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Toward 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 vbalaji@mssrf.res.in
As submitted to the Workshop on Equity, Diversity, and Information Technology at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.

It is increasingly understood 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.1 In the coming years, agriculture will need to be developed as an effective instrument for creating more income, more jobs, and more food. Such a paradigm of sustainable agriculture will require both knowledge and skills. The development of precision farming techniques in countries of the North2 emphasizes knowledge without stressing the need to create more jobs. The new agricultural paradigm in India must be recast to take advantage of knowledge in order to achieve the triple goals of increased income, increased jobs, and increased food.

The emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) play a significant role in the evolution of such a paradigm, as was evident in an interdisciplinary dialogue called Information Technology: Reaching the Unreached, which was held in 1992.3 The key benefit of ICTs in sustainable agricultural and rural development is the ability to take generic information and render it locale specific. It is with this information that rural familiesÑespecially marginal farmers and the assetlessÑcan hope to improve productivity of labor and inputs. A program was launched in January 1998 in the Pondicherry region to determine whether ICTs can have an impact on rural livelihoods (figure 1).

This program has been noticed and described in OTI earlier by Press4,5 who pointed out that "India's network must reach the villages if it is to make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life."

The project has an operational center located in Villianur, a large village where telephone facilities are available, including access to the Internet through three Internet service providers. The Villianur center has access to the Internet through two dial-up accounts, and it functions as the hub of a local area network for data and voice transmission covering the project villages. A private branch exchange, 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, personal computers can be connected to the network.

To arrive at a reasonably clear picture of the state of existing communication habits and channels in rural areas--especially among the poorer households--a detailed survey covering 10 percent of the resident families in the proposed area of coverage (11 villages with an approximate total population of 21,500) was carried out from April through June 1998. From an analysis of the available data, certain trends emerge (table 1).

-- The predominant sources of information are the local shopkeeper, the marketplace, and the agricultural input supplier. A considerable amount of information transaction takes place between the rural poor households, and this also acts as a primary source of infor-mation. In other words, the information channels start and terminate within the supralocality.

-- The reach of electronic media, especially television, is reasonably high when one considers the prevalence of poverty in the villages surveyed (table 1).

-- There is a widespread perception that channels of development information available to the public, such as the agricultural office or the block development office, are not very effective, because the information flow through these channels does not correspond to material/ benefit flow, which should be the result.

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

As of now, Village Knowledge Centers, which were previously termed information shops, have been set up in five other places: Kizhur (21 kilometers [13 miles] west of Pondicherry), Embalam (19 kilo-meters southwest), Veerampattinam (13 kilometers south), Pillayarkup-pam (13 kilometers northwest), and Poornamkuppam (18 kilometers south). Prior to setting up these Village Knowledge Centers, 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 that is rent free and agrees to compensate the volunteers whenever needed. In turn, the project provides all of the needed equipment, training, and data. A memorandum of understanding is signed to that effect and renewed every quarter. A gender expert was invited to participate in the inception stages to ensure that gender sensitivity got built into all of the operations. By means of a workshop all volunteers and project staff were given an orientation to the importance of incorporating gender sensitivity. The gender composition of volunteers is as follows: Kizhur, one male to one female; Embalam, four females; Veerampattinam, two females to one male; Pillayarkuppam, two females; and Poornamkuppam, one male and a female.

During the first phase, the volunteers have been trained in all of the basic operations of using a PC running Microsoft Windows 95. They are also familiar with dispatch/receipt of messages using Microsoft 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 Microsoft Word 97, using I-LEAP Tamil fonts and the keyboard layout developed by C-DAC, Pune. Training in elementary maintenance, such as defragmentation of a hard disk, has also been provided. It was found that a period of two weeks is necessary to train volunteers in all of those operations, given that they have 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 (table 2).

Content creation to suit local needs is the key element in this project. Prior to commencement of 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, fertilizer, or pesticides--was important to all farmers, especially to medium- and small-scale farmers. Knowledge of grain sale prices in various markets in and around Pondicherry is critical to farmers during the harvest season. Agricultural laborers, especially women, whose wages are paid 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 centers, according to them, should provide such information in a substantial way. They also emphasize the need for information on opportunities to augment income, such as training in new skills in manufacturing. There is near consensus that the village centers should provide all information on public schemata for rural welfare and the government's list of eligible families living below the poverty line.

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

-- Entitlements to Rural Families. This database provides the details of about 130 schemata that are operational in Pondicherry during the current five-year plan (up to 2002).

-- Families below Poverty Line. The details of families in the communes of Ariyankuppam, Villianur, and Nettapakkam have been provided in this database and were compiled from the Uttar Pradesh administration. The have been updated to April 1999. Approximately 22,000 families are listed.

-- Grain Prices in the Pondicherry Region

-- Input Prices (quality seeds/fertilizers) in the Pondicherry Region

-- Directory of General and Crop Insurance Schemata

-- Integrated Pest Management in Rice Crops

-- Pest Management in Sugarcane Crops

-- Directory of Hospitals and Medical Practitioners in Pondicherry Grouped by Specialization

-- Bus/Train Timetables Covering Pondicherry Region and Two Nearby Towns

These databases in Tamil (except the Families below Poverty Line data, which is an official document in English) are available in all of the village centers. Updates are transferred via the wireless network. In addition, interactive CD-ROMs for health-related issues have been developed, on which frequently asked questions are posed to medical practitioners, whose replies are videographed and converted to REALVIDEO format for retrieval via a PC. Topics related to general hygiene, dental and oral hygiene, and eye care have been covered. (Videography was conducted in health camps organized by the village communities.)

Veerampattinam is a coastal village with 98 percent of the families involved in fishing. The information requirements in that village are different and are more focused on the safety of fishermen while at sea, on fish/shoal occurrence near shore, and on techniques for postharvest processing. This hamlet also receives information on wave heights in the next 24 hours, downloaded from the Web from a U.S. Navy site (figure 2). (See www.nemoc.navy.mil/LIBRARY/Metoc/

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 well-known Web sites. One important service provided was the announcement of results of the 10th and 12th standard examinations during June 1999 and June 2000. The results and the mark sheets were available on the Web and were made available to a total of 931 (in 1999) and 1,219 (in 2000) students resident in and near the project sites, which cut short the time of waiting by at least one week.

An analysis of users' registers maintained in the village centers reveals that the proportion of women users is 16 percent. The proportion of users who are below the poverty line is 16 percent on average (the average proportion of rural families living below poverty line is about 21 percent) (table 3). Just over 30 percent 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, for example, (1) not only input prices but their availability (stock in a specific period) and (2) the differences between committee-fixed sale prices and those offered by commission agents. Government-sector information, such as data on welfare schemata, is the most-sought-after information (table 4).

A significant new dimension was added during last year with the commissioning of solar-mains hybrid power systems in all of the centers. MSSRF has seven years' experience in operating the Informatics Center with a solar photovoltaic system as the primary source of power. Based on this, the Village Knowledge Centers were also provided with solar-mains hybrid systems as the primary source of power. During the period June 1999-September 2000, the average breakdown of main line power was found to be 112 minutes per day, and transactions in the village centers were unaffected by such breakdown.

Over a 15-month period, it has been noticed that a significant amount of content has been created at the village centers. Such content is highly specific to the locality and appears to fulfill some immediate need. Examples are the develop-ment of a detailed document on sugarcane cultivation, a guide book on application of biofertilizers in rice cultivation, a how-to-style document on herbal remedies for minor disorders among children, and one on local religious festivals. In one village center, a list of voters in the local milk producers cooperative has been compiled and made public for the first time (against considerable opposition by the executives of the co-op). Youth in these villages have come forward to gather news and information in the locality and have been given training in those aspects by professional reporters of the premier local daily. Through them a system for exchanging local information on availability of materials and labor has come into existence. A link between the village centers and the local credit and savings groups (called self-help groups) has also been established whereby groups maintain member profiles and financial data in the centers.

This project received mention both in India and abroad and in detail in the 136th Presidential Address at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in April 1999 by Prof. Bruce Alberts. It has also been noticed in Communications of the ACM (November 1998), and in Science (June 11, 1999). The 1999 Human Development Report of the UN Development Program cites this as an example of a creative project in addressing the global information divide.


Evaluation of the impact of ICTs on communities is still an open issue in terms of methodologies.6 Universally accepted norms and methods for quantification of impact assessment via 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; talent is not readily available and needs to be built up. This task is further complicated by the fact that very little content is available in Tamil, the local language on the Internet. Access to the little that is available is hampered by lack of standardization of fonts, which frequently requires high bandwidth for downloading of 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, 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.

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


The operational center of the Information Village Experiment is located in Villianur, where telephone facilities are available, including access to the Internet through VSNL, a network information center, and a private Internet service provider. The center has access to the Internet through two dial-up accounts, and it functions as the hub of a local-area network for data and voice transmission covering the project villages. A private branch exchange, 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, personal computers can be connected to the network.


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

2 Precision Agriculture in the 21st Century, Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.

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

4 Press, L. "A Client-Centered Networking Project in Rural India." OnTheInternet, pp. 36-38, January/February. 1999.

5 Press, L. "Connecting Villages." OnTheInternet, pp. 32-37 July/August 1999.

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

7 Telecenter Evaluation: A Global Perspective, Ottawa: International Development Research Center (www.idrc.ca/pan/telecentres.html).

This project is supported by a grant from the International Development Research Center of Canada.

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