Friday, March 10, 2006

BARAMATI 3: The setting: in the heart of rural, central India

Vidya Prathisthan is an educational campus built in the middle of rural India, amidst some barren terrain and in the midst of what used to be desolate villages areas. It aims to be "an institution in which knowledge resides as the most ineresting building block", as organisers of the organising panel put it.

"In 1992, (prominent Indian politician who's often credited with this success story) Sharad Pawar dared to dream of translating 128 acres of barren land into a prominent centre of education. We're always aimed at taking technology to the grassroots of society. VIIT (Vidya Pratishthan's Institute of Informatoin Techology, the local engineering college) was established in February 2000, six years ago, with an aim to provide quality education in information technology and computer science," said VIIT governing council chairman Sharad Kulkarni.

He mentioned some of the initiatives taken by this institution in terms of IT-enabled "affordable" services, interactive-voice recording based bazaar bhav (market prices information), telebanking, WiLL (or wireless in local loop) to access the internet, smart cards for rural settings, computer on wheels, and the local government's e-services network called Setu.

(Setu is a single window system, which processes the applications received at the facility center, verifies them and generates certificates or affidavits. The operator can punch in all details of the applicant, whenever he receives an application for a certificate or affidavit.)

Kulkarni narrated that the Baramati Initiatives evolved out of a World Bank meeting between the Indian politician and strongman of the Baramati area Sharad Pawar and the then World Bank's Watanabe, who was keen on harnessing the power of ICTs for development.

Kulkarni also gave an update of earlier conferences at Baramati. This series of annual meets, he said, have served as meeting point for four sets of stake-holders: grassroot workers, the development community, IT entrepreneurs with technical skills (entrepreneurs and researchers), and government officials.

In May 2001, the theme of connectivity for the rural poor in India. Baramati II came about from May 31 to June 2, 2002, and had among its partners the Digital Partners and Media Lab Asia. May 2003 saw the third initiative. It's focus was ways in which ICTs are being used to empower the power in a more sustainable manner. There were presentation of social entrepreneurs. In May 2004, the focus went onto info-kiosks. For the Fifth Baramati Initiative in March 2005, the theme was delivering opportunity -- education through technology.

This year, the conference is focussing on ICTs in agriculture. VIIT governing council chairman Sharad Kulkarni said: "We're exploring avenues through which governments, NGOs, and entrepreneurs can focus on e-agriculture. Some 65% of India lives in the rural sector, mostly working in agriculture. But agriculture accounts for hardly 23% of the GDP (gross domestic product). We need to assist India's remaining 650 million to augment their own purchasing power. Indian farmers are sustaining themselves on archaic practicses, like their counterparts in various parts of the globe. It's essential that they get access to info on weather, production techniques, availability of seed, cultivation techniques, water usage, new techniques like biotechnics, and market infrastructure like warehousing."