IT & Inclusion

The inclusion bandwagon is on the move. And in a world that is getting smaller by the day, it is information technology that is playing a critical role in bringing the marginalised into the mainstream. This was the common strand running through the country’s leading experts in the information technology (IT) and capacity building domains who were speaking at a focus group discussion on “Inclusion and IT – Shall the twain meet?’ organised by Skoch Development Foundation in New Delhi recently. There was also agreement on the fact that there was a need to foster greater linkages between the various initiatives taking place in this field, if the benefits were to reach all.

01 October, 2008 eGovernance, Research Reports
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The inclusion bandwagon is on the move. And in a world that is getting smaller by the day, it is information technology that is playing a critical role in bringing the marginalised into the mainstream. This was the common strand running through the country’s leading experts in the information technology (IT) and capacity building domains who were speaking at a focus group discussion on “Inclusion and IT – Shall the twain meet?’ organised by Skoch Development Foundation in New Delhi recently. There was also agreement on the fact that there was a need to foster greater linkages between the various initiatives taking place in this field, if the benefits were to reach all.

Despite large-scale political and bureaucratic attention and the more focused, small-scale efforts of thousands of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society entities, a replicable, catalytic approach to rural development remains to be found. The hope that information and communication technologies (ICTs) can surmount at least some of these social, political, and administrative challenges and become a viable technology for the provision of health, education, and other social services is thus ICT’s strongest calling card.

Initiating the discussion, Sameer Kochhar, President, Skoch Development Foundation, outlined the genesis of the inclusive growth and its progress over the years, and highlighted the disconnect and lack of synergy between all those involved. According to him, the learning curve in the process of inclusive growth had shown that the progress had been influenced by the fact that we had a decentralised system of governance and were a participative democracy.

Taking the cue, R Chandrashekhar, Special Secretary in the Department of Information Technology (DIT) pointed out that in a country like India, a layer-by-layer approach could not be followed given the sheer diversity and scale of operations required. According to him “the several successful examples of ‘creeping inclusion’ show that the time is right to promote integration of common services and platforms to widen their coverage.”

Agreeing with him, Anurag Gupta, CEO of ZERO-Mass Foundation, pointed out that technology was no impediment to the spread of e-services. In fact, he said his not-for-profit organisation was opening 25,000 new accounts everyday among those who were hitherto ‘unbanked’, using the mobile phone as the medium. Here, he made a case for allowing groups offering banking services to also be allowed to offer insurance products, enabling more complete financial inclusion.

Information technology is bringing down many of the costs of screening and monitoring, and is allowing new entrants to provide a wider array of financial services to rural India. In fact, providing one type of service effectively in order to capture a receptive audience, and then using that audience to capture more users and offer related services is at present the best method to increase usage and provide needed services.

The other issue is related to connectivity. Since all district and most block headquarters have fibre, connectivity is primarily a problem of connecting the village to the block, a distance usually less than 25 km. Dial-up, cable/DSL, and wireless technologies are all possible and the sites visited employ these technologies. Wireless solutions save time but have hitherto not been cost-effective, though cheaper than building land-line solutions.

K Noorjehan, former Member-Posts, Department of Posts, highlighted how some state governments had allowed the postal department to become Common Services Centres (CSCs), offering a variety of e-services to the rural masses. Last-mile connectivity, according to her, had become possible as post offices had joined hands with Panchayats and other local bodies to offer e-governance services.

For Jean Philippe Courtois, President of Microsoft International, inclusion was a process that started with education and here he brought into focus his company’s efforts at linking this with IT. According to Courtois, the spread of IT made good business sense too, as it created new segments of consumers and new markets.

The key here, he said, was to ensure that the technology being used at the last-mile was accessible, affordable and adaptable, specially given the size and diversity of the Indian sub-continent.

While access to the Internet enables access to some useful content, there is a need for content designed for local use, particularly informational services created by NGOs/CBOs and transactional services led by e-governance. Further, such content should be deployed over the Internet to increase access to more sites and to enable regular updating of information.

Low content relevance is probably a combination of unfulfilled promises from government, language and other localisation issues, poor awareness (among both users and providers) and inadequate understanding of user needs.

Ashis Sanyal of Department of IT, pointed out that the key to successful e-initiatives in the country’s hinterland lay in services that enable livelihoods to improve, promote income-generation and foster greater empowerment. He negated the notion that the caste system could affect e-governance initiatives, pointing to what he called the public call office (PCO) revolution. “It is a service delivery that is more important to people than the service provider.” But, as Rajeev Asija of HCL noted, accessibility to e-governance systems in the country were limited by the poor state of infrastructure, specially power.

While many of the projects on the ground do have Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) as backups, and some even have backup solar power, these backup supplies are ineffective against such massive grid power failure. In some locations, the UPS systems are broken or last for only ten minutes. The solar panels provide energy for only a few hours more.

Battery-operated devices that require intermittent charging may be a solution. However, most such devices, such as laptop computers, are currently designed for portability rather than to overcome the shortage of grid power, thus raising costs to unviable levels. Since most computing and transmission equipment is inherently low-power consuming, technological solutions to the problem of power outages may exist.

This apart, the decentralised system of governance too had affected the progress of e-services. As PK Gopalakrishnan of Wipro Industries noted, the opportunity to replicate services was limited by the sharp differences in perceptions about one’s needs and requirements in different states. Each State has got its own rules and its own requirement of customisation.  So replication by itself is not going to be easy unless you cater to the local requirements of that state.

While most sites offer multiple services, experience and field visits reveal that objectives can differ from services actually offered. Also, usage is sparse compared to potential, suggesting problems with awareness, infrastructure, or content.

Though each project has benefited some user groups, none is significant enough to have had a general socio-economic impact at its location, and none offer a replicable, catalytic model toward achieving such impact. Usage is disappointingly low, with some sites averaging five users per day, and most having fewer than twenty-five. Although it is difficult to measure self-sufficiency, it appears that self-supporting sustainability has not been achieved at even the sites with the highest revenue generation. The lack of sustainability means that the future goals of existing initiatives are likely to be sharply curtailed in the absence of new frameworks that can increase viability.

Understanding needs and providing services requires low-cost training to enable rural users to become self-sufficient users of ICT. NGOs are best situated to provide such services, thus requiring them to be a key element of any viable approach.

Another valid suggestion is that at the village level, the current single-operator system should be replaced by allowing access of the signal to multiple operators – NGOs, the private sector and government entities (such as the Panchayat and the postal system). In other words, the signal should be treated as a public good.

One common issue that was raised by all participants during the discussion was on the need to scale up the e-initiatives if the benefits were to percolate to all. The number of people currently left out far exceeded the number of those included. For it to become more widespread, the corporate sector and the industry had to dispel the perception that “inclusion is something that only the government can address”. In fact, it would be in their self-interest to make inclusion and capacity-building an essential ingredient of their corporate culture.

Mumbai 26/11. A disaster, both in terms of the tragedy that unfolded and the lack of preparedness, coordination, and civic and official response it resulted in. But this is a story that has been told many a time in the Indian landscape. Mumbai 26/11 also highlighted the key elements of what were missing in India’s disaster management structure: a central command and control authority, ill-coordinated emergency response and poor intelligence sharing and lack of coordinated logistical planning.

The Mumbai tragedy also gave a wake-up call to all stakeholders, the government, the local administra-tion, the security forces and even the common citizens that they all have a role to play in case any disaster, man-made or natural. The result: today, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) is gearing up to make amendments in its disaster management plan, adding terror to existing areas of concern like floods and earthquakes. Schools and college managements too are beginning to pay serious attention to disaster management training and providing better security to their wards; some of them have even incorporated disaster management in their curriculums.

Also, information technology is being given a greater role in intelligence sharing. Similarly, the government has said that four National Security Guard (NSG) hubs would be set up in the four major metros while other cities would be covered by an anti-terrorist force provided by defence forces. Already, the government, through the India Disaster Resource Network, is putting in place a nation-wide electronic inventory of resources that enlists equipments and human resources, collated from district, state and national level government departments and agencies.

In a way then, Mumbai 26/11 can be said to be an inflection point in our national response to tackling disasters. As NC Vij, Vice-Chairman of India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), points out “the first thought in such a scenario, specially one like the 26/11 disaster in Mumbai, is security. But there is another aspect of security, one that has not been given the attention it merits, and that is the subject of better management of disasters.”

Within the US and as delineated in its National Response Plan, disaster response and planning is first and foremost a local government responsibility. But given the scale of Hurricane Katrina, the US Army, the coast guard, and law enforcement and public safety agencies apart from individuals joined hands under the Department of Homeland Security to initiate relief efforts in the disaster-hit region.

Because disasters know no boundaries and they cut across states and districts, the NDMA has begun work on five mitigation projects. One of the most important one among them is the cyclone mitigation project. A World Bank-aided project, it will cover five states and eight UTs. Another is the earthquake mitigation project, in which the emphasis is on capacity building so that engineers, masons, architects, supervisors can be trained who understand well as to what is their safe habitat.

Says N Vinod Chandra Menon, Member, NDMA, “in terms of disaster vulnerability, there is a possibility of a low probability event happening sometime, somewhere soon and this is a big challenge. A low probability event could be a chemical disaster or a biological disaster. That is where we need to look at our systems of preparedness and mitigation.” This is especially important as today as terrorists today are increasingly using technology to inflict damage.

The third project that the NDMA is looking at is a communications project that seeks to ensure that in case of any disaster, the communication linkage stays secure. In this context, it is working with the information technology and telecom ministries as also with the state governments. Yet another project that the NDMA has initiated is the school safety project, which seeks to make students aware of the signs and seriousness of a disaster and the methodology of preparation for facing such disasters. Also, the NDMA is seeking to create a reserve of emergent stores required for meeting the requirements of at least 400,000 people. The NDMA sees such stores an essential element of its strategy of providing timely assistance to people affected by a disaster.

But while the NDMA and other authorities are putting in place disaster risk prevention, preparation and mitigation strategies, one area that is yet to get the attention it deserves is having in place a comprehensive complementary risk transfer strategy. This is because strategies adopted for risk transfer in turn determine the post-event socio-economic conditions. In countries like India, where the uninsured touch 93 per cent of the population, this also highlights the impact on this population as victims at times of disasters. The focus, therefore, has to shift from post-disaster financing to pre-disaster initiatives and formulating strategies for financial mitigation by introducing instruments that can absorb losses like insurance, catastrophe bonds, reserve funds or contingent credit instruments.

In fact, in designing any insurance product, the risks can be divided into three layers, with base layer being a self-retention layer managed by savings and credit by the communities themselves. The next layer is the market risk-transfer layer where insurance companies can hold the risk. The third layer is the catastrophe layer, which should be held by either reinsurance markets, the capital markets or multilateral agencies or the Government or through a pool created by insurers.

August 2008 saw the National Disaster Response Force execute a mission that no one had asked them to do till then. Stepping in Bihar on their own initiative, NDRF jawans saved no less than 100,000 lives trapped by the swirling waters of the Kosi. Little known, and even lesser heard, the NDRF has today become a pioneering force when it comes to helping people in the aftermath of any disaster, be it earthquakes, landslides, gas leaks or even cases of children stuck in a borewell.

Set up in January 2006, the NDRF comprises of eight battalions of central paramilitary forces, stationed at Arrakonam (Tamil Nadu), Mundali (Orissa), Greater Noida (Uttar Pradesh), Chandigarh, Barasat (West Bengal), Guwahati (Assam), Pune (Maharashtra) and Gandhinagar (Gujarat). In addition, 16 Regional Response Centres have been set up to enable an immediate response to natural calamities. Bouyed by its effectiveness, the government is now planning to add four more battalions to the force.

Of the eight battalions set up, four are specially geared to confront nuclear, biological and chemical emergencies. In fact, 80 per cent of their equipment and training is geared towards these aspects The NDMA’s efforts have also resulted in coordinated action being taken by other ministries and departments in tackling disasters caused by natural factors but exacerbated by the growing urban population. Says M Ramachandran, Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, “following the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat, the role of urban planners in mitigating disaster assumed greater importance as it led authorities to develop capacities of professionals who are directly or indirectly related to the construction of buildings.”

“In the past, building collapses and structural damages on account of earthquakes have occurred mainly because of the lack of adherence to basic structural construction norms apart from ineffective control of construction. Given the frequency of disasters today, it is important to adopt and maintain quality standards in building construction,” he adds.

In fact, it is to check such violations of basic law that the NDMA is seeking that urban planners build a disaster management audit in every project. “The impact of this may not be seen today or tomorrow, but it may be seen after 10 years because at least all new infrastructure, new accommodation and new dwelling units will be all disaster resilient,” adds Vij.

Already, in terms of capacity building, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) is proactively working with national, state and district-level administrations and is coordinating research projects, and training programmes apart from building a database on natural disasters with case studies. The NIDM is regularly conducting courses on various aspects of disaster management, bringing in some regularity to what was earlier being done on an ad-hoc basis.

What are the steps needed to be taken for preventing disasters from the urban planning point of view? According to Ramachandran, not only the new buildings must be designed to be earthquake resistant, action must be initiated for structural assessment of existing buildings and people encouraged to retrofit weak or unsafe structures by incentivising the process.

He adds micro-zonation studies and use of GIS applications have an important role to play in the identification of potential risk zones and also in managing disasters. Detailed GIS and remote sensing based micro-zonation and hazard maps need to be prepared for disaster prevention, preparedness, mitigation and overall disaster management, and information utilised for revising and updating the vulnerability atlas. In this connection, the government is launching its own version of Google Earth called Bhuvan, which is a web-based urban planning service developed by the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC). The service will also help scientists, town planners and administrators in areas of disaster management.

Disaster management has to be in-built in development plans. With regard to Master Plans for cities and towns, Ramachandran said there was the need to incorporate separate chapter or section on disaster management. Also, the State Town and Country Planning Depart- ments, Development Authorities, Urban Local Bodies and State Disaster Management Authorities need to work in close coordination so that vulnerable areas are identified and accordingly steps are taken to prevent losses.

Today, solutions are also being sought to new challenges such as mapping country communication infrastructure for effective communication contingencies, resilience of the financial sector for minimal disruptions, data communication route maps for contingency planning, and the cascading effects of data outages. The role of technology in all this cannot be overstated.

This is especially relevant if information is to be transmitted to the concerned people without much delay. “Today,” adds Shailesh Nayak, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, “we have in place a very sophisticated decision support system for tsunamis that takes in all information on earthquakes and water levels. It correlates this with data on simulated models, and decides on its own on what kind of advisory should be given — whether it is watch, alert or a warning.”

In fact, one area where technology is actually being used to make a difference in alerting people is through the use of Community Radio. Community Radio reflects the pulse of its people and uses local dialect and flavours in programming. It ensures free flow of information as there is no top down approach in its dissemination. Says Uday Kumar Varma, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, “the tsunami in the areas bordering the Indian Ocean in 2004 could have been avoided to a great extent had there been a chain of Community Radio stations to broadcast the warning to the people.” Today, however, the Community Radio networks along the country’s coasts are operational and are being used to alert people in case of any danger apart from providing market-related information like weather, prices, etc.

As R Chandrashekar, Special Secretary, DIT, states, “today we live in both interesting times and difficult times, and it is only but natural that technology should be both the medium as well as the target for people and forces inimical to our way of existence.” Today, there is a remorseless move towards increasing digitisation of society, of governance, of almost everything. “So, therefore, there is a need to have an effective strategy to take counter measures to ensure that as we move on to get the convenience, the gains, the efficiencies of technology, we are also guarding and protecting ourselves from some of these threats, which can cause enormous havoc.”

For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the US has leveraged IT to create the National Emergency Management Information System (NEMIS). This system tracks all aspects of an emergency. It provides information analysis, enables intelligence sharing, and allows more effective planning and resource management.

Today, the government has already established a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) which is the pattern which most countries in the world have followed and it is a part of a global network of such sorts. At another level, which is at the legal level, the government has modified the IT Act, taking into account the new threats which have since emerged. The amended Act has several provisions that cover issues like data encryption, data privacy and how to deal with leakage of sensitive information and also matters relating to provision of the services and technology related crimes like identity theft. The amendments also strengthen the existing provisions with respect to the protection of critical information infrastructure. The government has also formulated a crisis management plan for countering cyber attacks and cyber terrorism.

The crisis management plan has provisions for a continuous system of upgradation and testing the responses and keeping the reflexes of people in the cyber world as sharp as the reflexes of our commandoes on the battlefield.

Technology, says Andrew William Hawkins, Director, Public Safety Solutions, Worldwide Public Sector, Microsoft Corporation, is also about information sharing and cooperating both within and between organisations, between governments and all levels of the administration. “It can help us set up what can be termed the humanitarian value chain or the lifecycle of responsiveness and preparedness for natural disasters.”

“This is because the four key areas today of concern in the information space are the lack of a common picture of overall events, whether they be natural or manmade event, the difficulty to disseminate or share information in a timely manner, the ability to share geo-space in different formats and inter and intra agency cooperation.”

It is cooperation like this that will lead to the formation of an intelligence-led security mechanism rather than post-event security management. As Andrew Morris of i2 Technologies added, “an intelligence-led policing system that has in place the necessary processes, practices, procedures and organisations to enable quick preventive and mitigative action. Such a model has to become a day-to-day model for policing. It needs to be led from the top, with the information coming in from the bottom.”

The key message that emerges here is that we have to develop a platform that effectively reduces the amount of analysis time required to produce actionable intelligence in a realistic time frame for tackling problems of terrorism, disasters and other crisis areas. According to Nicholas Smith of Sycron,”such a system is important, especially when we don’t know what the next challenge is going to be, where it changes on a daily basis, where we can follow a flexible platform that allows us to manage any data and deal with it in the most appropriate manner.” Sycron is a UK-based company focusing on intelligence, evidence and dynamic intelligence handling solutions for the criminal justice, law enforcement and intelligence sectors worldwide.

Discussing the challenges before technology experts, H Krishnamurthy of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, says “today, systems need to be open and more secure. Security is one extreme and openness is another. Where a line should be drawn and how to build a solutions architecture to address security is something which we need to really look at.”

For R Ramakrishnan, Programme Director, SAP Labs India, one important aspect of risk mitigation is post-disaster risk assessment or a post-mortem. “For this, what is needed is a platform that has the ability to exchange information, the ability to run processes across different agencies and stakeholders, allowing them to interact seamlessly.”

While everyone accepts that Mumbai 26/11 was an eye-opener. It has brought to fore the coordinated action that the government has finally begun to take on putting on ground what was already there on paper. The shift to a holistic and integrated approach with emphasis on prevention, mitigation and preparedness to disaster management has been slow in coming. The need for a common command, communication and control has never been felt to be a must.

“For any arrangement to settle down it takes time, but India is one of the very few countries in the world which has gone whole hog towards preparing for a disaster management mechanism with a common chain of command. And, we should have nearly 80 per cent of the infrastructure for disaster management in place by 2010,” concludes Vij.

Mumbai 26/11 appears to have accelerated the process!

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