Spring-Summer 2005

e-Literacy and Connectivity for Development in India, the Akshaya Approach

Kerala, India

Kerala, India

The Akshaya Project in the Malappuram district of Kerala in southern India has established the first district-wide e-literacy project in the country, claiming to reach at least one resident in over 600,000 households, representing a population of about 3.2 million. The Project has, in the process, concurrently set up what is now one of the world's largest Internet Protocol (IP) based wireless networks, covering an area of 38,000 sq. km.

The Akshaya network now consists of 630 permanent village telecenters, known as e-Centers, such that no point in the district is more than a few kilometers from a shared computing facility. Each e-Center is connected through wireless IP by a network of government-funded towers 18-30 meters tall. Each e-Center is expected to have five computers, a printer and scanner along with high bandwidth connectivity. The kiosks are manned by entrepreneurs trained by the Akshaya staff, chosen from the Kerala State IT Mission, in e-Literacy and other applications and services. Services include online bill-payment, assistance with government forms, and investment information.

Project Background, Development, and Implementation

By the mid 90s, there was a wave of enthusiasm in India for computing projects in underserved areas as enablers of regional development. Educating people in the use of computing, and using computing to make citizen access to government services easier, in an economy increasingly driven towards the service sector, was recognized as a vital part of progress.

Panchayats (village councils) in the Malappuram district in Kerala approached the state IT Minister in April 2002 with a request for a district-wide computer literacy project. The state government took the idea forward into a telecenter project for the entire state, using Malappuram as the initial testbed. The plan was to use subsidized e-literacy to start off the project, and let e-Centers continue as access and training telecenters thereafter.

The pilot was planned and overseen by a state team from the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, and headed by a specially appointed district collector in Malappuram. The full-scale operating network with telecenters and the e-literacy project were up and running in less than two years, 158 of the e-Centers converted from existing businesses, the rest as new ventures.

The project required curriculum development and planning to reach the entire population, provide maximum usage, and telecenter sustainability following the completion of the state-subsidized e-literacy phase. The e-Centers were planned to service approximately 1,000 families each and given an assigned list of households and incentives to train one member from each in e-Literacy. Each home could get subsidized training only at the assigned e-Center. The e-Literacy package included a 15-hour running CD of ten modules, and, though there is a test built in, anyone having watched sessions is considered e-literate.

By March 2004, the e-literacy phase for Malappuram was completed. This in effect means every household has had basic exposure to computing. This does not necessarily mean every household the ability to use applications, but it has been an approach that works towards the gradual removal of the fear of technology and provides a far-reaching introduction to computer basics. The Akshaya planners emphasized training for entrepreneurs for the post-e-literacy phase in six focus areas — multimedia, data operations, software, hardware, financial services, and community building. E-Centers were pooled into groups of six, all groups having one e-Center in each focus area, to distribute demand evenly.

Phase II: From e-Literacy to Shared Access

A year after completion of the e-literacy phase, about 30% of the e-Centers have closed shop, while others have flourished. Local local-level participation— with bottom-up demand and the councils voting to invest their tax revenues in the project— has been able to galvanize a major transformation. Tying the e-Literacy disbursements from the government to entrepreneurs' ability to market the project facilitated a spontaneous campaign of project outreach, which brought the computer to each doorstep. The average entrepreneur had to go door to door, convincing households to enroll for the e-Literacy classes. Of the 140 Rupees (about US$3.25) paid for one person/household taking e-literacy course, the entrepreneur got Rs. 20 directly from the user, the remainder through the village councils. E ntrepreneurs often made repeated trips to households, trying to get every potential customer on board. This micro level promotion was supported by a macro level campaign by the state.

The initial phase of the Akshaya e-literacy implementation generated a buzz about computers throughout the district, an extremely valuable phenomenon in itself. Most e-Centers claimed enrollment in the range of 95% of their assigned households. At many locations, the e-literacy program raised the profiles of the entrepreneurs, some eventually standing for public office following their new-found recognition within their communities. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people buying computers had started consulting their local Akshaya entrepreneurs, some of whom became computer resellers.

There are concerns, to be sure, about the financial future of the telecenters. Although the large size of the network was a huge advantage in effectively carrying out the e-literacy phase, the fixed capital infrastructure is faced with economic sustainability concerns now that Internet access and advanced training courses and services are to be the prime drivers of income. Despite the investment in district-wide wireless broadband, less than 400 e-Centers have used the network, and about half of those make money. This raises the question of whether e-literacy, a one-time payback investment, and community Internet access centers, a recurrent revenue enterprise, should be tied together at all. It is also worth comparing the long-term benefits of e-literacy provided through fixed infrastructure with the results of a mobile training model like the example of the eTampere bus in Tampere, Finland. The search for the sustainability foundation with permanent kiosks requires greater study of the regional characteristics of areas in which kiosks are located and of the people who are targeted as future users of the Internet.

Although the state has focused on providing services such as agricultural and fishing information, network analysis shows that communications and transactions are the main draw of customers to telecenters. This suggests that Akshaya e-Centers may need to ramp up and better publicize the suite of services available such as bill payments.

Another factor about community access centers also comes to fore from observing Akshaya. The operational success of the project was guided by the proactive work of M. Sivasankar, who was appointed district collector, the highest administrative position in the state, primarily to run the project. Other districts may not have a similar political heavyweight to prioritize operations. This points towards the need to research the role of a project champion in such development efforts that involve introducing new consumer technologies and include an important citizen-government interface.

Are telecenters a public good and should they be underwritten with public funds? Given the government of India's announcement of a $22 million package for connecting Indian villages to the Internet, this is a crucial question. However, using Akshaya as an indicator for the rest of India can be contentious. Studies such as "The Case of Akshaya" indicate that several distinguishing economic and human development characteristics of Malappuram (and Kerala in general) give it an appreciably unique demand potential of services. Additionally, the Akshaya project bottom-up demand and planning at the village council level present a fascinating perspective on the role of collaborative and community-inclusive planning in setting up telecenters. The referendum-like expression of demand for computer literacy creates a strong case for spending state funds in Malappuram, and the same may not apply to all of Kerala.

In any case, justifying state spending for such a service entails the need to create a case for e-literacy and Internet access as a public utility. The measurable effects of the project on skills, job creation, and local trade in Malappuram and the rest of Kerala attributable in part or whole to the Akshaya Project over the next few years will be instrumental in gaining clarity on these issues.

Acknowledgements: M.S. Vinod, Geetha Pious, Eric Brewer, Sergiu Nedevschi, Rabin Patra, Eric A. Brewer.

Editors’ note: Akshaya has won a 2005 Prix Ars Electronica in the Digital Communities category.

Joyojeet Pal is a doctoral candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his Master's Degree in Information Management and Systems. Joyojeet is part of the Technology and Infrastructure in Emerging Regions (TIER) research group there.

G.R. Kiran is the Akshaya Project Coordinator and has been involved in policymaking and implementation of e-governance and ICT for development projects in the state of Kerala, India since 1996. He is an Electronics & Communication Engineer and MBA, with an M.Phil in Applied Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is currently a PhD scholar in Information Systems at the London School of Economics.


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