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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Rural knowledge revolution: a road map

Daily News: 12/07/2005" by M.S. Swaminathan

Technology helps to achieve a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work and thereby move large numbers of the rural poor from the primary to the secondary and tertiary sectors of economic activity.

The country is at long last becoming sensitive to the serious consequences of the growing rural-urban divide in terms of investment, infrastructure and opportunities for income and employment. The rural-urban divide also leads to an expanding rich-poor divide.

Since crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, and agro-processing are the main sources of rural livelihoods, the current agrarian crisis is adding to the problems of hunger, poverty, and unemployment. According to the Union Planning Commission, we are off-track in achieving most of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

No wonder, the President of India has been calling for an accelerated provision of urban amenities in rural areas (PURA). The Prime Minister has also proposed a massive Bharat Nirman programme.

A major cause for the growing rich-poor divide both between and within nations is unequal access to modern technology.

Technology helps to achieve a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work and thereby move large numbers of the rural poor from the primary to the secondary and tertiary sectors of economic activity.

If technology has been a major factor in promoting economic and social divides in the past, the challenge now lies in enlisting technology as an ally in the movement for economic, gender, and social equity.

Keeping the above in view, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation has been working during the Past 15 years on the skill and knowledge empowerment of the rural poor based on a pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-woman orientation to technology development and dissemination. Further, the aim has been to substitute jobless economic growth with job-led growth.

This is particularly essential in the present day context when unemployment and under-employment are taking a heavy toll on the morale of the youth.

Similarly, "technology fatigue" in agriculture caused by inadequacies in research and extension efforts, has led to increasing indebtedness among farm households.

According to the latest report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (May 3, 2005) nearly 48.6 per cent of the 90 million farm households are caught in the debt trap. In Andhra Pradesh, 57 out of 100 indebted households are beholden to moneylenders. Although there has been much effort to increase and streamline institutional credit, small farmers still depend upon moneylenders for a variety of reasons. Farm women have by and large been bypassed by the institutional credit system, since they do not have ownership rights over land.

Modern agriculture is becoming knowledge intensive.

Farmers need both generic and dynamic information on matters relating to farm operations and markets. The extension system by and large has not been able to respond to their needs, particularly in the area of dynamic information and advice on economically viable crop diversification and land and water use based on meteorological and marketing factors. Trade, quality and genetic literacy is low both among farm and fisher communities.

The work undertaken by MSSRF in setting up community centred and managed Village Knowledge Centres (VKCs) in Pondicherry based on modern information and communication technologies (ICT) has shown that ICT helps to improve the timeliness and efficiency of farm operations and enhances income through producer-oriented markets.

Also, experience has shown that bridging the digital divide is a powerful method of bridging the gender divide.

Knowledge connectivity therefore confers multiple economic and social benefits. The VKCs operate on the principle of social inclusion.

The information provided, which includes location-specific data on entitlements to different Government schemes, is demand driven and is in the local language.

For example, in Pondicherry there are over 150 schemes designed to help the poor; yet nearly 20 per cent of families are below the poverty line. After the onset of the digital age, knowledge on entitlements and how to access them has grown rapidly.

Encouraged by the ability of rural women and men to take to ICT like fish to water, the MSSRF initiated in 1993, two major steps to take ICT to every one of the over 600,000 villages in India by August 15, 2007, which marks the 60th anniversary of "our tryst with destiny." The first is the organisation of a National Alliance for Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre.

The second is the establishment of the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity with generous support from the Tata Education Trust.

There are a large number of innovative initiatives both in the government and non-governmental sectors to take ICT to agrarian communities. A few examples are: ITC's e-choupals, EID Parry's Agri-line project, Kissan Kerala, Akshaya in Kerala, Bhoomi in Karnataka, Drishti in Haryana, SEWA in Gujarat, MSSRF's VKCs in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, E-Sewa in AP, N-Logue of IIT, Chennai, Gyandoot in Madhya Pradesh, Maha agrinet, Maharashtra, and Tarahaat of Delhi.

Government should provide community radio licenses to VKCs through a single window clearance system. The Internet-community radio combination is a powerful method for delivery of dynamic information. Public policy in promoting the use of community radio should be based on the following principle enunciated by the Supreme Court in its judgment delivered in December1995: "Air waves constitute public property and must be used for advancing public good." This is the same principle enshrined in the Dandi March movement of Mahatma Gandhi in relation to seawater.

While connectivity can be achieved if there is the requisite political will, content will decide whether or not rural families find the VKCs useful. The content must be demand driven and dynamic.

At a recent meeting held at MSSRF, panchayati raj leaders have promised that they will provide space, electricity, and telephones for establishing VKCs on the panchayat office premises. Thus, all the 2,34,676 village panchayats in 31 States and Union Territories as well as traditional councils in the northeastern States can be brought together under the umbrella of the National Alliance.

A hub-spokes model will help to reach all villages from panchayat VKCs. Such centres can be operated by ICT-self-help groups of rural women and men.

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

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