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March 18, 1999


Toddy, tapioca 'n the twisted pair: Kerala is ripe for evolving into a networked society, not Andhra or Karnataka, argues Darryl D'Monte. When Rajiv Gandhi spoke at the beginning of this decade of his dream for the 21st Century, he had in mind a technocratic solution to the country's problems.

Perhaps in his (pilot's?) mind, he saw India as a vast, sprawling, inefficient machine.

Email this story to a friend. Give it a new engine, a few squirts of multi-purpose oil and, if necessary, a firm kick to get it working again, he imagined, and all would be well.

Toddy 'n twisted pair
Kerala's IT sops
Dishnet service
Rajasthan-MS deal
Of course, the country is far more complicated and sophisticated than that and Gandhi's inexperience and lack of knowledge of how things actually work at the grassroots cost him, and the country, dearly.

But this did not prevent other thinkers from visualising how they would like the next century to be, a dream that was radically different from Gandhi's.

One such visionary was Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

To him, technology was certainly necessary, but it had to be applied to the most basic needs. For instance, the telephone should not be an instrument for the chattering (and business) classes in the cities alone, but as a necessity in every village.

The telephone could summon a midwife when a woman in a remote village was about to bear a baby, which would literally make the difference between life and death.

The same could apply for veterinary services. Indeed, the use of a pager would be ideal in such circumstances and, if funds permitted, the cell phone.

Refrigeration is needed not just to keep cola drinks ice cold for urban yuppies but to ensure that essential vaccines would be available in good condition in villages. For a country suffering from chronic diseases, this is an invaluable aid.

Similarly, if a room in a primary health centre could be converted into a makeshift incubator by heating it with solar energy, it would guarantee the survival of thousands of premature and anaemic babies who die of exposure at present. This innovation alone might improve the infant mortality ratio.

These are applications of some 21st Century technologies to meeting the people's needs.

To his credit, Gandhi did also institute his technology missions, headed by the dynamic Sam Pitroda. It did achieve a great deal in solving problems relating to water shortages, immunisation, oilseeds, telecom, and so on.

It was Pitroda's vision of getting the entire country connected by telephone that is responsible for there being a public call office in almost every village today.

However, what Gandhi and his technocratic cohorts did not realise is the truism: an alternative technology is only possible in an alternative society.

Without mobilising people first, no amount of technological tinkering at the top will alter the situation radically.

In some ways, Chandrababu Naidu is being seen as a latter-day Rajiv Gandhi, albeit at the state level. He has certainly worked wonders in connecting the bureaucracy through a far-flung computer network so that information on every district is available at the click of a mouse.

This keeps the administrators on their toes and ensures a high degree of transparency in the functioning of the state. With his attempt to set up 'cybercities' in the state for infotech companies from around the world to invest in, he is challenging Bangalore as the Silicon Valley of India.

However, such networking would remain relegated to the bureaucratic and business strata and not permeate below.

It is Kerala, which not surprisingly, seems set to steal a march over other states in staging an infotech revolution.

It has recently announced that it is targeting the installation of 10 PCs for every 1,000 people by 2001. It is also planning to set up Internet kiosks in every panchayat ward, which will be available to everybody.

Moreover, all colleges will be connected to the Net by 2000 and, even more significantly, all schools just two years later.

While every other state has talked of ushering in the computer revolution, Kerala appears to be the only one capable of achieving it.

For one thing, it produces some 8,000 technology graduates every year. The essential prerequisite, of course, is mass literacy, which Kerala alone has been able to achieve.

Children will have to go beyond three Rs of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic by taking an active part in their education in the full sense of the expression, only then will they take to working with computers.

With the recent development of software in regional languages here, even unfamiliarity with English can, to some extent, be overcome, at least at the lower education levels.

Internet connectivity will open new worlds for students: given the shortage of funds for school and college libraries, Internet enables them to access information readily.

In that sense, it is a great leveller since it does not discriminate against anyone who wants to use this tool, irrespective of caste, class or even nationality.

In many senses, Kerala has negated conventional "take-off" and other theories of economic growth. Despite being industrially backward, its society is the most advanced in this country in every human development index, in addition to literacy, health and the empowerment of women.

Its strength is its human capital, which is why clerical staff throughout the country hail from this state, as do professionals in other occupations like nursing.

Indeed, men and women in Kerala have been working abroad in large numbers and repatriating large sums of money (often squandered in extravagant real estate development).

Once such a society is networked in cyberspace, it will shore up its human capital considerably. Perhaps, it will remind many sceptics that people, far from being a drag on development, are a valuable resource.

There is yet another reason why the networked society is a real possibility in the state.

Following the constitutional amendments that decentralised power to all village panchayats throughout the country, Kerala has been engaged in a truly massive exercise in people's democratic planning.

As much as 37 per cent of the state's budget, nothing less than Rs 10 billion last year, is turned over to these elected representatives, with another Rs 2.5 billion for specific schemes for good measure.

Once power is devolved in such a manner, people have a much bigger say in how and where funds are spent, and can monitor the entire process, from planning to implementation.

With the involvement of the state planning board and academic bodies, panchayats have actually mapped out their natural resources as the first step in planning from the bottom upwards, in sharp contrast to the top-down process in mode everywhere else in the country.

This process of participatory administration, with the involvement of many retired engineers and officials who volunteer to perform a range of functions, is a true baptism in grassroots democracy.

In Kerala, science has thus been put to the use of the people.

Experts from the well-known Centre for Earth Science Studies, economists from the Centre for Developing Societies, administrators from the State Planning Board and so on have all been mobilised to take part in the experiment.

It also has the involvement of the world-renowned NGO, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, which has been at the forefront of the literacy movement, using the same tools it employed in its original science-for-the-people campaign.

The KSSP now has something like 50,000 members, with six journals, jathas or marches, street plays and so on.

Since 1996, this movement has been spreading to the gram panchayats, which are at the very lowest level of administration.

People also have the right to inspect the panchayat documents and photocopy them for nominal 30 paise per page.

Literacy has helped, obviously, as has the progressive political mobilisation ever since Kerala became the very first state in the world, 42 years ago, where communists came to power by the ballot.

In such a scenario, the computerisation of society will bring about a radical transformation. If all goes well, it should empower all people further, not just those at the top of the social and educational ladder.

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