On 16th December, 2010, Telecentre.org Foundation and Digital Empowerment Foundation organised a national consultation on Empowering Rural India through Telecentres: Opportunities, Challenges and the Way Forward. The consultation was well attended and included all the stakeholders involved in the telecentre movement in India. There were participants from some of the leading NGOs with significant telecentre initiatives or associated with telecentre initiatives, such as TARAhaat, e-Chaupal, senior officials from the Department of Information Technology (Government of India), leading Service Centre Agencies, Village Level Entrepreneurs running and managing the Common Services Centres in various regions of India and other telecentre operators, high level officials from Intel, Microsoft, Hughes etc. In short, the participants were a good mix of grassroots telecentre practitioners and other stakeholders supporting the Indian telecentre movement, who shared their ideas on the formation of a national telecentre network from both a bottom up and top down perspective. Following is a summary that centers around the key issues discussed during the consultation, i. e., opportunities, challenges and the way forward for constituting a national telecentre network in India:
Opportunities: The participants unanimously agreed that telecentres play a critical role in the socio-economic development of the country. In fact, Shri Shankar Aggarwal, Joint Secretary, DIT, reiterated that telecentres are not simply change agents, but they are socio-economic change agents. They have completely revolutionised and transformed the e-Governance and other services delivery model, which was a huge challenge before the government, especially in terms of service delivery at the grassroots level. Different stakeholders shared experiences gained from the implementation of their respective projects. Even if the telecentre is providing only the basic IT literacy and other ICT based services, its role is critical in digitally empowering the rural masses. A look at the history of the telecentre movement of India suggests that the concept of network is not new. In fact, all the telecentre initiatives, whether led by an NGO, private sector organisation or government agency, were driven as a network. Still, they are facing several challenges related to telecentre programme implementation.
Challenges: Even the telecentre network driven by the Government of India has to encounter several challenges. These are mainly related to:
1. Non-availability of connectivity – In spite of having the support from another government agency, the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), connectivity is not available in all parts of India. Therefore, the telecentres are not able to function optimally in the rural areas.
2. Non-availability of electricity – Similarly, electricity is not available in all the villages of India. Moreover, wherever it is available, it is not regular. So, the telecentre operators face a lot of problems.
3. Lack of products and services – There are problems related to the availability of products and services that can be delivered through the telecentres. Many of the essential government services are not digitised and available online. It will take some time before all the government services are available online. Their availability will add the required value to the telecentres in the rural areas where the common man has to make a lot of effort to seek these services.
4. Organisational issues – Apart from the lack of connectivity, electricity and services and products, there are several organisational or institutional issues that plague the telecentre initiatives in India, like the CSC, bidding process, lack of an advocacy platform, lack of collaboration among different stakeholders.
The Way Forward: As mentioned earlier, all the telecentre stakeholders felt the need of a common national platform that could serve as an advocacy platform for all the Indian telecentres, irrespective of their model of operation. It would not only enable the different stakeholders to collaborate more effectively to take up telecentre issues, but it would also facilitate wider sharing of the best practices in the telecentre domain. It would also lead the regional networks towards common branding of all the telecentre initiatives.
Some Thoughts on the Concept of Network: The best thing about Indian telecentres is that they were always functioning under one network or another. It was because of recognising the multi-stakeholder nature of the telecentre enterprise. Telecentres cannot work in isolation; they require support from the government, private sector and community based organisations, and service and connectivity providers to function properly. The network facilitates collaboration and partnerships with them. Imagine the case of telecentres in many African countries where individual telecentre operators struggled to set them up and make them sustainable for them and the community they served. They had to manage everything on their own and faced a lot of challenges. They also felt the need for organising themselves under a network and this is how networks emerged in the African countries.
Indian telecentres never had to face this situation. The concept of network was always present there. At the same time, in a vast country like India, it is not enough to have networks working at regional levels or networks working specifically with government telecentres. There is an emerging need to synergise the activities of all these networks. The Mission 2007 or the GGA was an effort in this regard and it has a good partnership base. In this regard, we have to understand that networks are not exclusive entities. Their main aim is “connecting people, communities, organisations or stakeholders”. So, there is a scope for multiple networks, especially in the Indian telecentre context. Therefore, the idea of a Pan Indian Network called the Indian Telecentre Network (ITN) should not be frightening to the existing networks. It would only multiply the benefits derived from multiple networks that are already operational in India.