In 2003, the United Nations (UN) held the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The forum’s purpose was to enable the world, especially the underdeveloped and developing parts of it, to enter an “information” society. One where each and every person becomes part of a society that is connected and networked, taking advantage of information communication technology (ICT), and ICT tools.
The idea, at the most fundamental level, was to enable people everywhere to communicate at will. But it also was aimed at helping them raise the quality of their lives through ICT tools. The UN hoped that with more widespread connectivity, people would find easier ways of doing business, accessing healthcare, obtaining education and experiencing global culture.
WSIS created a broad framework that could be implemented in all regions to enable such a society. In 2003, the Digital Empowerment Foundation, a New Delhi-based not-for-profit organization, decided to adapt this framework for the South Asian region. And the Manthan Awards were born. The awards were an initiative to identify, measure and recognize innovations and efforts to use ICT and other technology tools to deliver content and services to people at the bottom of the pyramid who do not have the benefits of modern connectivity.
The idea behind the Manthan Awards was to focus on technology not when it was implemented for technology’s sake, but in terms of the impact it had on people. And, as a byproduct of the awards nominations process, to create a network of such innovators who could then work together to create greater impact. And, finally, the awards are an advocacy tool and a knowledge base.
For example, when the Lakshadweep government got the Manthan Award in 2007 for its online employment exchange, the Union government immediately asked other states to emulate the project.
But the awards are not just about big organizations and big ideas. Meet Madhura Chhatrapaty, 55, who has made possible the use of digital designing and the Web to earn millions for the chappal (footwear) artisans in Kolhapur in Karnataka.
Another Manthan awardee is Mridula Chandra, 45, who set up AIDS Live, a toll free disease helpline in Jaipur. Chandra is using the Manthan Award network to roll out her helpline pan-India. Yet another awardee is Rajen Varada, 48, who has trained scores of Muslim girls, in a basti (slum) of Hyderabad, as digital animators.
In a country where poverty is still a stark reality, the need for digital inclusion is all the more important. The formation of the Digital Empowerment Foundation was based on this understanding. The approach decided upon was not to have a technocentric view of things, but to see ICT as a medium for the direct empowerment of people. The Manthan Awards are the missing link between “digital inclusion” and “development”.
In the last six years, we have been able to create a network of more than 1,000 organizations/projects/ideas across Indian states and almost all South Asian countries.
Our network of innovators and unsung digital heroes are as illiterate as Raghav Mahato, 22, from Vaishali, who manufactured an FM transmitter for Rs50 and ran a community radio for five years, broadcasting programmes up to 16km. W also have Tata Consultancy Services Ltd’s “Total Literacy” programme, which is attempting to make adult literacy a reality through digital media.
Over the next few weeks, leading up to the Manthan Awards for 2009, we will look at the ways in which connectivity and technology can empower our people. In this weekly series of articles in Mint we will talk about the different ways in which big and small innovators are making a difference.
For more details on the awards and the case studies mentioned, log on to www.manthanaward.org
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is also a member of the task force formed by the ministry of communication and information technology to give recommendations to boost the IT & ICT manufacturing industry.
Mint is a partner of the Manthan Award 2009.
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