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Kenneth

Kenneth

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Published by Aarthi Raghavan

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Published by: Aarthi Raghavan on May 22, 2010
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May  June 2003
4
"
IT
.OR
 
THE
 
COMMON
 
MAN
Lessons from India
The basic question
I am tempted to begin with apologies. Iam not Indian, I am no expert on compu-ter science and technology, I speak no In-dian languages, I rely entirely on thegenerosity of Indian colleagues, friends,and workers in the field. I am neither anorientalist nor an unqualified admirer of all that is Indian: I have spent too muchtime in hungry villages not to recognizethe problems as well as the potentials of this, the largest and most diverse of alldemocracies. That said, I will proceed tothe topic.In brief, and put oversimply, I wantto argue that India does - or could - leadthe world in creating both the technol-ogies for reaching ordinary people andthe grass-roots social experiments thatcould teach both India and other nationshow to use those technologies for thecommon good. Any discussion of what a recent Gov-ernment of India report called “IT for theMasses”, however, must begin with themost fundamental question of all. It is wellstated by Subhash Bhatnagar of IIM- Ahmedabad, in his introduction to a re-cent book on rural IT in India. How can we justify the expense of IT in a rural In-dia where so many basic needs are unmetand so many basic rights are violated?Bhatnagar’s question is profound. To visita village where 70 per cent of all men, women and children are below the pover-ty line, where children’s hair is gray andred from malnutrition, where there is no work, no school, no medical care, to say nothing of no infrastructure needed formodern IT, is necessarily to wonder wheth-er, when, and how information technolo-gy can help. Surely other priorities: food,education, medical care, basic rights, so-cial justice, freedom from corruption andmeeting these priorities must be the corecriteria for any use of modern informa-tion technologies.That said, the question is not how touse information technologies, or even whether to use them, but under which cir-cumstances, if any, information technolo-gies can be a means - the most cost-effectivemeans - of helping ordinary Indians, espe-cially those in the weaker sectors of the so-ciety, meet their fundamental needs andachieve their basic rights. Put this way, thequestion is not only a philosophical butan empirical one: it requires examining on-going efforts in India to achieve just thosepurposes, to see if and how they work.
Technical requirements
 When we speak of modern IT for theMasses, we generally mean something likecomputers. The first fact, then, is that ITfor the common man has technologicalprerequisites. These are not to be confused with successful projects, but they are nec-essary conditions for successful projects. At least three technical elements arenecessary: connectivity, computers or oth-er similar devices, and software. To dis-cuss any one of these would require alecture in itself. Let me therefore be brief and dogmatic. I will state in advance my conclusion: India leads the world, or couldeasily lead the world, especially the devel-oping world, in all three of these areas.Take the question of connectivity. Here,I think of Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala andthe creative people and companies thatsurround his research at IIT-Madras. Jhun- jhunwala notes that the average cost of  what is called “the last mile” is, in the wealthy countries, between 800 to 1000dollars. Translated into rupees, this meansthat connectivity is within the reach of only two-three per cent of the Indian pop-ulation, which is almost exactly the per-centage - 30 million - who are currently “wired”. But if the cost of the last milecould be brought down to 200 dollars orless, and if the quality and bandwidth for
Kenneth Kenistonkken@MIT.EDU, www.kken.net 
India does - orcould - lead the world in creatingboth thetechnologies forreaching ordinary people and thegrassroots socialexperiments thatcould teach bothIndia and othernations how to usethose technologiesfor the commongood.
 
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connectivity could be improved, then con-nection - telephonic and/or internet - would be within the reach of 200 millionIndians, and perhaps a billion citizens inother developing nations. What Jhunjhunwala and his group havebegan to demonstrate, using highly sophis-ticated indigenous technologies, is that itis possible to bring the cost of connectiv-ity far down toward this level of $200 perline and, in certain urban situations, toeven less than $100 per line. This tech-nology exists, it is in use, and it works. Tobe sure, the story is not over: there arecompeting technologies; there are Govern-ment of India regulations which make si-multaneous telephone and internetconnections illegal; there are multi-nation-als fighting for a piece of the market; thereis the unwillingness of BSNL to allow theChennai wireless local loop solution toenter rural areas, even though these areasare loss leaders for BSNL. My point, how-ever, is that the there is no other group inthe world that has produced the results of the Chennai group. If widely adopted,these results could revolutionize access totelephone, email, and Internet in every urban and rural community in India andthe world.The second requirement is a computeror other similar device available at low cost,accessible to India’s millions, and if possi-ble to the 50 per cent or so who cannotread and write. Here, again, I believe thatIndian innovations, specifically the “Sim-puter” pioneered by Prof. Vijay Chandru,Swami Manohar and others here at theIndian Institute of Science is ahead of any other device being created in any othercountry. The Simputer, in fact a highly sophisticated computer running on open-source software, has remarkable features:text to speech capabilities in five languag-es, including Kannada, Hindi, Tamil, andTelugu, smart card capabilities, potentialto receive down-loaded satellite radio com-munications, operability for eight hours with three pen-light batteries, a touchscreen accessible to those who cannot readand write, a case hardened to rain, dust,heat and cold, and many other innovativefeatures. Equally innovative is the conceptbehind the Simputer, namely, not only open-source software but open-sourcehardware: i.e., the capacity to modify,change, and improve hardware with thesole condition that such improvementsbecome universally available. The Simput-er is now being produced in volume, andfield trials are under way in six areas. De-spite promises in countries like Brazil, noother nation has produced a device of thissophistication, complexity, durability, andflexibility. Here too, India leads the world.The third requirement is software.Here, India faces one of the most difficultproblems of any nation. There are eight-een official Indian languages; linguists list32 distinct Indian languages each of whichis spoken by more than a million people.Unlike the United States, where 97 percent of the population speak, write, andread English, in India even basic literacy in one mother tongue (defined as the abil-ity to write one’s name), is available only to slightly more than half of the popula-tion, including less than half of the femalepopulation. For the 50 or so million Indi-ans who speak, read, and write fluent Eng-lish, there is of course no problem:Microsoft takes care of everything, al-though at a price which for most Indiansis equivalent to at least a year’s income.But for the average Indian, to say noth-ing of those in the lower income groups,flexible, available, inexpensive local lan-guage software is essential.Once again, volumes have been writ-ten on this topic and it would be wrong tosay the problem is anywhere near solution.On the contrary, the absence of standard-ized code, agreed upon fonts, usable oper-ating systems in local languages, etc.continues to bedevil the most brilliant ef-forts of Indian linguists and computer sci-entists. It would be possible to spend hoursdiscussing these problems.Instead, however, I will point to anotheroutstanding success, namely the work of Prof. Rajeev Sangal and his group at theInternational Institute of InformationTechnology in Hyderabad. Prof. Sangal’sgroup is now achieving close to 95% ac-curacy in the machine translation of thenorthern Indian languages, using a com-mon-core artificial language closely relat-ed to and built upon Paninian grammarand Sanskrit. The Sangal group also findsthat the South Indian (so called Dravidi-an) languages, with two or three core gram-matical changes, also lend themselves tothe same approach. The Hyderabadgroup’s work is not finished, but the re-sults being achieved are, I think, at theforefront of others working, for example,in machine translations for the North-Eu-ropean or Latin-based languages. In thisarea, too, India is at the head of the pack. Jhunjhunwala, Chandru, and Sangalknow each other and each other’s work;indeed, I was told that some decades agothey were all studying at Kanpur. It is dif-ficult for groups working on disparatetechnological problems to join hands tomerge efforts, to make modifications, sothat their creations will become moremutually useful. But to a foreign observ-er like myself, one dream is that, given what I perceive as Indian supremacy inthese critical technological fields, theremight eventually result a joining of hands,a merger of efforts, a technological collab-oration that would produce what softwareservice exporters call “a complete solutionat the technological level.By singling out these three remarkablegroups, I do not mean to minimize othercreative efforts. But I do want to try todispel that technological imperialism to which people in my nation as well as Indi-ans sometimes fall prey. This holds thatthe process of human and social advanceoccurs by means of something called “tech-nology transfer” whereby the developednations of the world create innovative tech-nologies, which they in turn export to thedeveloping nations, which in turn use theseimported technologies to solve the prob-lems of development. My point here is thattechnologies now being developed in In-dia are superior to those that have beendeveloped in other countries, including my own, and that the concept of technology transfer must give way to the concept of partnership and collaboration.
The mantra of the season
Let me now turn to actual efforts to usemodern information and communica-tion technologies to meet the needs andrights of ordinary people. Over the lasttwo or three years, I have located at least50 sites in India which are attemptingto use IT’s in the service of ordinary people, and often, the poorest sectionsof the population. I have been able tovisit approximately 20 of these projects,
 
 
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some of them well known, others virtu-ally unheard of. Given the enormousemphasis throughout the world on“bridging the digital divide” and “IT forthe masses” one might expect that thisrich Indian experience would have beenstudied, that sites with similar objectives would be in touch with each other, thatthe lessons of each project would beshared with others, and that the whole world could benefit from the creativity of dedicated Indians in this area.One example may indicate the scopeof the problem. Just before this lecture, Ientered into the search engine “Google”,two phases: “digital multiply”, and “digit-al divide”. “Digital multiply” gave me 22hits, having to do with multiplication us-ing binary numbers. “Digital divide”, onthe other hand, gave me 250,000 hits. Ilooked at only the first two or three hun-dred. All of them have to do with the hopethat the gap between the digerati, the wired, the digitally “empowered” on theone hand, and the other 98 per cent of the world’s population on the other, cansomehow be closed by making informa-tion and communication technologiesavailable to those who currently lack ac-cess.The fact is, however, that there are(to my knowledge) no comparative stud-ies, no efforts to draw lessons, virtually no communication between projects with similar goals, but only, in some cas-es, “stories” invariably stories of success- from which any trustworthy generali-zations are impossible. Yet every majorinternational group and organization,including the G8 at Okinawa, the Unit-ed Nations, the World Bank, and theInternational Monetary Fund at the in-ternational level, major national and in-ternational foundations, virtually every national and state government in the world, and countless philanthropists andnew organizations, are now dedicated tousing IT for Development. It is the Fla-vor of the Season, the Mantra of the Year.It is stimulating countless conferencesthroughout the world, innumerableplans by national and state governments,endless projects, hopes, and dreams. Butall of this occurs in the absence of any empirically-based knowledge of what works, what does not work, what is wast-ed time and effort, what is worth doing.The comments that follow, then, arebased on site visits to Indian projects, butequally importantly on the observationsof friends and colleagues, on the commentsof ordinary people, and on a critical read-ing of the few studies of individual projectsavailable in print or online. I will state my conclusions dogmatically, recognizing thatthey need modification and further work,especially by Indians whose access to this work can be superior to my own. If my comments seem at times critical, it is ei-ther from ignorance or out of frustrationthat so many creative energies and resourc-es are not being more adequately used.
Talk versus action
Not surprisingly, in discussions of IT forthe common man, there is a great dealmore talk than action. Examples abound.For example, I was recently privileged toattend a meeting of the IT Secretaries of almost all of the States of India. With few exceptions, every State has a plan with twoseamlessly related components: first, stim-ulation of the IT industry (every State wishes to create its own Bangalore); sec-ond “IT for the common man”. Lookingat the second half of these programs is amoving experience: good ideas, grandplans, hundreds of infokiosks dedicated tothe needs of peasants, etc. But a more care-ful reading, to say nothing of visits to thesites themselves, indicates that in suchplans, the operative verbs are not is anddoes, but rather “will” and “would”. Theseare plans, wishes, dreams, promises. Inonly a few cases do they have any on-the-ground reality. Another example of the prevalence of rhetoric over reality can be found in de-scriptions, writings, articles or websites of allegedly successful projects. In at least onecase where dozens of rural infokiosks aredescribed, a site visit indicated that in factthere were none, that the villages indicat-ed had neither electricity nor solar panelsnor working connections to computers, butinstead, grinding poverty and almost com-plete illiteracy. Of the need for poverty al-leviation there could be no doubt; but theclaim that infokiosks were helping to alle-viate poverty was a hope, not an actuality. Yet another example comes from thevisit of former American President Clin-ton to Rajasthan. He expressed his desireto visit a village. A village near Jaipur waschosen, the road was repaired, beggars andstalls in the streets were removed. A VSAT was connected, an infokiosk was installed with local women trained to operate it.
IT for the common man will bring the power of technology to the villages and people of rural India

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