Tuesday, 22 September 2009

New Media for Development in India

Paper on New Media for Development in India
presented at the national conference on Media and Development
Organised by Kushabhau Thakare Patrakarita avam JansancharVishwavidyalaya
On May15-16, 2008 at Raipur,Madhya Pradesh, India

Indian newspapers played a very important role in the freedom struggle. Newspapers in English and non-English languages published from cities and rural areas took on the might of the British rulers. They effectively countered the anti-freedom struggle campaigns undertaken by the British-owned newspapers of the day. The newspapers largely devoted their space to politics. Non-English publications debated social issues also. Coverage of issues of development was rare.
After the Independence, these newspapers were initially not sure about their role in the democracy because now the governments at the Centre and at the states were run by the natives. They could not thus continue the anti-establishment stance. Like the common people and the government servants, journalists were overawed by the charismatic personality of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who remained at the helm until his death in 1964. Owners, editors, and journalists gradually woke up to write about the social and economic issues although politics remained top priority for some decades later.
Politics of Mrs Indira Gandhi and her opponents dominated newspapers in the turbulent seventies. Yet newspapers had provided space to issues of the common people as special features on droughts, scarcity of food, and problems of deprived sections such as women, children, tribals, and slum-dwellers. Newspapers had space earmarked for debates and question-and-answers in Parliament and state assemblies. Government-run Akashvani and Doordashan broadcast programmes that discussed such problems and experts were on their panels to offer advice and solutions to the listeners.
The scenario gradually changed when colour television made its appearance for the Asiad Games in 1982. Although the electronic media was still state-controlled, newspapers felt that there was now stiff competition from television, which could provide live coverage of major events. The policies for globalisation, liberalisation, and privatisation were introduced in 1991 that brought in the subsequent years, among other things, private television channels, private telephone operators and Internet. The users had more options to get news and entertainment. Daily newspapers and other print publications changed their strategies and tried to offer what the 24-hour channels telecast.
The electronic media did not provide any threat in terms of circulation and advertisement revenue to the newspapers, like the US traditional media experienced during the last two decades. Yet, the India print media became more aggressive as the publishers added pages, brought out more supplements, editions from other centres, and even publications in other languages, with colour printing on glossy art papers. Some leading publishers have begun exploiting convergence of media technology, as they now own television and private FM radio stations. Some newspapers have Internet portals offering a variety of contents including latest news, jokes and counselling.
The globalisation and open economy have brought in India multi-nationals and new players in engineering and service industry. This has offered substantial ad support and sponsorships to at least leading media in English and non-English languages.
In this flurry of activity in media of India, casualty seems to be serious coverage of pressing development issues. Newspapers ape the formats of news and entertainment channels that have no space or inclination to cover such issues. Parliament coverage is available on state-run Loksabha and Rajyasabha channels, but newspapers do not any more carry columns such as 'Today in Parliament' wherein they used to publish important government decisions announced in both the Houses. The popular media cover political issues that include intra-party or inter-party feuds presuming that this is newsy and that the audiences are eager to watch or read only these. No serious nation-wide surveys have been carried out to find out if this presumption is correct. Television channels are happy with the TRPs (Television Rating Points) collected from few viewers in metros.
Against this background, Internet has become a very important and useful tool to fill in the vacuum created by the traditional print and electronic media who ignore development issues. This paper attempts to highlight the role of Internet and other new technologies play to do what the traditional media have chosen to ignore.
It will be too presumptuous to argue that Internet has been very effective in reporting, discussing, and motivating the target audiences to act for development. There are limitations to the use of Internet in a vast sub-continent of India, but it is worthwhile documenting how the Net is trying to play a role in its nascent stage. After all, the web emerged as recently as in 1995 when it was available only in the metros. The real thrust to introduction of Internet was received in the initial years of the new millennium when broadband and mobile telephony were made available to the people.

Internet in India
Internet was born in USA in 1960s to aid defence and scientific project. In India also, Internet was introduced by research institutes. India had 42,000,000 Internet users (not subscribers) in July 2007 compared to 5,000,000 at the turn of the last century. This showed an impressive 740 per cent usage growth. Yet for a population of 1,129,667,528, the penetration was just 3.7 per cent. When contrasted with tiny Japan, India’s progress in this area would seem unimpressive: Japan (population: 128,646,345) had 86,300,000 Internet users, which meant that the penetration was 67.1 per cent. The usage growth during the seven years ending 2007 was 83.3 per cent.
It would have to be acknowledged, however, that India made rapid progress in Information and Communication Technology within a very short span. This had to be viewed against the backdrop that Internet for private use was first available only in 1995. Within the first three years, there were 1,400,000 users while the number went up to 5,500,000 at the turn of the century though it meant a penetration of only half a percent for a population of 1,094,870,677. Thanks to a series of initiatives taken by the Union Government, the dial-up connectivity was available to government and local-self government offices, commercial establishments, educational institutions, domestic users and cyber café owners taking the number of Net users to 42,000,000 for a population that had gone up to 1,129,667,528 in year 2007. The penetration was only 3.7 per cent. Broadband connectivity was available in major cities in 2003. From a mere 19,000 broadband connections in 2004, the country had 1.82 million connections in September 2006 by which time dial-up connections had gone up to 8.8 millions.
Year Ending Internet Subscribers Broadband Subscribers
2005 6 million 3 million
2007 18 million 9 million
2010 40 million 20 million
(Data source: http://www.dotindia.com/ntp/broadbandpolicy2004.htm, accessed in August 2007)

Education and Research Network (ERNET)
The Department of Electronics initiated, under financial assistance from UNDP in 1986, the Education and Research Network (ERNET) which became the first major step in ushering in Internet era in the country. It practically brought Internet in India. It succeeded in building a large network for scientists and academics. The government adopted ERNET as the platform for launching a science and technology network in the country. The founding fathers were National Centre for Software Technology, Mumbai, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, five Indian Institutes of Technology at Delhi, Mumbai, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Chennai, and the Department of Electronics, New Delhi.
ERNET eventually became the largest nationwide terrestrial and satellite network of premiere educational and research institutions in major cities of India. Focus of ERNET is not limited to just providing connectivity, but to meet the entire needs of the educational and research institutions by hosting and providing relevant information to their users.
National Informatics Centre (NIC)
An important decision of the government in seventies was to set up National Informatics Centre (NIC) as the initiative of the Department of Information Technology. If ERNET’s mission was to network the science and academic community, NIC was created to provide network backbone and e-Governance support to government administration. Its mandate was to provide Information and Communication Technology services to Central Government, State Governments, Union Territory Administrations, Districts, and other Government bodies in India.
The NIC offers a wide range of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services including Nationwide Communication Network for decentralised planning, improvement in Government services and wider transparency of national and local Governments. NIC assists in implementing Information Technology Projects, in close collaboration with Central and State Governments, in the areas of (a) Centrally sponsored schemes and Central sector schemes, (b) State sector and State sponsored projects, and (c) District Administration sponsored projects. NIC endeavours to ensure that the latest technology in all areas of IT is available to its users. (http://nic.gov.in/)

Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd
Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, then a state-owned monopoly corporation, launched commercial Internet service in 1995 for industry, trade, home-users, and so on. In February 2002, the Government of India, as per its disinvestments plan, released 25% of VSNL's equity to TATAs. The TATA Indicom and other private service providers have since been offering connectivity to the net users in all parts of the country. Along with these developments, private telephone operators have been spreading their markets with handsets that have camera, audio-visual add-ons and even a communicator incorporating MS Office which can send and receive e-mails. These developments have given a major push to ICT, mostly in major cities but also in smaller places in the countryside. Government and non-government agencies, enterprising institutions, and innovative individuals have been trying to effectively use the new generation tools not only for entertainment but also for development of the society.

Public Broadcasters and government web sites
The Public Broadcasters, Doordarshan and All India Radio have continued to cover, besides spot news, Science and Technology, Agriculture and Rural Development, Women and Children, Arts/Culture/Entertainment, Education and Social sector and so on. Those interested in the proceedings of both houses of Parliament can watch exclusive live coverage from channels dedicated for the purpose.
The Union government harnessed Internet technology to post these proceedings also at the web sites http://rajyasabha.gov.in/ and http://loksabha.gov.in/. Similarly, state governments have set up their own web sites to project the plans and achievement of the respective government. There are web site that provide some static details of respective state assemblies, but most do not have question-and-answers, government's announcement, and reports of various committees as are posted at the web sites of Loksabha and Rajyasabha. Besides these, there are websites of Press Information Bureau (http://pib.nic.in/) that offers press notes and photographs about announcements of central government, Doordarshan (http://www.ddinews.gov.in/) and, All India Radio (www.newsonair.com). The NIC has designed and hosted websites for ministries and departments providing details about the policies and schemes.
Thus, enough resources are available on the websites hosted by the government which has made commitment to people about e-governance, transparency and the Right To Information Act. Administrations in the states, including local civic bodies, have transferred essential information on the net enabling people to get their work within minutes, and not days together as used to happen only in the recent past. An extract of the land record (or 7/12 as it is popularly known) is one of these transactions that were time-consuming and sources of rampant corruption.
This is not to say that these efforts of the government are adequate for the development of society. It is only submitted that these resources were not available earlier with the popular media, and whatever the newspapers in the past did for development is also not being offered to the people through their columns. The new technology has made it possible to provide essential contents in real time and also with very little cost.

Private Initiatives
These features of the new media have been harnessed by non-government organisations, academic institutes, cooperative ventures, and public-spirited individuals. They have set up web sites to provide details of the projects and policies or to offer advice on important issues. These web sites provide space for debates and discussions in a manner the government-hosted web sites cannot venture to do. Many of these web sites have been providing great service to the people interested in issues affecting them.
The following discussion centres around some such web sites that shows how the new media and their tools can play important role in the development of the society:

Centre for Agricultural Media (www.farmedia.org)
Centre for Agricultural Media (CAM) came into existence in Dharwad, Karnataka, on December 3, 2000. It has been expanding its activities successfully to accomplish its objective of strengthening the farmer friendly communication system. It is now registered as a trust under the India Trust Act.
CAM supports any pro-farmer issue in all possible ways. This is the first venture of its kind in India. This forum has initiated several activities, with the support from likeminded experts in farm and rural development journalism. It has been effectively using new media tools:
Web activities: CAM maintains this website (www.farmedia.org) which acts complementary to CAM’s activities. Two important issues of water and organic farming have been addressed extensively in this website. Two separate sections have been created for the purpose.
Media for sustainable development: CAM introduced a programme called, ‘Media for Sustainable Development’ to facilitate media to focus on the positive efforts carried out in the rural areas.
As an extension of CAM’s efforts, the Centre ventured into book publication in 2005 and has published two books and is in the process of publishing the third one.
Issue based networking: CAM has indicated a promising future in creating issue-based awareness through Internet. The centre has played an active role in drawing the public attention on the issue of endosulfan tragedy in certain districts of Kerala. Through its bulletins, CAM has disseminated related information to concerned people, which helped the people’s movement considerably.
CAM-Net: CAM has released 50 e-bulletins through CAM-Net until it became defunct due to lack of technical support. The bulletins reached over 10 thousand people across the world.

Reuters Market Light: A service to farmers
A novel initiative to harness mobile telephone technology has been undertaken by Reuters and Maharashtra government since October 2007. Under the service called Reuters Market Light (RML) introduced first time in the world, farmers receive through their mobile telephones local and customised prices of agro-products, news and weather updates in Marathi.
The idea is to help farmers take informed and quick decisions to dispatch their produce to a market place where the price is more attractive. Weather updates and advice about farm practices are intended to help the farmers take precautionary measures when sudden changes in the climate occur. This service is, thus, intended to aid farmers to develop their financial status using the modern communication technology and credibility of the Reuters.
For a monthly fee of Rs. 60, the scheme was a big draw within few days after Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar formally launched it. Over 7,500 farmers subscribed in October and two months later the subscriptions rose to 10,500.
On December 20, 2007, the Reuters announced that the RML would be available in local post offices across the state. It entered into a partnership with Maharashtra’s Postal Circle, to distribute, sell and support the RML.
RML promises help to farmers to enhance their crop yields and improve their productivity over a very wide range of produce including onions, cotton, soybean, pulses, pomegranates, and oranges.
The initiative thus acknowledges the need to combine modern technology, with the tried and tasted traditional postal service that reaches the remotest villages.

NGOsIndia.com is an online web directory and resource centre of Indian NGOs. The portal contains information about grass root level Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), government agencies, funding Agencies, social activists and concerned stakeholders, Funding Agencies, issues, projects, job opportunities in social sector, success stories of individuals as well as organizations, and other relevant links.
This web site has been set up by Delhi-based Srishti Sansthan. It has, among other things, alphabetically organised database of non-governmental organisations located in the states of the country. According to its vision and mission, it is committed to
· social justice, sustainable development and human rights. The right to communicate freely is a basic human right and a necessity for sustainable development. Access to information is essential to informed decision-making at all levels.
· dissemination of information and promotion of sustainable development initiatives, in response to the needs of under represented and marginalized sectors of society.
· develop and establish an ideal medium for the participation and exchange of a trusted and accurate source of quality information.

This NGO, through its web site, has made its objective very clear and specific to use new media:
· To promote Information collaborations and Constructive communication between NGOs, to develop effective partnership with each other.
· To network for the access, sharing and dissemination of information,
Collaboration and Partnerships between NGOs themselves and with other organisations.
· Electronic Networking to strengthen community organisations by boosting its knowledge base and its ability to share information and experiences with strategic allies and other partners in relevant field.
· Capacity building of grass root level NGOs, social workers through free online resources and information on a single platform.
· To serve non-profit organisations, charities, grassroots and community groups, educational and research institutions.
· Sharing of ideas among NGOs and development agents.

ITC's e-choupals (e-choupal.com)
ITC Ltd is one of India's foremost private sector companies with a market capitalisation of nearly US $ 18 billion and a turnover of over US $ 4.75 billion. Its e-choupal initiative, started in year 2000, is claimed to be the world’s largest rural digital infrastructure empowering over four million farmers.
Around 80,000 hectares of plantations by marginal farmers have been supported by ITC’s R & D based propagation programme. More than 35,000 hectares have been brought under ITC’s watershed development projects. Integrated animal husbandry programmes have been extended to 1,75,000 milch animals. Its women empowerment programmes have created over 11,000 rural women entrepreneurs and its supplementary education support has touched the lives of 100,000 children in rural India.
Choupal in Hindi means a meeting place in a village. The e-choupal concept has been borrowed from the age-old tradition of an earmarked place for such meeting. In the e-concept, an Internet kiosk is set up with the support of the ITC that also has a constantly updated database. Farmers assemble and use the new technology for the better their lot and to bring about rural development.
The ITC, as part of its corporate social responsibility, funded the initiative and provided expertise to run the project successfully. Farmers now log on to the site through these Internet kiosks in their villages to order high quality agri-inputs, get information on best farming practices, prevailing market prices for their crops at home and abroad and the weather forecast – all in the local language.
In the very first full season of e-Choupal operations in Madhya Pradesh, soya farmers sold nearly 50,000 tons of their produce through the e-Choupal Internet platform, which has more than doubled since then. The result marked the beginning of a transparent and cost-effective marketing channel.

Agricultural Marketing Information System Network (http://agmarknet.nic.in/)
This initiative undertaken in the tenth plan period is another example, this one by the government and its agencies, to use new communication technology to help the farmers in improving their earnings and make farming remunerative. The website explains its purpose as follows:
Almost all the States and Union Territories are providing market information in one form or the other for the benefits of market users like producers, traders, and consumers. However, the information is collected and disseminated by use of conventional methods, which cause inordinate delay in communicating the information to different target groups, and thus adversely affects their economic interest.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to bring improvement in the present market information system by linking (i) all Agricultural Produce Wholesale markets in the States and Union Territories, and (ii) the State Agricultural Marketing Boards and State Directorates of Agricultural Marketing, with the Directorate of Marketing & Inspection of the Union Ministry of Agriculture, for effective and efficient information exchange. Investment in networking of about 7000 Wholesale Agricultural Produce Markets in the Country will facilitate globalisation of Indian Agriculture (and also globalisation of Indian Markets) in addition to strategically establish Supply-Chain Model (SCM).
The Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, in the Union Ministry of Agriculture sanctioned a Central Sector Scheme 'NICNET Based Agricultural Marketing Information Network (AGMARK-NET)', with a Project Cost estimate of about Rs. ten crore. Under the project, it was envisaged to link 810 nodes (735 agricultural markets and 75 State Marketing Boards/DMI offices) to begin with, through its attached office, Directorate of Marketing and Inspection (DMI), during the year 2000-02. During the tenth five year plan, further expansion to 2000 additional markets, Regional Portals and GIS based National atlas of Markets has also been approved. As part of the expansion programme, about 1400 more markets are being networked.

The website now has a rich database updated continuously to help producers take quick decision about marketing their produce.

Limitations of this presentation
The use of new media tools has just begun in India during the last decade. Those who are harnessing the technology have been making sincere experiments to participate in the development processes. The examples discussed here are picked up from scores of websites and cannot be termed as representative. Intention to site them in this paper was to document such initiatives and not to carry out a critical analysis.
It must be acknowledged here that these initiatives suffer from several factors that hamper the efforts for the all round development of the deprived sections. Some of these factors are:
· Paucity of funds to provide computer and Internet connectivity at every place
· Non-availability of uninterrupted electricity to use the new technology
· Non-availability of technical support to run the centres at village level
· Non-availability of trainers to train farmers to use the technology
· Computer and Internet illiteracy. Computers in most places do not have regional language fonts that can be used to read contents in the web sites.
· Limitations to use regional languages to enable farmers to use contents of the web-linked databases
Yet, these initiatives deserve to be chronicled as the first steps in the digital era in India, particularly in the process of development. It will be useful to study these and other initiatives to find out how the farmers have actually benefited. Such studies will be useful also to the owners of the web sites.

Presented in absentia by:
Dr Kiran Thakur
Retired Professor and Head
Department of Communication and Journalism
University of Pune
Address: 03, Indrayani, Patrakarnagar, Pune 411016
Phone 020 25650225 Mobile 9373331733
e-mail drkiranthakur@gmail.com

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