South-South ICT-Enabled Traveling Workshop, India (6)

Connecting by teleconference... and note the Indian beauty too!

The sixth day began in another city, Chennai (formerly known as Mandras), at the ISRO-MSSRF Village Resource Center (VRC) within the MSSRF Chennai office. Prof. Arunachalam welcomed participants and introduced his colleagues at the MSSRF office, and also informed delegates that video conferencing will be held with two VRCs (one of which is 60km from Chennai and 22km from Sri Lanka; and the other, 320 km from Chennai). Attempts were also made to reach another village and an expert, but the heavy rains caused system failure – even technology needs a conducive environment to be effective. After the introductions of Chennai staff, the Thankachimadam and Thiruvaiyaru VRC staff introduced themselves via the teleconference facilities. The knowledge worker from Thiruvaiyaru expressed his wish that participants would be with them physically but for the challenges (a natural disaster that led to the road to the village being severed), while hinting that a lot of interesting and historical monuments (temples, etc) dot the Thiruvaiyaru landscape.

He also described the programs the VRC is involved with, including the Microsoft Unlimited Potential, Open Knowledge activities, appropriate technology applications in agriculture, and more. He exhibited a plant that is used in jaundice conditions, chronicled as part of the traditional knowledge obtained from villagers and made public through community newspapers. From Thankachimadam, Nancy introduced the VRC staff (of which she is one), and told participants about their activities. Local knowledge is made available to the villagers along with capacity building programs, and the Microsoft Unlimited Potential program. Another VRC staff hinted that villagers’ needs are discovered during meetings, and this helps sharpen service delivery (especially training programs) of the center. The center tries to create a linkage between the fishing community and the government department by approaching the fishermen to enlighten them on available schemes. Apart from assisting the fishing community, they also address health problems (e.g. malaria) and keep a register of VRC users.

He stressed that they work with local organisations and government departments in their bid to meet village needs, such as the GPS-enabled fishing training for fishermen at the center, followed with practical demonstration on the sea for the fishermen. The center was also able to help the fishermen understand the way they can work with both GPS readings and other methods they have been used to before the training. The community newspaper is bimonthly, with static (education, fishing, health) and dynamic (seasonal) information. The participants from Uganda asked, “if the MSSRF funding is phased out, what strategies are in place to ensure sustainability of the center”? He responded that they try to generate income through different activities from the center (printing, etc) which can be used to run the center.

Participants took a break for coffee, after which Prof. Arunachalam gave a detailed description of the work that MSSRF foes with villages. He explained that the Village Resource Centre (VRC) serves as the hub that then makes information and other resources available to Village Knowledge Centers, which in turn get the utilizable information to the level of the Village Community Centers that work with the Self Help Groups, and others. He also hinted that their satellite access is made available for free, noting that their work is dedicated to the rural poor. Participants were introduced to the technical details of the satellite system that helps with data transfer. All centers are connected at a time, collecting all incoming videos using a 2 Mbps uplink capacity and 384kpbs for downlink – and the satellite in use is at an altitude of about 35,000km. The session held close to the satellite dish outside, but participants had to return to the video conference room when the rains came calling. Participants were introduced to the Multi-Commodity Exchange (MCE), which was established by government and collects daily market prices of selected goods. Data is then uploaded and made available to MSSRF at no cost (but others pay in form of subscriptions), and MSSRF then relays the information to villagers – so they can plan in advance without the fear of market price fluctuation. The MCE is similar in operation to the stock exchange, but doesn’t sell paper – it sells food items.

With the up-scaling of the exportation of farm produce, the art has become more sophisticated. For example, the farmer who is exporting flowers to Netherlands has to check the local price in the destination market, ensure that flowers are transferred under the right conditions and that goods are picked up at the right time. Consideration is also given after consideration of various target markets, considering distance, price (profit margin) and durability. Prof. Arunachalam explained that in order to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, precise care must be taken to invest in the poor – through such activities as the MCE information that will help them take advantage of the market. He insisted that ICT in itself is a tool, which is just one of the avenues through which development can be built. Technology helps overcome deficiencies, and all development should be people-centered – which explains the concept of working with communities. MSSRF technology solutions are deliberately designed with the people as partners in order to make the technology application appropriate. “People need to come before technology, in order for us to put the cart after the horse”, asserted Prof. Arunachalam.

MSSRF intends to replicate the MCE in all the regions, if it works successfully in Pondicherry. This is in line with the Mission 2007 plan that will help give access to the 638,000 villages in India. Prof. Arunachalam also spoke about Noah Samara’s WorldSpace, which works with the three satellites which help cover the world (AfricaStrat, AsiaStrat, and AmericaStrat). India is covered by the AfricaStrat, and 5% of the transponder space of WorldSpace satellites is allocated to free work while 95% is used for commercial purposes. The WorldSpace technology is used in the Open Knowledge Network (OKN) project, which allows content (in Tamil) and metadata (in English) to be moved from India to London, and then uploaded to a satellite within the fraction of a second (using 2 Mbps speed) – and this is now made available to the WorldSpace radio. This helps OKN link communities with relevant local content. Prof. Arunachalam invited Dr. Bawani to speak about MSSRF’s intervention in Food Security.

She spoke about the Food Security research that has been done, and the 3 publications that serve as outcomes of the process. The publication reports on the state of different stats in respect of food security. She noted that food security is not only about production, but more about access to food – with purchasing power as a more important factor than production sustainability (which India has been able to adequately take care of after the Green Evolution). Another important component is food absorption (nutrition security), which is also closely linked with the others. The mapping exercise used reliable secondary-level data published by the government and other institutions to select indicators such as per capita food production, per capita consumption level, per capita income/food access, and more. Taking the indicators, states were ranked and the food security maps of rural (60% of India’s population) and urban India were created. At the village level, work has also been done to help with food access, such as Food Grain Bank mechanism which lends grains to farmers – and they pay back (with interest) when during the next harvesting season. The community also contributes to the bank, as the concept is not new to the community. Work is being done in 10 villages in Orissa and 2 in Tamil Nadu (in partnership with other NGOs), and capacity building is ensured to ascertain sustainability. Case studies on the villages are being prepared at the moment.

After her presentation, Madam Faradani was invited to speak about the Virtual Academy, especially how the fellowship program is run, explaining that fellows are flagship people who manage resource and knowledge centers as volunteers. She hinted that the National Virtual Academy has a huge network of organisations that work at the grassroots level, who nominate potential fellows. For the present session, there are 800 nominations of which only 150 people will be awarded fellowships. The fellowship particularly looks for village people, who will continue to be in the villages, and are respected in the community – having done excellent work and demonstrated leadership qualities. These guidelines are sent out to partners and its fulfilling for the foundation to know that a huge number of people and resources are available within rural communities. The fellowship program intends to cover as many states as possible, having moved from six to fifteen states within the past 2 years. Gender is also one strong consideration that the academy puts into its programs. She noted that retention is an issue with the village fellows since most people are attracted to the urban area. Much of the focus is within the 26 to 55 age range and a clause in the fellowship program says that fellows have to be available in the village for the next five years.

The fellows are from diverse educational backgrounds; and a sample of competencies for the 2004/5 applicants include accounts, agriculture, ICT, education, animal husbandry, child welfare, coordinating, disasters, environment, health, information & documentation, livelihood, micro finance, mobilization and water. Fellows are used as resource persons along their line of expertise, and through the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Program (MUPP), more than 3,000 villagers have been trained by trainers who were themselves trained by Microsoft employees in India who pay their own way and volunteer to teach within the train-the-trainer model. It was clarified that the fellowship is not in itself a reward for past work, but an induction into a committed relationship with development work in the village each fellow represents. Fellows are trained in numerous areas, which they find useful in relaying valuable information to their villagers – they literally become village knowledge dispensers.

The Mission 2007 project hopes to train one woman and one man to serve as knowledge workers in all the 638,000 villages, and this was acknowledged as an ambitious – but achievable – task. India has more than 600 districts, but 150 of them are considered hunger hotspots. MSSRF’s next challenge is to set up 150 knowledge centers in these areas, which were identified after Prof. MS Swaminatham visited the locations by road. The last meeting of the Mission 2007 partners had the president in attendance, and cabinet ministers. The President declared public support for the initiative, gave out fellowship certificates, and even chaired a session. The Minister in charge of Information Technology promised that his department will set up 100,000 centers, the Minister in charge of village leaders promised to ask all village leaders to provide free buildings and electricity for the knowledge centers, and the Finance Minister promised that if the Mission 2007 partners are able to establish 10,000 centers before February, the $1.5b needed for the project will be reflected in the budget to be drafted in March. After these amazing discussions, and a question on the trust that the government promises will be fulfilled, participants left for the lunch break.

After lunch, participants returned to the video conferencing session, to meet with volunteers and knowledge workers from the Thankachimadam village. Nancy (center worker) started by requesting for more information about the participants, and sought feedback on thoughts about the work being done at the village. Every second Saturday, workers from different village knowledge centers meet to discuss their success stories and challenges. She also displayed the electronic board used by fishermen as a reliable source of information for potential fishing zones. Fishermen use tools empowered by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in order to know what regions of the sea would be best for fishing. We returned (electronically, that is) to Thiruvaiyaru, where the knowledge workers spoke a bit more about what they do. At the moment, the center is providing training on irrigation management to the local community. He spoke about their relationship with VKCs, through which they make information available to the villages – using internet technology. He also spoke about one of their trainees (through the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Program), who has since been able to gain employment. The VRC serves as an entrepreneurship development center for women and farmers.

As soon as a knowledge worker began his input, there was power failure in Chennai, so we had to call off the teleconference session and then visited the Plant Tissue Culture and Bio-prospecting Laboratory, where the senior research fellow hinted that the laboratory focuses on endangered plants which may have unknown medical properties. After a possible discovery, the successful plants are introduced into the market. Plants are cultured through plant tissue cultivation, which helps multiply one plant into up to a thousand through the tissue cultivation process. They presently work with the mangrove plant which has medicinal properties. From there, participants moved to the Lichen Prospecting Laboratory, where work is done on the ecological and economic potentials of lichens, through a process that involves obtaining large scale qualitative data, culturing under appropriate conditions and more. A valuable observation has been made but it will soon be published after the discovery is properly documented and patented – ahead of social value for users.

After this, it was time for the Plant Molecular Biology Laboratory. The laboratory manager spoke about the development of salinity tolerant crop plants through transgenic approach. Drought tolerance is also one are where work has been done, with rice plant being the beneficiary in this case. And due to high pollution of land because of oil (for example) the laboratory is doing research on how to prevent the action of heavy metals on plants. Prof. Arunachalam resumed discussions with participants, and hinted that the philosophy of the center is that science and technology must be beneficial to the people in order for it to have real meaning. Policy, research and action must reflect this philosophy – hence the synergy between laboratory work, information and communication technologies, and more; towards the eradication of poverty and development as a holistic effort, and not piecemeal. He highlighted the different groups within the MSSRF family, which include Informatics, Biotechnology, Eco-technology, Gender, Media Resource Center, Gene Bank, and Food Security.

After coffee break, Thiruvaiyaru knowledge workers resumed discussions with participants during which various questions were met with appropriate answers. Sylvie (Congo Brazzaville) wanted to know how they get information for the community newspaper, and what kind of content it was responsible for pushing into the public space. The knowledge worker replied that information is sourced from various government departments and other sources (including traditional knowledge from the OKN project) in order to make such available to the communities. Claudia (Paraguay) congratulated the knowledge workers, and stated that Latin America has a lot to learn from India on all the work that has been done at the village. The session ended with a brief overview of what the last 2 days will look like, by Prof. Arunachalam. I will be leaving in the next few hours, but hope to stay in touch with the process, and will particularly be interested in follow-up discussions that will hold on the C3 Mailing list, as set up by MSSRF.

It has been a great experience, and while I may be able to say more than 67% of Veni, Vidi, vici; I am sure that my participation will translate into action, for Nigeria, and Africa – at the very list. My first task is to weave a fine thread of continuity between this experience and the ongoing projects that I am involved with. To GKP and MSSRF, I say Nandri!

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