Building digital opportunities for a remote island using CIC – By Kumar M Tiku
Posted by egovindia on June 23, 2006
Change is in the air in Majuli. Situated in the Indian state of Assam, this world's largest inhabited river island, surrounded on all sides by the mighty Brahmaputra, Lohit, and Subansiri rivers has bridged the physical divide through digital initiatives doing wonders for the over 150 000 inhabitants.
Turning easy accessibility into a reality, the two separate programmes of e-Setu and CIC (Community Information Centre) have more than made up for the lack of a ‘real bridge’ between the island and the mainland. After all, the island is almost 15 kilometres from Nimatighat the port in Jorhat. Laying a conventional bridge is not a feasible proposition for a poor state. Thus for the islanders and visitors alike, the only access to mainland Jorhat, the district headquarters, is by means of a ferry. These motorized ferries are the only lifelines for the local population.
e-Setu: helping people emerge out of a time warp
With the advent of e-Setu, digital opportunities initiative supported by the Government of India and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) on the island, these hazardous and time-consuming journeys to avail basic government services have been drastically reduced. From seeking clearance for organizing village rallies to getting a birth certificate and PRC (permanent residence certificate) or land registration certificate, it offers all. These could be until recently accessed only, if at all, by visiting the DC’s (Deputy Commissioner) office on the other side of the river.
e-Setu kiosk in Garmur, the heart of Majuli town
Says Bhoben Kakoty, a political science lecturer at the Pitamber Deb Goswami Degree College in Majuli, who has just received his Jamabandi (record of land registration) certificate at the Majuli e-Setu information kiosk. ‘During the rainy season, the bad condition of the road makes it impossible to commute from one village to another. So, visiting the SDO’s (Sub-Divisional Officer) office, or for that matter the DC’s office across the river, is almost impossible.’ And yet, he adds, ‘we need government services at every step. It is like a dream that these facilities can be accessed right here.’
‘What we need, in fact,’ adds Kakoty, ‘is another e-Setu kiosk on the periphery of this island, and not just in the heart of Majuli, where it is now. This will spare the villagers from the misery of getting here.’
The SDO of Majuli, Ananta Kumar Baruah, plans to answer such needs by setting up at least two more e-Setu kiosks in Naya Bazar and Bongaon in the outer reaches of the island ‘so that people in those remote parts do not have to come up’ he announced.
Ravi Kota, Deputy Commissioner of Jorhat, a civil servant of rare commitment and enthusiasm and the prime mover of the e-Setu idea, concedes that there is resistance, no doubt, from local officials, particularly the babus (clerical officials) whose sphere of influence is hurt the most by these initiatives.
‘Only 20% of those involved in this exercise are amenable to the vision of e-Setu initiative, accepting its implications for good governance. But by and large, officials cannot agree to the fact that their privilege to hand out information to citizens has been virtually taken over by the private kiosk owner. This is causing much heartburn,’ says Kota.
For the army of government employees at the subordinate levels, suddenly the writing is loud and clear: shape up or ship out. Retrain and reform. Slowly, they are learning to fall in line.
A digital story unfolds new vistas
While on mainland Jorhat, Pradeep Saikia (25 years old), a private e-Setu kiosk owner can scarcely cope with the demand from the locals for government services. The demand for a PRC among high school students is particularly high. In these parts, it is impossible to gain admission into a college without producing a PRC. Next, in demand, are the Jamabandi copy or the land registration certificate and the birth certificates. Followed by the land valuation certificate, the legal heir certificate, copy of court order for different cases and character certificate, to name a few.
The kiosk displays a checklist of e-Setu services
Customers start queuing up at Pradeep's Global Computer Institute in Teok, a village some 20 kilometres from Jorhat, well before the kiosk opens at 9:30 am. Between June and December 2003, 800 certificates were issued at this private kiosk alone. Certainly, a lot of applications at one little kiosk! But at five rupees per application form and ten rupees as processing fee for every application, Pradeep makes a cool 13 000 rupees for the e-Setu services alone. This is when he is a small-time knowledge entrepreneur. He supplements his e-Setu earnings with other services such as providing training in software, desktop publishing, and Internet surfing.
Shah Jahan Ali (35 years old), a motor spare parts seller in Teok, says ‘this kiosk saves us time, effort, and money. Earlier, we could never be certain about how long it would take for our work to be done. Moreover, there were a number of middlemen from notaries, advocates, and clerks that had to be paid off. This has completely stopped with this over-the-counter service provided by the e-kiosk.’
CIC complements e-Setu
Interestingly, Majuli is doubly blessed. The island has also benefited from the Community Information Centre or CIC that has been set up in the heart of the island. Amar Saikia, Computer Systems Operator at the Majuli CIC is a graduate and trained computer professional with a three-year postgraduate diploma in computer sciences. Saikia is in-charge of the CIC located off Kamalabari in the premises of the Aunati Hemchandra Government High School. The CIC is part of the Union Ministry of Information Technology’s supported scheme for remote rural connectivity focusing on remote areas of the north-east and other geographically far-out regions of the country. Saikia has been hired to impart training to students enrolled at this centre; besides helping a customer in Internet surfing should he seek any assistance. He also helps people gain access to information on government-supported employment generation and rural development schemes.
Rumi Devi, 35, who joined the CIC two months ago is the first in her family to see, let alone work on the computer. A graduate without a job, Rumi's brother supports her training expenses but she is confident that on completion of the course she will find employment. ‘In my school days, I learnt embroidery and knitting but never felt like earning a living from those crafts. This world of Internet, Power Point and Excel is much more fun,’ she says, with visible delight.
The Majuli CIC opened on 17 August 2002. Since then, sixty-two students (of which more than 50% were girls) have completed a three-month diploma at the centre. The courses offered include e-mail browsing, Internet surfing, and practical training in Microsoft Office software.
The centre charges Rs 100 a month for an hour and a half of daily learning held six days a week. The rates for Internet surfing are an affordable ten rupees per hour. Another service available is that of desktop publishing. It is a progressively self-sustaining model where the user charges for the services and pays for the daily overheads such as stationery costs and the electricity bill.
Saikia, however, sees major scope for backward integration of the CIC with the e-Setu. ‘The infrastructure here at the CIC is modern with almost state-of-the-art computer systems besides satellite connectivity and decent office furniture. What it lacks is optimum utilization which can be possible only by making available all the e-Setu services here. That way it will be a win-win situation for us, for e-Setu and most importantly, for the citizens and users of our services.’
In places like Majuli, the virgin island that has for centuries been a seat of Vaishnavite learning, but is almost languishing in obscurity and teetering on the brink of an ecological disaster, the digital empowerment heralds the emergence of a new beginning.
Kumar M Tiku is National Information Officer, United Nations Development Programme, India