‘ICTs and Development in India’ is a unique attempt to study the nature and consequences of the growing presence of Information Technology in development projects in India, focusing particularly on E-governance and Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) development programs initiated by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). Sreekumar persuasively argues that there is in fact a wide chasm between the expectations and the actual benefits of CSO initiatives in rural India, and that recognising this crucial fact yields important lessons in conceptualizing development and social action in rural areas.
About the Author
T. T. Sreekumar is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. His research interests focus on the social impact of ICTs, the impact of mobile phones in developing countries, and the social impacts of tourism, civil society and new social movements and youth techno-culture in Asia.
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ICTs and Development in India
Perspectives on the Rural Network Society
By T.T. Sreekumar
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2011 T. T. Sreekumar
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION: EXPLORING THE RURAL NETWORK SOCIETY
Two Rural Vignettes and the Beginning of a Story
The following introductory paragraphs appeared in an article published in the Canadian Journal of Educational Communication in 1987:
In the small Swedish village of Vemdalen, the visitor can witness an unexpected sight. On the first floor of the building containing the local general store, a considerable number of modern computers and other equipment are being used diligently by local people from eight o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock in the evening. The equipment is worth a closer look: PC ATs, 15 personal computers from the United States and Japan, word processors and teletexts from Holland, Telefax, Videotex; in short, lots of high technology in the heart of a sparsely populated mountainous part of Sweden (Vemdalen today boasts having more computers per capita than any other part of Sweden).
The first Scandinavian telecottage, Härjedalens Telestuga, was opened here on 13 September 1985, and shortly after its inception, all this equipment was being used by 15 per cent of the people in the village, with everyone from 10-year-old children to pensioners represented. The funds for establishing the telecottage came from the County Government Board as part of a project for the propagation of modern technology in sparsely populated areas, Swedish Telecom and the municipal board. The aim of the telecottage was to open up the vast opportunities of the information age to the people in this remote part of Sweden (where there is less than one inhabitant per square kilometre) by providing access to a variety of computers and modern telecommunications equipment for anyone willing to invest time and energy in learning how to use the hardware and software.
Modern information technology has, for the first time in history, given people in remote regions of the earth the opportunity to overcome their worst handicap: their distance from the centres of learning and development. The new information technology may lead to further centralization and to the development of a comparatively small elite, worldwide and in each country. However, if used properly, it may also further decentralization and the development of local democracy. In the Nordic countries, governments are eager to prevent the cities from growing too large, and the grassroots drive towards local democracy is very strong indeed. (Albrechtsen 1987, 327-28)
At the time of writing this article, the author was the Chairman of the Board of the Association of Nordic Telecottages (FILIN), and of the International Union of Telecottages (IUTC). Established in 1986, FILIN was the world's first telecentre association. It launched a newsletter, FILINFO, conducted the first survey of telecentres, and became instrumental in popularizing the telecentre movement in Scandinavian countries in the 1980s (Murray et al. 2001). In a short span of ten years since the inception of the first telecentre, it became quite popular in Europe. As noted by Colin Campbell:
Telecottages have existed ... since 1985. The concept apparently was first implemented in Sweden, where their official names are Community Tele-service Centers. These centers have central locations in isolated rural communities and typically have personal computers, printers, a modern, a fax machine, and a consultant. The telecottage idea has spread to a large number of countries. The Telecottage Association, a British organization, counts 120 telecottages in the United Kingdom, 49 in Finland, 40 in Australia, and 23 in Sweden. It also lists telecottages in Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Norway, and Brazil Typical Nordic and British telecottages offer many similar kinds of services, though sometimes they are classified somewhat differently. (Campbell 1995)
Approximately 15 years later, after the first telecentre was established in Sweden, and when the telecentre movement became popular across Europe, the following news report appeared in the New Fork Times:
Embalam, India — In this village at the southern tip of India, the century-old temple has two doors.
Through one lies tradition. People from the lowest castes and menstruating women cannot pass its threshold. Inside, the devout perform daily pujas, offering prayers. Through the second door lies the Information Age, and anyone may enter.
In a rare social experiment, the village elders have allowed one side of the temple to house two solar-powered computers that give this poor village a wealth of data, from the price of rice to the day's most auspicious hours.
'If I can get a job through this, I'll be happy,' said V Aruna, 14, who pestered her father, a farmer, until he agreed that she could come here each day to peck at a computer keyboard, where she learned Word and PowerPoint. 'I want to work instead of sitting in [the] house.'
At a time of growing unease about global gap between technology knows and knows-nots, India is fast becoming a laboratory of small experiments like this one at the temple that aim to link isolated rural pockets to the borderless world of knowledge. Local governments and nonprofit groups are testing new approaches to provide villages where barely anyone can afford a telephone with computer centers that are accessible to all. (Dugger 2000)
Both reports have some striking similarities and dissimilarities. Both are talking about computers installed in rural telecentres where children through the elderly use them. Both articles see this development as an important achievement in linking the rural countryside with the outside world. Both talk about the opportunities that it offers to villagers. Both accounts share an optimism and enthusiasm with regard to the benefits of the projects. Nevertheless, separated by space and a gap of 13 years, the former account about a social experiment with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in a developed country and the latter about a similar project in rural South Asia have, unsurprisingly, obvious differences in the backdrop, organizational settings, sources of funding, mode of working and the socioeconomic impacts. Participants in the telecentre movement in Europe, as citizens of the social democratic welfare state, arguably enjoyed better access to personal resources, economic opportunities and social equality within a liberal democratic political framework that ensured constitutional and civic rights and workable mechanisms to contain societal fissures and tensions. So the telecentre movement itself was initiated as part of a larger state and private sector involvement in reducing regional technological gaps through social experiments using ICTs. These experiments aimed to establish new forms of social organization using information technology in various sectors like agriculture, health care and education and involving local communities (Qvortrup et al. 1987). The state and its agencies, including sub-regional local governments such as counties, and powerful national and international telecommunication organizations played a significant role in facilitating these technology-based social experiments. While the movement became popular to a certain extent in Europe, there was some discrete interest in using ICTs for social and economic development in the developing world also. Albrechtsen, for example, notes in the profile of the telecottage in Vemdalen that:
[T]he developing world has followed the Nordic experiments closely and with considerable interest. Plans are being made to establish telecottages in Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Benin and Nigeria, and in several countries in South America. (Albrechtsen 1987)
Although India showed an early interest in telecentres as reported by Albrechtsen, the first telecentres in India did not appear until the late 1990s. These telecentres were set up by state and civil society organizations (CSOs) with widely differing agendas, motivations and ideological proclivities. The initiatives, in their media exposure as well as in the publicity materials and in-house research articles, however, shared a similar rhetoric that marks the undertone of Albrechtsen's description of the telecottage in Vemdalen, Sweden. While Albrechtsen's 1987 article, written two years after the experiment was actually initiated, mostly makes futuristic predictions that the telecottages hold significant promise for strengthening local democracy, learning and development 'if used in the proper way', the Indian initiatives were catapulted into instant fame as harbingers of social transformation and economic development in rural areas where such telecentres were set up, as reflected in the passage by Dugger quoted above.
Contemporary cyber-libertarian development orthodoxy identifies deployment of ICTs as a dominant factor in eliminating vestiges of feudal social organization and its iniquities and hierarchies in Asia, by envisioning a techno-development paradigm of social change inherited from the industrial era (Mansell and Wehn 1998; UNDP 2000; Wade 2002; Sreekumar 2003 and 2006). Consequently, myriad government-sponsored agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in South Asia have initiated a host of ICT-based development projects to demonstrate ICT's potential to provide unprecedented social and economic opportunities for vulnerable groups such as women and marginalized communities (Bhatnagar and Sechware 2000; Kanungo 2004; Pringle and Subramaniam 2004; Singh 2004; Peizer 2005; Ng and Mitter 2005). Arguably, the inclusion of marginalized communities in the emerging rural network society would enhance their participation in democratic processes on the one hand, and provide access to expanding social and economic opportunities on the other hand (Rajora 2002; Hafkin and Taggart 2001; Hafkin 2002; Gajjala 2002; Sharma 2003). Nevertheless, it is necessary to recognize that the complex ensemble of social reality in South Asia makes it difficult to find simple solutions to developmental maladies.
By the turn of the new millennium, the phenomenon of village cyber-kiosks, which began to appear in India only in the late 1990s, had already come to be identified as a major form of development experiment involving the deployment of ICTs for social and economic transformation in rural India. Three major projects in India, the Village Knowledge Centres (VKCs) set up by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Pondicherry, TARAkendras initiated by Development Alternatives (DA) in Bhatinda (Punjab) and Bundlekhund (Uttar Pradesh), and Gyandoot Soochanalayas (information centres) set up by the District Administration of Dhar (Madhya Pradesh), won international awards in a short span of two years following their inception. The city of Stockholm instituted the 'Stockholm Challenge Award' in separate categories in the mid-1990s in the wake of Sweden's entry into the European Union, initially to introduce Stockholm as a leader in ICT and to challenge other European cities to highlight their contributions in bridging the deeply felt technological gap between Europe and the United States. Later, the competition was thrown open to entries from non-European countries for projects attempting to bridge the global digital divide. The projects from India, which were established mostly in the late 1990s, bagged prizes in several categories in 1999 and 2000 as initiatives with huge potential for bringing about social and economic changes. International and national media began to give wide coverage to the projects, and several anecdotes of radical changes that these projects were bringing about circulated to the domestic publics, assuring them that an ICT revolution has been unleashed in rural India. These projects were promising, through effective use of ICTs, the creation of jobs, food security, better health, alleviation of poverty, eradication of illiteracy and democratic participation and empowerment of the socially and economically disadvantaged groups and communities in Indian villages. The CSOs mainly initiate developmental action through the deployment of ICTs, while Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organizations (QUANGOs) emphasize providing e-governance, both with the potential of creating a network of information flows and one-way and two-way exchanges facilitating the emergence of what could be called rural network societies. Does the rural subject get initiated into cyberspace, paving the way for the formation of a rural network society, when the kiosks get interlinked through wired and wireless technologies?
Independent evaluations or academic studies on the ways in which telekiosks are set up in villages and who benefit from them and how are almost nonexistent. The introduction of ICTs through the telecentres or kiosks is a sociotechnological process that requires closer attention and systematic analysis. The present study is a modest attempt to offer a preliminary engagement with the myriad issues that this unprecedented technological intervention in rural India has engendered. There are several structural and analytical levels where questions concerning technology-human interaction become significant in the context of the socialization of ICTs through the kiosks. How true is the story of the formation of a protoform of a rural network society realized through interlinked ICT kiosks where villagers transcend social hierarchies of caste, gender and class in a community of modernizing subjectivities for harmony and progress? Is there a sociopolitical constraint in the form of reinforced conflicts between local elites and the poor leading to the capture of the control as well as the benefits of the projects by the elites when the new technology is introduced in the rural areas? Is there a resource constraint in terms of shrinking possibilities for generating internal funds for the sustenance of the projects leading to an increase in external dependence for running the projects?
ICTs, ICT4D and the Neo-Liberal Discourse
ICTD (Information Communication Technologies and Development) emerged as an interdisciplinary approach to understand the multidimensional impacts of ICT diffusion, resistance and acceptance in developing societies challenging varying presumptions of ICT4D (Information Communication Technologies for Development). ICT4D as a discipline has helped to provide competing interpretative frameworks to understand and analyse the drastic changes that transformed of the nature and pattern of ICT diffusion and adoption in rural India. Mazzarella (2010) discusses my adaptation of Linden and Fenn's hype-cycle model (Sreekumar 2003; see also Chapter 5), and acknowledges that the early phase of ICT diffusion can be categorized as an early 'peak of inflated expectations', followed by a downward curve of 'disillusionment' and then drawing on an 'increasing realism' to ultimately settle down on a 'plateau of productivity'. He also argues that the discourse of ICT4D at the peak of the hype cycle was deeply ideological. Nevertheless,
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Table of Contents
List of Figures and Tables; Preface; 1. Introduction: Exploring the Rural Network Society; 2. Civil Society and Cyber-Libertarian Developmentalism; 3. Decrypting E-Governance; 4. Cyber-Kiosks and Dilemmas of Social Inclusion; 5. Innovating for the Rural Network Society; 6. ICT and Development: critical Issues; Notes; Bibliography; Index