The Information Village Experiment in Pondicherry*
V Balaji, K G Rajamohan, R Rajasekara
Pandy, S Senthilkumaran
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF)
3rd Cross Road, Taramani Institutional Area
Taramani, Chennai 6000 113
Describes the programme launched in January 1998 in the Pondicherry region to determine the manner in which information and communication technologies make an impact on rural livelihood. Gives an overview of the infrastructure supporting this programme. Presents the report of a survey carries out during April-June 1998 covering 10% of the resident families inhabitating the area.
The survey reveals that the predominant sources of information of the villagers are the petty shopkeeper, the market, and the agri-input supplier. The channels of development information available through the agricultural officers and block development officers are not very effective. Thus, the information shops at the villages are to complement the existing local channels of information to gain credibility. Provides male-female composition of the volunteers and the training courses they have undergone to make the programme operational. Content creation to suit local needs is found to be the key element in the project.
The survey reveals that women in rural families are also interested in obtaining health-related information, particularly concerning the disorders in the reproductive tract and the child health. They also require information on opportunities that may augment income.
There is near consensus that the village centres should provide all information on public schemes on rural welfare and the government's list of eligible families living below the poverty line. A number of databases have also been created to provide required information to the villagers on about 130 schemes operational in the region, 22,000 families of three villages, grain prices, prices of quality seed and fertilisers, general and crop insurance schemes, pest management in rice and sugarcane crops, hospitals and medical practitioners of the region , and bus and train time table.
Three databases are also available in Tamil. Updation of these databases are done regularly. Interactive CD-ROMs for health-related issues covering general, dental and rural hygiene, and eye have been developed. Information supply has been dovetailed according to the requirements of the villagers. For example, Veerapattinam being fishermen's village, information supply is directed to the safety of fishermen at sea, occurrence of shoal near the sea shore, etc. Information on important public events and government announcements of significance to rural families; cricket; 10th and 12th standard examination results are also provided. Voice telephony is still an important medium of information transaction in the region. An analysis of users' registers maintained in the village knowledge centres reveals that female users form 17.24% and those figuring below the poverty line constitute 16%. The number of one-time users as well as those below 14 years of age constitute 29.09% and 24.16% respectively. The number of dalit and illiterate users is small, whereas the number of assetless families using the service is pretty high.
The experiment has drawn world attention and indicates that it is possible to develop a technology-based information system for the benefit of rural families.
KEYWORDS: Knowledge system; Information village; MSSRF; Pondicherry; India
It is increasingly realised that the future of food security in the developing world, especially in South Asia, is dependent less on resource-intensive agriculture, and more on knowledge-intensity . In the coming years, agriculture will have to be developed as an effective instrument for generating more income, creating more jobs and producing more food, and such a paradigm of sustainable agriculture will be both knowledge- and skill-intensive. The development of precision farming in the countries of the North  emphasizes knowledge intensity without stressing the need to create more jobs. The new agricultural paradigm in India will have to be recast to take advantage of knowledge availability to achieve the triple goals of increased income, jobs and food.
The emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) have a significant role to play in evolving such a paradigm, as was evident in an interdisciplinary dialogue on Information Technology: Reaching the Unreached held in 1992 . The key step in the use of ICTs in sustainable agricultural and rural development is the value addition to generic information to render it locale-specific. It is on the latter that the rural families, particularly the marginal farmers and the assetless, can act on to improve productivity of labour and input. A programme launched in January 1998 in the Pondicherry region to determine the manner in which ICTs make an impact on rural livelihoods, is being described in the following sections.
INFORMATION VILLAGE EXPERIMENT
The project has an operational centre meant for value addition to generic data at Villianur, the headquarter of the Villianur Commune. This is where the `last-mile post' of development administration , such as the Block Development Office (BDO) is located. The telephone facility is available here , including access to Internet through VSNL, NIC and a private ISP. The value addition centre at Villianur has access to the Internet through two dial-up accounts. This also functions as the hub of a local area network for data and voice transmission covering the project villages. A PBX, similar to the ones used in offices for providing intercom facility, is the key instrument in this hub. Every location in the network, including the office at Villianur, is a node in this intercom network which functions with VHF radio (full duplex) rather than copper wire as the medium for signal transmission. With the help of regular modems, PCs can be connected to this network. (Figure 1)
Figure 1 - Information Linkages in Rural Systems
In order to arrive at a reasonably clear picture of the state of existing communication habits and channels in the rural areas, especially among the poorer households, a detailed survey covering 10% of the resident families in the proposed area of coverage has been carried out in April-June 1998. From an analysis of the available data, certain trends emerge.
The predominant sources of information are the petty local shopkeeper, the market place, and the agri-input supplier. A considerable amount of information transaction takes place between the rural poor households and this also acts as a primary source of information. In other words, the information channels start and terminate within the supra-locality.
The reach of electronic media, especially television is very high when one considers the prevalence of poverty in the villages surveyed (Table 1).
Table 1 - Reach of Cable Television in the Rural Areas of Pondicherry
There is widespread perception that channels of development information available to the public, such as the Agricultural Officer (AO), or the BDO, are not very effective, because the information flow through these channels does not correspond to material/benefit flow which should be the result.
Thus, the information shops at the villages need to complement the existing local channels of information to gain credibility, and then go beyond to provide value-added information. This is necessary to ensure that the system is demand-driven.
As of now, village knowledge centres (earlier known as `information shops') have been set up in three places other than Villianur. They are at Kizhur (21 km west of Pondicherry), Embalam (19 km southwest of Pondicherry), and Veerampattinam (13 km south of Pondicherry). Prior to setting up these village knowledge centres, participatory rural appraisal was carried out in fourteen hamlets. In each case, the community has identified and provided an accessible place and two to four volunteers. The community also agreed to provide quality rent-free space and to compensate for the volunteers wherever needed. In turn, the project provided all the needed equipment, training and data. An MoU has been signed to this effect and is renewed every quarter. Violation of MoU led to the closure of two village centres other than the ones listed above. A gender expert was invited to participate in the inception stages to ensure that gender sensitivity was built into all the operations. All the identified volunteers and the project staff were also given orientation to the importance of incorporating gender sensitivity through a workshop. The gender composition of the volunteers is as follows: Kizhur _ 1M; Embalam _ 4F (all); and Veerampattinam _ 2F:1M.
In the first phase, the volunteers have been trained in all the basic operations of using a PC running on MS Windows 95. They are also familiar with dispatch and receipt of messages using MS Exchange which was found to be optimal protocol for use on the analog wireless network. In addition, they have been trained in composing documents on MS Word 97 using I-LEAP Tamil fonts and the keyboard layout developed by C-DAC, Pune. Training in elementary maintenance, such as defragmentation of hard disk, has also been provided. It was found that a period of two weeks is necessary to train a volunteer in all these operations, given that he/she has not seen a PC before and that the level of education is limited to 10 years in school. A small number of volunteers, on their own have picked up the use of HTML, the techniques of recording voice in *.WAV format and the compression of *.WAV files using REALAUDIO for ease of transmission of voice as an e-mail attachment. The trainers were the project staff with occasional help provided by the staff of the Informatics Centre. (Table 2)
Table 2 - Training of Volunteers
Content creation to suit local needs is the key element in this project. Prior to commencing the content creation activity, extensive consultations were held with the participating village communities in small groups. It emerged that provision of dynamic information on prices and availability of inputs for cultivation _seeds, fertilizer or pesticides _ was important to all farmers, especially the medium and small farmers. Knowledge of sale prices of grain in various markets in and around Pondicherry is critical to farmers during the harvesting season. The agricultural labourers, especially women whose wages are partly derived from grains become also anxious to know the sale prices. The surveys revealed that women in rural families are also interested in obtaining health-related information, particularly concerning the disorders in the reproductive tract and the child health. The village centres, according to them, should provide such information in a substantial way. They also emphasize the need for information on opportunities that may augment income, such as training in new skills (e.g. manufacture of incense sticks). There is near consensus that the village centres should provide all information on public schemes on rural welfare and the government's list of eligible families living below the poverty line.
The value addition centre in Villianur has created a number of databases to fulfill at least some of these requirements. These are:
Entitlements to rural families: This database provides details of about 130 schemes operational in Pondicherry union territory (UT) region during the current Five Year Plan (up to 2002).
Families below poverty line: The details of about 22,000 families of Ariankuppam, Villianur and Nettapakkam have been provided in this database culling data from UT administration. The data is updated till April 1999.
Grain prices in Pondicherry region
Input prices (quality seeds/fertilisers) in Pondicherry region
Directory of general and crop insurance schemes
Integrated pest management in rice crop
Pest management in sugarcane crop
Directory of hospitals and medical practitioners in Pondicherry _ grouped according to specialisation such as orthopedics, pediatrics, etc.
Bus and train time tables covering Pondicherry region and two nearby towns.
Three databases in Tamil are also available in the village centres. Updates are transferred using the wireless network. In addition, interactive CD-ROMs for health-related issues covering general, dental and rural hygiene, and eye have been developed, where frequently asked questions are posed to medical practitioners, whose replies are videographed and converted to REALVIDEO format for retrieval using a PC.
Veerapattinam is a coastal village with 98% of the families are involved in fishing. Hence, the information requirements of this village are different and more focussed on the safety of fisherman while at sea; fish/shoal occurrence near shore; and the techniques on post-harvest processing. The village also receives information on wave heights in the next 24 hours downloaded from a US Navy Web site (Fig. 2).
Figure 2 - Wave Model
In addition to such defined content, daily transactions take place covering important public events and significant government announcements related to rural families. Information on cricket is highly sought after, and is provided through well-known Web sites. The results of 10th and 12th standard examinations are also provided during the month of June 1999. The results and mark sheets posted on the Web were made available to a total of 931 students resident in and near the project site, cutting short the waiting time by about a week.
Voice telephony records just above 30% of the use indicating that this mode is still an important medium of information transaction in rural areas.
An analysis of users' registers maintained in the village knowledge centres (Table 3) reveals that female users form 17.24%. The proportion of users figuring below the poverty line is 16% (about 21% of rural families are below the poverty line). The number of one-time users as well as those below 14 years of age are significant and they constitute 29.09% and 24.16% respectively. The number of dalit and illiterate users is small, whereas the number of assetless families using the service is pretty high.
Table 3 - Analysis of Users' Registers according to Categories of Users
(1 January 1999 - 31 January 1999)
Table 4 shows that about 33% users sought information on government welfare schemes, followed by 20.15% users who sought information on education. The percentage of users seeking information on agriculture and fisheries, health, employment are respectively 13.6%, 9.57% and 2.58% .
Table 4 - Analysis of Users' Registers according to Information Requirements
MSSRF has seven years of experience in operating Informatics Centre with a solar photovoltaic system as the primary source of power. Based on this experience, the village information centres have also been provided with solar-mains hybrid system as the primary source of power. This definitely adds a new dimension to the experiment. During June-October 1999, the average breakdown of main power supply has been on average 98 minutes per day which did not affect the village information centres at all.
The experiment has drawn attention of the world as a whole. Prof Bruce Alberts spoke on this project in the 136th Presidential Address at the US National Academy of Sciences delivered in April 1999. It has also been reported in Communications of the ACM in November 1998; Internet in January 1999; Science in June 1999. The Human Development Report 1999 of UNDP has cited this as an example of a creative project in addressing the global information divide.
The evaluation of the impact of ICTs on communities is still an open issue in terms of methodologies . Universally accepted norms / methods for the quantification of impact of ICT are yet to be defined . Within this context, activities on this project now focus on impact assessment using several techniques and parameters, including chronicling of stories. It is, however, clear that an information network will be meaningful in a rural context only if there is significant local content. Such a task is expensive in terms of the talent that is not readily available and that needs to be built up. This task is further complicated by the fact that very little content is available in local languages on the Internet. The access to what little is available is hampered due to lack of standardisation of fonts, which frequently requires high bandwidth for downloading. The capacity to absorb information derived from networks in reasonably good in rural setting, and some amount of intermediation between the network and the information seeker at the moment seems indispensable. Thus, the village information centre volunteers not only need to undergo training in the use of PCs and networks, but also need to be trained in smoothening the flow of information to the information seeker.
The social and gender barriers to information access in a rural setup are not insignificant, and special efforts are needed to downsize them. These limitations notwithstanding, it is possible to develop a technology-based information system for rural families to connect them to the external world wherefrom they can derive the desired benefit.
This project is financially supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada.
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* Revised version of the paper presented at the EDIT Workshop held at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore in October 1999.
Information Today & Tomorrow, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2000, p.3-p.7 & p.10