The lack of digital connectivity is impeding development in one of India’s richest regions culturally and ecologically- the North-East. The government has put in place some policies and programmes to bolster the use of information and communication technology (ICT) here, but their poor execution means a colossal loss of opportunity for both the region and the nation.
The North-East has more than 200 tribes and sub-tribes that have not allowed privatization and globalization to impoverish them culturally. The Assamese Bihu festival and Nagaland’s Hornbill festival are celebrated with as much gaiety as ever, while unique dance forms continue to flourish in Mizoram and Manipur.
The region is one of the world’s six ecological hot spots, producing red chilli, oranges, ginger, pineapples, orchids, bamboo, cane, jute and betel nut, apart from unique varieties of rice and cereals. In addition, the muga silk and artificial jewellery of Assam, the shawls of Nagaland, the bamboo crafts of Tripura and metal crafts from around the region are world famous.
The North-East is landlocked and poorly connected with the outside world. ICT can play a crucial role in overcoming its geographical exclusion and help develop and market its arts and crafts and horticultural products; but it is not doing so. A recent eMSME seminar in Guwahati, Assam, which aimed at building Internet awareness among local micro, small and medium enterprises, concluded that a rich pool of entrepreneurs and their creative products are deprived of using the Web to promote trade and commerce.
Another four-day wireless training programme at Tura, Meghalaya, showed that the deployment and use of the Internet in the hilly terrains of the North-East is not an easy task and requires thorough planning. Both events, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation and its partners, witnessed stakeholders raising issues that are difficult to ignore any longer.
The government has adopted some ICT-related policies and programmes. The North-East-specific community information centre scheme was started in 2002 with much fanfare. An amount of Rs 220 crore has since been made to connect the region’s 487 development blocks with various ICT mediums, including very small aperture terminal connectivity to empower local communities. But its implementation is as poor as that of the nationwide common service centre scheme, which is facing problems all over the country.
The North-East vision document 2020 talks of the region’s holistic development, but falls short of envisioning how to utilize ICT to improve governance. The North-East industrial and investment policy of 2007 talks of promoting industrial development through a number of incentives and grants, but doest not talk about how information technology (IT) and IT-enabled services can utilize the region’s rich human resource pool.
The lack of urgency and sincerity among stakeholders is also worrisome. IT departments are often clubbed with other departments, which are given priority. Most governments of the region do not have functioning websites. It is painfully difficult to use ICT, even the Internet, to communicate with public authorities. Internet usage is limited to 27,415 out of every 100,000 people (2003 figure), constituting just 0.78% of the whole country. The most commonly used ICT tool here is the fax machine. Clearly, the IT revolution sweeping India has bypassed the North-East.
Are things going to change? “The government has begun an ambitious programme to wire up the entire North-East and remote border regions with telecom, WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and broadband connectivity, and unleash an IT revolution in the region,” Union minister of state for IT and communication Sachin Pilot, announced during his visit to the region in March 2010.
“I believe the North-East can become a big centre for attracting investments from the private sector in business process outsourcing (and) knowledge process outsourcing,” he said. “A bulk of the money under what is called universal service obligation fund, collected by the government from private players to meet the demands of rural connectivity, will be deployed in the North-East.”
One can only hope that these announcements are implemented on the ground. Digitally empowering a region such as the North-East can work wonders and change the life of villagers, women, youth, artists, civil society and micro and small entrepreneurs waiting endlessly to sell their products and services.
Osama Manzar is director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator, mBillionth Award. He is also member of the working group for Internet governance at ministry of IT.
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