In the nineties of the last century United Nations ratings for the different regions of the world recorded Kerala as an economic miracle. In several social parameters the State was at par with the developed West. This unbelievable feat was achieved in spite of a lesser per capita income and lack of industrial back up. The great economist –Amarthya Sen attributed this achievement to the spread of education to a wider level in Kerala society. A section of educated among Keralites utilised the services of information technology for further economic development. But the vast majority did not take to this technology for consolidating and furthering the achievements on the social front. A digital divide developed in the State as elsewhere between a minority that could use information technology for development and the majority that could not do so. Planners in the socio-economic front sooner realised that the consolidation of socio economic development in Kerala was possible only by removing the digital divide in the society. The vast majority of the populace have to be equipped with the tools of Information and Communication Technology to achieve tangible progress. The less privileged sections had to be empowered with ICT. Those at the helms in the three-tier panchayat system in the State realized the importance of ICT for socio-economic development and they came forward with plan proposals and programmes to bring information technology to common households. Meanwhile Government constituted the State Information Technology Mission for achieving transparency and speed in administration so as to make it more responsive to the needs of the people and for grass roots level application of information technology as part of social engineering for development.
The IT policy of the Government besides providing for specific initiatives for ICT industry within the State laid emphasis on using ICT in all walks of life to improve living standards. One area identified was government itself. The Task Force on IT implementation in government also recommended to adopt a strategy of administrative reforms-based computerisation simultaneously with highly visible and immediately penetrable citizen-centric projects. The approach to citizen interface was based on the assumption that all direct Government – citizen interactions can be IT-enabled and can be categorised as making payments, getting entitlements, getting providing information and grievance redressal, etc. The implementation of State e-governance projects such as FRIENDS and Information Kerala Mission are examples. In spite of the good social and digital infrastructure ICT and internet penetration in Kerala was comparatively low. Some early attempts for grass root level ICT application did not make much headway.
During this period lots of programmes were initiated worldwide to address digital divide and to familiarise the tools of Information and Communication Technologies to the common man, which were also discussed in Kerala but limited to academic circles. Computer literacy was becoming the buzzword and many local bodies, NGOs and private computer institutes started offering courses and programmes in computer software like Microsoft, DOS Word and Excel. But the IT policy of the government required that the government should intervene to take the benefits of IT to the grass roots level.
Now, some of the local bodies in the three tier Panchayat system came forward with valuable project proposals for computer education at the grass root level. The proposal submitted by Malappuram District Panchayat had many notable features. Even from an international perspective such a massive computer education programme as was suggested in the proposal had not been attempted till then. Many international projects were limited to village level. The details of the project proposal had to be thrashed out for clarity. After a few round of discussions, a small team consisting of six members were formed in KSITM to study various ICT modules for development projects, implementation plans, business model etc for the initiative.
Discussions about the project led to the important finding that e-literacy was one of the most important components of any such project. A two-pronged approach was needed. While providing computer facilities in the rural areas focus must be given to impart education to the citizens to make use of those facilities. On the basis of further deliberations it was decided to provide a user-friendly content/courseware to the citizens to educate them on the uses of ICT. Creation of functional e-literacy was thus found to be a pre requisite.
As a preparatory measure for the implementation of the project several meetings with the participation of District Panchayat, Block Panchayats, Grama Panchayats, Municipalities and organisation like C-DIT were held. A survey in Malapuram district was held to assess the requirements. 6.5 lakh houses were visited as part of the survey. Spatial mapping was done with the help of Town and Country Planning Department to identify locations to establish the centre of the project.
Establishment of Akshaya-e-Kendra as an ICT access point, one for every 1000 families living in two/three municipal or Panchayat wards was the most important strategic decision. Other details chalked out for implementation were:
- Akshaya e-centres were envisaged to have five computers and other infrastructure at a cost of Rs. 3-4 lakhs per centre and they were to be within 2-3 Kilometre distance from every household.
- Entrepreneurs from the locality with service orientation were to be selected, on the social entrepreneurship model for running the centres.
- At least one person from every family was to be given training for ten days. It was planned that the local bodies should fund this e-literacy initiative Rs. 140 was fixed as tuition fee for 15 hour training programme (Grama Panchayat Rs. 80, Block Panchayat Rs. 20, Dist. Panchayat Rs. 20, beneficiary fee Rs. 20) Strategies were evolved for the involvement of community, civil society organisations, youth and welfare organisations, local bodies, etc for implementation.
- Positioning Social Animators for linking Akshaya centres, citizens, local bodies and government
- Strategies for establishing connectivity, creation of locally relevant content etc.
- Positioning of District Project Team in Malappuram
- The Akshaya pilot project was launched at Trivandrum by Dr. A.P. Abdul Kalam, His Excellency, the President of India on November 18, 2002.
Akshaya was conceived as a landmark ICT project by the Kerala State Information Technology Mission(KSITM) to bridge the digital divide and to bring the benefits of ICT to the entire population of the State.
In the initial phase the focus was placed on educating one person in each family to be e-literate. Malappuram, a backward district of Kerala was selected for piloting e-literacy and project was launched on 18th November 2002 by the Honorable President APJ Abdul Kalam.
When many renowned organizations came up with computer education Akshaya changed its direction in to citizen delivery. Now Akshaya is emerged as one of the finest common service center Networks in the nation.
Till date Akshaya has been able to make 3.25 Million families e-literate.
RSBY Health Insurance Policy for 2 crore Population
: Registered 160 thousand APL families and 2.8 million BPL families. Renewal of policy for 2.9millionfamilies. Akshaya’s performance to register 20lacs families in RSBY within 45 days through proactive citizen service
is unparalleled compared to the similar venture of third party agents who has registered 15 lacs families in one year..
5.5 million citizens enrolled under UID through Akshaya Centers
: In UID Enrollment Akshaya has the highest quality of 92.7% against the national average of 62%. Akshaya is also a premier agency in UID Enrollment having generated 75% of total UIDs in Kerala.
- Partnership with Commercial Taxes helped Kerala to achieve 100% VAT Returns
- Intel Learn Program covered 100 thousand school children
- Government of India selected to provide consultancy service to Union Territory of Lakshadweep to launch CSCs. Akshaya has so far succeeded to launch CSCs in Lakshadweep in a time bound manner followed by roll out of e-literacy and G2C services.
By reaching the remote rural locations of the State on a sustainable basis, and offering a variety of world-class services, the Akshaya e-centres would encourage social inclusion of hitherto hereby marginalized communities and under-privileged sections of the rural society.
The project opens up immense opportunities for women participation at various levels as entrepreneurs, master trainers, social animators and finally as trainees etc. The higher level of response from women sector is due to the factor that the project creates opportunities at their doorsteps.
Women Participation and Empowerment
The Project has brought to the fore the enormous managerial and entrepreneurial talent of women that remains untapped. The number of women who have come forward with the choice of an entrepreneurial career by starting an Akshaya e-centre is significant. The women entrepreneurs account for around 33% of the total entrepreneurs of the project selected in the first level in seven districts.
Role of LSGIs
Villages Being Transformed
It has not been uncommon for villagers to travel long distances to district/taluk headquarters in order to obtain copies of public records, submit applications, meet officials, or to seek information regarding their day-to-day needs or to enquire prevailing prices in commodity markets etc. This involves the loss of a day's income as well as the cost of transportation. Once at the government office, the relevant record, information, or official could be unavailable, forcing repeated visits and additional expenses. In effect, government officials working with paper records enjoy a monopoly over information. Villagers may also face discomfort, harassment, and corruption on the part of public officials, or are often given incorrect information about government programs or market prices. In fact, compared to urban populace, the rural people were often forced to pay a disproportionate share of their income for gathering information.
In this context, much has been said about the potential use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) by government agencies to transform relations with citizens and businesses. Increased transparency, less corruption, better delivery of government services, greater government responsiveness and accountability, and empowerment of citizens - especially poor ones - are commonly cited among the possible benefits of e-governance.
But, in villages, direct ownership and use of ICT – for instance through a PC with internet access – applies only to a very minimal fraction of the population. Although the availability of content in local languages and the use of graphic and voice interfaces can make e-government applications more accessible to rural people, illiteracy and low levels of education are powerful obstacles to the use of computers and other ICT tools. It follows that, in most cases, rural people have to rely on a human intermediary between them and ICT applications.
It was under this context that the Government of Kerala conceived the Project – Akshaya - for the benefit of people in the State, especially rural population. Access to information, backed with relevant infrastructure and services, not only allows rural populace to improve its quality of life but also support and supplement its existing incomes in a sustainable way. Access to information and services like e-governance, micro-credit, literacy, education, health, etc., can provide a solid foundation for the economic prosperity of rural villages. Moreover, it is a well-stated fact that rural consumers are willing to pay for products and services that meet their needs and are offered at affordable prices. Therefore, what needs is a new social contract - in which there will be common access infrastructure, provided at commercial prices rather than given for free.
Akshaya Project is an enormous step towards making the Government accessible to citizens, in ways that can not only save huge costs to the Government but also make it more transparent and efficient in its day-to-day interactions with the common man. To that effect, the role of Akshaya e-centres, envisioned as the front-end delivery network for Government services is remarkable for the strides it has already made.
Akshaya Project envisages to be a bottom-up model for imparting e-literacy training, delivery of content, services, information and knowledge, that can allow like-minded public and private enterprises - through a collaborative framework - to integrate their goals of profit as well as social objectives, into a sustainable business model for achieving rapid socio-economic change in rural villages of the State.
As stated above 2328 e-centres out of 2662 Akshaya e-centres (87.50%) are in rural areas. This is going to be enhanced to 3180 in the near future thus covering every part of the State, even the remotest villages. The very first target of the Project is to train one person from 64 families of the State thereby empowering rural population in using the advantages of ICT for their day-to-day applications. This has started creating a knowledge power to bridge the ‘digital divide’. The value additions thus gained are certainly augmenting the well being and overall economic development of rural populace in the State.
The Local Self Government institutions under the three-tier Panchayat System have given the fillip to the setting up of Akshaya e-centres. They anchor these centres at the grassroots level. It is a well-established fact that local ownership fosters the success and resilience of ICT and e-governance projects. Outside control and hierarchical or top-down approaches, on the other hand, often waste resources endangering their sustainability. In the case of e-governance projects the local administration and political machinery need to be involved in the implementation of the project, or otherwise the chance of failure is almost certain. Therefore the role of LSGIs is envisaged in the project even from its conceptual level.
The functional role of LSGIs in the project are :
Public Private Ventures
- Selection of locations for e-centres
- Selection of entrepreneurs
- Sourcing of e-literacy fund
- Monitoring of e-literacy activities
- Campaign activities
- Engaging of social animators
- Implementation of post e-literacy phase and e-governance activities.
Akshaya e-centre has been conceived as a public private venture at the grassroot level. The entrepreneurial experience gained by the young persons of society by setting up e-centres will have a far-reaching impact on our social mind set.
The investment for setting up the e-centres is made by the entrepreneurs. It costs around Rs. 3l akhs for setting up an Akshaya e-centre with five to ten computers, printers, scanners, webcam, other peripherals and necessary software. The entire recurring expenditure for running the e-centre is also borne by the entrepreneur. KSITM provides all the facilitatory supports required to sustain the project by way of e-literacy, training fund, connectivity, advanced courses, content CDs software, e-governance and various others services. KSITM focuses on creating effective market mechanisms for demand – driven delivery of services in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) framework.
The e-literacy funds provided during e-literacy phase offer an opportunity to entrepreneurs to recover a major share of their investment. The service delivery phase opens up ample opportunities for entrepreneurs to earn a steady income by offering a variety of services such as e-learning, e-commerce, advanced IT training, e-governance, communications and specific community based services.
The roles and responsibilities of the entrepreneurs include the following:-
On signing up the agreement with KSITM under the Akshaya project, the entrepreneurs shall be bound to comply with the terms and conditions specified in the agreement to ensure smooth e-literacy training and delivery of add-on services and any other scheme/guidelines/directives issued by the Government in this regard during the operative period.
Entrepreneurs shall invest in space, hardware, software, equipment for connectivity etc, and shall be responsible to bear the recurring charges for running the centre.
Effective service delivery:
The entrepreneurs through Akshaya should, act as a service delivery point, where he delivers services through which the population of the respective area benefits.
Sales and promotion: The entrepreneurs should be actively involved in sales process of the given products and services and devise innovative methods for attracting more and more customers.
The entrepreneurs should provide feedback at a regular interval to the KSITM for enhancing services and also to improve processes for better delivery.
Catalyst for change :
The entrepreneurs is an entity that has to bring about a change in his environment by using ICT as a tool. It is therefore important that the right entrepreneur is selected through an appropriate selection and training process. He is a social entrepreneur who will run his business by using the network. In other words he should try to impart knowledge and try to educate the population.
The entrepreneur has to endeavour without any prejudice to provide all services to the rural citizens.
The entrepreneur is the key to the success of the project. A good entrepreneur would be the one who has good entrepreneurial skill, strong social commitment as well as respect within the community. The entrepreneur would manage the business at the ground level.