How good is e-governance if citizens aren't computer literate? In a bid to make technology more relevant to the Indian rural population, Kerala's State IT Mission is determined to spread computer awareness.
Enter Malappuram. Albeit a backward area in Kerala, it has one of the highest density of computer-literate citizens in any district. With nearly 350 active e-kendras or computer education centers, to address more than 1,000 families, the district is proof of the success of Project Akshaya.
Kerala's department for IT is hard at work on information and communication technologies (ICT) initiatives, with an eye on its 6.5 million potential users. However, poor levels of computer literacy would render any e-governance plans ineffective.
The Akshaya initiative was launched in November 2002 primarily to address the need for e-literacy in India. This would simultaneously ensure connectivity and seek to create demand for computer services. The pilot project took off in Malappuram in 2004. And interestingly enough, since then, all the e-learning has begun with a computer game!
In the first hour of every computer class, learners across age groups use a mouse to move a basket on the screen and collect falling mangoes. Designed to improve mouse control and acquaint users with the hardware, the computer game makes the 15-hour training module fun and informative. "The computer classes got well accepted," says Anvar Sadath, manager (e-governance) of the Kerala State IT Mission. "We don't tell learners that they are using a mouse or a monitor. In time, they achieve a level of comfort with the computer. We then introduce them to the infinite possibilities of the Internet," smiles Sadath who is also the director for Akshaya.
The initiative had been envisioned to set up multipurpose community technology centers called e-kendras, and provide services to about 3,000 families. In the first phase, 500 such centers were set up. Apart from being computer education centers today, these are also active community centers that facilitate e-governance services.
The pilot in Malappuram evolved so because of public-private partnerships (PPP). Each center has five computers and other infrastructure installed at a cost of up to $10,000 per center, located within a 3-km radius of every household.
Furthering the IT Alphabet
The second phase of the initiative in July 2005 entailed building a wireless network to enable G2C, G2G, B2B and B2C services to complement the e-literacy plan. Around the same time, collection of utility bills as well as issue of documents related to tax, which were earlier done at FRIENDS (Fast, Reliable, Instant and Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services) centers, was integrated with Project Akshaya. Till date, about 1,200 centers have come up across the state. Six more districts are expected to be covered by the years end with the number of e-centers slated to touch 3,000.
Each Akshaya e-kendra is a self-sustaining unit with the computer literacy initiative as an assured source of revenue. To leverage commercial interest and attract investors, the government advertises details of the courses at the centers. The investments, as current operators point out, have not been huge, but the benefits are significant. K. Sakeer, an entrepreneur who set up an Akshaya e-kendra, invested $3,500. Another operator in Malappuram, K. Sethumadhavan, says: "I set up this center with the support of a bank apart from other borrowings."
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