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Cyber Quiz: Keniston and Kumar : IT Experience: Review by Dr D.C.Misra

By dcmisra ·
This rather slim volume* on India?s information technology (IT) experiences in bridging the digital divide is a collection of 10 updated papers by eminent contributors originally presented at a Workshop on ?Equity, Diversity, and Information Technology (EDIT) in Bangalore, Karnataka, India edited by Kenneth Keniston, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Human Development and Director of Projects, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Deepak Kumar, Deputy Editor, softwaredioxide.com.

In the first introductory Chapter 1: Introduction: The Four Digital Divides, Keniston provides an overview raising basic issues confronting information technology (IT) including questioning the trade off between investment on IT and other basic needs like education, health, etc. and draws attention to four digital divides: the first divide, which exists in each country, namely, between the rich (technology included) and the poor (technology excluded), secondly, the linguistic and cultural divide between English language and Anglo-Saxon culture and the rest, the north-south divide,

In Chapter 2: Towards a Knowledge System for Sustainable Food Security: The Information Village Experiment in Pondicherry, Balaji et al. urge for recasting of the new agricultural paradigm in India to secure ?the triple goals of increased income, increased jobs, and increased food.? (p-37). Their conclusion that ?Content creation to suit local needs is the key element? is a truism though is likely to be overlooked in project design with often-disastrous consequences. They also incidentally note that the coastal and fishing village of Veerapattinam received information on wavelengths in the next 24 hours downloaded from the web from a US Navy site (http://www.nemoc.Navy.mil). In the light of the Asian Tsunami Disaster of December 26, 2004, it would be instructive to know if the villagers indeed receive any warning of the impending tsunami waves.

In Chapter 3: Liberalization of Indian Telecom: Regulation in the Era of Convergence (For Information Infrastructure and Services), T.H. Chowdary describes the decisions and the decision-making process in the rather complicated information and communication technology (ICT) sector in India. This complication arises from two facts: the revolutionary and evolving nature of ?convergence of technologies? and the turf wars that have ensued between various players as a result of progressive liberalization of the sector. The author describes evolution of various telecom policies in India.

In Chapter 4: Information Technology to Support Diversity in a Global Economy, Professor Pat Hall of Open University, United Kingdom makes an unexceptional plea that ?information technology, and in particular the Internet should be available to all peoples in their own mother tongue, whatever that might be and however small that community (p-71). He argues that technology can help people bridge the gap between local communities and the global economy (p-72). More evidence, however, is needed to lend full support to leaned professor?s premise as prima facie a community should have a reasonable size for securing any social or governmental support.

In Chapter 5: Telecom and Regulation Scenario in India, Ashok Jhunjhunwala and Bhaskar Ramamurthy, both of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras (now Chennai), urge for providing special policy dispensation for rural connectivity primarily basing their policy prescriptions on the unique success of public call offices (PCOs) in India in providing telecom services to rural India and replicating this model for Internet connectivity. They then describe their own efforts in this direction, particularly their n-Logue achievement and urging India (may be along with China) to take a lead in the development of wireless technology.

In Chapter 6: An Agenda: Electronic Government for the Poor, Dr P. D. Kaushik of Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, in a rather lengthy contribution, focuses on e-governance for the poor, typically dealing with the role of e-governance in collection and dissemination of information for anti-poverty programmes, describing in the process the ways and means of providing rural connectivity and creating a knowledge base. He concludes by observing that ?Info-communication technological developments cannot end poverty but they are crucial element of a successful anti-poverty strategy.?

In Chapter 7: Digital Development, Deepak Kumar, co-editor of this volume and Deputy Editor at softwaredioxide.com (formerly of Express Computer, a business weekly) divides his contribution in two parts. In the first part, he makes over-arching observations on themes like emerging ?micro-multinationals? (which are multinationals from day one), the definition and many dimensions of poverty including its relativity, and C.K. Prahalad?s proposition for treating ?poor? as a market (asset) (his book on the subject has also come out since then). In the second part Kumar draws different conclusions synthesizing various contributions made in this book declaring in conclusion the arrival of the ?discipline of digital development.?

In Chapter 8: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Computers in Indian Languages, Harsh Kumar, who directs the IT operations and initiatives for Western Railways in Mumbai, describes the intricacies involved in Indian language computing including existence of different types of keyboards (C-DAC, DOE, Remington and Godrej, comparing and contrasting with one developed by his organisation, the market for software in Indian languages and the work done in Bharatbhasha, a not-for-profit organization started by him in 1997. various conclusions drawn by Harsh Kumar are based on sound footing.

In Chapter 9: Collaborative Creation of Digital Resources in Indian Languages, Rajeev Sanghal, Professor at the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Hyderabad and Head of its Language Technologies Research Centre (LTRC), Akshar Bharti, a group on Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Vineet Chitanya, also of LTRC, rightly emphasize the need of availability of affordable computing (they suggest use of free software, GIST terminals and sharing of the resources) as well as availability of resources in Indian languages (for example, digital content - text, images, information, etc) advocating collaborative efforts by way of shramdan (donation of labour) in digital development and lexical resources in Indian languages.

In the last, Chapter 10: The Bangalore Boom: From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation, Annalee Saxenian, Professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California at Berkeley, who is a familiar figure for any one who has tried to understand the Silicon Valley phenomenon as she has done commendable work in monitoring its evolution and characteristics extensively, points out to the success of Indians in Silicon Valley and urges the policy makers to learn from the success of Taiwan, ?where brain circulation was critical to its shift from a peripheral source of cheap labor to a global leader in computer hardware.? (p-170).

Overall, the publication of this compilation of workshop papers on digital divide, reasonably priced, is timely. The compilation helps us to understand the existence of various types of digital divides and the nature and extent of different challenges posed in any attempt to bridge the digital divides. The eminent contributors also offer useful suggestions, which can help in narrowing the digital divides. It would be difficult to call the ongoing information and communication technology (ICT) revolution a ?revolution? if it bypasses the masses in the developing world. Hence the urgency to tackle the various issues of digital divides competently pointed out in this book under review.

Dr D.C.Misra
January 16, 2005.
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*Cyber Quiz: Book Review-3: Keniston and Kumar (eds.) (2004): IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks and London, Sage, 194 pp

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