Bridging the Digital Divide

Kerala: India's First E-Literate District

Shantakumari—32, homemaker, little daughter on her lap—took the last of 10 self-paced computer tests. The monitor flashed the message: “Congratulations, you have now attained computer literacy!” It was accompanied by a triumphant clap of music from the PC’s twin speakers, so all the other students in the crowded classroom stopped what they were doing and joined in a round of applause. It’s a little ritual at the Akshaya e-Kendra (Inexhaustible e-Center) in Mannupadam, a village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.

The Mannupadam center is part of a dynamic self-financing experiment encompassing Kerala’s Malappuram district. With five PCs, a printer, a scanner, and a Web cam all linked to a Pentium IV processor server, the center hosts 12 classes every day—one of 600 centers across the district.

There’s a real learning zeal among Mannupadam’s 1,200 families, who are eager to bootstrap themselves into a “connected” future. The scheme, which was created by locals, allows one member of each family to undergo training in e-literacy—at his or her own pace—for a fee of just 20 rupees (US$0.40). Every time a student completes the course—it typically takes six to eight weeks—the e-center operator, usually a villager, who has bought the equipment and rented the classroom, receives 120 rupees [$2.60] from the village council, paid out of local taxes.

The operator is committed to training every family in the village. With the money coming in from training 1,000 or more students, he can pay back most of the loan that went into setting up the center. By the time you read this, the Malappuram experiment may have finished: By Christmas, most of the 600 centers will have completed their training and Malappuram will proudly stake its claim to be called India’s first computer-literate district. It couldn’t happen too soon for Abdul Rahim, who runs the Eranjimangad village center. “Most of my students are housewives, some are grandmothers,” he says. “They take the course so that they can exchange e-mails with their husbands or sons [who work] in Dubai or Sharjah.”

Malappuram’s success needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the Indian federal government’s ambitious initiative, “IT for All by 2008”—launched in 1998. Although IT is now driving much of India’s economic growth, halfway through the initiative few targets have been met: In a nation of more than a billion people, the tele-density—the number of telephones for every 100 persons—is a low 4.89. The PC population is even lower—one in 100. Kerala, with 31 million people, has always stood apart from the rest of India for its education and health achievements, becoming India’s only fully literate state in the 1980s.

In a nation short on genuine success stories, Malappuram is rapidly becoming a development signpost of sorts, highlighting the fact that at least one Indian village—that clichéd symbol of economic deprivation—has empowered itself without having to queue up for official handouts.