Communication for development Knowledge

Posted November 2000

The role of information and communication technologies in rural development and food security

Towards a knowledge system for sustainable food security:
The information village experiment in Pondicherry

by V. Balaji, K.G. Rajamohan, R. Rajasekara Pandy and S. Senthilkumaran
M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation, 3rd Cross Road, Taramani Institutional Area,
Taramani, Chennai 600 113

Submitted to the Workshop on Equity, Diversity and Information Technology,
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, 3-4 December 1999

Workshop papers:

It is increasingly realized that the future of food security in the developing world, especially in South Asia, is dependent less on resource-intensive agriculture, and more on knowledge-intensity1. In the coming years, agriculture will have to be developed as an effective instrument for creating more income, jobs and food, and such a paradigm of sustainable agriculture will be both knowledge and skill intensive. The development of precision farming in countries of the North2 emphasises knowledge-intensity without stressing the need to create more jobs, and the new agricultural paradigm in India will have to be recast to take advantage of knowledge availability to achieve the triple goals of increased income, jobs and food.

The emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) have a significant role to play in evolving such a paradigm, as was evident in an interdisciplinary dialogue on Information Technology : Reaching the Unreached held in 19923. The key step in the use of ICTs in sustainable agricultural and rural development is the value addition made to generic information to render it locale-specific. It is on the latter that the rural families, particularly the marginal farmers and the assetless, can act on to improve productivity of labour and inputs. A programme has recently been launched (January 1998) in the Pondicherry region (Figure 1) to determine the manner in which ICTs make an impact on rural livelihoods, and is described in the following sections.

The project has an operational centre (meant for value-addition to generic data) at Villianur, which is the headquarters of the Villianur Commune. This is where the "last-mile posts" in development administration, such as the Block Development Office (BDO), are located. Telephone facility is available here, including access to the internet through VSNL, NIC and a private ISP. The value-addition centre at Villianur has access to the Internet through two dial-up accounts. This also functions as the hub of a local area network for data and voice transmission covering the project villages. A PBX, similar to the ones used in offices for providing intercom facility, is the key instrument in this hub. Every location on the network, including the office at Villianur, is a node in this "intercom" network, which functions with VHF radio (full duplex) rather than copper wires as the medium of signal transmission. With the help of regular modems, PCs can be connected to this network.

Figure 1

In order to arrive at a reasonably clear picture of the state of existing communication habits and channels in the rural areas, especially among the poorer households, a detailed survey covering 10% of the resident families in the proposed area of coverage has been carried out (April-June 1998). From an analysis of the available data, certain trends emerge (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Table 1
Reach of Cable Television in rural areas of Pondicherry


Number of Telephones

TV sets

(ones with cable connection)

Total No. of Families

Families below Poverty Line*








300 (150)






100 (10)






110 (50)






50 (50)






50 (50)






75 (50)






15 (0)






25 (0)






50 (50)






75 (30)






30 (30)



Details as of June 1998.

*Poverty Line is officially defined as an annual family income of Rs 16 000

Thus, the information shops at the hamlets need to complement the existing local channels of information to gain credibility, and then go beyond to provide value-added information. This is necessary to ensure that the system is demand-driven.

As of now, village knowledge centres (earlier termed "information shops") have been set up in three places other than Villianur. The locations are Kizhur (21 km west of Pondicherry), Embalam, (19 km southwest), and Veerampattinam (13 km south). Prior to setting up these Village Knowledge Centres, participatory rural appraisal was carried out in 14 hamlets. In each case, the community has identified and provided an accessible place and two to four volunteers. The community also agrees to provide quality space rent-free and agrees to compensate the volunteers whenever needed. In turn, the project provides all the needed equipment, training and data. An MOU is signed to this effect and is renewed every quarter. (Violation of MOU led to closure of two village centers other than the ones listed above). A gender expert was invited to participate in the inception stages to ensure that gender sensitivity was built into all the operations. All the identified volunteers and the project staff were also given orientation to the importance of incorporating gender sensitivity through a workshop. The gender composition of volunteers is as follows: Kizhur - 1M :1F; Embalam - 4F (all); Veerampattinam - 2F:1M.

During the first phase, the volunteers have been trained in all the basic operations of using a PC running MS WINDOWS 95. They are also familiar with despatch/receipt of messages using MS-EXCHANGE which was found to be the optimal protocol for use on the analog wireless network. In addition, they have been trained in composing documents on MS-WORD 97 (using I-LEAP Tamil fonts and the keyboard layout developed by C-DAC, Pune). Training in elementary maintenance, such as defragmentation of hard disk, has also been provided. It was found that a period of two weeks is necessary to train a volunteer in all these operations, given that he/she has not seen a PC before and that the level of education is limited to 10 years in school. A small number of volunteers, on their own, have picked up the use of HTML, the techniques of recording voice in *.WAV format and the compression of *.WAV files using REALAUDIO for ease of transmission of voice as an e-mail attachment. The trainers were the project staff with occasional help provided by the staff of the Informatics Centre (See Table 2).

Table 2
Training of Volunteers

  • Average time for gaining familiarity with basic operations (Win 95)... 2 weeks
  • Time taken to transact data on wireless ... 3 sittings
  • Time taken to gain preliminary knowledge of HTML ......... 1 week
  • Word 97 ... 2 days
  • PowerPoint 97 ... 1 week
  • Use of Win 95 keyboard for Tamil Fonts ...... 10 days

Content creation to suit local needs is the key element in this project. Prior to commencing content-building activity, extensive consultations were held with the participating village communities through small groups. It emerged that provision of dynamic information on prices and availability of inputs for cultivation - seeds, fertiliser or pesticides - was important to all farmers, especially the medium and small farmers. Knowledge of grain sale prices in various markets in and around Pondicherry is critical to farmers during the harvest season. The agricultural labourers, especially women, whose wages are partly in grains, are also anxious to know the sale prices. Detailed surveys revealed that women in rural families are interested in obtaining health-related information, particularly concerning disorders in the reproductive tract, and in child health. The village centres, according to them, should provide such information in a substantial way. Also emphasised by them is the need for information on opportunities to augment income, such as training in new skills in manufacture (e.g. incense sticks). There is near consensus that the village centres should provide all information on public schemes for rural welfare and the government's list of eligible families living below the poverty line.

The value-addition centre in Villianur has generated a number of databases to fulfill at least some of these requirements. These are:

These databases in Tamil (except the families below poverty line data, which is an official document in English) are available in all the village centres. Updates are transferred using the wireless network. In addition, interactive CD-ROMs for health-related issues have been developed, where FAQs (frequently asked questions) are posed to medical practitioners, whose replies are videographed and converted to REALVIDEO format for retrieval using a PC. Topics related to general hygiene, dental and oral hygiene, and eye have been covered. (Videography was conducted in health camps organised by the village communities). Veerampattinam is a coastal village with 98% of the families involved in fishing. The information requirements in this village are different and more focused on the safety of fishermen while at sea, on fish/shoal occurrence near shore, and on techniques for post-harvest processing. This hamlet also receives information on wave heights in the next 24 hours, downloaded from the web from a US Navy site (See Figure 3).

Figure 3

In addition to such defined content, daily transactions take place covering important public events and government announcements (of significance to rural families). Cricket information is much sought after through wellknown Websites. One important service provided is the announcement of results of 10th and 12th standard examinations during June '99. The results and the marksheets were available on the web, and these were made available to a total of 931 students resident in and near the project sites, cutting short the time of waiting by at least one week.

An analysis of users' registers maintained in the village centres reveals that the proportion of women users is 16%. The proportion of users who are below the poverty line is 16% on the average (the average proportion of rural families living below poverty line is about 21%) (Table 3). Just over 30% of the use is for voice telephony, indicating that voice is still an important medium for transactions in rural areas. It is found that there is increasing differentiation in the information sought over a period of six months (e.g. not only input prices but their availability ex-stock in a specific period; the differences between committee-fixed sale prices and those offered by commission agents, etc.). Government sector information, such as data on welfare schemes, is the most sought after information (Table 4).

Table 3
Analysis of Users' Registers in 3 Village Knowledge Centers (01 Jan - 31 Oct 1999)

Total number of users:




Dalits (formerly "untouchables"):


Assetless families:




Persons below 14 years of age:


One-time users:


Table 4
Analysis of Users' Registers / Patterns (%)





Agriculture & fisheries




Employment & training




Government sector/entitlements


Recently, a significant new dimension was added with the commissioning of solar-mains hybrid power systems in all the centres. MSSRF has seven years experience in operating the Informatics Centre with a solar photovoltaic system as the primary source of power. Based on this, the village knowledge centres were also provided with solar-mains hybrid system as the primary source of power. During the period June to October, the average breakdown of main line power was found to be 98 minutes per day, and the transactions in the village centers were unaffected by such breakdown.

This project received mention both in India and abroad, in detail in the 136th Presidential Address at the US National Academy of Sciences (April '99) by Prof. Bruce Alberts. It has also been noticed in the Communications of the ACM (November 98), On the Internet (January '99), and in Science (11 June '99). The Human Development Report 1999 of UNDP cites this as an example of a creative project in addressing the global information divide.


The evaluation of impact of ICTs on communities is still an open issue in terms of methodologies4. Universally accepted norms / methods for quantification of impacts of ICT are yet to be defined5. Within this context, activities on this project now focus on impact assessment using several techniques and parameters, including chronicling of stories. It is, however, clear that an information network will be meaningful in a rural context only if there is significant local content. Such a task is expensive in terms of the talent that is not readily available and which needs to be built up. This task is further complicated by the fact very little content is available in local languages on the Internet. Access to little that is available is hampered by lack of standardization of fonts, which frequently requires high bandwidth for downloading fonts. The capacity to absorb information derived from networks is reasonable in the rural setting, and some amount of intermediation between the network and the information seeker appears difficult to dispense with. Thus, the village center volunteers not only need to absorb training in the use of PCs and networks, but also need to be trained in facilitating the flow of information to the actual seeker.

The social and gender barriers in a rural system to information access are not insignificant, and special efforts are needed to lower them even by a small measure. Notwithstanding these limitations, it is possible to develop a system of technology-based information exchange for rural families to connect to the larger external world in new ways they can derive benefit from.


This project is financially supported by a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada.


1 Chennai Declaration of the World Science Academies Summit on Food Security, Chennai: M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, 1996.

2 Precision Agriculture in the 21st Century, Wasington DC: National Academy Press, 1997.

3 Information Technology: Reaching the Unreached (Ed). M S Swaminathan, Chennai: Macmillan India, 1993.

4 Fostering Research on the Economic and Social Impacts of Information Technology: Report of a Workshop, Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1997.

5 Telecenter Evaluation : A Global Perspective (Proceedings of a Workshop held in Sep.1999), Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (available on the Web at

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