A computer network solves everyday problems for villagers
By Arun Ram
Every morning, Madurai, a fisherman, prays for his safety and a good catch. These days the ritual stretches half an hour more. Before setting out to sea, Madurai sits before a computer terminal gathering information on the sea-like wave height, turbulence and fish density. So do hundreds of other fishermen in Veerampattinam, a coastal village 15 km off Pondicherry city.
For the residents of eight villages in and around Pondicherry-Villianur, Pillayarkuppam, Kizhur, Embalam, Veerampattinam, Thirukanchipet, Pooranamkuppam and Kalitheerthalkuppam-information technology is no longer a dream of the 21st century. The Information Village Research Project (IVRP) has redefined their lives.
The project, funded by the International Development Research Centre (Canada) and implemented by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) headquartered in Chennai, has made many things easy. Lakshmi Venkatesan, 35, of Kizhur village, for instance, has only to open html files for advice whenever she faces problems in mushroom cultivation. This is possible because, according to R. Rajasekhar Pandy, a social scientist at the MSSRF's project hub in Villianur village, "all the villages have an information centre connected to the Villianur centre while the hub is connected to the MSSRF in Chennai through an intranet".
The village information centre (VIC) receives information by voice mail and dispenses it through a public-address system. Through this farmers receive advice on rotation of crops, fertilisers and pesticides. They no longer have to travel up to 20 km away to know the market price of paddy.
Defunct Phones Don't Matter: Many villages have just one or two telephones which are mostly defunct. "That doesn't matter," says Rajasekhar. "We have wireless sets connecting the villages and erratic power supply does not bother us as 60 per cent of the project work is fuelled by solar power." Realising the potential of the project, Motorola has donated two-way radio despatch equipment to connect the villages.
Villagers now depend on the VICs for sundry information like bus timings, list of doctors and hospitals, government schemes and employment opportunities. And perhaps for the first time in Veerampattinam, 20 educated youths have applied for jobs in fire services and police. "There are so many graduates," says Satish, who holds an MPhil degree in history, "and so few are aware of the job opportunities. The project has opened up new avenues for us."
There's more. The hub acts as a news bureau, complete with rural reporters. "A report on the sale of paddy seeds at Embalam village can be useful to a farmer requiring them at Pooranamkuppam village," says a volunteer. The agreement between the MSSRF and the village heads envisages people's participation. While the village committees provide volunteers and a place for the VIC, the MSSRF equips it with experts and machines. The foundation also trains volunteers to operate computers and dispense information.
After an on-demand training programme sponsored by the MSSRF, six women in Kizhur village have started an agarbatti company called Nesam. "Now I can comfortably meet the educational expenses of my three daughters," says Lakshmi, a Nesam member. In addition children of fishermen and farmers are fast becoming computer-literate. A five-year-old boy from Kizhur spends an hour after school catching up on Microsoft Word and Power Point programs. The VICs also provide interactive CDs on science subjects for children, with fishermen designing slides on Power Point.
Says Professor M.S. Swaminathan, who was recently awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development: "The project has achieved three things: women's self-esteem has risen, the quality of life has improved and there is a heightened social cohesion among various communities." The future looks better. The IVRP is an integral part of a bigger project-Biovillage-being implemented by the mssrf to cover the seven lakh villages in India by 2010. Connectivity at its best.
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