffect Foundation, R. Thiruchelvam, Rural-IT.com and Subhi Qureshi, ZMQ. Michel Lot stressed on people's participation in design and content. He felt that the content should be something that people can relate to their own languages. He remarked that, “India with its diversity is like 600 countries, so there is a need for localized content.” The other speakers briefed the participants about their initiatives of using ICT managed solutions for rural people.

The second day of the consultation had the session on 'Linkages between IT companies and grassroots organisations' as the first session, moderated by NF Vice-President, Rajdeep Sehrawat. The session addressed issues such as: How technology can be used to benefits the grassroots; are such efforts reaching the beneficiaries; should the CSR look like charity; among others. The speakers were a right mix of leaders and experts from industry, government and civil society.

Vikas Goswami from Microsoft talked about why ICT companies focus on ICT as an option for CSR and also summed up some of the Microsoft's ICT4D projects. According to her ICT companies get involved in such projects for CSR since it matches with their core business area and ICT is what ICT companies know best and hence can provide the best solutions in this space. ICT companies can provide software, hardware, training curriculum, connectivity, lead to creation of viable livelihood options- rural BPOs, e-Government services and creation of ICT-trained talent pool. In this regard, she mentioned the Project Jyoti, which aims to have 21,000 information-centres by the end of the project. Vijay Thadani of NIIT provided a case study of NIIT's educational centres for the poor, especially in the rural areas. The project is aimed to use ICT to reduce cost of education. These centres are based on the collaborative learning model, an unconditional access of computers in a playground setting, where children acquire functional computer literacy. The model is now being adopted by countries such as Combodia and Egypt.

Suneet Singh Tuli of Datawind, told about the palm-held computer that could be connected to mobile phone for Internet access, which his company has introduced. This is aimed at providing an affordable Internet access, especially for the poor.

S. Ramakrishnan, Director General, CDAC, pointed out the importance of partnership between government and IT companies, to reach out to the goal of 1 billion people of India realizing the usability of ICT in their everyday life.

Shankar Venkateswaran from American India Foundation, spoke of NGO's role in making content relevant to the grassroots. He also called upon NGOs to embrace technology to fulfill their goal of development till the grassroots level. The way to go about, according to him, is partnership between industry, government and NGOs.

The final session was aimed to build up HIV/AIDS awareness through knowledge centers. Tim McLellan, Country Director, Population Services International, stressed on the use of community radios to spread the awareness on HIV/AIDS. According to him, the community radio has the potential to bring about scale to important issues. Tim emphasized on the importance of communicating the right things and advocated for the targeted intervention for awareness generation about HIV/AIDS.

Sonalini Mirchandani from John Hopkins University (JHU) along with Harsha Mehta, also from JHU, demonstrated the ICT based interactive games on HIV/AIDS awareness in local languages. The games are aimed at building awareness among the youth, who are more adoptive to use the new technological tools. Targeting the youth is especially important in India, since here 33 percent new HIV infection is in the age group of 15-29 years. Even globally, young people are at the centre of HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Rufina Fernandes summed up the learnings from the consultation and thanking the speakers and participants for their active involvement. The grassroots level coordinators, who had come from the different parts of the country, raised several issues to the domain experts and other invited speakers and got responses. Some of these issues and concerns include: how to conduct ICT training at the grassroots level; how can NGOs go ahead with support from NASSCOM and other such agencies in taking benefit of country wide telecentre programme of the government of India; how to overcome the barriers to technology such as cost, access and content; and how to link ICT with the livelihood concerns of the poor masses. The participants found the consultation a very informative and fruitful endeavour   

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