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Gaon goes global as Indian villages get digital identity
SHWETA SHARMA  27th May 2012

Illustration by Shreya Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik Design

ituated 17km from the city of Karaikudi in the Sivagangai District of Tamil Nadu lies the village of Kundrakudi. Known for being the hub of cashew production, the female population here stands at 1,888 – as against the 1,800 males in the same village. And owing to the vast number of large and small scale industries in the area, this village is also called 'Kutty (means small) Japan'.

Interesting nuggets like this about several lesser-known villages are not always accessible, even with the information explosion on the Internet. To bridge geographical barriers and give our villages a rural identity, IIT Madras's Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI) and the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) together created the Namma Ooru Website (NOW) in November 2010. It's an endeavour that aims to create a global web identity for the Indian villages by empowering the rural youth to create and sustain a website for their villages.

"Indian villages have a rich repository of traditional knowledge and heritage; but that information is purely available only for its local residents. Now even this minimal info might soon fade away, as villagers are moving out to urban areas in search of a livelihood. That's why we created this website," says Suma Prashant, VP, IITM's RTBI. "The websites were created by 165 students from 13 colleges in Sivagangai district. We involved the village elders and other village administrators to ensure authenticity of information and enable a sense of ownership among the villagers."

The students took part in the NOW Creation Competition, from which 55 websites for villages across six districts (Sivagangai, Madurai, Virudhunagar, Dindukkal, Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram) in Tamil Nadu were created.

These maps will help the government planners, policy makers, tourists, investors, non-resident villagers, demographers, sociologists, researchers and general public to understand the socio- economic infrastructures available in a village. — Suma Prashant

The websites disseminate village specific information like history, location, Panchayat announcements, information on various government schemes, health initiatives, real- estate development and village resources on maps and tourism. It also has a detailed village map that can be accessed by a simple GPS technology or even with Google maps. Various natural and physical resources like hospitals, ration shops, ATM centres, banks, water bodies, schools, colleges, bus stop, Panchayat offices, village boundaries, temples, churches, local markets, tourist spots, palaces, etc were also mapped.

"Indian villages have never been so extensively mapped; this is a pioneering effort. These maps will help the government planners, policy makers, tourists, investors, non-resident villagers, demographers, sociologists, researchers and general public to understand the socio- economic infrastructures available in a village. These maps are available in English and Tamil," says Prashant.

Vasumathi Anandan, a project associate, explains that an SMS-based social networking platform was designed and developed to enable villagers to communicate with one another with the cost of just a single SMS. "This technology facilitated the villagers to exchange day-to-day news in the village, job opportunities, weather updates, films, cricket scores etc – all this was also relayed live on the websites," she says.

Despite its success, NOW had to face its share of hurdles too. "Since many students were dependent on their college computers, they did not have access to it during semester holidays and weekends. Also, some Panchayat offices were not supportive to the students, as they questioned the intent and identity of the students. Students who chose non-native villages faced difficulties while collecting village data and forming social groups. Then there were technical challenges like frequent power failure, slow Net speed, no prior technical knowledge and many other social challenges," rues Vincy Pushpa Mary, project associate.

Does NOW plan to take this initiative to other states? "We're certainly exploring avenues how this initiative can be taken up to scale. There is some learning from our current exercise that we can keep in mind for future efforts. Students and educational institutions from rural areas can work together to create meaningful evaluation exercises in rural areas. They should focus on scalability and long term sustenance from the very beginning," says Anandan.

 
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