Information flow can make Saanjhi work
Parliamentarians should create an ecosystem of information in India’s villages
Under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, or Saanjhi, each member of Parliament is adopting at least one village or gram panchayat for integrated development by 2016 and two more by 2019. India’s 789 parliamentarians (543 in the Lok Sabha and 246 in the Rajya Sabha) have together selected 2,367 villages. The aim: Ensuring their holistic development by 2019. This means each of them will develop about three villages in the next five years.
Let’s assume each village has around 500 households with a total of 3,000 people. Let’s also assume that the village has a gram sabha (village council) where no meetings have taken place for ages but whose register could show records of routine meetings; one or two badly functioning health centres and a few anganwadis (day care centres) where no accredited social health activist (Asha) workers visit; one or two schools with sporadic presence of children and teachers who do not turn up; 10-20 self-help groups (SHGs) with the same women members listed in several SHGs; potholed roads despite the prime minister’s rural roads scheme; perhaps a non-functional veterinary centre where no animals are treated; almost a non-existent water supply system with many dry hand pumps having concrete bases indicating water had flowed there sometime in history; no water harvesting system even though there would be traces of ponds, wells and traditional dried step wells; schools with no toilets and no water availability and questionable mid-day meal supply and classrooms with more empty sacks of rice and lentils than desks, chairs or books.
There is unlikely to be a bank or public access point for the Internet. Perhaps there would be a distant telecom tower but even if the villagers have mobile phones, there would be only slow second-generation connectivity. There would certainly be no place where villagers could go and inquire about government schemes or welfare entitlements or how to avail of them. There won’t be any place in the village where the common citizen could go and record grievances that can be redressed. Even for small things such as photocopying or getting passport-sized photographs, villagers would be travelling far, sacrificing their daily wages and spending more money on travel than the cost of the prints.
How would a parliamentarian change this dismal scenario? How would they develop their adopted villages? How would these villages become models for others to follow? In short, how would they make the villages smart, efficient, connected, agile, responsive, accountable, responsible, clean, healthy, organic, environment-friendly, water-sufficient, broadband-enabled and information-rich places where all children go to school with teachers having a great time with the kids; with active and accountable gram sabhas, clean streets, productive fields, energy that’s available at least 10 hours a day, and each and every government institution as functional as it ought to be?
I have a simple suggestion to make. Build or hire a place no less than 3,000 square feet in area, divide it into 3-4 rooms and call it the community information resource centre (CIRC). The centre should be equipped with a leased line broadband of about 10 Mbps. Parliamentarians need to exert their influence to get a telecom operator to provide connectivity either through wireless technology or through optic fibre. The centre should also be equipped with at least 10-20 laptops, printers, photo printer, scanner, projector, photocopying machine, digital camera, and complete information content of all government entitlements, along with their application forms.
CIRC should have three types of officials—coordinator, trainer and information officer. This centre should further connect all public institutions with open source video conferencing link—places such as schools, gram sabhas, health centres and anganwadis. Moreover, the centre should distribute smartphones to each and every government official and the phone should have an app that would enable them to report their presence in their respective offices with location and work information. CIRC should also make provision for making connectivity available to any household, along with provisioning of public access points, where people can walk in and access information or demand information or file and mail information to their desired officer and department locally, or at the state level or even the national level.
In other words, parliamentarians should create an ecosystem of information. The village should have its own panchayat website with complete information of all 28 subjects fully updated, including complete accounts of panchayat and government spending. CIRC should also work like a digital literacy centre, vocational training centre, public meeting centre and digital entertainment centre, where periodically, movies are shown directly from Internet repositories such as YouTube. CIRC could also be a centre where SHGs hold meetings and use it as a procurement centre to post on e-commerce websites to sell their goods.
We have been able to achieve significant change in hundreds of villages where we have established CIRCs, but the key is to create seamless information flow from the government to the people and people to government. Information is like water—if it flows well, it would purify the river. The adopted village could also become a river of pure water if our MPs make information flow.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan & mBillionth awards. He is also a member of the working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet to him @osamamanzar
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