Two dozen Sri Lankan telecentre pioneers came away from a recent study tour to India inspired by the pivotal role women are playing in bridging the digital divide.
They were also impressed with mobile health services in rural India that rely on information and communication technologies (ICTs), and with a community-centred approach within the telecentre movement that puts grassroots needs first.
The first facility launched as part of a Sri Lankan government drive to extend the digital revolution to rural and semi-urban areas opened in a temple in Katharagama in the southern part of the island on January 1, 2005. The launch, planned long in advance, was able to proceed despite the Indian Ocean tsunami a few days earlier that had devastated coastal areas.
Since then, more than 500 telecentres have been set up under the “e-Sri Lanka initiative,” enabling villagers scattered around the country to receive computer training and browse the Internet, as well as print, fax, phone, and photocopy.
Sri Lanka hopes to have 1 000 of these nenasalas (“global knowledge centres”) up and running around the country by the end of 2008. The initiative forms part of a government effort to help communities tackle poverty, boost social and economic development, and build peace.
The nenasalas are run by individual villagers and religious or community groups. Prospective operators, who must be able to provide the space for a facility, are given training and all the necessary equipment, which is free of charge for two years. Most of the centres have two to four computers, a photocopy machine, printer, scanner, Web camera, and Internet access.
When the 500th such centre was opened in January 2008, President Mahinda Rajapakshe marked the occasion by announcing a commemorative postage stamp and a special study tour to India. Twenty nenasala operators, accompanied by four officials involved in the e-Sri Lanka initiative, were given the opportunity to visit telecentres in southern India and compare notes with counterparts there. Those selected for the trip run nenasalas in all corners of Sri Lanka, including the troubled northeast.
In February, the Sri Lankan delegation spent a week as guests of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and the Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Professor Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution in agriculture, has spearheaded a campaign in recent years to spread access to modern technology throughout rural India. A pilot project he led in the 1990s, supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, grew into a nationwide movement that has spawned tens of thousands of “village knowledge centres” around India.
The study tour was organized by the Sri Lankan government’s Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), MSSRF, and telecentre.org – an international network supported by IDRC, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Microsoft that is committed to increasing the social and economic impact of telecentres.
Trip participant Harsha Wijayawardhana, Assistant Secretary in the Sri Lankan President’s Secretariat, was impressed with the community orientation of India's village knowledge centres. “They provide services beyond computer education,” he said. “For example, they offer market-related information, vocational training, health, fishery, and agriculture-related information."
Wijayawardhana plans to submit a trip report containing recommendations for Sri Lanka. “The participation of women is a must, and we will explore innovative ways to ensure women participate and avail themselves of the benefits of nenasalas," he said. "We will also make nenasalas people-centric, based on a bottom-up approach."
Basheerhamad Shadrach, a senior program officer with telecentre.org, said that although Sri Lanka is a late entrant to the global telecentre movement, the involvement of the President’s office shows the high-level commitment to the endeavour. The study tour gave the Sri Lankan visitors “a new insight into telecentres as a community development tool,” he added. “I could see their excitement and enthusiasm.”
Below, four nenasala operators share their thoughts at the end of the study tour. Please click on the link on the top or bottom of this page to download their pictures.Deepika Gurusinghe Arachchige
This report is based on interviews conducted by IDRC's Prabha Sethuraman and telecentre.org's Vignesh Sornamohan, who is based at the Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies near New Delhi.
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