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the-south-asian.com                            February 2001

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Page  2  of  4


Technology a weapon to fight poverty

South Asian Success Stories

 

Madhya Pradesh State Initiative

Computers in India Raise the Fortune of Poor Farmers

For hundreds of years, farmers in India 's central tribal belt were locked in a battle against three seemingly invincible enemies: drought, poverty and corrupt middlemen. Now, they are on their way to bypassing the third evil, embodied in the figure of the patwari, the despised land records man. And they are better equipped to combat the other two. On Jan. 1, 2000 the government of central Madhya Pradesh State launched an experimental Intranet computer network in a remote farming district. In contrast to many government-sponsored initiatives, this effort is more entrepreneurial and market-driven.

Within six months of launching the program, 22 villages have purchased a computer, a modem, a printer and a battery for $1,500 with money their own money and agreed to provide a small booth to house the setup. The operation is then franchised to a local person who charges fees of 10 to 35 cents for government records and other services available at the click of a mouse. For another small fee, villagers can report broken pumps, lost pension checks or a sick teacher - and the state guarantees a reply within a week. The operators, who receive no salary, keep most of the money but give a portion back to the village and state governments.

The system gives villagers access to everything from copies of land titles - a must for securing yearly bank loans - to rural water supply schemes, all for a modest 10-cent fee. The pilot project covers 600 villages in Dhar district, one of dozens of dirt-poor tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh. The system is part of a push by the state's reformist chief minister, Digvijay Singh, to find low-cost ways of overcoming the state's lack of infrastructure and improving conditions in rural areas.

Previously, farmers were hostage to the infamously corrupt patwari, a government bureaucrat first employed during the British era who was chosen more for his surveying skills than his scruples. He would often charge as much as $100 - two months' earnings for farmers - for a copy of a land record, or else revoke land ownership with the flick of his pen, according to local farmers. "It's been that way for hundreds of years, but everyone was too afraid to complain" for fear that they would lose their land, said Verma, who owns a five-acre farm eight miles outside of Bagdi. "It's a wonderful thing," said Kaluram Verma, a farmer from nearby Nawasa village. He was clutching a computerized blueprint of his farm that will allow him to secure a loan for a well, which he hopes will tide his family over during droughts.

The town, where bottled water is an unheard of luxury and roads are passable only by jeep or ox carts, is home to one of 21 intranet centers that service the surrounding areas. The system has also reduced farmers' reliance on agricultural traders, who would quote them rates far below market prices and then pocket the difference. Now they can pay 5 rupees to find out which market is offering the highest rate for their produce and take it themselves. The financial gains are enormous. Farmers, who could afford it, chose to truck their crops 400 miles to Bombay, to take advantage of 40 percent higher prices for garlic and wheat, the staple crops of the area.

"Millions of Indians are connected to the Internet, but millions more are not yet connected to fresh water. India's IT industry is expected to expand exponentially in the next eight years, with projected growth in software exports going from the current $5.7 billion a year to $40 billion. However, unless many such projects are launched, nurtured and allowed to proliferate using market-based principles India 's IT boom will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is important to note that while India supplies 35 percent of the world's software engineers, it also accounts for 25 percent of the world's poor."

Excerpted from an article in the Houston Chronicle written by MARION LLOYD and an article in the New York Times written by CELIA W. DUGGER

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