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Tech development in rural India

Witth technology at its heart, Baramati is becoming a showcase as a success of knowledge-based sustained development.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2006 15:03 IST

This is the town that Sharad Pawar built. And today, with technology at its heart, it's becoming a showcase as a success of knowledge-based sustained development for India's agriculture minister to place before the world.

Critics aren't convinced, however. Located a two-hour drive from the central Indian city of Pune, Baramati is seen as a mirage in a drought-prone region that was built with government and industry funding -- and from elsewhere too, including the World Bank -- in a way that can't really be replicated across the large landmass of India.

Other concerns have been raised: there's the gap between affluent sugarcane farmers and the rest with Pawar's family controlling cooperatives and more.

Life remains harsh in this drought-hit land. Much of Baramati itself still depends on rain. Small farmers haven't gained. Sugarcane yields are dropping and there's little industry here.

But that apart, the oasis that is Baramati is green and growing. At its heart is Baramati's showpiece Vidya Pratishthan, launched in 1972 as a modest school with over a dozen different institutions today, including a four-year-old modernistic School of Biotechnology.

While it has become fashionable for the development circuit to talk about IT4D (information technology for development), Baramati talks about IT4RD, the additional alphabet giving hint of its 'rural' orientation.

VIIT (Vidya Pratishthan's Institute of Information Technology) governing council chairperson Sharad Kulkarni points to initiatives taken here to promote IT-enabled "affordable" services.

Initiatives include 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, and the local government's e-services network called Setu.

(Setu is a single window system, which processes the applications received at the facility centre, verifies them and generates certificates or affidavits.)

In March each year, Baramati plays host to techies, funders and others from across India, and a few from abroad, who are focussed on deploying IT for societal purposes.

Kulkarni says the Baramati Initiatives evolved out of a World Bank meeting between Pawar and senior officials of the World Bank.

Baramati sees these annual meets -- six have been held so far -- as a meeting point for four sets of stakeholders: grassroots workers, the development community, IT entrepreneurs and researchers, and government officials.

In past years, these 'IT-for-rural development' meets focussed on connectivity for the rural poor, IT for empowering the rural poor, social entrepreneurs, info-kiosks, education through technology, and IT in agriculture.

VIIT, the local IT college, has meanwhile been putting the theory into practice. Its telephone-based interactive voice response offers latest commodities' prices to farmers, via a telephone and in the local Marathi language.

It can be extended for other purposes: telephonic bank balance enquiry services, solutions for insurance firms (policy premium payment reminders, policy status) and schools (exam results), bookings for services like railway tickets and gas bookings.

Its 'computer on wheels' takes computers to rural schoolchildren. Likewise, Baramati believes that multimedia content could help tackle India's rural illiteracy, and is working in this field.

It has reduced the cost of setting up 'thin client' networks for schools and colleges.

Information is seen as the key. A portal which contains local weather information, crop recommendations and relevant info. is an e-selling and e-procurement solution. Other MIS, or management information system, are targeted at sugar factories, poultry and milk-cooperative sectors here.

At the end of the day, the jury may be still out on whether these approaches can be scaled-up and replicated across less influential political constituencies. But what's happening in Baramati is definitely worth a closer look.