[fsug-calicut] [OFFTOPIC] Waiting to fly... the Akshaya project in Kerala (South India)

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http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/ew/2005/04/18/stories/2005041800030100.htm

Waiting to fly  

Vipin V. Nair 

Akshaya, the Kerala Government's project to make the common man log into
a computer, can take to the skies if it learns from teething trouble. A
status report from eWorld. 

THE overnight rain had soaked Nilambur and its teak woods. A drizzle in
the morning brought a fresh layer of chill. Nilambur, famous for its
teak plantations, was about to sneeze.

But it was not the weather that dampened the spirit of Nazar. Sitting in
a small room that he calls office, Nazar looked more a loser than an
entrepreneur. 

His Akshaya centre is in financial trouble, he has run up losses, and
the future is bleak, Nazar says.

He is not comfortable talking about selling a computer at one-third its
price to pay rent for the centre.

On the other side of the district, Mujeeb has a different story to tell.
His centre in Tirur has four staff to run the show. 

It provides e-payment, DTP services, Internet browsing and computer
training. Why, he has even developed a billing software for local
cable-television operators.

In a nearby area, Noushad too has managed to take his Akshaya centre
forward, offering similar services to the local population, many of whom
saw a computer for the first time in their lives at the Akshaya centre. 

Two years after Kerala's Akshaya project was launched â and gained
national and international attention for its pioneering vision â such
divergent voices about its viability and future are heard from
Malappuram, the district where it was piloted. 

What is happening to Kerala's most ambitious information technology
project ever? Is there anything wrong?

Concept

The basic idea of Akshaya was to bridge the `digital divide' and thereby
propel Kerala as `India's foremost knowledge society.'

The Kerala State IT Mission, the nodal agency for the development of
information technology in Kerala, conceived the project, envisaging a
network of some 6,000 information centres across the State.

These centres would impart basic computer skills to at least one member
of the 65 lakh families, offer various e-services such as bill payment
for utilities, bring information through the Internet to people, and
most importantly, dispel the fear among ordinary citizens that the
computer is beyond their reach.

In the process, at least 50,000 people would find jobs, and Rs 500 crore
would be invested in the State within three years.

"The concept was to have an Akshaya centre within two km of every
household, just like a ration shop," says M. Sivasankar, now Malappuram
District Collector, and the man who spearheaded Akshaya.

These centres, set up by local entrepreneurs, would start off by
imparting computer skills to people under their coverage area. Over 15
hours of training, a person would acquire the basics of Windows, MS
Office, Internet, etc, from the Akshaya centre.

And for every such person trained, the centre would get a fee of Rs 120
from the State Government through the District, Block and Grama
Panchayat.

The first two institutions would chip in with Rs 20 each, while the
Grama Panchayat would spend Rs 80 for a person.

Every centre was supposed to train at least 1,000 people in three
months, thereby ensuring an income of Rs 1.20 lakh. Subsequent to this
e-literacy campaign, a host of services would be rolled out, including
the second phase of the training.

Malappuram, in northern Kerala, was selected as the test bed for the
project. 

Initial days

The Kerala Government launched the Akshaya project in November 2002.
Entrepreneurs were selected by February 2003 and given training.

Over the next few months, a number of Akshaya centres, sporting their
blue logo, sprang up across Malappuram, one of the backward districts in
terms of social and economic development in Kerala. 

Eventually, 634 Akshaya centres would be set up, it was planned.As per
the project report of the Kerala IT Mission, each centre would entail an
investment of Rs 3.83 lakh for its 10 computers and other paraphernalia,
plus working capital. 

The Government ensured the Akshaya project priority funding from banks
and term loans to cover half the project cost were arranged.

The project went on steam in May 2003, and by February 2004, over 5.80
lakh people in Malappuram knew how to log on to a computer, open a file,
save it, surf the Internet and send e-mail. The world took note of
Malappuram.

But this process was not as easy as doing a search on Google, many
Akshaya entrepreneurs soon realised. 

Every centre was supposed to train a certain number of people (over
1,000 from each ward in their respective area) over three months.

But sometimes, even a free meal is not enough of an attraction. Many
people showed reluctance to turn up at the centres at a given time,
putting aside whatever they were doing.

"We had to then open sub-centres to take the classes close to them,"
says M.M. Sadique, President of the Akshaya Entrepreneurs Forum. This
entailed additional spending.

He alleges that there were many instances of unnecessary expenditure
that entrepreneurs were forced to incur. 

Like the case of handbooks for learners at Rs 8 per copy. These books
were to be sold at Rs 10 each but Sadique says the centres could not
sell even 100 copies. "Each of us had spent Rs 8,000 or more for this
handbook. We were promised that unsold books would be taken back, but we
are yet to be refunded," he says. 

The delay in completing the training â it took nearly six months as
against the proposed 100 days â was reflected in disbursement of funds
as well. "It took about six months for us to get the money," one
entrepreneur says.

Government officials say no amount is now pending for the first phase of
the e-literacy campaign. A part of the funds was remitted directly to
those banks that had given loans to Akshaya centres. 

A total of Rs 7.58 crore have been disbursed for the campaign, officials
say.

Yet, many centres were closed down. "Forty seven centres were closed
during the e-literacy project and 50 afterwards," says an official
associated with Akshaya. Only around 450 centres are now functional in
Malappuram, out of the planned 634, he admits.

"But this was the first time such a project was ever tried anywhere in
the world. In such a project, you usually don't get more than 30 per
cent success rate," he argues in the same breath.

Sivasankar says Akshaya was "slightly ahead of its time. Even in cities
like Kochi, many services are not available over the Net," he points
out.

Nevertheless, he too agrees that there were problems. Another critical
issue to be looked at is how many of those 5.80 lakh who learned their
skills at the expense of public money can now actually use a PC, after
two years. Apparently, many among them haven't used a PC again. 

Missing: Fire in the belly

The selection of entrepreneurs was, perhaps, the first problem with
Akshaya. "There were substantive miscalculations," Sivasankar says. All
the 634 people who were chosen to run the centres, it was thought, would
make it on the lines of a Sabeer Bhatia or Narayana Murthy. 

But many lacked the business acumen, the courage to take risks, and the
ability to see difficulties through. The result: when plans didn't work,
they tottered and waited for help, rather than finding innovative ways
to solve issues. 

Since the project was a government baby, many thought there would be
continued support from the administration. "The Government had made it
clear in the MoU that there will not be any commitment after the
e-literacy campaign," the Akshaya official says.

Mujeeb, who runs the Tirur centre, says many unemployed youth jumped on
to the Akshaya bandwagon, thinking the Government would support them
throughout. 

"The element of risk was not anticipated and they expected grants all
the time," he says. The political pressure that led to selection of some
entrepreneurs only added to the problem, officials say.

Promises fail

Entrepreneurs say many of the revenue streams the Government promised
for Akshaya after the e-literacy phase never saw the light of day. 

"We were told during our training period that there would be a number of
avenues for business generation through the centre," says one
participant. The project report, in fact, lists a host of such
opportunities. The Akshaya centre, it says, would function as a direct
link between the people, Government and private organisations.

It can offer services such as data collection, training and education,
Web-based consultancy services, printing and publishing, information
sales and other general services.

For instance, the centres can do data collection such as census (for
government) and market data (for industry).

Several other services such as computer training to more people,
providing courses such as spoken English and personality development,
e-learning, online exams, Web-based marriage consultancy, real estate,
telemedicine, DTP, sales of government information and application
forms, Internet browsing and what- have-you were up for grabs for
enterprising folks. 

A model centre in a normal year can thus make Rs 5.43 lakhs, the report
postulates. 

While those like Mujeeb and Noushad managed to provide some of these
services, many others couldn't. The Government, from its side, did offer
large-scale data entry work, but this ran into rough weather.

One centre in a panchayat was selected by Information Kerala Mission to
convert panchayat records into digital format. 

Sadique alleges that many centres are yet to receive their dues after
completing the work. Akshaya officials also agree that there are
problems with regard to this initiative.

Efforts are now on to get the funds released. 

A health-kiosk concept was initiated, but it remained a concept only. It
is not clear now as to how far it is possible for Akshaya centres to
provide the kind of services envisioned in the project report.

Whether every citizen would go to an Akshaya centre to pay his bills,
buy his application forms/submit them and to deal with authorities
remains to be seen. 

Besides, labour unions in utilities are grumbling, as they fear that
Akshaya would render many employees jobless. 

Connectivity

Meanwhile, Akshaya centres were networked with one another through
wireless Internet. Through a global bidding, Delhi-based Tulip IT
Services was chosen to roll out a wireless Internet network over the
hilly terrain of Malappuram (which itself means `atop a hill').

Once the network was established, Akshaya centres would start providing
e-payment facilities, besides offering Internet browsing, e-mail, and
chat. 

Establishing such a network in a district like Malappuram proved to be a
tough task. 

Entrepreneurs complain that there were connectivity problems in the
early days. Each Akshaya centre was to pay Rs 8,000 for connectivity
through four post-dated cheques of Rs 2,000 each. Of this, only one
cheque has been cashed so far.

The centres were also to pay a monthly charge of Rs 1,000 for unlimited
connectivity. This amount has also not been levied as yet, despite the
network being up and running.

But the delay that occurred during the rollout affected the centres
severely, says Sivasankar. "The centres could not graduate to the second
phase," he says. Apparently, Tulip had underestimated the nature of
Malappuram's terrain and hence the delay.

But Tulip's Managing Director, Lt. Col. H.S. Bedi VSM, says Akshaya has
been "one of the most successful of such projects to date."

"The network has been in use for almost eight months as of now. The very
high usage of the project is probably the best measure of its success,"
he argues.

The centres agree Net connectivity has stabilised now and they are happy
about its bandwidth (between 16 Kbps and 64 Kbps), notwithstanding
occasional drops.

Out of the 401 centres that are connected, 151 are now providing e-pay
services. People can pay electricity and BSNL telephone bills through
these centres by paying a fee of Rs 5 per bill.

"In the past two-and-a-half months, 33,000 electricity bills of Rs 1.03
crore have been paid," officials claim.

Here too, entrepreneurs say more streamlining needs to be done at the
bank and utility offices to avoid glitches at the back-end.

They would like the Government to provide spurs on these lines: a lower
power tariff, waiver of interest on pending loans, status of small-scale
industrial units, and channelling of more government services.

What next?

Even though over one-fourth of Akshaya centres have closed down, it may
not be appropriate to term the project a failure. 

In fact, the very fact that 450 centres are functioning across
Malappuram, braving the initial unforeseen hiccups, is a tribute to the
project.

But the State Government, now preparing to replicate the project in
other districts, should not overlook the problems that these centres
encountered. 

And offering a helping hand to those in trouble, rather than just
washing its hands off, would send a positive message to potential
Akshaya entrepreneurs in other parts of the State. 

vipin@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Picture by G.P. Sampath Kumar

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