The success story of women empowerment in Andhra Pradesh, through Self Help Groups (SHGs) and MACTCS (Mutually Aided Co-operative Thrift and Credit Societies) has been widely appreciated across India. Over 5.4 million women have organised themselves in 380 thousand groups and they have accumulated savings of the order of USD* 900 . They have also got loans and grants from State Government and National Bank for Agricultural Rural Development Bank (NABARD) to the tune of USD 62 million, thus making their bank finances at USD 172 millions ! Farmers’ Groups have also been formed in the state to facilitate implementation of Participatory projects at grass-root level. The MACTCS are organized at Mandal ( a sub-district administrative structure; a district has on an average 45-50 mandals, and each mandal has around 25-30 villages) level, with directors of village level SHGs as members. These members, then, select a president, a secretary and 13 members as board of directors. The MACTCS gives loans to the groups and the groups in turn, gives loan to the individual members. Thus, the responsibility at the MACTCS level is of the groups and within the groups is of the individual members. Each SHG has a members group of around 10-15 and at the MACTCS level all the SHGs in the Mandal federate.
These village level organisations of the farmers and farm families have grown to a level of self-sustainability where they are now demanding more and more access to Information. They are demanding Information on public sector schemes, market prices, weather, etc.
MANAGE (National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management) is a national level apex institution that supports the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India on capacity building issues, and development and testing of new models of agricultural extension. Currently, MANAGE is working out
on new innovations in technology dissemination across the country. Cyber Extension; which is using Information and Communication Technology for Agricultural Extension, is one of the important themes of MANAGE. Under this initiative MANAGE is testing ICT connectivity at state level, at district level, at block level and at village level. The Ranga Reddy Project is the village level action research project of MANAGE. To test the information needs, information supply and the efficacy of setting up “Village Information Kiosks”, MANAGE has taken up a project on “Reaching the last mile: information technology for farmers and farm families at their door step” in Ranga Reddy District of Andhra Pradesh, as it is the home district of MANAGE.
Computers were installed in 11 villages of the Ranga Reddy District in the last week of September 2000. One System with one printer, one modem, 1 KVA (Kilo Volt Ampere) UPS (uninteruppted power supply) was provided to each village. The systems were placed in the premises of MACTCS in nine locations and at Gram Panchayat (grassroot adminisrative structure) office at two locations. The expenditure for this Project has been borne by MANAGE.
The connectivity at these 11 villages has been set up at a total cost of USD 22 thousand. In Ranga Reddy District project, the eleven village-booths cater not only to the eleven villages proper, but each of these villages caters to surrounding 25-30 villages, from where these MACTCS have group members. The Village Information-Kiosks have been established in the buildings of MACTCS, which are located in the vicinity of Mandal headquarters. These places are well connected with major roads which improve road transport facilities. Thus, the total reach of the Ranga Reddy District project is around 250-300 villages.
Village information-kiosks at 11 village sites are working as rural cybercafe-cum-cyberoffices. Each village information-kiosk provides services to about 25-30 villages, i.e. around 20,000 to 30,000 population. The village information-kiosks are located on the roadside and are at central villages where people normally travel.
Village information-kiosks have telephone line connectivity to begin with. The hardware is procured and given to the Women Groups or Farmers’ Groups under agreement with the President of the respective MACTCS. The MACTCS have an accountant (basically to maintain MACTCS finances), and a manager and 10-12 organizers at the Mandal head quarters who manage the village information-kiosks. Two of the MACTCS have constructed their own buildings and have provided adequate space for “Computer Room”. They have also provided the telephone and electric connection as well as the furniture. These functionaries have been provided basic IT training by MANAGE IT Facilitator at the village information-kiosks sites. MANAGE has provided the service of one IT Facilitator at each of the 11 Village information-kiosks for a period of 6 months to ensure proper training to all the farmers and farm families (the women, boys and girls), and also to assess the information needs at the village level. The IT facilitators at these village information-kiosks had trained over 20 persons at each site on MS Office, Internet and e-mail, browsing and search engines. At some of the villages, the younger generation has already learnt MS-FrontPage and other web-designing software tools.
These high-school level students have shown very keen interest in learning new technology. The language has not, at all, been found to be a barrier. We have also taken care to provide the IT facilitator from local area, so that he/she can interact with them in local language.
In all the village information-kiosks sites, the maintenance and operation of MACTCS finances is one of the major services. Earlier, two accountants (appointed and paid by the MACTCS groups) were maintaining the accounts, but now only one of them is able to share the whole responsibility. The other person is, now, free to collect information needed by village members and host on the website of the village information-kiosks. The accounting System Software was developed and provided by MANAGE.
Most of the farmers in these villages are involved in vegetable cultivation and they supply their produce to the city market (as Ranga Reddy District is at periphery to Hyderabad – Secunderabad twin cities). The government of Andhra Pradesh has opened 8 Rythu Bazars (Farmers’ Market), where the farmers (or their family members) can bring their produce and sell the same to the consumers directly. MANAGE has arranged to host the Rythu Bazar prices on its website and all the farmers can have access these prices very early in the morning everyday. Besides the Rythu Bazar prices, the general market prices of agricultural produce, across the whole country is also accessible to these Village information kiosks, through agriwatch.com. Agriwatch.com has given free access, to their website to all the 11 villages (although the access to the pricing information to its website is otherwise priced).
The farmers are also accessing the websites of MANAGE to know about the training programmes of MANAGE and other agricultural training institutions in and around Hyderabad. They access www.rangareddydistrict.com to know about all the development schemes of the district. The District Rural Development Agency has put up all its schemes and their operational guidelines on their website. The Ranga Reddy District website covers the subjects such as:
- District Rural Development Agency
- watershed programmes
- programme for Scheduled Castes
- backward classes welfare schemes
- Department of Agriculture Schemes
- Yuva Shakti (Youth Programmes)
- programmes for handicapped persons
- Bal Karmik (programme to eradicate child labour)
- Panchayati Raj (programme on local self government)
- Apathbandu (programme for sudden death victims)
- games and sports
- programmes for minorities
- programmes for Animal Husbandry
- programmes for Scheduled Tribes
- Nehru Yuvak Kendras (Nehru Youth Centres)
Farmers at the Manage counter
These programmes have evinced keen interest from the villagers, from the point of view of programmes utility and the participation of village community in the same. Recently, when the Home Minister of the State inaugurated the second MACTCS building at Keesara Mandal, the village ladies asked a number of questions on implementation of various welfare schemes, particularly those for ladies. They also expressed their unhappiness about paucity of drinking water in their area. They also suggested the schemes under which the development works could be undertaken. Thus, the information access at the village level has improved the information about the state programmes meant to support the village community and they are able to articulate their needs and demands much more clearly to the concerned officers.
The information access at the village level is putting pressure on the middle and senior level state officers for delivering the programmes and schemes in time and to the needy. They are also under constant pressure as the transparency throughout the system has improved. The villagers know their eligibility for housing loans, crop loans and other schemes and they are able to inform the concerned officers about their demands with full supporting documents, very much in time, due to information availability through the websites.
Besides normal websites, the rural community in these villages is using multimedia CD learning packages for making pickles, learning about maternity and child health, importance of child education, issues regarding child labour, nutritional aspects and also expert comments on crops. A number of families have taken up pickle preparation and are taking their produce to the Rythu Bazars regularly.
The CD on pickle preparation (which is in local language) is a big hit in all the 11 villages.
The Telugu (local language) websites are very much popular at all these kiosks. The newspaper websites of Vaartha.com, eenadu.net and even Deccan.com (an English daily), are being accessed very regularly. Evaram.com, an international telugu website is very informative and gives information on virtually every issue right from the subjects like child health and nutrition to DVDs, films, matrimonials and medical services. These websites are creating tremendous awareness among the rural masses and also creating more hunger for education for the younger generation.
All the MACTCS have their individual email addresses and they are regularly sending mails, feedbacks to the Project Director, DRDA, the District Collector, the Ministers and also, at times, to the Chief Minister. They are also keeping MANAGE informed on technical issues and information needs. In April 2003, the result of the Board of Secondary School Education was disseminated simultaneously with the state headquarters for the first time!
Knowledge empowerment of rural women
The knowledge and skill level of MACTCS directors has improved very significantly. MANAGE had utilized their enhanced skills on internet, at recently held Krishi Expo 2003 at Delhi during March 3-9, 2003. Two of the MACTCS members (one director and one president) were part of the MANAGE team and they made an excellent presentation to the Honourable Union Minister of Agriculture. They also made presentation during the seminar on “Information Technology in Agriculture” at Pragati Maidan. It was well received and lady members from far off states of UP and Bihar discussed with them, on the use of IT for rural areas and planned exposure visits to each others place.
These presidents and director are able to prepare and make their own presentations using power point. Two of the presidentshave made presentations to the President of India, President of World Bank, former President of Israel, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, the Home Minister of Andhra Pradesh and a number of other delegates at their own site, in last three months. Their presentations are not only informative; but also up to date and have all the necessary information and explanation ready in local languages and Hindi. MANAGE is providing continuous capacity building support to all the presidents and director of MACTCSs. The presidents and director of MACTCSs from all over the state were called to MANAGE and given two day orientation on various aspects of agricultural management including vermi composting, natural resource management, nutritional aspects and also information and communication technology. The senior faculty members of the institute are exposing them to latest developments in all these areas. All these rural women are being exposed to internet, email, web browsing, tele-conferencing and video conferencing. These mandal level organisations are creating pressure on local leadership to provide information access at the village level at the earliest. The state’s response is also quite positive on this aspect and the dream of rural India being connected on World Wide Web is likely to take shape earlier than later.
With the wave of information and communication technology sweeping the state of Andhra Pradesh, it is only logical that the process of such kiosks shall be continued. The mechanism has proven itself to be sustainable, effective and useful towards orienting the rural folk, men and women alike towards the benefits of ICT in their daily lives.
It has been learnt recently that all these village information kiosks will be given franchise of e-Services Centres (under a large e-Governance Initiative of government of Andhra Pradesh ), which will enhance their earning capacity to more than three times the present capacity within one year. As time progresses, entry and maintenance costs of the system are likely to subside, resulting in more and more villages adopting the use of such centres.