South-South ICT-Enabled Traveling Workshop, India (2)

Nna, who park this one hia?!

After the morning ride from the hotel today, the meeting began at 10am at the MSSRF RKC Hub in Pillaiyarkuppam, with Prof. Arunachalam inviting the newest participant (from Kenya) to introduce himself. He then went on to ask two participants to express their thoughts about yesterday’s sessions and the first comment praised “the global dimension the workshop enjoys (from participation) and its proper planning”. A second comment noted that yesterday was a “great networking opportunity and the workshop is holding in a perfect, peaceful location – and I am really impressed with the work that is being done by the local community”. Prof. Arunchalam then asked participants to leave their names and email addresses, and would be invited to join the C3Net which is a mailing list of about 100 people – 60% of whom have attended the traveling workshop and others from development partners. He highlighted the importance of the day’s activities, which will be coordinated by Nancy, and would mostly involve communication between workshop participants and village communities that will be visited.

Nancy invited the two village representatives (Embalam and Veerrampattinam) for their presentation – which were all made in the local language, with the use of PowerPoint slides and translated into English by Nancy. The first presentation was on the Embalam Knowledge Centre, which was inaugurated in 1999 by Prof. Arunachalam and Dr. Bruce Albert, then the head of the US-based National Academy of Science. The village has a population of 4500, of which 2,500 are women – and there are 37 women self-help groups. Literacy rate is 80%, the main occupation is agriculture and four of the villagers have won the MSSRF NVA fellows. Last year, the village won a Presidential award and it was amazing for them to see the president live and not on the television as usual. Two of the fellows have participated in the World Summit on the Information Society meetings (one in Geneva and the other in Tunis), and have since been popularly referred to by the names of the cities they visited by the other villagers. She also gave examples of how the villagers have been able to use ICT tools for information retrieval, agricultural practices support and access to health services (precaution, disease control, etc). The information received by women volunteers are taken to the community in their local languages.

The second part of the presentation (made by another volunteer) focused on training programs by Knowledge Workers, which hardware, software, open content, modern agriculture technology, management and heath (recognizing cataracts). The knowledge workers in turn provide such training to their community members. The villagers also enjoy free legal services that have since learnt from the community knowledge center models. Another volunteer continued at this point, stating the problems they have faced in the village and how they have been able to find solutions to these problems. Such problems include the single siren that called farmers off the farm at only one period of the day, but has now been increased to two times in order to reduce tension between landlords and farmers. The problem of news reach has also been met with a solution in form of knowledge workers who help to relay news, while the volunteers now receive stipends that help them to meet family needs – along with the enviable status of traveling opportunities. She showed pictures of her participation at the WSIS meeting in Tunis, and a local newspaper report on another knowledge worker’s Geneva trip.

Another knowledge worker took over at this point, and she discussed the newspaper project. The data collation, editing and production are managed by the community itself, and the newspaper includes information on employment opportunities – through which one of the villagers got his job. Each page is dedicated to a specific area of interest (such as agriculture) and this helps them with content management. Local practices are documented as part of the Open Knowledge Network project, and these have been very beneficial to the villagers. Prof. Arunachalam advised that the presentation will be translated into English and made available to participants. The presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session that includes the following questions and answers:

(a) Question: How do volunteers manage to combine their daily lives with volunteerism?
Answer: Each volunteer prepares a personal timetable to decide when they would have to be at the Knowledge Centre and at home. Family members have also been helpful in the delivery of their work and they take care of visiting families and friends on Saturdays and Sundays. They are also strongly motivated by the passion for social value delivery.

(b) Question: How is the newspaper production financed?
Answer: About 5,000 copies are produced for 33 villages at the cost of Rs 5,000, and funded by IDRC Canada (with fund management provided by MSSRF).

(c) Question: How were the community services selected?
Answer: The services are based on people’s needs and there is a visitor’s register which helps documents requests. At the beginning, there was an evaluation exercise conducted by social scientists to find out what the needs of villagers are, which was then fed into a database that is now constantly updated. It is also interesting to note that men at the centers are social scientists, while women are the technologists. At the very beginning, there was a lot of worry over the fact that they were village women, but this has since given way to self confidence – an example of which was the story of how women began to answer questions from men while seated and using the computer (an unusual practice in rural India). They loved the experience, and it is only one example of how they have been able to express themselves through the power of ICTs.

(d) Question: What did the knowledge worker in Geneva speak about?
Answer: She told the story of what is being done and said, “We want the whole world to benefit from our experience”.

(e) Question: What is the impact of the newspaper on the community?
Answer: A survey has been conducted by a social scientist, and published in form of a book titled, “Reaching the Unreached and Voicing the Voiceless”.

(f) Question: What is being done about the maintenance of computers and other centre equipment?
Answer: The computers were initially donated by the MSSRF (through an IDRC grant), but are now increasingly donated by visitors who are impressed with the center’s work. The “Friends of MSSRF” in Tokyo also shipped used computers to Mandras for use on the project.

At this point, Prof. Arunachalam explained that the success of the project is built on the efforts of these volunteers, and with the strength of an enabling environment – a visionary leader in the person of Prof. M S Swaminatham, democracy and a friendly national outlook. He however stressed that MSSRF would love to do more work, especially in the light of the ambitious “Mission 2007” as popularized by Prof. M S Swaminatham. He also went on to say that if Africa (as an example) does not succeed in the fight against poverty through its development efforts, the entire world is at risk. Two more questions were entertained before the tea break:

(g) Question: Beyond technology, what has been your best experience since becoming a knowledge worker?
Answer: Self confidence, and the ability to contact and communicate with people outside the home and village. Becoming role models and contributing to the community through social service offerings.

(h) Question: How have you been able to convince the rural community that information is important in the fight against poverty?
Answer: The visible change in the lives of the knowledge workers has been a major factor in making their work acceptable to the community. The workers also made information on possible benefits available to the community after a comprehensive survey on the same.

After coffee break, R. Ezhumalai made his presentation on the Veerrampattinam village community centre, which was commissioned in 1999 by Dr. Morris Strong UN Under-Secretary General for Environment). The village has a population of 6,264 and 90% of these people are fishermen. Others include 5% inland fishermen, 3% farmers, etc. He showed the location of the village on an Indian map, and also presented a resource map designed by himself and one other volunteer. The village resource center makes information available on weather forecast, wave report, fishing information, employment opportunities, village profile, and cattle support skills, which are broadcast through a loudspeaker and a notice board for the villagers. The local content information collected from villagers have been made available to other countries through short wave radio, newspapers and online. Nineteen people (including a lady) have benefited from the information sharing on Government and private employment and training opportunities, while one person received financial support through the Department of Fisheries for higher education.

With the help of MSSRF Hub Centre, 13 self-help groups (SHGs) were formed, and after the Tsunami, the number of SHGs increased to 56, due to the efforts of the knowledge workers. With the help of the knowledge centre, women formed the 1,302 member-strong Fisher-women Co-operative Society – which is linked with the Fisheries Federation. An electronic board is used to show information on fishing (location, depth, and more) and eye services have been provided to village residents. Each morning, school students come to the centre to learn about computers through the Bangalore’s educational CD. The Village Community Centre has trained over 400 people from 1999 to date, and now provides computer training on the platform of Microsoft Unlimited Potential Program (MUPP), through which income is generated for the centre.

The training programs of the centre are need-based, and include Microsoft Office, Adobe PageMaker and Photoshop, minor hardware, screen printing, eye care, herbal medicine, cattle care, content generation, working with subject-oriented CDs for children, mushroom cultivation, and shell ornamental crafts. The village lost 3 people to the tsunami, but lives were spared when a panchayet member saw the first wave, ran to the centre, broke the lock and announced the information over the center’s public address system – after which everyone ran away from the village. Relief work has also been done through the center. Even with the amazing success story, he shared some issues that have been faced by the centre, including the fact that the village presently does not have a Panchayet. However, they have been able to work around these issues, and continue with their visible impact within the community.

After the presentation, a number of questions were asked – and were addressed by the VKC manager, as follows:

(a) Question: How does the cooperative work?
Answer: The VKC met with the women to inform them that they could work on the cooperative without any reservation, and this has proved successful.

(b) Question: How do the Self Help Groups work?
Answer: The VKC trains the SHG leaders, who in turn lead the group around their various activities.

(c) Question: How do the training courses work, and are they willing to pay for them?
Answer: Most of the courses are free, but the diploma costs Rs 300. Participants are selected, and program delivery is supported by 2 private sector firms.

(d) Question: How do you deal with the issue of piracy since Microsoft software is pretty expensive?
Answer: The software is available, at no cost, to the project.

After this, we had lunch and then proceeded to the villages to see the projects and meet with knowledge workers.

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