Insight:Darjeeling Himalayan Internet railway

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The technological innovation of the 19th century ‘toy train’ provided a 21st century link between Information and Communication Technology (ICT) centres in the small hill district of Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal, in the north eastern part of India.

As per 2001 census, the total population of Darjeeling was 1,605,900 (826,334 male and 779,566 female). Immigrants from the neighbouring countries and states dominate the population of Darjeeling. The Nepalese community forms the majority of the immigrant population. Nepalese is the official and most used language in the hill parts of the Darjeeling district. It is a land of mixed cultures and religions. Residents of Darjeeling feel that the district is often overlooked by the government and by mainstream development programmes.

Many believe that we are now in an ‘information age’ and are part of a global ‘knowledge economy’. In such an age, access to ICTs to share knowledge, information and ideas seems paramount for social and economic development. Can ICTs play a key role in development and poverty reduction? Can ICTs promote the delivery of basic services, and enhance local development opportunities? Can they also make it easier to make the voices of the poor heard in the decisions that shape their lives?

This paper describes the Darjeeling Himalayan Internet Railway (DHIR) project’s development over 12 months, from March 2003. It describes some of their activities, the community reaction, the successes and the failures. It concludes with a discussion of the closure of the centres, which this paper proposes as organisational failures. The closure of the centres, once they had become established and valued by local communities is a sad reflection of the lack of organisational sustainability and the inability of those in positions of power to recognise community participation and to listen to their voices and opinions.

The initiative
DHIR was a pilot project initiated by UNESCO under its ICTs for Poverty Reduction Project in partnership with the Northern Frontier Railway. There was a tripartite agreement for implementation of the project between UNESCO, the Railways (Government) and COSMOS (a local non-government organisation). The local stakeholders/project management team (PMT) representing the local community was set up to oversee, manage and administer the project with the implementing NGO.

DHIR centres were set up in four of the world heritage stations along the heritage railway line. The four centres along the heritage railway line were Sukna, Kurseong, Ghoom and Darjeeling. The distance between the first and the last centre is about 70 Km. Sukna and Kurseong centres were established year ago. Darjeeling centre was set up in August 2003. Ghoom Centre was set up in end of November 2003. Sukna is the only centre that is situated in the foothill and rest of the centres are situated in the hills. The objective was to offer secure, central and easy computer and Internet access to people living below the poverty line in communities living close to the railway stations. The access to ICTs was also intended to bridge the information gap for these people.

DHIR centres, despite their limited resources, were able to provide many relevant local services. Each centre had two computers with dial up connection, telephone and printer/photocopy machine. The four centres in a period of 10 months were able to work with over 600 people.

DHIR is one project within a larger UNESCO project, ICTs for Poverty Reduction. Within this wider project, individual projects cover a range of poor individuals and communities with a variety of technology mixes. Each one is developing different social and technological access models that address both the root causes of poverty and key barriers to ICT usage by the poor. Working with parallel UNESCO initiatives, nine project sites have been established (in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan) in partnership with NGOs, governments, universities, private companies, media and technology groups as well as poor women, youth and their families.

At the community level
When the ICT centres were introduced the local people said, “How can ICTs help combat poverty and promote development?”

One of the community members reacted strongly:

” What will poor people do by learning computers? If we go to learn computers, who will feed our stomach? Poor people spend their life as a labourer. None of us here has time for computer. Will starve if we don’t work for a day. Anyway what is the use of learning computers? Hey Nima let’s go for work, why do we need to waste our time here? We are not going to benefit anything out of it. It’s the same old thing, they simply document, nothing will happen practically…”

Experiments using ICTs to combat poverty started with community participation. The centre site coordinators understood that community participation and involvement are central to community development. These site coordinators started to mobilize the community and at the same time worked to identify target beneficiaries. Target beneficiaries were identified in accordance with the “Below Poverty Line” classification. But defining poverty in this way was challenging as the official poverty classification and people’s declarations of their economic situation were found not to be a reliable guide. Household interviews, door-to-door visit and participant observation were some of the methods used to assess poverty.

Poverty was found to be difficult to measure and difficult to define as it could be seen as economic and social.

“Poverty is difficult to assess. Different people will have different views. But people work very hard to make their decent living. There are very few people who really associate themselves to be poor. If there are benefits that can come their way by putting themselves under “Below Poverty Line”, they will not have a second thought for that. So it all depends on the situations and circumstances. For example, people in order to take free service from ICT would always like to say that they are from poor family” said the site coordinator of Ghoom centre.

The innovations, creativeness and ideas of the community built up as the project developed. The community who had initially doubted the usefulness of ICTs later embraced them. The physical space of the ICT centres became a meeting place for children, women, youth and elders in the community. The centre started with free basic computing facilities for the target beneficiaries. The non-target beneficiaries’ who became members contributed a nominal fee. With strong participation from the community, ideas started flowing about how the centres could be most effective and the kinds of services that should be developed. With this strong participation from the community the centres were able to start needs assessment study of the community. The community became the source of developing local content. The local content further drew the attention of the community.

People started looking towards the centres as information hub where ideas and knowledge were exchanged and valued the centres as places where information could be accessed and exchanged through numerous channels- face to face communication, print media (local news dailies, employment news, magazines, etc), computers, telephones, physical display boards for the public notices and eNRICH (a local web portal and database developed by the National Informatics Centre of the Department of Information Technology, Government of India). Information was sourced from the Internet and locally. In this way locally relevant information like health care, educational facilities, phone numbers of all the doctors, schools, colleges, police stations, tourist info, timings of the trains, news piece from users, and job application forms became available within the centres.

This information was available through eNRICH as well as on the public display boards. eNRICH was useful for the community as they could share and voice their opinion, post jokes and local messages, for example, local business advertisements and announcements of the events such as local football matches. The centre became a distribution platform for the community and thus empowering in a range of ways. For the beginner, eNRICH became a gateway to the Internet. eNRICH was commissioned by UNESCO and used in each of its ICTs for Poverty Reduction projects. In Darjeeling, as elsewhere, eNRICH was found to have limitations and it often frustrated the users, but it helped us to think carefully about knowledge management and ways of sharing appropriate information. eNRICH is being further developed to iron out the glitches and explore the use of open source. Even with its limitations, eNRICH and other knowledge sharing activities were valued by users and provided a range of useful information.

Another initiative developed by the site coordinators and the users was the Basic English speaking classes. The idea was to empower people in accessing the Internet for emailing and searching the relevant sites, as English is a dominant language on the Internet.

A free medical camp in partnership with the local clinic was organised by one of the centres for blood check ups. The first beneficiary in this camp was the local Panchayat Pradhan (Chief elected representative of the village local governance body). Over 60 people turned up for a free check up. This activity, along with others, set a good example of centres working in partnership with other local organisations and service providers.

On World AIDS Day, Kurseong centre organised a rally in partnership with local communities, NGOs and a local governing body to bring awareness of AIDS and HIV+ amongst the local community. Over 200 local people attended the rally. There was a social gathering in front of the railway station and experts like doctors, social and health workers made people aware of this threatening and deadly disease. Placards and notices were put up around the town. Many people were made conscious and aware of the disease. No such event had taken place in the past. It was the first of its kind that happened in the small town of Kurseong. Local media channels came forward for the cause and broadcasted the event the same evening. The idea of organizing such an event came from members of the ICT centre, even though initially they doubted whether they could take up such a big challenge.

Social network
Social networking in the community improved as the project developed with initiative from the users. The impact of the ICT centres became stronger as users started disseminating information at the community level. The services of the centres reached many local people in this way. For example, the centre became the easiest access point for services like application forms for jobs, especially for recent graduates. The application forms are not only easily available (people no longer have to go to Darjeeling town for the application forms) but the centres also helped applicants to fill in the forms. The services of the centre meant that people were able to apply for government jobs, which are regarded as the most respectful and are the first choice of the people living in the hills.

The activities in some centres attracted non-users from the community. The centres, which consist of spaces of about 12 ft by 12 ft, were often full and unable to accommodate all the participants. The centre in Ghoom often used to have children playing on the platform of the railway stations. The centre started video and computer games once a week for these enthusiastic children. The ICT facilities became embedded into family life as the parents of these children encouraged their children to become members of the centre. The children organised a one act play with their own script during the winter festive season. “Computer” was the most popular word amongst the children during their winter break.

Some centres organised a picnic to bring the community together. Though this kind of activity can simply be considered for fun and entertaining but it also served to bring the community closer to participate in ICTs. Awareness programmes in partnership with government organisations like the Central Board of Workers Education (they support rural and urban development) were perhaps the highlight of the initiatives of the centres. The centres, with the support of these organisations often organised awareness programmes in rural and urban areas. The programmes were attended by experts from different areas like banking, health, social workers, teachers and self-help group members. The ICT centres helped in the formation of self-help groups amongst local youth.

The community participated and put traditional ideas into practice through the intervention of ICTs and the centres. The technology introduced has created many indirect impacts in the life of the local people. The experience from DHIR project shows that ICTs can be an agent of social change.

It is necessary for community-based projects like DHIR to become sustainable. That is to say, the four centres have to survive after initial support from the donor organisations. When the project started it was clear that all the centres would have to work towards sustaining themselves after a year. Some centres started late, such as the Ghoom centre and therefore had to come up with ideas to sustain itself after just four months of operation.

Sustainability from the wider perspective goes beyond financial autonomy, which is only one of many elements. Sustainability depends on social, financial and institutional viability. Let’s look at these three components in detail.

Social sustainability
Social sustainability is a crucial part of sustainability in that it indicates the social relevance of the project. If social sustainability can be achieved then the project is playing an appropriate role in the community. It is therefore an initial process when planning for sustainability in the centres. The importance of community participation and involvement is central in sustaining the centre. The process of planning and implementation starts at the community level. The initiative of the community and the centre in charge can lead to “Community Ownership”. Not all the centres achieved the same degree of community participation but across the centres it was clear that with high degrees of community participation the centres could understand the community needs and were able to work more effectively to provide and circulate locally relevant and locally sourced information.

The increasing inflow of users in centres was an indicator of the ownership process. The facilities and the growing awareness of the usefulness of ICTs generated interest amongst local communities. The initiative of users and site coordinators developed into strong social networks at the community level. People and organisations started to work together to support one another

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