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August 11, 1998


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N Vittal

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The IT Taskforce wants computers in
schools that don't even have blackboards.

Professor C Northcote Parkinson, author of the famous Parkinson's Laws, advises: "If you do not want to commit yourself, committee yourself."

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The National Taskforce on Information Technology and Software Development recently disproved Parkinson's dictum on committees.

It produced an Information Technology Action Plan within 40 days and has made 108 policy recommendations that may catapult India into the technology driven future that the world is facing.

And if you are thinking what is the big deal in merely making recommendations, you have not been reading the papers.

The media has been regularly putting the Taskforce through the shredder for doing worse than fools do. The crime: Recommendation No 59...

Computers and Internet shall be made available in every school, polytechnic, college, university and public hospital in the country by the year 2003.

A newspaper report got as pragmatic as it could' Basic literacy is still a distant dream for about 40 per cent of the population. The Taskforce's goal of universal computer literacy must be even more of a dream. Considering that primary education is starved for funds and a good proportion of rural schools in some states even function without enough blackboards it would be an understatement to term this particular target as a pipedream.'

But is the Taskforce's recommendation really the mirage that it is being made out to be?

George Bernard Shaw once explained that the reasonable man looks at limitations as they exist in a situation and adjusts his life accordingly. It is the unreasonable man who wants the world to change to his way of thinking and in the process achieves progress.

The Taskforce is being unreasonable. And therein lies the chance that they may evolve an imaginative programme of action.

It is true that today over half the population may be illiterate. But there have been instances where India has progressed against all predictions to the contrary.

It took 24 years after 1960 to bring 24 per cent of the country under television broadcast. Yet, thanks to the low-power transmitter technology, in 1984 one LPT was installed every day. At the end of the year, 78 per cent of the country was covered by television broadcast.

The Green Revolution is another instance of the unthinkable happening. Then there was the White Revolution that made India the world's largest producer of milk. Again, against all intuitions.

There is no reason why India should think that this challenge of universal literacy and universal computer literacy is beyond the nation's efforts.

There are about 75,000 high schools and 600,000 primary schools in the country. The objective must be to see that there are at least 20 computers in every high school and 5 computers in every primary school.

This will mean a requirement of 4.5 million computers (1.5 million for high schools and 3 million for the primary schools).

Today, there are just 2.3 million computers in the country. We are talking about doubling this number for meeting the requirements of just high schools and schools alone! Where are the computers to come from? Where is the money?

The first principle to remember in drawing up a programme of action is that all human beings are selfish. Therefore, every part of the programme of action would have to be based on the principle of enlightened self-interest.

One answer lies in the nature of information technology's development. The industry's inherent speed of progress makes PCs obsolete at a breakneck speed.

So, it would be possible for us to appeal to the non-resident Indian community and large corporations within the country and abroad to donate older PCs to schools. They should be allowed to bring the PCs into the country free of duty and without any hassles at the customs.

So long as it is certified that the computers are meant for schools, it must be ensured that the customs do not delay the cargo.

In fact, this is the strategy that China is claimed to be following. It gets old computers and cannibalises them for spares to keep its installed computers going!

Many companies in India too would like to dispose off their old computers. They should be encouraged to donate such computers to schools and given tax incentives. In Israel, companies are encouraged to donate computers to schools and educational institutions in this manner.

The government has already announced that any investments made in computers would be eligible for 100 per cent depreciation in two years. This should help leasing companies to come forward and make computers available on lease at very easy terms.

The schools can lease these computers and recover the costs through reasonable fees from students. These fees would be a fraction of the money that middle-class families shell out to private computer training and teaching shops.

Incidentally, PC proliferation in schools would also encourage assembly and manufacture of computers in the country, triggering another positive contribution to the economy.

A third method would be to offer income tax and sales tax incentives by providing deduction on value of computers given to schools.

Companies providing computers to schools could also be offered excise concessions. The only hindrance to this solution that I can immediately see would be the attitude of the finance ministry.

They are bound to say: "Why give double benefit to the companies? They would have got the benefit of a higher rate of depreciation when they invested in computers in the first place. Then why offer additional incentives when they give away their computers to schools?"

But if we look at the national benefit that arises from the availability of computer education throughout the country, this is a small price to pay.

These methods would be useful in making computer hardware available in schools. But the most important issue would be to create appropriate content.

There is a lot of content on the Internet and the IT Taskforce's recommendations to make Net access easier have already become government orders. For instance, cable television companies are to become Internet services providers by default.

Another option is to leverage the ubiquitous 'public call offices' and the telecom network. Another Taskforce recommendation that has become an order is regarding reduction in the cost of accessing Internet servers over long-distance telephone calls.

But we must not forget that among the 75,000 high schools and 600,000 primary schools, hardly 5 to 10 per cent of the institutions would be in the English medium. The rest of the students study in the medium of Indian languages. Most of the content today is in English. We will therefore have to think of creating massive amounts of contents in Indian languages that can be accessed through the computers.

We will have to undertake a huge programme involving the private sector for putting on to computer networks whatever educational material is today available on paper.

This can be done by diverting the funds available under the various employment-generation schemes like the Jawahar Rojgar Yojna, the Prime Minister's Yojna Programme and Integrated Rural Development Programmes to engage unemployed youth for loading this content on to computers.

We will create, in the process, hundreds of thousands of jobs for at least the next three years or so.

Ironically, yet another source of funds arises out of the sheer reluctance of education departments to spend their resources. There was a recent report that many states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu did not spend even a fraction of the funds allotted to them under programmes like the District Primary Education Programme.

A simple decision that all budgetary savings from any head of expenditure, especially education, could be diverted for the massive national programme for computers in schools would make large funds available.

When this massive exercise for building the information databases in Indian languages gets going, the country can also encourage private entrepreneurs to provide in Indian languages other published educational material.

Thus once computers are available in all schools; students would be able to access valuable information in the Indian languages.

However, to make computer literacy a serious proposition, the learning of computers should be made a compulsory part of the regular educational system.

One great weakness of the Indian education system today is that IT is not a part of the regular educational syllabus.

As recommended by the Taskforce if this lacuna is taken care of, India would have created a situation by which what is seen as a mirage today would become a reality in just three years. There is another doubt about that.

Will teachers be interested in teaching computers? As almost all the teachers at the primary school level and most at the high school level are not familiar with computers how are we going to create a whole cadre of IT teachers? Here we should be able to draw on the private computer training institutions that could be given a contract for providing these facilities to schools.

In fact, the Navodaya Vidayalayas under the computer literacy in schools programme had given turnkey contracts to private parties who provided the computer as well as the teachers and took the responsibility for maintaining the computers.

This was for more successful than the cases where the teachers were to be trained first. There is thus a tremendous business opportunity that arises as a result of the above strategy.

Incidentally, India could be satisfying at once the enlightened self-interest of the unemployed youth, the leasing companies, the private computer teaching companies, computer manufacturers, and so on.

So far as the teachers themselves are concerned, the existing teachers in the schools may not be required to take additional responsibilities.

This scheme may look very attractive in theory but is going to implement it?

There are two alternatives. One is to consciously, promote a healthy competition among different states or even among the different districts to see that their districts or states becomes the first 100 per cent computer literate states or districts in the country.

This will call for champions. A technology friendly chief minister like Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh may be a rarity in Indian politics. But it should be definitely possible to find enough champions, especially among the younger lot of the civil servants.

Non-governmental organisations interested in education could co-operate with such champions.

Secondly, at the national level, this entire programme could be co-ordinated by a dedicated group in the Prime Minister's Office that can continuously monitor the activity.

I am suggesting the PMO because ultimately locating this activity in the PMO sends the signals that the programme has the support of the highest political executive.

Also, in the matter of co-ordination with NRIs and a host of other organisations, the PMO is probably in an even better position to ensure success.

The degree of success of the programme would depend on local initiatives. Some states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana may take the lead. The point is that the progress of some states will create a sense of competition among others who have to catch up.

It is thus quite possible that the dream of putting computers in all schools and achieving total literacy besides computer literacy can be achieved.

Do you still think that the Taskforce's recommendation of computers in schools is unrealistic, a mirage, a pipedream?

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change | Educational emergency | A card for all seasons | Moore, Metcalf & Gelder | Heads I win, tails you lose! | Loosen those tongues | The globe is a square

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