Knowledge revolution in the making – Daily Mirror, November 01, 2003

By Gamini Akmeemana Saturday, November 01, 2003 – Courtesy Daily Mirror.

Taking computers to the village? In Sri Lanka, there has been a lot of talking, but very little has been done. Now at last, the gap between dream and reality seems to be narrowing. At any rate, some people believe that it can be done.

Funded by the Ministry of Rural Economy, a research team carried out an exhaustive study of existing computer facilities and the potential for computer use in the southern and Uva provinces. Many remote villages which have no computer facilities at all were visited during this three-week-long tour.

Heading the three-man team was a young man with first-hand experience in introducing computer education to remote backwaters – Nandasiri Wanninayake, director of Horizon Lanka, Mahavilachchiya, an agricultural settlement in the Anuradhapura district.
His remarkable success story in establishing a sophisticated computer-education centre where websites are designed for foreign clients today by the children of farmers was told in this newspaper last month, and doesn’t need to be repeated.

As someone who was born in this formerly LTTE-threatened area only 30 miles from Mannar, Mr. Wanninayake understands both the difficulties as well the possibilities when it comes to introducing computers to places where a TV set is still a luxury.

In fact, the authorities couldn’t have found a better person to carry out this survey for them. Often, such surveys fail because they are done by people with an excellent education garnered abroad who have little understanding of grass-roots realities.

A research team member talks to villagers - Photos courtesy of Horizon
A research team member talks to villagers – Photos courtesy of Horizon

When I joined the team in Badulla, it had already finished its survey in the southern province, having visited some very backward villages in the Hambantota district.

To their amazement, the researchers discovered that some villages tucked away in hilltops in the lush Badulla basin were, if anything, even more backward.

We found out that first impressions of lush greenery were quite misleading. Badulla is a hilly region, but it’s in the dry zone, and depends a great deal on the northeast monsoon for water. Many villages carry out only one harvest and slash-and-burn cultivation is common, all dependant on the timely arrival of the monsoon.

The rains were late this year. All the villages were parched and Badulla town receives water only for four hours per day.

The main objective of the survey was to design a project suitable to village culture, on the basis of successful projects already undertaken in neighbouring countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The hilly terrain makes life doubly difficult for villagers in the Badulla district. Roads snake up steep mountain sides, and are so bad in some cases that buses do not run. Some of the villages we visited do not even have a three-wheeler, hard to believe in today’s Sri Lanka. One was so hard to reach that the postman leaves the mail in the neighbouring village.

Despite the lush landscape, life is very hard in these villages
Despite the lush landscape, life is very hard in these villages

Nearly all of them had electricity only at the periphery. Many had no telephones. In fact, the lack of phones would be a great obstacle when it comes to introducing computers to such villagers, since the Internet and email facilities could not be made readily available.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wanninayake remains optimistic that a knowledge revolution can be created in this context, and his plan has been already accepted in principle.

He has proposed the use of Uva Radio as a substitute for Internet and email in those villages where it will take time to establish those facilities, that the radio will broadcast Internet-based information till the Web is widespread.

Twenty four villages are to benefit from a pilot project drawn up by the Ministry of Rural Economy to improve the lot of villagers, with funds drawn from the World Bank. This has already been going on for one year, with endless discussions between ministry officials and villagers as to how the funds should be utilized meaningfully – that is to say, without money being spent leaving villagers poorer than ever.

Computers weren’t part of the original plan, which was to form ‘companies’ consisting of villagers with the money rotated amongst them for their own projects. But, now that this idea of village information centres (VICs) has come along, it could turn out to be a very good thing. Computers could fill huge gaps in the villagers’ lives and connect them with the outside world.

In this context, some of the proposals made by Mr. Wanninayake are highly innovative. For example, many of these villagers are unable to sell their fruits and vegetables to major distribution centres such as Dambulla and Colombo because of low prices. Instead of depending on this monopoly, the 24 villages could exchange their products directly.

Also, seasonal fruits such as mango and lime, now largely thrown away, could be sold to makers of soft-drinks and hotels. All this assumes, however, that a constantly updated e-network exists between buyers and sellers. Internet and email facilities are therefore essential if this scheme is to work. Major markets such as Colombo and Dambulla should have websites, constantly advertising their needs as well as buying and selling rates. Buyers can signal their needs in advance via the same medium, and a villager 200 miles away can know instantly what the market rates are at any given moment.

Village information centres can advertise their products through websites. Digital images of products can be used to attract buyers and give them an idea of the quality of what they are buying. Websites could also be used to teach new methods of harvesting and packaging, and to teach up-to-date agricultural methods.

Instead of direct cash transactions, payments should be done through a bank as much as possible, using electronic methods of payment as much as possible. This would go a long way to encourage savings in the villages.

Expatriates can be encouraged to buy land and invest in these villages through websites, which will have video clips of the lands for sale.

The village information centre has to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on aid in the long term. People from the village would be trained to handle all aspects of it. All this may sound visionary at this point, especially in villages which do not yet have phones or a photocopy machine.

In the village of Kuruvithenna, for example, those who want a photocopy must travel either 20 miles to Mahiyangana or 35 miles to Badulla, the nearest towns.

Few of these villagers have seen a computer, but some of them have a pretty good idea as to what one can do. Most of them feel that they are essential if the village is to make progress, for the younger generation at least if not for themselves.

“This is a misconception that must be cleared up,” says Mr. Wanninayake. “The adults will find that computers will be useful to them in so many ways.”

With new types of printers which can also function as photocopy and fax machines, he says, a major problem will be solved – in addition, the VICs can readily generate an income for themselves. Computers can be used to show films in places where it takes half a day’s travel to find a cinema hall.

When asked about the negative image the new technology has generated (pornography, currency forgery etc), most villagers felt that the positive effects outweigh the negative ones. The bottomline is that these people are not only desperately poor – they live in such isolation that they could still be living in the 19th century for all intents and purposes. A VIC which will help them in commerce, education and entertainment will go a long way to enhance self-esteem and make these people feel that they too, are part of the modern world.

The villages surveyed shared many bleak features, but there was a surprising degree of difference when it came to spirit. In Kuruvitenna, for example, the village committee is now vociferous, ready to talk to visiting officials. (In bureaucratese, they are now ’empowered’).

In neighbouring Pinnagolla, however, there was apathy in the air. According to the village committee chairman, many of the young have left the village for distant cities – the men working at low-paid labour jobs, the women in the apparel industry. The village school is in a bad state.

Polgaha-arawa is another equally poor, small village in the same area, but the spirit was entirely different. The villagers are proud of their school. The road is very bad and there are no buses, no phones, no electricity, no post office and no dispensary. Despite all this, the school boasts of good Advance Level results. One could sense the unity among villagers when it came to common problems.

When asked about what he thought of computers, a villager in his thirties said: “We have to go along with the world. You can’t be afraid of progress and hide from it.”

It is to this spirit that an appeal needs to be made. If the VICs are to become a reality, that spirit will be as important as the technology.