Empowering rural India through Wi-Fi

Empowering rural India through Wi-Fi

In my last interaction with readers this season, I’d like to reiterate some of the issues that Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) has been stressing for close to a decade. The seventh year of the Manthan Award, convening 17-18 December in New Delhi, is a landmark as far as the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the life of the common man is concerned.

When we instituted the Manthan Award in 2003, we wanted to look for people, projects, organizations and entrepreneurs who were creating and deploying innovative digital content and services. The search was for cost-effective, useful applications. The purpose was—and still is—to scout for practices that have creative uses but need to scale up. We wanted to make these visible, so that the government could then learn from them, industry could adopt them, and departments could implement them.

At DEF, the focus of the Manthan Award was to establish a goodwill relationship and a collaborative network. After more than half a decade, this network has enabled many common grounds to be discovered and worked upon. Partnerships have been forged with government departments, industry, civil society, NGOs, entrepreneurs, industry associations, grassroots activists, panchayats, academic institutions and international organisations. More than 2,000 active organizations have brought value to the macro objective: To make Indian and south Asian communities information-rich and knowledge-empowered.

The extended outcome from the Award has involved the ideating and implementation of many digital programmes. The Digital Panchayat pilot is one of these initiatives, launched with 100 panchayats in Maharashtra with the help of a key Manthan Award partner, SMS One.

The idea behind the Digital Panchayat is to digitally enable more than 250,000 panchayats. The next phase of this pilot was to include 500 panchayats in 15 states, with support from the department of information technology and the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI). By the time the 2011 Award rolls around, hopefully 500 panchayats will have their own virtual presence, with local ownership of content and management.

Another extended outcome of the award is the involvement of voluntary organizations. There exists thousands of NGOs in India working at the grassroots-level rural settings. They have a rich body of knowledge and can possibly plug into the larger development network. The eNGO programme has been designed by DEF and NIXI to facilitate that. So far, 500 grassroots entities have been provided with no-cost, dynamic web services, and skill development and web management solutions.

This network enabled DEF to contribute to the content framework of the roll-out of 100,000 common service centres. The next step will be to connect stakeholders with the proposed India Tele Center Network in order to make sure that all village-level kiosks, as rural enterprises, serve rural communities with valuable information and services.

Part of our vision is that we should have at least one large community information resource centre (CIRC) established in each of India’s states, to facilitate ICT applications, link local content and produce to markets, and serve as an integrated resource and service delivery centre. Five CIRCs are up, and through the Manthan Award network, we’re going to achieve the rest in the next five years.

The 2010 Manthan Award will set a new tone in inclusive digital development. The 77 finalists this year, selected out of 456 nominees from eight countries across 15 categories, bring innovation to a new level. The central focus this year is empowering rural communities through wireless connectivity.

The reason: Our remote communities can only be connected to the information highway, rapidly and economically, through wireless, be it mobile, 3G or broadband or wireless mesh networks. To make the gathering a true exchange of knowledge, participation has also been extended to major ministries, 25 state governments, eight countries and their governments, and more than 200 organizations. Throughout, we continue to pursue our motto: To make societies information producers, rather than just information consumers.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards.

Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.