With 22 telephone lines and 3 computers per 1,000 people, India has a very poor basic information and communication infrastructure. Even though this infrastructure is highly concentrated in urban areas, Internet access via the telephone is still difficult and expensive in urban areas. In rural India, more than half of India’s villages lack telephone connectivity, let alone Internet access.
The lack of information and communication infrastructure results in people having to waste time and money chasing information and government officials. Lack of clarity in processes, and corruption and mismanagement in systems and operations, is rampant. The inaccessibility of information affects the rural poor more than other sectors of the community. Similarly, lack of market information (on commodity prices, various input suppliers, etc.) leads to loss of income and exploitation of rural entrepreneurs by middlemen. Such exploitation and losses further marginalize small and marginal farmers and village artisans. The implications of this scenario on the rural people(with differential impacts on the poor and other vulnerable groups)are three-fold:
- Loss of income
- Loss of time
- Loss of opportunity
In this context, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can play a significant role in making information available at a reasonable cost. ICTs promise to provide innovative solutions to the problems of poverty and inequality by accelerating development and introducing transparency into systems and operations.
Drishtee is a platform for rural networking and marketing services for enabling e-governance, education, and health services. It runs with state-of-the-art software that facilitates communication and information interchange within a localized intranet between villages and a district center. This communication backbone, with kiosk sites in village centers, has been supplemented with a string of services, which can be difficult to access in rural areas. Services include, for example, Applications, Land Records, Mailing, a Virtual Bidding Marketplace, Matrimonial, Online Grievance Redressal, and Market Information Systems. Users pay a fee for the services.
In the villages, a local villager facilitates the services provided through Drishtee. He or she becomes a kiosk owner and takes it up as a self employment opportunity, mostly financed by some of the government sponsored schemes. The kiosk owner is also trained to handle Drishtee services while catering to his or her customers. Local rural youth will assist entrepreneurs in running the kiosks on commercial lines, without salaries or stipends. That employment thus leads to a new IT-literate generation in the country (45,000 kiosk owners by 2003), who can repay their meager loans (not more than 75,000 Rupees) with their earnings (ranging from reasonable to high) and become role models for the younger generation.
Drishtee’s content expands along with the network’s growth. We started with the Gyandoot kiosk in Dhar (a Stockholm Challenge Award Winner) and then extended to Sirsa, Panipat, Bhiwani, and Fatehabad in Haryana; Jallandhar in Punjab; Moradabad and Sultanpur in UP; Patna in Bihar; Jaipur in Rajasthan; and Bhawanipatna in Orissa. With every villager as our partner, in concept, “we are all set to become the world’s largest intranet” (according to Microsoft in its journal dated 12 September, 2000).
Since the start of the network in January 1, 2000, we have seen several examples of public benefit. For example:
- Farmers in the Bagadi village were getting a rate of 300 rupees per quintal from local traders for their potato crops. After researching the prevailing market rates from the information kiosk, the farmers could not believe that the current rate in Indore Auction Center was 400 rupees per quintal. Consequently, they took their potato produce to Indore Auction Center.
- In the interior remote hamlets of the Anandkhedi and Umrela villages, the local guruji/teachers of Education Guarantee Scheme centers had not received their honoraria for the period between March 1999 and July 1999. Upon receipt of this complaint through the information kiosk, the problem came into notice and was promptly rectified.
- Shankarlal, son of Ambaram Malviya, resident of the Deharisarai village, applied for a caste certificate. The enclosures he submitted along with the certificate at the information kiosk were sufficient in themselves. As a result, immediately upon receipt of his e-mail, his caste certificate was prepared, and an intimation of the preparation of the caste certificate was sent back promptly through e-mail.
- At the Gunawad village, private school operators approached the kiosk owner for training school children on computers and also requested desktop composing of papers and report cards. The kiosk owner in Bagadi village started training six rural youths to assist the school operators.
- The efficiency level in the functioning of the government departments has increased many-fold, resulting in better and more prompt services to the rural masses. Self-Help Groups in the rural areas are getting more organized and empowered due to transparency brought about in government services and the rural economy. The lower government functionaries have become computer-savvy. (This is apparent from the increased number of applications for computer loans from the Employees Provident Fund and the increased number of officials who have joined computer training classes.)
- Computer literacy has increased in the rural areas. (This is evident from the fact that around 120 rural youth are getting trained in the kiosks in the remote areas.) The project has generated national debates on the new models of e-governance.
- Drishtee has created a model of an organization that has tremendous potential to improve the lives of millions of people in rural India,” says Nirvikar Singh, professor of Economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Its software allows individuals to connect to government services in a way that reduces the individuals’ cost by a factor of 10, enabling them in many cases to effectively access government services for the first time.
I have seen the software in action, sitting in a village information kiosk with a Drishtee franchisee, who was clearly empowered to do something that might otherwise have been unimaginable. As we left, a young village girl came for some computer training, taking advantage of the machine in the kiosk when it was not being used for e-governance services. This kind of thing has been done before and written about before. What is noteworthy about Drishtee is the sustainability of its organizational model, and its potential to be rapidly implemented all over India.
Originally published on January 1, 2003