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Hard drives make inroads into rural India

In effort to bridge digital divide, government is pushing high tech for the masses.

By Amol SharmaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2003


Molly Ninan is about the last person on earth you'd expect to have a handheld computer. A field nurse in this rural Indian village, she sets out on foot every day to monitor the basic medical needs of roughly 7,000 residents of an area rife with poverty and illiteracy.

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But in this hamlet 25 miles south of New Delhi, Ms. Ninan is using state-of-the-art technology to track patient medical histories, immunization and natal-care needs, and education and literacy levels. As she does, she joins a major government undertaking to develop useful technologies for common people in India's countryside which could serve as models for the whole developing world.

"With India's very large population, whatever digital divide [remedies] are established here as a success could become models for the rest of the world, and the developing world in particular," says R.R. Shah, the secretary of India's Information Technology Ministry.

More than two thirds of India's billion-strong population is rural, spread across nearly 600,000 villages. But the benefits of information technologies, visible in high-tech urban hubs like Bangalore, have been slow to reach places like Dayalpur.

Two years ago the government set out to change that. Top bureaucrats in the technology ministry joined forces with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch Media Lab Asia (MLA), a nonprofit research center aimed at focusing the leading minds of industry and science on the technology problems of the developing world.

There are already dozens of nongovernmental organizations and private companies working to find useful applications for technology in rural areas. There are village kiosks that give farmers real-time market prices for their crops and Internet cybercafes where people can order birth certificates and land records from government websites. But so far there is very little coordination of these efforts.

The problem with the technologies available today in the global marketplace, MLA's founders say, is that software, hardware, and networking systems have been designed to meet the needs of the world's richest one billion people. "I don't know of any other institution in the world that has focused its entire existence on going after and innovating technologies for that next 5 billion people," says managing director Bimal Sareen. "That's what we're about."

Skeptics say this view of the mission sets unreasonable expectations about what technology can accomplish. Govern-ment and private-sector resources, they say, should be going toward solving more basic developmental problems: providing clean drinking water and housing in the poorest villages.

Even some Dayalpur medical students have doubts about the project. "What good is it to get all these medical records when people need to be treated right now?" asks Anush Alfred.