A Client-Centered Networking Project in Rural India

 

Larry Press

OnTheInternet, pp 36-38, Vol. 5, No. 2, January/February, 1999.

 

With over 70%[1] of the population in rural areas, India's network must reach the villages if it is to make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life.  If it serves only the cities, it will increase the pressure for urban migration, a problematical worldwide trend. 

 

This issue is being addressed by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).  MSSRF, http://www.mssrf.org/index.htm.  MSSRF was established in July 1988 with a commitment to harnessing science and technology for environmentally sustainable and socially equitable development.  The founder,  M. S. Swaminathan, is UNESCO Professor of Ecotechnology at the Centre for Research on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, and the U. S. consulate official who introduced us, described Dr. Swaminathan as "one of the greatest men in India." 

 

Dr. Swaminathan feels information technology can bring improved production and marketing of agricultural products, finished goods, and medicinal plants, education, and entertainment to rural India.  He and his colleague Dr. V. Balaji are testing this hypothesis in a pilot project which will assess the impact of information technology in villages of the Union Territory of Pondicherry about 150 kilometers south of Madras.[2] 

 

Information systems literature is replete with examples of failed efforts in which technology was imposed without involving and knowing the problems of the clients. In the corporation or the village, successful information systems projects begin with the client.  The first step in this project was an in-depth survey and description of biophysical resources, resource use and management systems, demographics, institutions and techno-infrastructure, constraints and problems, farming sustainability, opportunities and interventions, and communication infrastructure. 

 

A partial summary of the communication-infrastructure portion of the survey is shown in Table 1.  Dr. Balaji said he felt the Indian government had "washed their hands of rural telecommunication," and the low telephone density (.0089 phones per household) in the region tends to support that view.  On the other hand, they found .29 television sets per household, and 38% of them are connected to cable systems (see Figure 1).  Cable costs from 60-300 Rupees (approximately $1.50-7.50) per month, depending upon the service.  Today cable operators broadcast downlinked and taped entertainment, including movies from the prolific Indian film industry, but they may evolve into last-mile network links.  Dr. Balaji feels film is driving cable in India, and estimates that 1/3 of the installations are in rural areas.

 

Since agriculture is the major industry in the villages, they also researched communication patterns, focusing on the farmer.  They found that the most important information source for farmers was other farmers.  The rest of their professional information was from the Pondicherry region.  The Pondicherry market and traders and agricultural-input suppliers are important sources of information, and the local government and university agriculture offices and bank credit office less important.  The local suppliers and government and university offices receive information from their parent organizations.  This reliance on local information is particularly common among small farmers, and there is general apathy towards government extension services because of lack of timeliness and therefore relevance.  They conclude that information needs to be need-based, local and specific rather than generic, timely, relevant and accessible.

 

Armed with this background information, they are establishing Information Shops in six villages.  The Information Shops will both collect and disseminate information.  For example, they will collect demographic and soil information and distribute information on health, relief agencies, availability and prices of agricultural inputs, transportation availability and schedules, crop costs, risks and returns, market prices, local micro-meteorology, pest surveillance, ground water, and government welfare and infrastructure entitlements.  The village information shops will be operated by individuals on a semi-voluntary basis.  They will need 10 years of schooling, and women, people between 20 and 25 years old, and members of landless families will be given preference in hiring.

 

The Information Shops will in turn be served by two Value-Adding Centres located in towns with major rural markets and road junctions.  The Centres will have three staff members and act as a bridge between the outside world and the Information Shops, relaying information and maintaining many databases.  They will provide multimedia educational titles, train Information Shop staff, and provide training on the use of computers and the Internet in general.

 

The Value-Adding Centres will initially have dial-up connections to the Internet, but will move to ground-station access.  Voice and data communication between them and the Information Shops will be via wireless links from Motorola, and the computers will be solar powered using systems from Central Electronics Ltd., an Indian public-sector enterprise. 

 

The first three Information Shops are opening now, and the key research output will be an assessment of the impact of the project on the people in the villages.  The project and evaluation will be complete by the end of 1999, at which time they hope the Shops and Centres will become self sustaining.

 


 

 

 

 

 

Telephones

TV Sets

 

Village

House-

holds

Poverty

Hholds.

Popula-

tion

Public

Private

Total

Cable

Post Office

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sorapet

626

264

3,052

1

3

300

150

y

Vampupet

160

118

786

1*

0

100

10

n

Sellipet

424

313

1,899

2

0

110

50

y

Thondamanatham

472

51

2,394

1

8

300

45

y

Ramanathapuram

356

50

1,613

1

3

50

59

n

Pillayarkuppam

421

54

2058

1

1

75

50

y

Olavaikal

106

12

733

1

0

14

0

n

Oussudu

444

5

2,227

1*

0

25

0

n

Uruvaiyaru

531

45

2,513

1*

4

50

n. a.

n

Sathamangalam

433

268

2,095

1

4

75

30

y

Kizhur

400

120

2,095

1*

4

30

30

y

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Totals

4,373

1,300

21,465

12

27

1,129

424

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* = not working

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

poverty = annual household income < 12,000 Rupees (=~ $300)

Source: M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, June, 1998.

 

Table 1:  Current telecommunication infrastructure in surveyed Pondicherry villages.

 

 

 

Figure 1 -- photo of hut with antenna. 

 

 

Caption:  Satellite links are bringing cable TV to Indian villages and may be the beginning of village-area networks.

 

 



[1] India was 73% urban in 1995, World Bank, World Development Report, 1997, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1997.

[2] The project is supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre, http://www.idrc.ca/.