Reaching the unreached

M. S. Swaminathan shows how Gandhi’s concept of antyodaya provides the most effective way of bridging the modern digital divide

The new century and millennium have opened with the world experiencing serious divides – demographic, economic, gender, genetic and digital.

During the last 12 months, reports on the ever widening rich-poor divide have been published by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. While the rich countries, and the rich in all nations, are benefiting economically and socially from the ‘new economy’ based on technology, knowledge, information and innovation, the poor nations and the poor in all countries are being further marginalized in their economic status and standard of life.

Globalization without ethics – or equity in sharing the benefits of the digital and other technological revolutions – will only enhance joblessness and social disruption. The loss of rural livelihoods, resulting from both environmental degradation and the lack of competitive ability in markets, is leading to the rapid expansion of urban slums in many developing countries. The 1996 Habitat II Conference in Istanbul, whose follow-up meeting is held this summer, rightly recommended steps to halt the influx of such environmental and economic refugees into towns and cities.

A growing gap
The 1972 Stockholm Conference highlighted the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation. Despite increased awareness, the rich-poor divide in economic well-being is growing. Since Europe’s industrial revolution, technology has been an important factor in this economic divide. The challenge now lies in enlisting technology as an ally in the movement for gender and social equity and for fostering harmony within humankind and between it and nature. The digital revolution provides an opportunity to do this.

The most effective pathway by which technological and information empowerment can reach the unreached, is the one Mahatma Gandhi described over 60 years ago as ‘attention to the poorest person’. He wanted all those involved in formulating developmental policies and strategies to adopt a bottom-up approach. He said that antyodaya will help to promote a sarvodaya society, characterized by high social synergy, where one individual’s economic advancement is not at the cost of another’s opportunity. A sarvodaya society provides a win-win situation for everyone and paves the way for a sustainable future for humankind.

How then can we foster an antyodaya pathway to bridging the digital divide? Computer-aided and Internet-connected knowledge centres were started in rural Pondicherry in South India three years ago to work out a methodology for this purpose. These are owned and controlled by the village people that use them and provide the information they demand. Since there is no telephone connection in some villages, both wired and wireless systems of communication were established. And as electricity supplies are erratic, an integrated thermal and solar energy supply system has been used to ensure uninterrupted power to run the computers.
The challenge now lies in enlisting technology as an ally in the movement for gender and social equity
The knowledge centres are based on the principle of inclusiveness: all members of the rural population derive benefit from them, regardless of age, gender or social status. Invariably, the villagers chose four women to operate each centre, each spending about two or three hours a day there. Experience has shown that such women volunteers, whether literate or semi-literate, take to new technologies like fish to water, provided the training methodology is learning-by-doing.

The knowledge centres have effectively empowered rural communities with information on the environment, health, sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, meteorology, markets and prices. Much emphasis is placed on the numbers of humans and animals that ecosystems can support, with particular reference to land and water resources. Rural families give priority to information on health, livelihoods, weather and markets. Generic information is converted into information specific to each location, thus enhancing its practical relevance.

For example, each evening in a coastal village inhabited by fisher families, the women download information on the likely wave heights in the sea nearby. This information, available on the website of the US Naval Oceanographic Office, is then broadcast throughout the village by loudspeakers. The fishermen thus get accurate information on sea conditions before they set out in their wooden boats. The ability to provide this kind of life-saving information at the right time and place has generated a hunger for knowledge and a great faith in new technologies among the rural poor. Virtual colleges linking poor rural people with scientists and technologists can help to convert Gandhi’s vision into reality.

Bridging divides
Evaluating the experience gained from the rural knowledge centre pilot project has shown that bridging the digital divide also helps to bridge the gender one, by increasing the self-esteem and self-confidence of socially and economically underprivileged women. Including the excluded in the empowerment brought by knowledge and skills is one of the important benefits of an antyodaya approach to harnessing new technologies for public good.

Ultimately, the computer-aided and Internet-connected rural knowledge centres will be linked to a community radio network, to ensure that information and knowledge relevant to local needs and livelihoods reach the unreached. The knowledge centres also constitute an integral part of the biovillage movement launched by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation with the following objectives:

  • Conservation and enhancement of natural resources.

  • Strengthening rural livelihoods through integrated attention to on-farm and non-farm employment.

Population-rich but land-hungry countries like India, China and Bangladesh need job-led economic growth and not jobless growth. Youth make up most of the people of most developing countries. Attracting and retaining youth into villages will be possible only by making agriculture and rural professions both intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding. Fortunately, agriculture in most developing countries is ‘farmers’ farming’, not ‘factory farming’. So modern knowledge centres help to promote eco-technologies, based on a blend of traditional knowledge and frontier technologies such as biotechnology and information, space and renewable energy technologies.

Components of eco-technologies such as integrated pest and nutrient management, scientific water harvesting and use, and harnessing renewable energies like solar, wind, biomass and biogas require timely information specific to each location. So knowledge centres in biovillages can play a valuable role in promoting both an ever-green farm revolution rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, gender and social equity, and employment generation and the economic viability of micro-enterprises supported by micro-finance.

By promoting sustainable human well-being, the antyodaya model of bridging the digital divide will help to demonstrate how poverty, gender inequity and environmental degradation can become problems

M. S. Swaminathan is joint founder of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and winner of the 1994 Sasakawa Environment Prize.

PHOTOGRAPH: Neil Cooper/Panos Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Chee Yoke Ling: No sleeping after Seattle (Beyond 2000) 2000
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997