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Regional Strategies > Articles > Empowerment And Cyberspace: The Many Faces Of New Media >

Empowerment And Cyberspace: The Many Faces Of New Media

Madanmohan Rao reports from the "IT and Empowerment" conference in Bangalore

Can the Internet help empower people - or does it actually reinforce existing inequities in society? Can the non-profit, academic, government and private sectors together address, analyse and assess the socio-economic consequences of IT diffusion in urban and rural societies?

Close to a hundred delegates debated these issues in Bangalore recently at the two-day conference provocatively titled "IT and Empowerment: The Greater the Access, The More the Divide?"

Hosted by Indian non-governmental organisations Madhyam  (madhyam@giasbg01.vsnl.net.in), Voices (voices@vsnl.com), South Asia Media Association, and the Delhi office of the German NGO Friedrich Eberhardt Stiftung (www.fes.de), the event promises to become an annual affair to broaden the scope of dialogue and action on the larger context of IT issues.

Publishing of conference proceedings and online discussion will be coordinated via a group of Web sites including Indian Webzine INOMY (www.inomy.com). Earlier conferences in Bangalore - such as BangaloreIT.com - have also addressed similar issues, and in 1998 the Bangalore Declaration on IT in Developing Nations (http://www.csa.iisc.ernet.in/bangit/bangdec/bangdec.html) was passed, drawing attention to the opportunities and challenges of the Internet economy.

Plans to bridge the digital divide must address not just basic connectivity issues, but also local content, affordable infrastructure, online/offline discussion fora, sustainable business models, user-friendly interfaces, multi-channel media synergies, local skillsets, and multi-sector cooperation.

For instance, the Centre for Education and Documentation (www.doc-centre.org) in Mumbai and Bangalore assists NGOs not just via Internet access facilities but also workshops in Intranet management and the use of freeware and shareware like Linux.

"The Internet and Intranet are useful for furthering documentation and information-linking activities as well as quick communication and coordination among NGOs," said Shubha Chacko, an activist at CED.

"Our Indialink initiative helped link NGOs online and coordinate activism around environmental, gender and nuclear energy issues," she said.

Coordination of conferences via the Net has helped develop less of a local bias and include more participation from different parts of the country, she observed; for instance, conferences held in the capital city can become less "Delhi-centric."

"We are strongly in favour of Linux. The basic open philosophy of Linux resonates with the outlook of NGOs as well," Chacko observed. CED uses freeware to manage document systems as well as email archives.

Linux is good for low-budget organisations; it is very easy to get support online from the Linux user community for problems you may encounter, Chacko added. CED has been popularising Linux among NGOs via educational workshops and demos.

Getting low cost software and content is also a concern for voluntary training organisations like Each One, Teach One. Based in Bangalore, it has 10 computers for training underprivileged children.

Freeware and shareware can play a key role here as well, such as Linux, Apache, Star Office, and iLeap (for Indian language tools). The Mumbai-based site FreeOS.com is attempting to popularise local flavours of Linux in India, among corporates as well as NGOs.

Work is being done in India on visual (non-textual) interfaces to the Web, as well as on translating content between English and various Indian languages so as to bridge language and literacy gaps.

Non-resident Indians successful in Silicon Valley are plowing money and expertise back into IT ventures in  their home country. For instance, B.V. Jagadeesh, CTO of Web hosting pioneer Exodus Communications, has invested angel funds in Bangalore-based iEnablers.net, which is launching a low cost email reading device called iConnect.

"The future is in networking. NGOs need to actively work towards making their voices heard in cyberspace," Chacko urged.

"There is no doubt at all the Net has been invaluable in assisting communities which are vulnerable and have been victimised," said Manchin Hangzo, based at the Bangalore office of ActionAid (www.actionaidindia.org).

"We found that AIDS patients were able to uncover a lot of useful information online and get in touch with support groups via the Net. The relative anonymity of the Net can also help rape victims come out and talk about their problems and find help and resource organisations online," she said.

In addition to relief for such marginalised groups, the Net can also play an important role in nurturing local communities, especially in rural areas. Across the world, conferences like the recent Global Community Networking summit in Barcelona (www.gcn2000.org) have focused on the intersection between the global economy and local communities via telecentres and community access points.

"It is important for us to benchmark regional knowledge-driven initiatives," said

Aditya Dev Sood, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and founder of the Bangalore Centre for Knowledge Societies (www.socsci.org).

Various hardware and mediation options are emerging for local Internet access, said Sood, such as low-cost e-kiosks (or e-iosks) and simple devices like loudspeakers to disseminate online messages. Loudspeakers are used at the telecentres of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Pondicheery, south India, to broadcast downloaded weather alerts to fishermen; other volunteer-driven services focus on education, health and basic information services.

Many rural telecentre initiatives like the Swaminathan project succeed in bottom-up assessment of information needs, but have very high costs, minimal returns, and long gestation periods. The Swaminathan project is also difficult to scale up, hard to replicate in other regions, and susceptible to political issues (such as caste conflicts), said Sood.

Effective rural IT projects will fall somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum (kiosks and telecentres), according to Sood.

Other telecentre projects are emerging in Warana (Maharashtra), Madurai (Tamil Nadu),  Dhar (Madhya Pradesh), and Bihar.

"In rural areas, it would appear that land-owning groups will be the first to acquire and harness IT. The new entrants to the IT revolution will come from this class," Sood said. Areas ripe for harnessing with rural IT include teleworking and bio-technology projects.

Sood called for more consensus between NGOs, private and public sectors on IT initiatives. "Many government projects are being undertaken in an undemocratic and non-transparent manner, without full disclosure of details or rationale," Sood observed.

The Right to Information Act, even when passed, must be implemented in full spirit, he urged.

"While the state and corporate sector have begun working together to build telecom infrastructure, these efforts will not significantly improve the lives of rural citizen-consumers unless the NGO sector -- particularly grass-roots NGOs -- begin addressing the challenge and possibilities of IT and the Net," Sood said.

"Given its mix of good IT skills and yet poor human development indices, India has a lot of responsibility towards the rest of the developing world in exploring such new IT frontiers," said Sood.

The Bellandur village administration (just outside Bangalore) is a good example of a village which has computerised its operations, according to Vinay Baindur of local NGO  CIVIC.

At a time when over 100 FM radio licenses have been issued in the country, commercial and community radio can help overcome the "last mile" problem by facilitating Internet access via facilities at the radio station. Elsewhere in South Asia, a rural community initiative in Kothmale in Sri Lanka uses community radio as a bridging device to facilitate online information flow to rural communities; sites like InterWorldRadio.org also provide online content for use by radio stations.

Bangalore-based media advocacy NGO Voices demonstrated a radio-station-in-a-suitcase. "We must explore synergies between the Net and community radio," urged Ashish Sen, director of Voices.

Voices has been using this technology in its community radio training initiatives in Kannakkapura in partnership with the Shree Ramanna Makharishi Academy of the

Blind (SRMAB) and in Kolar in partnership with MYRADA. A community Net

programme is also planned for persons with disabilities in the Kannakkapura area.

All those involved and affected by IT projects must critically question and assess technology at each stage, said Deepa Krishnan, a consultant at Tata Infotech (www.tatainfotech.com).

"In many cases, existing stereotypes of learned behaviour - such as gender attitudes - get carried over to the online medium as well. We should also be careful of blindly following practices in other countries like the U.S., or of repeating some of the mistakes made with other media like radio and TV," she said.

She also questioned whether the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation's telecentre projects were sustainable, and whether they were really empowering the local communities.

Resources for digitisation, data entry, computer literacy, and direct access to technology (without interfering middlemen) can become key concerns in rural IT, said Krishnan.

"It seems to be the case that you first need to create some social change in order to let IT create further social change," Krishnan observed.

"Empowerment means different things to different people, and one must be careful with broad generalisations," she cautioned. Different technologies have different strengths and weaknesses, and need to be harnessed appropriately.

"The Net can help NGOs in communicating across borders and time zones, and also assist in coordinating projects. NGO Web sites can give their funders direct access to accounting and activity information," said K. Gurumurthy, consultant at e-finance services company iFlexSolutions.com (formerly called CITIL).

Successful and timely project management for IT ventures will be key concerns for NGOs, he said.

Everybody is entering villages today with computers - companies, government agencies, research groups, and NGOs, observed Sunil Abraham of Bangalore-based Web solutions firm IndiaCares.org, which designs Web sites for NGOs free of cost. "But I don't think we should expect the Net to overcome centuries of oppressive politics," he said.

"We should be looking at creating 'village Intranets' which leverage systems like micro-credit and local online currencies to sustain the local economy. National currencies like the rupee should be used only to interface with the economy outside the village for e-commerce," Abraham suggested.

Multiple banks and barter systems can also be set up for different communities - like women, Dalits. This way, the village economy has a way of shielding itself from the turbulence of global financial markets, he said.

Village Intranets can serve added functions via documenting the activity of their elected officials, thus facilitating transparency and accountability.

While providing local training in IT skills will entail significant resources, several experiments (like NIIT's observation of learned surfing behaviour among slum kids) show that many of these skills can be refined hands-on.

Device and costs need to come down; donations of older and used PCs by Indian corporates and software companies could play a significant role here. "Unfortunately, because of legal loopholes, the Software Technology Parks of India are not allowed to donate their older machines to NGOs. This needs to be changed," Abraham urged.

Organisations like WorldComputerExchange.org are playing a prominent role in this regard, by re-circulating used PCs.

As for citizens' rights to information, the Net can be a democraticising medium, said Bangalore-based advocate Lawrence Liang, who runs a law site called IndiaLawInfo.com.

Numerous online initiatives around the world - in countries like Iceland, Italy, Spain and Sweden -- are empowering citizens with access to basic information about health, social amenities, and government policymaking.

On the flip side, e-surveillance by private and government agencies is also increasing, Liang cautioned.

Legislation like the IT Act 2000 and the upcoming Convergence Bill are geared more towards e-commerce activities, and not towards social movements or citizens rights.

"The IT Act 2000 requires a huge bureaucracy to support features like digital certificates and digital signatures," Liang added.

Much hope has been raised over the potential of using the Net for distance education in India. "But we must not assume that the more information we have and the faster we can access it, the better it is," cautioned Veda Mohan, manager at the SchoolNet project for networked learning (http://www.schoolnetindia.com/.

"We must creatively explore how the Net may assist the development of multiple intelligencies in logic, language, spatial reasoning, art, kinesthetics, and intra/inter personal areas," she said.

New kinds of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment will be required for online learning, Mohan said. SchoolNet is currently working with ten government schools on such initiatives.

 "We also need to harness Indian examples and contexts. For instance, the art of kolam (rangoli) can be a good tool for teaching mathematical concepts," she said.

SchoolNet designs XML-based course material (for Web and CD-ROM) in conjunction with publishing houses like MacMillan and Oxford.

Other notable South Asian NGO resources online include BytesForAll.org, Child Relief and You (http://www.cry.org/, CauseAnAffect.org, DigitalDivide.org, India Network Foundation (http://www.indnet.org/, and Jiva (www.jiva.org).

But in many NGOs, there are people resistant to the introduction and adoption of IT. "NGOs should remain dedicated to the issue of empowerment by multiple means, and not act as new middlemen who deny their constituencies the potential benefits of IT," cautioned Munira Sen of Madhyam.

NGOs must work towards giving people an informed choice with respect to new media, she concluded.


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com

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