Telecentre Stakeholders Forum 2008 Contributions to the Telecentre Movement

Filed under: Featured,September 2008 |

September-2008

Vignesh Sornamohan
CSDMS
vignesh@csdms.in 

Juanita Kakoty

RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
CSDMS
Juanita@csdms.in 

The Telecentre Stakeholders Forum (TSF) was organised in New Delhi, India between 29th and 31st July 2008 by the Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS) in partnership with telecentre.org. The forum was hosted at the largest Information and Communication Technology (ICT) event in the country: eIndia2008, organised by CSDMS in collaboration with the Government of India and other national and international organisations as supporting partners. There was active participation from different parts of the Indian sub-continent, Asia and Africa. The participants included representatives of the governments; telecentre leaders and practitioners; funding agencies; experts from the academia and different organisations.

TSF 2008 was fifth in the series of telecentre forums organised by CSDMS. The forum was divided into eight sessions with thematic tracks. The objectives were to create a common ground for equitable learning, knowledge sharing and emerging concrete lessons to benefit the Asian telecentre movement in particular and the global telecentre scenario in general.

Session I: Tracking the Indian Telecentre Movement

The aim of this session was to bring together various key telecentre stakeholders across the country and provide them with a learning platform. The session was chaired by Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor, IIT Madras, Chennai, India. The panelists included Basheerhamad Shadrach, Sr Programme Officer, telecentre.org; Ashish Sanyal, Sr Technical Director, Department of Information Technology, Government of India; and D C Mishra, Sr Technical Director, National Informatics Centre, New Delhi.

Shadrach opened the discussion by charting the course of the Indian telecentre movement. D C Mishra stressed the need to converge Panchayats (autonomous local governance bodies in India) and telecentres. Ashis Sanyal noted that there is a misunderstanding of the CSC programme even at the highest levels, which is why some SCAs go for ‘zero’ bids. Jhunjhunwala remarked that the rules of bidding have to undergo change and the government has to take a pro-active step in this. Jhunjhunwala concluded by throwing up a few points to ponder:

  • Could manufacturing (which is skill-based and less machine-based) be taken to the rural telecentres?
  • Could telecentres be used for irrigation?
  • Could telecentres enable farmers to map the history of their product, land, etc. whereby a huge advisory would be made possible?
  • Could farmers be enabled to buy and sell better?

Open discussion: The current and future scenario of telecentres in India

The audience-panelists interaction saw several important queries and insights. What are the expectations out of Panchayats vis-à-vis telecentres? Are telecentres in a threatening position because, in the South Asian context, villagers demand telecentre services but can’t afford to pay for them? Why have all models been thinking of the end-user to pay? Isn’t it time to start benchmarking the progress? Can mobile banking address sustainability issues? Is there too much leaning towards the business model, ignoring that telecentres evolved for social and community development? Are we moving too fast with technology?

D C Mishra highlighted Gujarat as a good case study of Panchayat-telecentre convergence where both the parties have benefited. Ashis Sanyal confirmed that for 4 years, the CSC programme has seen many states offsetting their share of profit so that telecentre operators can provide services at subsidised costs. Basheerhamad Shadrach pronounced that different telecentre types will emerge in the future. Information and entrepreneurship will remedy many weaknesses. Shadrach also stressed that it is time to change the status quo where governments assume omni-potent controlling power over telecentres in India. Ashok Jhunjhunwala concluded that the future would see both mobile phones and telecentres playing important and complementary roles in financial inclusion.

Outcomes of the session

This session saw the portrayal of a holistic picture of the Indian telecentre movement. All throughout, it was reiterated that the telecentre operator has to include the community holistically in order to run the telecentre effectively and evolve its own sustenance tactics. There was consensus for strong partnerships between the government, private sector, and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The future of telecentres, it was agreed, lies in driving the income of villages as educational centres, medical centres, rural BPOs, financial institutions, centres that focus on farming, irrigation, village governance and planning issues, etc.

Session II: Open Conclave of Service Centre Agencies, State Designated Agencies and State IT Secretaries

The open conclave among the Service Centre Agencies (SCAs), State Designated Agencies (SDAs) and State IT Secretaries was held to bring forth the key programme and implementation challenges in the Government of India’s Common Services Centres (CSC) programme, one of the largest telecentre programmes in the world. The session was chaired by R Chandrashekhar, Additional Secretary, Department of Information Technology, Government of India. The panelists were S Abbasi, Sr Director, Department of Information Technology, Government of India; Nagendra Singhal, Assistant Vice President, ZOOM Developers, New Delhi, India; and Ravi Kumar, Executive Director, Alternative for India Development, Jharkhand, India.

S Abbasi gave a brief background of the CSC programme, its implications and challenges. Abbasi stated that the government is developing an online monitoring system to check the existence and applicability of CSCs established through the SCAs.

Nagendra Singhal, as an SCA representative, noted that banks refrain from financing a CSC project. Is there a way out? Can Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) be trained? Could there be tax exemptions for SCAs to purchase hardware? Singhal also spoke of the lack of communication among the government departments. Ravi Kumar provided yet another SCA perspective. Kumar asserted that there is  lack of ownership and responsibility; tedious paperwork; and lack of awareness among different government bodies about the CSC scheme and the role of SCAs. Kumar suggested that every village should have a data centre to train VLEs and the government should re-consider the 12-month time frame for rolling out a CSC.

Open Discussion: The CSC programme, its implications, challenges and current status The audience raked up pertinent questions and issues that they addressed to the panelists, and also tried to resolve among themselves. Does the CSC programme include the civil society organisations? How effectively have they been engaged in the programme? Has the CSC programme considered public access to kiosks as a challenge, because caste and gender biases are rampant in rural India? In India, more research needs to be done in this field. Another question raised was: When will the connectivity issued be resolved?

Outcome of the session

The open conclave provided a good view of what’s happening at the ground level from different perspectives vis-à-vis the CSC programme. An important outcome was that the Government of India representatives have agreed to have a meeting with various SCAs in the country.

Session III: Content, Services and Connectivity: Making the Connection


Col KJ Singh forwarded the idea that a high school graduate in a village can tutor children  through e-Content, with voice-over in local languages and earn his/her own income. Sandra Pandi spoke about the recently launched ITU Global Telecentre Portal to map information about telecentres across the world. Shahid Akbar projected the status of telecentres in Bangladesh. Vijayalakshmi Subramanium depicted an elaborate picture of e-Content services by InDG, a multi-lingual portal launched on 4th July 2008. Vaibhav Magow maintained that satellite connection is the only means to ensure connectivity in rural areas. Rufina Fernandez emphasised on the need to focus on Master Training and Capacity Building, and stated that more connectivity partners need to come into play.

Open Discussion: Partnerships to meet recurring costs; information through mobile phones

The open discussion raked up issues pertaining to recurring expenses, cost of setting up a satellite network, and the role of mobile technology in providing content to rural people. It was pronouncedly agreed that various partners have to work out a regular revenue-sharing arrangement to mitigate recurring expenses. Vaibhav stated that satellite connectivity could be set up within INR 35,000-40,000. As far as delivering content through mobile phones is concerned, InDG and the Bangladesh Institute of ICT in Development provides market information to farmers through short message services (SMS).

Outcomes of the session: Forging partnerships

The session saw the emergence of several partnership initiatives. Sandra Pandi approached several Asian practitioners to tie up with the ITU global telecentre portal. Sri Kanthan, a Nanasala telecentre champion, Sri Lanka, initiated discussions with Vijayalakshmi to make Azim Premji Foundation’s content on education available in Sri Lanka. Sri Kanthan also urged Vaibhav to ensure that Hughes actively takes up satellite connectivity strategies in Sri Lanka as well.

Session IV: Telecentre Networks: Exploring the Market of Opportunities

This session sought to acquaint the different telecentre networks and the audience with each other. The idea was to provide a platform whereby experiences and knowledge could be shared, which could act as learning lessons for each other. The session was facilitated by Vignesh Sornamohan, Community Content Facilitator – Asia, telecentre.org, based at: CSDMS, India. The speakers were Mahmud Hasan, Chief Operating Officer, Bangladesh Telecentre Network; Kamolrat Intaratat, Thaitelecentre.org; Sudip Rajbhandari, Mission Swaabhimaan, Nepal; Angelo Juan Ramos, Chairperson, PhilCeCNet; Ganga Vidya, Co-ordinator, Grameen Gyan Abhiyan; Karim Kasim, Middle East and North African Network, Egypt; Ahmed M M Eisa, Sudan Telecentre Network; and Phan Huu Phong, Deputy Director General, Ministry of Information and Communications, Vietnam Public Utility Telecemmunication Service Fund.

The moderator took the discussants through three rounds: a brief introduction about their respective networks, the challenges they face; and the future of their networks. What emerged out of these rounds is that all telecentre networks are facilitating platforms, aimed at telecentre business facilitation and sensitisation of governments and stakeholders.

The challenges identified by the telecentre networks are as follows:

  • Challenges around issues of sustainability
  • Challenges involved in sensitising the local governments and community about telecentres
  • People often fail to see that telecentres are not only about ICTs. They combine ICT and development
  • Challenges involved in making people aware of ICT tools
  • Challenge of content and capacity building

Outcomes of the session: Knowledge sharing

The stakeholders from different telecentre networks in the world engaged in intense knowledge sharing. It was also clear that all the stakeholders, namely the government, civil society organisations and the private players will benefit from joining the telecentre networks. They considered the possibility of national and global partnerships.

Session V: Sustainability of Telecentres: A Systemic Approach

The aim of this session was to deliberate upon the approaches, models and challenges related to the sustainability of telecentres. The session was chaired by Karishma Kiri, Director, Microsoft Corporation, USA. The speakers were Eric Spector, Executive Vice President, OneRoof, Inc, USA; Satyan Mishra, Managing Director, Drishtee, India; Col. K J Singh, Director, Designmate India Pvt Ltd, India; Wilfred Varughese, SIFFS Community Information Centre, India; Sultanur Reza, Head of Community Information Centres, Grameen Phone, Bangladesh; Karim Kasim, UNDP ICT Trust Fund, Egypt; and Ujjwal Singh, Country Head – Sales, Hughes Communications India Ltd.

Karishma Kiri moderated the session by asking the speakers to address the following questions. What is sustainability? Can the community identify and express its needs by itself? How important is financial sustainability as compared to social sustainability? Is it possible to have financial sustainability for the segment that makes USD 1-2 a day?

Various definitions came up about sustainability, reflecting the socio-historical specificity of telecentres in the region from which the speaker came. But the consensus among all of them was that the local community has to be involved in the design and planning of telecentres from the very first stages because it can identify and express the services it needs with the help of local NGOs. As far as financial sustainability and social sustainability are concerned, the consensus was that they go hand in hand. Karim Kasim suggested that in order to attract people, telcentres could act as the village nodal point/hub by providing non-ICT services like tea, coffee, etc.

importance of dissemination
information sustainability, social
The open discussion round saw several questions and observations related to the importance of services over infrastructure, creation and maintenance of proper information dissemination channels; and importance of telecentres for empowering the disadvantaged and marginalised. The need for more studies to assess the social impact of ICTs was reiterated.

Outcomes of the session

There were intense deliberations upon solutions for sustainability. Some working solutions identified were:

  • The local/village community has to be involved in the design of the telecentre and its sustainability strategies right from the conceptual stage
  • Besides the ICT based services like access to Internet, printing, photocopy, etc., the telecentre has to cater to non-ICT based services for ensuring sustainability
  • OneRoof invited participants to use the third-party software it has developed to run a computer centre with POS (point of sale) controls, tools to make feasible staff management with minimal IT knowledge; and a proprietary MIS (management information system) that greatly increases the sustainability of telecenters. The web-accessed MIS (in beta testing) leverages cutting-edge, graphical displays for timely, easy-to-understand and actionable management information for telecentres

Session VI: Telecentre Academy: The Way Forward

The aim of this session was to address the issues of content, curriculum development, training modules, mode of training, etc. The session was chaired by Prof Rajasekharan Pillai, Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University, India and co-chaired by Kamolrat Intarat, Thaitelecentre.org. The speakers were Basheerhamad Shadrach, Sr Programme Officer, telecentre.org; Karishma Kiri, Director, Microsoft Corporation, USA; Melinda Bandalaria, Associate Professor and Registrar, University of Philippines Open University; Ahmed M M Eisa, Sudan Telecentre Academy; and Ganga Vidya, Co-ordinator, Grameen Gyan Abhiyan.

Basheerhamad Shadrach spoke about the telecentre.org academy’s aim to support the growing capacity needs of grassroots telecentre workers. Karishma Kiri stressed on innovation at the local level through partnerships, knowledge sharing of capacity building programmes, and the need for telecentre academy to ensure continuous training. Melinda Bandalaria spoke of Philippine Community eCentre Network (PhilCeCNet). Ahmed Eisa launched the Sudan National Telecentre Academy website in this session. Ganga Vidya discussed the Indian Telecentre Academy, the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy. Ganga announced that MSSRF has launched the ‘Rural Innovation Fund’ in collaboration with Microsoft and telecentre.org to provide fellowships to entrepreneurial telecentre practitioners. Rajasekharan Pillai dwelled on the digital learning module that has been developed by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

Open Discussion: Standardisation of training modules and certificates

In the open discussion round, issues pertaining to the standardisation of capacity building training modules and certificates came up. The consensus was that it is important to work on arriving at a standardised format for the afore-mentioned. There were also discussions on whether a training module needs to be developed for the local political leader so that the latter can facilitate telecentre practices in the community/village.

Outcomes of the session

There were deliberations upon the areas that the telecentre academy needs to focus on; on the values that the telecentre academy needs to contribute to the telecentres apart from the initial technical and financial support. The session also saw the commitment by IGNOU Vice Chancellor, Rajasekharan Pillai, to work out with the Sri Lanka Open University a capacity building training programme for Sri Lankan telecentre practitioners. Another special development was that the Sudan National Telecentre Academy website was launched in this session.

Session VII: Innovative Telecentre Initiatives

This session sought to highlight new initiatives in the telecentre domain, which attempt to reach the bottom of the pyramid and ensure sustenance. The session was chaired by George Varughese, President, Development Alternatives and the panelists were Praveen Manikpuri, Project Manager – Enterprise Development, TARAhaat; Geeta Malhotra, Country Director, READ India, New Delhi; Joseph Thomas, Byrraju Foundation, Hyderabad; Rajesh Singh, Datamation Foundation Trust, New Delhi, India; and Siddhartha Shankar from Drishtee, Noida.

Praveen Manikpuri demonstrated the ICT based literacy programme – TARAakshar. Geeta Malhotra spoke of READ India’s telecentres and library programme. Joseph Thomas elaborated upon Byrraju Foundation’s role in rural India, especially ongoing research to engage in money transfer, matrimonial alliances and animation courses as future innovations. Siddhartha Shankar spoke of Drishtee’s financial services in rural India. Rajesh Singh dwelled on Datamation Foundation Trust’s ICT project for economic empowerment of minority women in East Delhi.

Open Discussion: Issues of sustainability and quality

The panelists and audience discussed about the sustainability models of the various programmes. The argument that emerged is that sustainability is possible through partnerships and sustainability models should be evolved in consultation and ideation with the local community. There were also questions raised about the quality of services in rural BPOs. It was agreed that rural BPOs need to emerge processes of quality assurance besides capacity building of the staff. The quality parameters have to be defined based on what the customer wants and what the rural BPO can deliver.

Outcomes of the session

Innovative telecentre practices were shared and debated in the session. Participants learnt from each other the nuances of such practices. There were positive thoughts towards respecting and bringing together relative strengths. It was agreed that different products need different delivery modes; that it is important to differentiate and understand the importance of awareness, initial training and handholding; that it is time to meet back-end investments.

Session VIII: Telecentres as Public Spaces

This session sought to critically examine (a) the scope of telecentres as public spaces and (b) their social impact on the marginalised and disadvantaged communities. The session was chaired by T R Raghunanthan, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Government of India. The speakers were Ahmed M M Eisa, Founder, Gedaref Digital City Organisation, Sudan; Dalia el-Hazek, Project Co-ordinator, ICT4D Portfolio, UNDP Egypt; Melinda Bandalaria, Associate Professor and Registrar, University of Philippines Open University; Santanu Sengupta, Change Innovators Society, West Bengal; and Ratna Sudarshan, Director, Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST).

Raghunanthan opened the discussion with certain ponderings: local bodies are yet to be considered as critical service delivery bodies.

  • Can telecentres act as intermediate bodies?
  • How accessible are telecentres to women and the disadvantaged?

Ahmed M M Eisa spoke about GDCO’s capacity building programmes for the differently-abled. Santanu Sengupta spoke of Change Innovators Society’s attempts to take telecentres to the disadvantaged communities. Ratna Sudarshan provided a gender perspective to how inclusive telecentres are, on the basis of fieldwork conducted at the Akshaya centres in Kerala. Ratna pointed out absence of continued skill upgradation trainings and social norms and customs as hindrances to women’s employment opportunities. She asserted that entry is not the issue; mobility at work place is. Melinda Bandalaria spoke of the need for change in attitude among Filipino women vis-à-vis uses of ICTs. Dalia el-Hazek presented the situation of the SIWA Community Learning Centre in Egypt – an UNDP, Microsoft, a SIWA NGO partnership project. A follow-up study in 2006 revealed that women were not included due to societal norms and culture.

Open discussion: Telecentres for inclusion

The open discussion round that ensued after the presentations reflected upon sustainability of all-women telecentres, telecentres as spheres of inclusion, and the future of telecentres in a fast-emerging market for mobile phones. It was argued that, at present, all-women telecentres couldn’t be profitable and have to be subsidised. But this is a small step towards larger practices of inclusion. What could help the process is lobbying, attitudinal and perception changes.

It was reiterated that telecentres are rooted in a market-driven environment, where profit underplays inclusion. But for the poorest section of society, it is not mobile phones but telecentres that will stand and benefit them in the foreseeable future. Therefore, governments should intervene and help in providing subsidies to telecentres.

Outcomes of the session

What emerged out of the session was that there is an urgent need for telecentres to include women and the marginalised. This can happen only when more studies address the matter and bring out solutions to mend the gap. Telecentre programmes also need to conduct awareness and sensitisation campaigns on including the excluded.

Conclusion: A potpourri of ideas, knowledge, information and experiences

TSF 2008 saw intense debates and deliberations on issues of telecentre innovations, sustainability, content and services; inclusion of the disadvantaged; the status of the Government of India’s CSC programme; the trajectory of the Indian telecentre movement as well as the telecentre movements in Asia and parts of Africa. Knowledge, information and experience sharing benefited the participants as they took back lessons to be learnt and applied.

telecentre.org, in the inaugural session, announced a telecentre.org academy Curriculum Commons Grant of USD 125,000 for improving the quality and standard of grassroots knowledge workers. Basheerhamad Shadrach, Senior Programme Officer, telecentre.org stated that the telecentre.org academy is in the process of developing a ‘curriculum commons site’ as an online repository and library of curriculum and training material.

The Forum also saw effective outcomes as partnerships were forged between the various organisations. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Drishtee, India and GDCO, Sudan to engage in collaborative initiatives for new projects and to  collaborate for training and content inputs for the Telecentre Academy. ITU forged partnership opportunity with telecentre networks across the region to actively engage in its global telecentre maps initiative. Also, MSSRF partnered with Drishtee to replicate the rural BPO model in the MSSRF telecentres. The Government of India agreed to have a meeting with the SCAs to discuss the challenges they face and how to mitigate them.

The Forum also brought forth discussions on several future telecentre innovations, where scopes in mobile banking facilities, matrimonial alliances and animation training were discussed. Also, there were suggestions that the telecentre academy should engage with standardisation of training modules for telecentre operators and of certificates along with continuous learning. Specific attention was drawn to capacity building training.  Another highlight of the Forum was that Ahmed M M Eisa, Chairperson, GDCO chose it as a platform to launch the Sudan National Telecentre Academy website.

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