Looking through the framework: Orissa telecenters

Although the growth in the telecenters’ numbers came in bits and pieces from different projects, the evolution of their ‘role’ was organic. It grew out of the needs of the communities and eventually levelled the differences in their origin.

By mid-2003, there were 73 telecenters in 12 districts of Orissa covering an area of about 44,716 square kilometres, which contains a large rural population. These telecenters are located in some of the perennially disaster-affected/prone and poorest districts of Orissa. These areas have traditionally lacked access to adequate information and lagged in development.

Analyzing the telecenters in Orissa through the framework, it is apparent that they have evolved on all fronts. For example, the Information and Services portfolio, Organizational Setup and Information Infrastructure systematically grew and survived the change in focus. Also, on the sustainability front, telecenters with regular access and usage have shown to be stronger on the revenue earnings enabling them to run day-to-day operations based on user charges.

Following are the highlights under specific parameters of the framework :

Information and Services portfolio:

Despite the original focus on specific areas, telecenters quickly learned and survived the transition with added information and services deliveries. In this effort, new partnerships with service providers played an essential role in consolidating the portfolio.

Mainly offline content in the local language in the form of CDs (called knowledge hub) with scanned information from various government departments and other agencies helped establish telecenters as a reliable information source in the communities.

Subsequently, the partnership with Indira Gandhi National Open University enabled telecenters to administer certified computer literacy classes. In partnership with the Orissa Primary Education Programme Authority, the telecenters offered IT aided education (using animated multimedia CDs developed by the Azim Premji Foundation) to the students of designated primary schools nearby. And finally, with ‘Mission Shakti’, Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Orissa, it ran a programme to educate women members of Self Help Groups on basic computing on a payment basis.

All these have added to the relevancy factor and, as a result, on the sustainability side of the telecenters.

Organizational Setup:

At the lowest level, each telecenter is managed (day-to-day functions) by a community IT volunteer – paid through the user charges – collected and managed by a management committee, constituted by a host organization in consultation with local government authorities and the IT facilitator.

The community IT volunteer who is in charge of day-to-day activities in the telecenter is selected by the management committee. The person typically is basic IT educated but unemployed youth of the same village.

Each IT facilitator is in charge of many telecenters. The IT facilitator is also a member of the District IT Society and acts as a bridge between the District Collector (head of district-level administration) and the rural community.

The District IT Society is an umbrella organization set up through this programme in programme districts, which tries to integrate all the IT-related activities of the district, including telecenters.

The role of UNDP-Orissa Hub in brokering the partnerships with various service providers is also a highlight. The Standard Operation Procedures (SOP) prepared by UNDP-Orissa Hub guided the day-to-day functioning of the telecenters. Its facilitation helped streamline the record-keeping and reporting of the telecenters.

Information Infrastructure:

The objectives of the original projects drove the selection of location for these setups, and it did affect the overall effectiveness of the telecenters. In a few cases, the sites were changed later to tap onto the available infrastructure of the new location to enhance the telecenters’ deliverables.

Availability of telephone connection, internet access and power supply did have an effect on many services in the telecenters, especially the one who tried to lodge complaints to the district collectors through a website www.aamagaon.com. But more than anything else, it was not a hit because of lack of automation at the government’s end, because once the complaints reached the collector’s office, it is subjected to the same old route of the paper documents (in the form of printouts) and delays.

The host organizations provided the premises for the telecenters, and this has contributed to strong ownership by the communities.

In summary, as a pioneering effort in setting and running telecenters in Orissa, the initiative has extended the benefits of ICTs to the poorest of the poor and gained a lot in terms of learning. Analyzing the project from the perspective of the Information and Services portfolio framework, Organizational Setup and Information Infrastructure offers guidance to the new initiatives planned on top of this.

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