Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) support development and social infrastructure projects? Will the money invested in communication devices and computers bring in tangible benefits to the targeted group or it is better spent on providing food, shelter, health and education?
This is the dilemma funding agencies and donor organisations/governments often find themselves in. But the choice need not be ‘either or’. If used intelligently and innovatively, ICTs can form an integral component of development projects. This has been amply proved by the Village Resource Centres (VRC) – a unique concept developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
VRC is a concept built on the mandate of the country’s premier space organisation to develop space related technologies and apply them to the real problems of man and society. It is a service that facilitates information to the fishermen in the middle of the sea, where to find schools of fish; a service where a doctor sitting in a corporate hospital treats patients in a remote village in Kerala; a service that sources out scores of vocational course and churns out thousands of skilled/semiskilled workers. In short, this is a service that can harnesses technology to enhance livelihoods and skills for rural prosperity. The best part of the VRCs is that it does not use technology because it is there, but uses it for a genuine advantage. People and their contexts decide the implementation of development interventions. The needs of the people and the best means to satisfy them determine the entire programme.
NGO LINK UP
The programme, launched in 2004, runs in association with NGOs / Trusts and concerned state/ central agencies. This is to optimise the resources and to increase the reach and the quantum of content. While ISRO has set up VRCs in association with state governments in Sikkim, Nagaland and Kerala, it tied up with several genuine NGOs in many states. It has also forged consortia of NGOs to facilitate sharing of content. While ISRO primarily provides satellite connectivity and bandwidth; telemedicine and tele-education facilities; and available/ customised spatial information on natural resources, along with indigenously developed query system, the responsibilities of housing, managing and operating the VRCs, with all relevant contents rest with the associating agencies.
Laboratories, especially national labs, which have resources, have a superficial perception of the needs and demands of population. On the other hand, the NGOs who have a grassroot perception of the problems , rarely have the technological resources to solve them. To overcome this mismatch, NGOs associated with VRCs carry out extensive household surveys and gain a better understanding of the needs of the local population that range from need for information to need for finances. Linkages with banks, government bodies, universities, market agencies, hospitals and insurance companies provide supplementary information and services. Programmes, courses and services are then charted out based on the inputs from these discussions. A gamut of services are provided by the VRCs ranging from information and advisories on land use, natural resources to providing completely structured courses in computer literacy, carpentry, plumbing etc churning out trained nursing assistants, lab technicians and electrical technicians.
VRCs have created a revolution of sorts with its programmes. For instance, the programme on micro enterprise and micro credit helps the self help groups right from the feasibility study through preparing project proposal, securing loans to providing hands-on training and providin market linkages. MS Swaminathan Foundation’s (MSSRF) ‘knowledge on wheels’ is yet another unique programme. Under this, MSSRF tied up with Shankar Netralaya to provide eye care facilities and create eye care awareness using the VRC network. “The programmes envisages bringing the experts and grassroots level communities together in two-way communication with the objective that knowledge should reach every home,” quips Senthil Kumaran, Director.
Unlike ISRO-MSSRF VRCs, ISROAMRITA VRCs, working in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are dedicated to the cause of education, health and community capacity building.
The SEWA-ABHIYAN VRC network in Gujarat specialises in skill development courses, coaching classes for students and training for SHGs. The DHAN-Byrraju Foundtion working in Andhra Pradesh has tied up with the agricultural university for advisories on agriculture and Swamy Ramnanda Theertha Rural Institute for livelihood activities. This apart, DHAN-Byrraju network doles out a variety of programmes that include embroidery classes, beautician courses and coaching for engineering entrances. To sum up the activities at VRCs in the words of Dr VS Hegde (Project Coordinator, VRC, ISRO) , “Lot of experimentation is happening. I can’t say big things are happening, but definitely unique things are happening.”
The availability of broadband network has enhanced the operational capacities of partner agencies in terms of both quantity and quality. Interactive services are enabled through VRCs to attract more users. For example, MSSRF VRC Thangachhimadam, Tamil Nadu, which used to have around 125 consultations per month has started getting more than 500 consultations after it graduated to ISRO-MSSRF VRC. This trend is visible in all VRCs. “We are bringing the power of synchronous learning to the public,” asserts Dr Hegde.
ONLINE DECISION SUPPORT
With ISRO making available information on land and water resources through comprehensive databases on detailed scales extracted from high resolution satellite imageries, VRCs bring access to spatial information on various themes such as land-use/land-cover, soil, ground water prospects but also enable the farmers to get query based decision support.
GIS databases comprising all thematic layers, cadastral boundaries, road network, canal and drainage network have been created. A software has been developed to accessing and querying the natural resource information and related advisories, which enables farmers to get online decision support at cadastral levels.
ISSUES AND CHALLENGES
While it has always been a challenge to evolve high-end technological solutions (like VRCs) to solve grassroot problems, the VRC experience has taught many a valuable lessons that gave impetus to take the programme further. First, it has established that a synergy and convergence with other initiatives is vital to bring in tangible benefits of technology to the rural people.
For example, the ISRO-MSSRF VRCs in Tamil Nadu is able to provide enhanced services because of its convergent activity with Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity (NVA) and Microsoft Unilimited Potential Programme .
Similarly, ISRO is able to service all the hardware needs of the VRCs across the country with the help of a call centre set up in association with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and deals all the software issues with AMRITA and inhouse resources.
At this point, it is important to note that to widen the activities and reach out to larger population, VRCs should