Completely Internet Literate

By Samir Makwana | Published on 01 Feb 2007
Completely Internet Literate

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God's own country gave India its first 100 per cent e-literate district

"No need to write letters... no telephone required… now I can see their faces and talk with them. It's like having them right in this room," says eighty-three-year-old farmer Mohammed Kutty Haji, Marakkara Gram Panchayat. He got to the fourth standard as a kid, and now comfortably chats with his son and grandson who live in a Gulf country-after receiving e-literacy training.

Many people like him enjoy the facilities of video chatting, video counselling, e-mails, and more at the many Akshaya e-Kendras.

The Akshaya e-Kendras are one-stop information and e-services kiosks, established in Malappuram district under the Akshaya Project. This project is the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) for Development Project, part of the Kerala State IT Mission. It was launched to provide e-governance and other related utility services to general citizens. The project piloted at Malappuram with a different take-"to bridge the digital divide," by making residents of the district computer-literate.

The objectives of the project were to ensure rural connectivity through broadband-based Internet and intranet access, to provide basic computer literacy, and make local language e-content such as agri-business information and educational CDs available throughout the state. The project also focuses on promoting rural and youth entrepreneurship through ICT.

The Akshaya Project has won several awards for its implementation of IT, e-governance, and other facilities in the rural sector, effectively bridging the digital divide.

A Brief Profile
On 18 November, 2002, at Thiruvananthapuram, the Akshaya Project was launched by the President, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. The project was piloted at Malappuram district north Kerala. In the first phase of this project, the target was, through an e-literacy program and providing basic computer training, to make 6.5 lakh people computer literate-one person from each household. The e-literacy training, which means providing basic computer operating exposure, would be provided at computer centres called Akshaya e-Kendras. A total of 638 e-Kendras were established across the district in the first phase of the project, which covered about a hundred Gram Panchayats and five municipalities.

In the second phase, the focus was to provide more advanced computer courses and education programmes. For the entrepreneurs who are the owners of the Akshaya e-Kendras, services such as Desktop Publishing (DTP), data entry, e-learning, computer training, and Internet telephony would be facilitated. The location of the e-Kendras was planned such that each would cover 1,000 to 3,000 households, and there would be at least one Akshaya e-Kendra available to every citizen.

The project is the first district-wide e-literacy project in India, and boasts the largest wireless networks in rural areas. 

"In 2005, a programme called 'Internet for the masses' was rolled out. Earlier, a majority of the e-literacy training was imparted offline, based on CD. After the implementation of wireless networks across the districts, various online training programmes and services would be possible," says K Anvar Sadath, manager (e-governance) and head (Akshaya), Malappuram Cell.

Women's e-mpowerment: at the Akshaya E-Kendra in Muthiraparamba...

The state tested a variety of technology options, and chose WIPLL (Wireless Internet Protocol in Local Loop). This enabled a link to each Akshaya e-Kendra with a bandwidth of 4 to 8 Mbps. The wireless connectivity in Malappuram district was implemented by Tulip IT services, with the hardware support from US-based Airspan Networks. It was tough-the district is spread over 3,550 square kilometres, with dense vegetation and hills.

Why Malappuram?
Malappuram is the most populous district (over 36 lakh) in Kerala, with the highest population growth rate (11.4 per cent). The population density is 1,022 per square kilometre, compared to 819 in the state.

From 1.5 million people across the state, more than 3 lakh just from Malappuram district work in countries in the Gulf. But due to the lack of good educational backgrounds and exposure to IT, many of those who stay in the district have to work as labourers and in low-paying jobs. In addition, the cost of communication is very high. "The Panchayats of Malappuram district came up with a proposal to educate at least one member of each family to help them to get better jobs in Gulf countries, and also to bring down the cost of telecommunication," says Sadath.

The idea was to leverage the benefits of the available IT infrastructure through ICT. Awareness amongst the locals was created through advertisements, posters, and other methods of promotion. But word of mouth and one-to-one reference, for the most part, triggered the drive towards gaining computer literacy amongst the residents. 

"After the implementation of wireless networks across the districts, various online training programmes and services would be possible"
Anvar Sadath, Manager, (e-governance) and head (Akshaya), Malappuram Cell.

The Akshaya e-Kendras
These are looked upon by the local people as institutions similar to schools, hospitals, or government offices. They are each equipped with five to 10 computers, a server with Internet connectivity, and printers and other peripherals. They are multi-service junctions for the residents and a source of income for the owner.At the e-Kendras, various services are available-the e-literacy and advanced training programmes, Internet-related services, communication facilities, information about various government schemes, and e-transactions. The Akshaya centres also act as e-governance cells-they are connected with government offices via the intranet. Online services include e-payment for electricity and telephone bills, e-Krishi for farmers for enhancing agri-based services, content development, computer-aided learning for students, e-governance, and other activities such as women's clubs for their welfare, kids' club for gaming and other entertainment activities, and so on. Students also use the Kendras for online tuitions after school hours.

Najeeb P, an entrepreneur of Akshaya Project in Moorkkanadu Panchayat, says, "I took a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from local bank a year ago, out of which only Rs 50,000 remains to be paid. I've received good recognition amongst three wards of the Panchayat by having made 1,016 people e-literate. Even though the BSNL counter, post office, KSEB office, etc. are close by, most of the villagers visit my e-Kendra for e-payment!''There are certain criteria to be met for starting an e-Kendra. An entrepreneur should himself be a minimally qualified IT person, meaning he should have had basic exposure to computers and IT. Every e-Kendra would have sole proprietorship with a minimum of three qualified trainers.

...everyone's invited to the e-village

An Akshaya e-Kendra requires an investment of about Rs 3 lakh, and should have a minimum area of 400 square feet. Purchase of hardware and software should be according to Government guidelines. The three-tier Panchayat (Gram, Block and District) pays the entrepreneurs Rs 100 per person made computer literate at their e-Kendras.Before opening an e-Kendra, an entrepreneur must go through a screening process for assessing their capacity to run and manage one. In addition, those wanting to be trainers have to attend special training workshops. The district's Akshaya Project Cell also has well-qualified staff for monitoring and evaluation of the activities at the Kendras.Siddique, a businessman from Perinthalmanna, initiated several businesses right in his Akshaya e-Kendra-a hotel, an STD/ISD centre, a bookshop, computer and mobile phone sales and services, and more.

Age no bar for e-literacy

He says, ''The Akshaya e-Kendra is a service agency to the people in my village; I am least bothered about the profit from my businesses and e-Kendra! Four to six people visit my e-Kendra daily to register their passport online under the recently-started online passport registration programme."

The E-Literacy Course

An e-literacy course is 15 hours long, with a 90-minute session per day, for which one pays Rs 40. Of the household, women and aged male citizens are given priority. Qualified trainers (with a minimum of a Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Applications) provide training along with interactive CD-based content designed in the local language by the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT), Kerala. 

The content of the CD is user-friendly, with commentary in Malayalam and interactive content and games. After the 15-hour instruction period is completed, one must take an online test.

100 per cent e-literate means everyone!

After attaining e-literacy, the individual would be able to use word processing, gaming, and entertainment programs, and use the Internet for e-mail, browsing, chatting, and so on. Those who have achieved basic e-literacy could enrol in advanced programmes such as e-Vidya-Microsoft Office Package, Internet for all, Arabic typing tutor, Microsoft Unlimited Potential Programme, and more. Upon completion of these programmes, the individual is awarded a Government-recognised certificate from Kerala State IT Mission and the Computer Society of India.

Available for school-going students are computer-aided learning programmes such as Vijayabheri, Intel Learn Programme, Computer Assisted Learning by the Azim Premji Foundation, and various others, along with e-tuition facilities. Also, some trainers at the e-Kendras help them with their school projects.

Malappuram On Top
Since Malappuram is the pilot district, the people enjoy many benefits over those of other districts. Kunchi Bava, who is physically challenged, is well known amongst the residents of Chapapalli village, for his multi-service Akshaya e-Kendra. He says with pride, "Thus far, around 500 families in this village have achieved computer literacy through this e-Kendra." As of now, 400 Akshaya e-Kendras are functioning successfully.

Of 6.5 lakh people, 5.9 lakh individuals have achieved e-literacy through the project, of which 25,738 are certified. Of the e-literates in Malappuram, more than 65 per cent are women. The majority of the trainers at the e-Kendras are women, and there are certain e-Kendras run solely by female entrepreneurs. UNESCO has recently shown interest in supporting the Akshaya project in the field of women empowerment.

Many women, after gaining computer literacy via the project, go on to run e-Kendras. Online education services help students not only via e-tuitions,  but also by way of counselling for their career options.

The project has also generated direct employment for 7,400 people- including the staff at the e-Kendras, content developers, and the project staff.

Future Plans
A future Akshaya e-Kendra would be a multi-purpose centre providing information, communication, and business opportunities, using the available IT infrastructure. The Kerala State IT Mission plans to roll out several new programmes at the Akshaya e-Kendras. After citizens, 38,000 government employees will receive computer training at the centres.

 The next step would be sector-wise intervention, such as the starting of clubs such as the Akshaya student club in various schools, and Bhoomi, a farmers' club, in all Panchayats.

Malappuram is looked up to as an example, and the project will be rolled out in six more districts of the 14 districts in Kerala. Small steps, but inspirational. Is achieving 100 per cent literacy in the country impossible? We don't think so.

Samir Makwana

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