Community Computing in India

Technology Review features an interview with MIT’s Kenneth Keniston, who has perhaps the best insights into India’s ICT projects. “One tactic that particularly interests Keniston has been the deployment of community information centers in Indiakiosks where villagers can pay a few rupees for accessing land records, market prices, and other information. India is host to an extraordinary number of community information center experiments, including private-sector initiatives like Drishtee; government-to-citizen initiatives like the Bhoomi project, which has computerized 20 million land records; and the deployment of community information centers by Indian agriculture business giant ITC, an effort that improved the efficiency of the company’s supply chain.” Excerpts from what Ken has to say:

There are several models [for Community Information Centers] in India. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, the Gyandoot project had the backing of the deputy district collector but was designed to be largely self-sustaining. In Warana, the big impetus came from the Maharashtra government, the sugarcane cooperatives, and the National Informatics Centre. Then we have the ITC, which has set up a vast operation with 800 Community Information Centers operational and increasing to 2000 kiosks soon. Soybeans, shrimp, and coffee are transacted through these kiosks, and they have a very carefully thought out revenue model. By bypassing the middleman, ITC saves eight to 10 percent on the purchase of soy, which is very impressive. In Warana, I am told that enough savings are generated from the kiosks to sustain and maintain them. The interesting thing is that some of these setups are products of companies that are not philanthropically inclined in nature.

From the point-of-view of sustainability, the Drishtee Community Information Centers and the Sustainable Access in Rural India projects are similar. They plan to offer a variety of services through the Community Information Centers to recover initial investments and operating expenses. We do not know the degree to which these projects are self-sustaining, but its perhaps too early to say. Then there are the Bhoomi land records project in Karnataka, the government of [Indian state] Andhra Pradeshs various e-government projects, the National Informatics Centres efforts to computerize the district collectors offices across India, and the efforts of Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogis efforts to computerize the states functions. Theres the case of the SARI projects collaboration with the Aravind Eye Hospital, where the retinas of people were photographed and the doctors identified cataract patients among them, but one doesnt know how sustainable this is. India probably has more ICT4D projects than any other country in the world, but there are no studies on their impact on the common man.

There should be two aspects to such a study: impact and sustainability. To study the impact, one should not just ask questions but live in the villages, and talk to everyone from the outcasts to the Brahmins. We also need to take a very hard look at sustainability and understand what are the expenses in building, maintaining, and sustaining the infrastructure. What are the possible sources of revenue? We know that if you pour enough money, you will be successful. But NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] get tired of pouring money, and they eventually pull out.

It would be good to meet with Ken sometime and get his feedback on the RISC project that we plan to start shortly.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.