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 India's first e-literate district

The Indian state of Kerala is well known as a model for people-centred development. Anand Parthasarathy reports how one of the state's district, Malappuram, has used a bottom-up approach to planning to produce India's first district with a computer literate member in every family.

On the day when Pushparaj, a 28-year- old manual worker, sat in front of a personal computer for the first time, Shantakumari -32, homemaker, little daughter on her lap-took the last of ten self-paced computer tests.  

The monitor flashed the message: "Congratulations you have now attained computer literacy!" It was accompanied by a triumphant clap of music from the PC's twin speakers, so all the other students in the crowded classroom stopped what they were doing and joined in a round of applause.  

It's a little ritual at the Akshaya e-Kendra (Inexhaustible e-Centre) in Mannupadam, a village nestling on the slopes of hill forests in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Shantakumari's place on the roster will be given to the next student in the waiting list. 

The Mannupadam centre is part of a dynamic self-financing experiment encompassing Kerala's Malappuram district. With five PCs, a printer, a scanner and a webcam all linked to a Pentium 4 server, the centre hosts 12 classes every day -one of 600 centres across the district.  

Time is short and space is limited in the one-room centre run by the local village council. Sometimes during rush hour, a couple of students will cheerfully share a PC. Though that can cause problems when it comes to taking online tests, no one complains: there's a real learning zeal among Mannupadam's 1,200 families, who are eager to boot-strap themselves into a 'connected' future.  

The scheme, which was created by locals, allows one member of each family to undergo training in e-literacy - at his or her own pace -for a fee of just Rs 20 rupees ($0.40). The course includes basic computer skills, letter- writing, Internet and email training, creating pictures with an imaging soft- ware and making international calls using the Voice over Internet Protocol. 

Every time a student completes the course -it typically takes six to eight weeks -the e-centre operator, usually a villager who has bought the equipment and rented the classroom, receives Rs 120 ($2.60) from the village council, paid out of local taxes. The operator is committed to training every family in the village and with the money coming in from training 1,000 or more students; they can pay back most of the loan that went into setting up the centre.  

Although the state government does have a role to play (it acts as surety with the banks), this is a scheme that is entirely run by the villagers for themselves.  

By the time you read this, the Malappuram experiment may have finished: by Christmas, most of the 600 centres will have completed their training and Malappuram will proudly stake its claim to be called India's fIrSt computer-literate district.  

It couldn't happen too soon for Abdul Rahim who runs the Eranjimangad village centre. 

"Most of my students are housewives, some are grandmothers," he says. "They take the course so that they can exchange emails with their husbands or sons in Dubai or Sharjah. Now so many of them come back to download their mails or make cheap Internet telephone calls that I have installed an additional PC just for this business."  

The Akshaya project has been working in imaginative ways:  

  • One village holds midnight classes just so auto-rickshaw drivers -who ply the Indian three-wheeled taxis -can attend classes after their day shift;

  • In another, members of an indigenous tribe offered their ramshackle community centre for free, provided the operator of the nearest e-centre -nine km away - set up a sub-centre in the village. Now the operator trucks in his PCs and printer thrice a week to coach the 150 indigenous tribal families.

  • And the Kerala government is now planning to develop the Malappuram IT infrastructure as a single district-wide network capable of delivering a number of online public services such as tax payment gateways, land records maintenance, birth and death registration and a telemedicine and health alert backbone.

Malappuram's success needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the Indian federal government's ambitious initiative, 'IT For All By 2008' launched in 1998. Although IT is now motoring much of India's economic growth, half way through the initiative few targets have been met: in a nation of over a billion people, the teledensity - the number of telephones for every 100 persons -is a lowly 4.89.  

The PC population is even lower - one in 100. Of them only about half have an Internet connection.  

In spite of sweeping reforms in the telecom sector and the opening up of both terrestrial and mobile services to private enterprise, in India's vast rural hinterland, the teledensity is just over one.  

Kerala, with 31 million people, has always stood apart from the rest of India for its education and health achievements, becoming India's only fully literate state in the 1980s. Its development is partly fuelled by a huge and thrifty non-resident population that has emigrated to the Middle East and repatriates millions of dollars every month. Not surprisingly the state has the second highest teledensity in India at 10.58.  

The district of Malappuram, clinging to the green slopes of India's south- western coast, mirrors Kerala's develop- ment pattern. Nearly everyone is literate; a large number of its 750,000 house- holds work in the Middle East; nearly 40% of households have a telephone connection; over half of these are mobile phones.  

So when the IT revolution rolled into India, Malappuram was well placed to jump swiftly on board and local governing bodies demanded to be provided community PCs and Internet connections. Asking the state government was a formality rather than necessity: since the mid-1990s, Kerala has devolved much of its administrative power to village-level bodies in an initiative that the then Leftist government called 'People's Planning'. 

 With Malappuram's eager village councils shopping around for a collective package of 6,000 PCs, the state's Information Technology Mission, an arm of the Industry Ministry charged with encouraging grassroots computerisation, quickly stepped in with a plan. A computer fair was organised, where e- centre operators could strike bargains. Over 80% of the orders were won by Kerala-based small-scale companies, rather than IT multinationals.  

It was a bottom-up approach to development -one where vast sums of money would not be doled out by the state buying hardware which may never reach the intended user.  

"Compared to most states in India, we have an edge here," says Kerala's IT Secretary Aruna Sundararajan, the bureaucrat leading the state's computers and communication initiatives.  

But some respected grassroots workers, like Prof M.K. Prasad, a well- known botanist, educationist and environmentalist, are less optimistic. "If you base a literacy programme merely on the glamour of a new technology like the Internet, you have to ask yourself, 'what next?"' says Prasad. "Unless the political parties keep their hands off, I'm afraid all this infrastructure will go to waste."  

Prasad is referring to Kerala's famous 'see-saw' politics of two alliances -specifically the tendency of the electorate to kick out the ruling alliance every time, leading to some fears that every new government may undo some of the reforms of its predecessor.  

Happily, Akshaya's initial success has so far remained free from partisan flak, and for very pragmatic reasons: no one wants to be seen to be opposing technology, particularly when the average person -and voter -seems to have embraced it.  

But there are challenges. A Times of India editorial highlighted some down- sides of Kerala's development record, including high unemployment, lack of social mobility, 'incomplete' families with men working away from home and the "emptiness of living longer without any purposeful activity".  

"Malappuram can be a beacon of hope only if the newly-acquired computer literacy leads to productive opportunities that meet the people's aspirations for a better life," the paper concluded.  

Kerala's e-literacy drive is not spectacular either in terms of the money involved or the targets. But in a nation short on genuine success stories, Malappuram is rapidly becoming a development signpost of sorts, high- lighting the fact that at least one Indian village - that cliched symbol of economic deprivation -has empowered itself without having to queue up for official handouts.  

Anand Parthasarathy covers Information Technology for The Hindu, the Indian national daily.  

This feature was .first published by Panos Features, Panos Institute, 9 White Lion St, London Nl 9PD, UK. Email: Web site:


Reproduced from Appropriate Technology (Volume 31/ issue 1 (2004), pages 28-29) with permission from Research Information Ltd.


 Making a difference to the dying Aral Sea
The Aral sea in Central Asia has been described as 'the world's worst environmental catastrophe'. The area is home to 40 million people, who depend on farming for their living. Water is essential but very scarce as the Soviet Union over- used the resources of the Aral sea to irrigate cotton and other crops. Over-use of water has caused the Aral sea to shrink to half its original size. Iskandar Abdullaev reports how the situation is being reversed through better water management. 

Water diversions for cotton and other agricultural crops have robbed the Aral Sea of adequate supplies of water to sustain itself, resulting in a severe environmental crisis. This has forced millions of people to migrate to other regions.  

A once thriving fishing industry has all but disappeared. Salt from the dry sea basin is carried for long distances by the wind and deposited on cultivated areas causing crop failure. Every year millions suffer without adequate drinking water or water for irrigation.

The human environment of the basin has undergone a dramatic change. The basin itself is now a changed landscape, governed by unnatural processes. The extent of these changes is so great that natural rehabilitation is impossible. More than 2.5 million people live in this disaster zone. Not only are they under severe ecological pressure, but they are also suffering from social and cultural degradation. Exposure to polluted water, food, and air is causing severe health problems. More than 85 percent of the women suffer from anemia, which causes health risks during pregnancy. Respiratory illnesses are found in more than 60 percent of the population.  

How can research help a degraded environment and people suffering great hardship? Water resources management is a first step for political stabilization in Central Asia. Since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the centralized irrigation infrastructure of the region is a dinosaur of the past, delivering inadequate water supplies to users and stirring up tensions between regional countries. Improving how water is managed and allocated can bring a measure of stability, food and livelihood security to the people.  

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Scientific Information Center of Interstate Coordination Water Commission (SIC ICWC) are studying "best water conservation practices" for water users in an attempt to reverse the negative impacts of bad resource management and bring about a reform.  

The "Best Practices Project" identified and selected innovative land and water conservation methods practiced by individual fanners, agricultural enterprises (cooperatives, collective farms and private enterprises), as well as water management units.  

The best practices selected included:  

Alternate dry furrows -the application of dry and wet furrows alternately can increase field and farm level water productivity by 8 to 10 percent and reduce water supply rates by 20 percent. This practice has the highest impact on water productivity increase at field level. However, it is not recommended for saline areas, as dry furrows tend to become saline easily.  

Short furrows -irrigation by short furrows gives a better distribution of water and reduces deep percolation and runoff. As a result, less water is needed.  

Reuse of drainage water -at field level, drainage water can be captured and reused for irrigation. Irrigated fields are divided into several sections. After irrigation of the upper sections, drainage water can be used for irrigating the next sections. This is an effective way of conserving water, although it requires higher labor input. 

Change of crop pattern -farmers grow drought-tolerant and higher cash crops in the middle and tail reaches of the Aral Sea Basin. Many farmers have shifted from rice and vegetables to cotton because of higher returns which ensure better livelihood security.  

Soil surface leveling -leveling the soil surface leads to a more uniform distribution of water. It can also reduce field level drainage formation by 15-20 percent.  

Night irrigation -night irrigation improves water availability for tail-end fields and farms. At night, water flows into drainage. Capturing and using this irrigation water at night, increases water use efficiency.  

Partial rehabilitation of irrigation-drainage infrastructure -the rehabilitation of irrigation- drainage infrastructure includes the lining of canals, cleaning of drainage systems and installing regulation equipment within irrigation systems.  

These cost-effective, and simple techniques were local innovations, adapted by farmers and water managers for better agricultural performance. More than eight water management organizations, seven water user associations, 12 co-operative and 18 private farms from allover Central Asia participated in the project, which took place in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river basins of the region.  

The results of the research clearly demonstrated that farmers have developed exemplary practices that could provide models for water use throughout the basin. This shows that communities in the region are capable of devising their own practical solutions to handle the water crisis.  

Such water conservation practices have several potential benefits at field, farm and system levels, including increasing yields and income, decreasing volumetric fees, increasing control over water, and reduction of water logging and salinity. There are definite impacts that water conservation has shown in increasing water productivity. In the project areas, water productivity increased by 10-20 percent over the last three years (2001-2003).  

Interestingly the analysis showed that in the Syr Darya river basin there are external factors that shape and determine incentives for water conservation. Some of these factors are financial, moral and administrative. According to the survey the highest percentage of water users -one-third - showed moral or religious incentives as the major reason for water conservation. Financial incentives, such as the introduction of water delivery service fees were indicated as an incentive by 20 percent of water users. Administrative and technical incentives, such as discipline and strict control of water were also listed by 30 percent of the water users.  

Iskandar Abdullaev is a researcher at the International Water Management Institute Central Asia and Caucasus, e- mail: i.abdullaev@cgiar:org

Reproduced from Appropriate Technology (Volume 31/ issue 1 (2004), pages 48-49) with permission from Research Information Ltd.


 Quality bricks for well linings
Hand dug wells in developing countries are often lined with reinforced concrete caisson linings. However, they are not always the most appropriate for most rural communities. Sam Godfrey, of the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), discusses how clay bricks could be more appropriate as long as quality materials are used in their manufacture. 

There are two main reasons why caisson well linings are inappropriate: they are expensive as they can't be manufactured locally; and they only offer limited sanitary protection.  

Studies undertaken in Angola indicate that in rural communities, limited human resources, inadequate curing and poor quality building sand result in poor concrete. This means that concrete cracks occur in the well lining, allowing it to be contaminated by bacterial and viral pathogens. An alternative lining, like clay bricks is therefore required.  

Although other lining materials such as wood, stone and plastic are commonly used, clay bricks were selected for this research as the technology to make them is well known in Angola. They are also labour intensive and they promote broad community participation.  

Clay bricks are appropriate for lining wells but their quality can be improved by better manufacturing processes.  

This article suggests appropriate field methods for assuring quality manufacture of bricks that were developed between 1999-2001 under both UK laboratory conditions for three months and then field trailed in Angola for a further two years. This article focuses on the use of clay bricks to line both the shaft and the intake of a hand dug well where the intake is unmortared and the shaft is mortared. It notes that the frequent failure of clay brick well linings is often due to poor quality control during manufacturing. In the study it was noted that bricks failed for several reasons: they disintegrated when submerged in water in the well intake; stress fractured or cracked the bricks so the lining collapsed; and pollutants and fine materials enter the well through the unmortared linings of the intake due to shrinkage of bricks when fired.

The reason for the research was therefore to explore means of improving clay brick manufacturing with the specific objectives of developing appropriate field methods for the classification, preparation, moulding, drying and firing of a variety of clays. To achieve the objective, the research attempted to establish a link between field based methods of clay brick making applicable to developing countries and British Standard specifications for clay brick manufacturing BS3291:1985 (BSI, 1985). This was accomplished through two types of tests; one using UK based mechanized laboratory experiments and the second using appropriate field based tests in Angola. The tests were done at each of the five stages of clay brick making as outlined in figure I.

Stage 1  Quarrying (classification of clays) -to ensure that technicians in developing countries can select appropriate clays for lining wells. These include three main tests: plasticity, natural moisture content and sedimentation tests.
Stage 2  Pre-processing -involves the processing of clays to make them suitable for forming bricks. Tests include establishing the working moisture content (WMC) and developing appropriate methods of mixing.
Stage 3  Forming (Moulding) -involves forming or moulding of the clays into a brick. Tests include comparison of effectiveness of hand and mechanical moulding.
Stage 4  Drying (natural/artificial)-examines the effects of both natural and artificial drying conditions on the formed brick.  Tests to achieve this include establishing shrinkage levels of blocks under varied conditions.
Stage 5  Firing -preheating, baking and cooling involves the firing and post firing quality control including the compressive strength, shrinkage level and water absorption capacity of the brick.


Reproduced from Appropriate Technology (Volume 31/ issue 1 (2004), pages 49-50) with permission from Research Information Ltd.

A boost to rural communications

Despite India's strides in many areas of technology, poor communications, especially in the rural areas, continues to hold back development. The telecom- munications network has for long remained concentrated in the urban and industrial centres, but that may soon change. Radhakrishna Rao reports how a new system, corDECT, could boost rural communications. 

India's teledensity at little over 5 per lOOO is still one of the lowest in the Asia Pacific region. And the thrust of India's latest telecommunications poli- cy on bringing the rural areas under the communications network of the country depends on the technological innova- tions suited to Indian needs and condi- tions.  

Against this backdrop, corDECT, a system based on the Wireless in Local Loop (WLL) technology has proved to be a cost effective and appropriate solu- tion for expanding the communications network in India and other third world countries. It has been developed by the Telecommunications and Computer Network (TeNet) group of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, under the guidance of Prof.Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who is head of the Electrical Engineering Department. Prof. Jhunjhunwala feels that more than 150 million telephone lines are vital to speed up India's socio-economic growth.  

"corDECT can provide simultane- ous voice telephony and 35/70 Kilo bits per second (kbps) Internet access -this means one can talk while using the Internet," said Prof.Ashok Jhunjhunwala. "The system replaces the traditional copper twisted pair local loop," says Shishir Purohit, head of Midas Communication Technologies. "It pro- vides better voice and data transfer. The corDECT offered by Midas provides 35 kbps and 70 kbps internet and a simul- taneous voice connection to a sub- scriber at a cost of little over US$300". corDect is based on the Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommuni- cations (DECT) standards specified by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.  

Basically, the corDECT system con- sists of a subscriber unit called Wallset with Internet Port (WS-IP) located at the subscriber's premises. It has a stan- dard interface for a telephone and a serial port to connect a PC without a modem for internet access. The WS-IP is connected to a wireless base station and the base station is connected to an access unit comprising a DECT Interface Unit.  

This system has been installed not only in various parts of India but also in other third world countries including Argentina, Brazil, Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Tunisia, Iran and Yemen. Telecorn experts in India think that the extensive use of the low cost corDECT system in sparsely populated rural areas, small towns and suburbs of big cities could help India to catch up the countries of the Asia Pacific region in terms of telephone penetration and internet access.  

Jhunjhunwala's dream is to network all the six million plus villages in India using corDECT. The State of Tamilnadu is sponsoring Rural Access to Services through Internet, and n- Logue has been given a licence to manufacture corDECT. 700 villages spread over ten districts of the state have been connected through corDECT. 

"We like to have 30 projects in Tamilnadu running by March 2004 with each project connecting 250-300 villages," says D. G. Ponnappa, Chief Executive Officer of n-Logue. "It is expected to serve nearly 20-rnillion people."  

The current thrust of n-Logue is to provide village level kiosks named "Chirag" (meaning light). These kiosks provide telephone connection and inter- net access and are supported by corDECT. Meanwhile Hindustan Lever Ltd, a leading Indian producer of consumer goods, is in talks with n- Logue to explore the possibility of using "chirag" by its village level self help groups for accessing information on agriculture, weather, fertilisers and pesticides, education, jobs, government schemes and health. Recently, Midas Communications Technologies secured a US$12-rnillion order from Egypt to install 2,00,000 telephone lines based on corDECT system. This is claimed to be the biggest telecom export order won by an Indian firm. On another front, Midas has suc- cessfully executed a US$2.2-million project aimed at providing communica- tions service in the nine cities of Brazil as part of the mini-minor licensing scheme introduced by the Brazilian government to provide telephones and related services to semi urban and rural areas in the country.  

According to Midas, "corDECT was chosen by the Brazilian government because it is capable of providing both voice and internet services and is the most cost effective solution both in terms of capital expenditure and recur- ring operating expenses to run the sys- tem. corDECT is also approved by the Brazilian Regulatory Authority".  

While elaborating on the factors that motivate him to design and devel- op corDECT along with the members of Tenet team Prof. Jhunjhunwala says, "Internet is power. It enables people. It is changing the way we live. Those without internet will have tremendous disadvantage as we go on. We would like to see that all villages get reason- ably good internet connections at the earliest".  

For further information contact Prof Jhunjhunwala, The Telecom- munications and Computer Networks Group(TeNeT), Department of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science & Engineering, IIT Madras, Chennai-600036, India. E-mail: Website:


Reproduced from Appropriate Technology (Volume 30/ issue 3 (2003), pages 26-27) with permission from Research Information Ltd.



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