One lakh Holes-in-the-Wall

Dear Mr Chidambaram,

Your budget speech promised to create a knowledge centre in every village. I applaud your desire to take information technology to villages. Yet I hear discouraging reports of computers lying unpacked and unused in schools.

Why? First, school principals are reluctant to use the computers, since they are personally responsible for maintenance and damage. Second, electricity is unreliable in rural India, with fluctuations in voltage and frequency that damage computers.

Third, rural telecom is abysmal. Even where BSNL offers land lines, these are typically designed for voice, not data. The internet requires high-quality data access, preferably through broadband. These are major barriers.

For a way out, look at NIIT’s famous Hole-in-the-Wall experiment. NIIT placed a computer in a wall in an urban slum, and found, amazingly, that slum children quickly learned to operate the computer without instruction. The kids learned through experimentation, loved computer games, and learned some English.

Dr Sugata Mitra of NIIT says the surprise lesson was that rural and slum children were perfectly happy to play educational games with learning content. Such games are regarded by middle class kids as boring and avoidable. But rural and slum children have such few avenues of entertainment that they find even educational games exciting. That makes them powerful vehicles for education.

Kids soon learn to use search engines like Google, tapping knowledge sources of global quality. Dr Mitra’s research shows that kids are able to have serious debates ( on Afghanistan, for example), using Google. That sounds a great educational supplement.

Expanding the concept, NIIT now puts computers in open kiosks in public areas. Parents forbid girls from going into closed rooms, but feel safe allowing girls to visit open kiosks visible to passers-by.

Public visibility creates social pressure that discourages undesirable uses (eg. pornography). No kid wants to be seen publicly watching pornography by passers-by, who may be relatives.

So, Mr Chidambaram, instead of sending computers to schools where they lie unpacked, expand the Hole in the Wall experiment. In the last 5 years, NIIT has installed only 108 computers in 23 locations, since the cost is high and the experiment is non-commercial. An open kiosk costs Rs 1.15 lakh. Only 10% of that is the computer cost. Far costlier is electricity and telecom access. To prevent bad rural power from damaging computers, NIIT converts it to DC and then runs it through a UPS. Rural telecom is useless, so NIIT uses an expensive VSAT satellite-based system for internet access. The local community maintains it, but the initial cost is substantial for a non-commercial enterprise.

You, Mr Chidambaram, need to create a public-private-NGO partnership to create a lakh Holes-in-the-Wall, not just 108. Facilitate tie-ups between NIIT (and other possible providers) with e-choupals being put up by commercial organizations like ITC and Drishtee. Since rural infrastructure is useless, e-choupals use solar power for electricity and VSAT for telecom.

In pursuit of e-governance, some states assist or subsidise commercial internet kiosks. Some well-known e-governance examples are Karnataka (the Bhoomi project), Madhya Pradesh (Gyandoot) and Andhra Pradesh (e-Seva).

Where a rural kiosk already has internet access through VSAT, it can extend this access to a nearby Hole-in-the-Wall at minimal cost. Extending power will require additional solar panels. These are costly, but scale economies mean that tripling the power supply may only double the cost.

Here is one possible partnership arrangement. State governments can mandate each commercial internet kiosk operator to share its bandwidth with three nearby Holes-in-the-Wall. The states can also finance additional solar panels for power supply. The cost will be a tiny fraction of total educational spending.

But why leave this to the States, Mr Chidambaram? Why not finance both the computers and solar panels through your Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan window? There can be no cheaper path to rural computer literacy, and the internet will powerfully supplement your weak educational system. Start with an emergency programme in areas hit by the December tsunami. New schools there could take years to build, but Holes-in-the-Wall can come up in weeks.

Ashok Jhunjunwala’s WLL technology can cut telecom costs provided enough telecom towers are set up. In the medium run, wi-fi technology can provide a cheap alternative to costly VSATs. Later still, wi-max technology will yield wireless internet connectivity within a radius of 30 KM or more, slashing costs further. In due course, these new technologies can cover the whole country cheaply.

But, Mr Chidambaram, please do not wait for new technology. Even the old technology (VSAT and solar energy) is worth the cost. Make a start with a three-year programme to commission one lakh Holes-in-the-Wall. You say you want to be known as a Minister for Investment, not just for Disinvestment. Here is your chance for a breakthrough investment.

What do you think?