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Published in the 16-31 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Malappuram is India’s first computer-literate district 
A poor Muslim-dominated district pioneers IT revolution that could change the face of India, reports Kallada Hamza from Calicut 
An Akshaya centre in Malappuram Computer Centre

An Akshaya centre in Malappuram

The Muslim-populated and once the most backward Malappuram district in the Malabar region of Kerala has now emerged as a front runner in the fast-paced world of information technology. Incredible it may sound, but it is a fact today that Malappuram district has been declared as India’s first computer-literate village, where 0.65 million families have been linked to 615 Akshaya e-centers under the aegis of the Kerala Information Technology in January 2004. High- speed broadband internet connectivity has become a reality of life in this district. The primary task of these centers has been e-educating one member of every family in the district. The language is not a deterrent, since a Malayalam software has been developed by the Kerala-based Centre For Development of Imaging Technology.

Malappuram is part of a hilly region, and its terrain posed a stumbling block for the use of land-based telephones to nearly half the population. And the fiber-optic cables laid down along the national and state highways in Kerala could not be extended to Malappuram due to its terrain and related logistic hassles. After testing a variety of technology options, the state harnessed a nascent wireless technology of WipLL (Wireless Internet Protocol in Local Loop) This technology enabled 615 fully functional Akshaya centers to link with internet at a bandwidth of between 4 and 8 megabites per second (MBPS), astoundingly faster than the conventional dial-up connection through telephones. This system uses radio frequencies to carry voice, video and data, covering distances of 2 to 3 kms with a simple antenna, and up to 25 kms using a network of repeaters.

The wireless network was completed in January this year by the Delhi-based Tulip IT Services Ltd, with the collaboration of WipLL hardware from the US-based Airspan Networks. Under this connectivity, the wireless signals can "go round corners", eliminating the so-called" Line of Sight Limitations". The first demonstration of this connectivity was marvelously exhibited at a ten-day orientation programme, held at Malappuram for the entrepreneurs who are running the Akshaya centers in the district.

Believe it or not, 70-year-old Abdulla Haji and his wife in her 60s are students of a computer center in their village in Malappuram. There are some more elderly couples who routinely traverse the muddy roads of the village to reach the internet cafes, which have mushroomed along side of tea and panmasala shops thanks to the IT revolution in the district. Everyone cutting across all divides-housewives, veiled women, maids and even auto-rikshaw drivers venture into the e-cafes for sending and receiving emails linking up with their relatives in the Gulf. There are about 1.3 million Malabaris employed in the Gulf and other foreign countries. The rural folk learnt how to click the mouse and chat with their sons, husbands and relatives abroad. 

The Akshaya scheme has covered 0.55 million people and amazingly more than 60 percent are women. The total cost of imparting the 15-hour course per student is a meagre rupees 140. Local administrative bodies such as Grama and District Panchayats chip in with rupees 120 under the Akshaya Project and the student has to pay only rupees 20. The project also generates employment for computer literates. Since 1.3 million Malabaris are employed in the Gulf, the neo-entrepreneurs in the Akshaya project are able to reap reasonable profits from and through their Gulf relatives.

Malappuram has surprised other districts in its e-literacy revolution. The scheme, which was conceived by the local people themselves, has been widened to other sectors like life insurance, housing loans and other activities of financial institutions. As a result, a number of business models have evolved in the region. The project is now planning to open an Akshaya hardware park where 105 entrepreneurs would sell hardware and other Akshaya-Intel co-branded products. Scores of small-scale industries are mushrooming in the rural areas, manufacturing a variety of products ranging from T-shirts, clocks and computer CDs. The State IT Mission has already covered areas of health, education and agriculture. The IT-Mission is seeking feasibility of e-mail money transactions in association with the Western Union.

In the wake of these significant achievements in the IT sector and resulting euphoria in the hilly Malapppuram district, Anik Haseloff, a German IT expert, conducted a survey in the region and he was impressed with the participatory model adopted in Malappuram where the state government, local administrative bodies and entrepreneurs have been brought together in an active embrace in the IT revolution.
Spurred by the successful realization of a fanciful dream groomed by the Akshaya, e-literacy campaign in Malappuram, the state government is now thinking of replicating the experiment in the other 13 districts of Kerala.¤

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