The first impressions of Malappuram are deceptive.
Young men roam around aimlessly in the town that shares its name with the surrounding district. Women prefer to stay at home, venturing out only in purdahs. Minarets of mosques dominate the skyline. These are scenes from any Muslim neighbourhood in India.
But there is one major difference. Malappuram, the only Muslim-dominated district in northern Kerala, is the first district in the country where at least one person in every household can use computers to communicate and do basic online transactions such as paying utility bills.
The people here may not be fluent either in English or Hindi, but almost all, including elderly women, are familiar with e-chatting and emailing—the one way they stay in touch with their family members working in West Asia. While the need to stay in touch with relatives abroad provided the desire, it was the Akshaya Project—an initiative to use information and communication technologies for development—that enabled the people of Malappuram to embrace computers.
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Launched on 18 November 2002 to impart computer training to at least one person per family in the district, Akshaya has transformed Malappuram, a breathtakingly beautiful district known for ravines, hills, dales and palm-fringed coasts, into the country’s first fully networked district.
"Akshaya centre was of immense help to get in touch with my brothers abroad. Now I have my own (Internet) connection," said Ibrahim Therrorangadi, who runs a textile shop at Chemmad, 40 minutes away from Kozhikode airport, while showing off his new laptop, while his children played computer games on the desktop computer in the next room.
A woman employed at his shop, who didn’t want to be named, said that she constantly wanted updates on her emails, but long work hours did not permit her to do so.
The Akshaya scheme was launched to cover 600,000 households, or around 3.6 million people. By 2004, close to half a million of the district’s population was e-literate at a basic level, learning through computer games.
At present there are 289 Akshaya kiosks across the district that people use to stay in touch with family members employed abroad or even for basic e-commerce, such as paying electricity and mobile phone bills online, generating an average income of Rs9,660 a month per centre, according to the figures disclosed by state planning board member P.V Unnikrishnan, who has worked at the Kerala Information Mission.
Malappuram district has the largest number of emigrants from Kerala to the so-called Gulf countries. According to the latest study conducted by the Centre for Development Studies, the number of Keralites in the oil-rich economies of West Asia went up from 1.36 million in 1999 to 1.84 million in 2004. In 1999, the district accounted for nearly one in five of the total 1.36 million emigrants from Kerala.
The district has undergone several makeovers. In the late 19th and the early 20th century, Malappuram was a centre of commerce and prosperity. The Moplah rebellion of 1921 led to large scale deaths and triggered an exodus, says P.T. Kunhi Mohammed, who has made a video documentary on Malappuram for the Kerala government. Gradually, the district fell behind the rest of the state in terms of economic and social development.
However, opportunities in West Asia led to a dramatic revival. The 3,550-sq. km district now has four postgraduation colleges, seven first-grade colleges, six so-called oriental colleges (religious institutions) and 18 high schools. Cable TV penetration in Malappuram is one of highest in the state, said A.S. Jayashanker, manager, marketing, Malayalam Communications.
Says Anwar Anwar Sadat, manager, Kerala State IT Mission: "The root of the project that ushered in e-literacy in Malappuram lies in necessity. People were finding it difficult to pay ISD phone bills they used to make to family members employed in the Gulf. Now, one out of four persons in Malappuram are employed abroad…this led to a suggestion of using the Internet to make such calls. It led to starting the pilot project of the Akshaya project in the state."
According to Manohar Varghese at the Akshaya office in Malappuram town, the immediate benefits may not be tangible, but will yield "great advantage in the long run".
Officials say the response to the intiative was impressive and the spirit was similiar to the massive response to the state’s literacy movement in 1990s. "I could see the smile on the faces of old purdah-clad women while they touched the keyboard. They were certainly getting onto a new track in life," Varghese said.
Ironically, development is not the key issue at stake when Kerala goes to the polls on Thursday. Complicating the electoral battle is the fact that for the first time, following delimitation, Malappuram is now a Lok Sabha constituency. Earlier, parts of it were in the Manjeri and Ponnani constituencies.
The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidate in Malappuram, E. Ahamed, blames the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM-led Left Democratic Front, or LDF, for it. "We wanted to raise developmental issues such as Akshaya scheme (it was launched by Congress-led United Democratic Front), the passport offices, the development of the Kozhikode airport (which is situated in Malappuram district), etc. But the Communists called me a spy of Israel and a friend of (former US president George W.) Bush. I ended up replying to them," Ahamed, minister of state for external affairs, said over the phone.
Ahamed, who won the Ponnani seat, was the only succesful UDF candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election; the LDF won 18 and one seat went to an independent.
CPM’s T.K. Hamsa, Lok Sabha MP from Manjeri, is his main rival. While the Left is trying hard to sell the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government as "pro-imperialist" and emphasize the "dangers" of the India-US civil nuclear agreement, Ahamed is struggling to explain that it was his initiative which prompted the government to extend Rs205 crore as aid to Palestine. "I explained that I was a minister in the external affairs but did not even bother to shake hands with Bush but I went and met (Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat," he says.
Even a day before polling, no clear verdict is apparent.
"I do not want to vote for anyone who backs the US. Hamsa is a son of the soil. Ahamed is an outsider and he has also aligned himself with the forces that threaten India’s sovereignty," says Santhosh K., a photographer based in Malappuram.
But Naser M.K., a driver who works at the Kozhikode airport and has a vote in Malappuram town, believes that the IUML and the UDF are losing their influence in many parts of the district. "But Malappuram town is still an IUML bastion. I will vote for the UDF because it is the only party that promotes reforms and brings development."