In order to bridge the digital divide Kerala (a state situated at the southern part of India) started with the ‘Akshaya Project’ on November 18, 2002. It was expected that Akshaya will be a watershed in effacing the divide between ‘information haves’ and ‘information have-nots’. According to The Tribune, Chamravattom village in Kerala’s Muslim-dominated Malappuram district became the first village in India to be 100 per cent computer-literate. Before going to the evaluation part directly, the author has tried to provide Kerala’s socio-economic profile, along with that of Malappuram district in the introduction part. Although Kerala performed quite well in terms of human development, it could not promote economic growth in the past to provide employment. In fact, better performance in human development indicators have not translated into economic growth and employment generation. Moreover, the patriarchal nature of the Kerala society did not allow even educated women (from engineering and technical backgrounds) to get jobs. In the next section, information related to the Akshaya programme was provided, including the objectives and strategies adopted for implementation. In the third section and fourth sections, loopholes and positive features related to the Akshaya project respectively have been provided.
Most of the entrepreneurs interviewed were middle-aged (between 28 years and 40 years). The survey conducted was qualitative in nature and was based on the first person interviews. Apart from interviewing the entrepreneurs, the study relies on interviews conducted with the district level officials (4 in number) and panchayat level officials (5 in number), local people and also on secondary data and reports. This particular study has cross checked (through the survey conducted) whether the Akshaya programme, which Ms. Aruna Sundararajan spoke about in the Workshop titled ‘Scaling Up ICT Use for Poverty Alleviation in India’, held on 26-27 February, 2004, is working in a positive direction. The results and conclusions thus drawn from this particular study thus can not be generalized but important lessons can be learnt about how culture, state of the economy and mindset of officials can affect the success of such ICT-related programmes. The interviewees were selected in such a way so that they come from various parts of Malappuram: the main town, the coastal areas and the hilly terrain. In that way the sample selected is a purposive one. Although the presence of district and panchayat officials was necessary so that the entrepreneurs do away with the fear of meeting strangers, from Delhi, but the officials were asked not to intervene (before meeting the entrepreneurs) during the course of interview. The interviews were conducted in friendly manner. The translator (who translated from English to Malayalam, and vice versa, when the interviews were conducted in Malayalam) who was a local person (a graduate and a small time businessman) was also instructed to provide proper translation, keeping in mind the cultural aspect related to language translation. The author communicated with the translator and the officials in English. Before the Akshaya project was launched, a survey was conducted to find the penetration of computer and Internet. A 19 indices survey was done to find the ideal location of ICT/ Internet kiosks/ centres. Once the locations were found, advertisements were given in local newspapers. IEC campaign also took place to spread awareness about the concept of Akshaya. Malappuram district became the site of Akshaya Project because it had high mobile phone penetration amidst the population, and people had purchasing power in their hands (owing to the inflow of remittances from the Gulf). Malappuram is usually seen as an educationally backward district compared to rest of the districts of Kerala. In order to disseminate information to the people about the Akshaya programme, government sponsored advertisements were put in some of the local newspapers, and registration of applicants was made in the districts panchayats. Information was also disseminated in informal ways (for e.g. people got the information from their friends and colleagues who worked at the zilla panchayat office/ panchayats). As per the 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution, the PRIs (the Panchayati Raj Institutions/ local bodies) are the local level institutions comprising of elected representatives entrusted with the responsibility of identifying, formulating, implementing and monitoring the local-level developmental and welfare programmes. Article 40 of the Constitution requires that "the State shall take steps to organise village panchayats and endow them with such power and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government". Around 2000 applications were filed by the potential Akshaya entrepreneurs for the opening of the Akshaya centres, initially, as per the interview conducted. Loans were arranged for the potential entrepreneurs from the local banks (such as Western Union Money Transfer Bank), without the need for collateral, at a minimal rate
of interest spanning between 12-13 percent. It was mandatory for the entrepreneurs to keep at least three trainers and five computers in these Akshaya Centres. Arrangements were made so that the Akshaya entrepreneurs could be trained, and work in collaboration with the local panchayats.
Kerala model of development
Kerala has performed well in the past in terms of literacy and social protection to the unorganised sector owing to the trade union movement, presence of churches (with a large social base and catering in the field of education) and presence of Left Front in power. Kerala’s development achievement is often been held as a model for its equity and is cited as an example of what mass mobilisation and public action can achieve by interfacing with responsive democratic governments. The state has achieved good success in coverage of basic minimum services. Its universal public distribution system provides reasonable food security despite being a food deficit state.
Malappuram district became the site of Akshaya project because it had high mobile phone penetration amidst the population, and people had purchasing power in their hands (owing to the inflow of remittances from the Gulf). Malappuram is usually seen as an educationally backward district compared to rest of the districts of Kerala. In order to disseminate information to the people, government sponsored advertisements were put in some of the local newspapers, and registration of applicants was made in the districts panchayats.
Information was also disseminated in informal ways. Around 2000 applications were filed by the potential Akshaya entrepreneurs for the opening of the Akshaya centres. Loans were arranged for the potential entrepreneurs from the local banks (such as Western Union Money Transfer Bank), without the need for collateral, at a minimal rate of interest spanning between 12-13 percent. It was mandatory for the entrepreneurs to keep at least three trainers and five computers in these Akshaya Centres. Arrangements were made so that the Akshaya entrepreneurs could be trained, and work in collaboration with the local panchayats (village level administrative unit). The district of Malappuram, at present comprises 6 talukas and 14 development bslocks. It has 5 towns and 135 inhabited villages.
The objective behind the Akshaya project is to develop over 10,000 numbers of networked multi-purpose community information kiosks (can be called Akshaya centres) to provide ICT access to the entire population of the state, starting from the district of Mallapuram. At least one person in each of the 65 lakh families in the state will be made IT-literate. Enhancing the quality of available IT infrastructure in the state is another objective, including the state of electricity. To bridge the rural-urban divide, IT infrastructure will be expanded to the rural parts. Through achieving the above-mentioned objectives, the state of Kerala is expected to achieve the following:
• Create and expand economic opportunities in the knowledge economy.
• Empower individuals and communities through enhanced access to information.
• Modernise and upgrade skill sets.• Integrate communities through creation of e-Networks.
• Create awareness of ICT tools & usage.• Generate locally relevant content.
• Generate over 50,000 direct employment opportunities in 3 years.• Generate direct investment of over Rs. 500 crores in 3 years.
The CTCs or the computer training centres/kiosks will function mainly with the following services:
• Continued e-Learning programme
• Internet Kiosk
• Data entry under e-Governance programme
• DTP and Job work,• Other computer training for public
• Design of invitation cards, visiting cards, banners, posters, paper bags etc and screen printing
• Data bank services
• Telemedicine applications.
It is obvious that generating gender equity was not part of the objectives and also the strategies behind the Akshaya programme.
Loopholes in the programme
(i) Gender Equality: It is obvious that generating gender equity was not part of the objectives and also the strategies behind the Akshaya programme. Developing entrepreneurial skill such as the Entrepre-neurship Development Programme (EDP) of the UNDP among women, was never part of the agenda, unlike the other programme i.e. ‘Kudumbashree’. As per the interview conducted with the women entrepreneurs, some of the problems they faced came to the forefront. They are: (a) mobility of women is suspected, even for weekly or monthly meetings held with the Akshaya officials as a part of mitigating problems/ arrival of new packages (part of training); (b) difficulty in managing both the kiosks and the household chores; (c) some women face problem from the men community regarding setting up of kiosks; (d) initial hindrance (in terms of permission granted by the family members); (e) Most of the women had to close down their kiosks as they could not run their businesses due to non-profitability by the end of the third phase of Akshaya programme (the number of women entrepreneurs came down from over 85 to around 25); (f) Lack of mentors in the family for encouraging them to take such activities (number of applications put forward by the women was low); (g) The Akshaya/government officials seemed to be not have been gender sensitised, while training the entrepreneurs so that they can help them with the new technology (neither all of them were aware of the type of problems female entrepreneurs face); (h) Women entrepreneurs seldom run their kiosks during night hours, affecting the profitability since this is the time during which chances of doing business is high; in the day time people hardly come to the kiosks (they are highly dependent on male colleagues who are paid to work during night shifts; (i) Some women interviewed were very casual in their approach and were dependent on their husbands for running the kiosks; (j) Some women faced the problem of arranging credit from banks for opening up their kiosks.
(ii) Selection of entrepreneurs: Although in the course of interview, the researcher found that most of the entrepreneurs had basic degrees in software and/hardware (and even electronic engineering) applications, but very few were formally trained as entrepreneurs. The total number of kiosks came down from around 625 (when Akshaya started) to below 600 (during the time of field visit). Lack of training (for updating the knowledge base) as had been planned, could be another factor for closures of the kiosks besides some entrepreneurs leaving for Gulf.
(iii) State of infrastructure: In some parts of the Malappuram town, there is high prevalence of power cuts. The state of electricity (power) in the state of Kerala has suffered, as was reported by some of the interviewees. The Akshaya entrepreneurs suffered due to VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd.) moving out till Tulip (a Delhi based company) made its entry as the Internet provider.
(iv) Lack of knowledge: In one of the interviews conducted with a district level government official, it came to the knowledge of the researcher that he lacked the information that State Government’s IT policy can be influential in promotion of IT. Instead he recommended for the influence of State Government’s IT policy for BPO industry (to make the BPO industry more gender sensitive in terms of better work environment; social security, etc.)
(v) Prioritisation of programmes: During the interview, it came to the knowledge that in the II Phase of the Akshaya, problems were encountered by the Akshaya officials in generating awareness about the uses of IT amidst village/district level workers. Some of the workers of local administrative level demanded for giving priority to basic amenities instead of IT.
(vi) Capacity building: It was expected that e-Literacy drive will lead to better demand for IT services by the community. However, in some of the areas (Nilambur, a tribal hilly belt, where rubber plantation and other such plantations take place), it was found that the kiosks could not target the population since they were illiterate and poor, and lacked basic facilities. Distance to the nearest hospital was more than 20 kilometres.
(vii) Preference for private institutes: In some cases it was found, the kiosks are not running well, since people prefer private institutes over Akshaya centres because of the quality of training imparted. Moreover, some of the private centres guaranty employment after the training is over. Although some male entrepreneurs remarked that Akshaya provides a cheap and better quality education.
Evaluating the Akshaya programme
Despite its negligence to women the programme has succeded in achieving following factors:
• Generating employment: The Akshaya programme has generated employment for the youths, particularly women for work like DTP, typing etc. Trainees particularly women can search for better employment opportunities at the end of their course.
• IT literacy: Akshaya programme provides cheaper e-Literacy courses to the people. The courses offered ranges from easier ones (like MS Office, DTP) to harder ones (like Diploma courses).
• Enhancing communication/s: Internet enabled kiosks are used by people to contact their relatives/ friends who are staying abroad (such as Gulf) or other states. Communication is also done for marketing of products.
• Providing e-Services: Akshaya kiosks are providing a range of services like registration of births and deaths; collection and feeding of health related data (in a way acting as databanks) of the local population (by tying up with local panchayats/PRIs).
There are always some plus and minus points which emerges out of the evaluation that helps in learning, and remodelling the framework for scaling up of such ICT programme. Sustainability of the programme is the most difficult part in the long run, which requires long term vision.
(The views expressed are personal, and are not meant to hurt anybody).