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Digital participation in rural empowerment

Sujit Chaudhuri and Deepankar Chakrabarti

with too many variables, rural development in India is a complex phenomenon and the effectiveness of rural development programs is even more complex. Rural development has to be looked beyond project initiatives and governance. It has to be participatory at grassroots level. New possibilities besides being transparent and holding people accountable, have to induce beneficiary participation and ownership to attack the problems of rural poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation in a sustainable manner. Information and communication technology (ICT) can play a significant role in decision support, improving services and empowering citizens at rural level .In the context of the "digital divide", it is important to have "digital participation" at the grassroots level. The present article explores the emergence of GIS in a participatory form as a means of rural development.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has emerged as a technology of the new millennium. There is no doubt that this technology is instrumental in increasing productivity, efficiency, competitiveness and growth in all spheres of human activity. But, it has also increased the gap of economic disparity in country like India, which has large rural agrarian society with little or no use of ICT, and at the same time ICT itself is an economic growth engine in India as a separate industry. Therefore the potential benefits can be harnessed only if the technology diffuses across the different sectors of the Indian society ­ more so the rural society to bridge the gap of the "Digital Divide". ICT should be used in rural sector more often to make information and data based development plans of the Government, Non-Government and Private sectors in proper context. This is necessary as the planning process in India has gone through a sea change during last ten years, from centralized planning process to Panchayati Raj based decentralized planning. In the rural sector, effective uses of any ICT applications lies in providing decision support for planning and monitoring development programmes; automating the process of delivery of services such that the system becomes more transparent and while doing so also empower the rural citizen through access to information and knowledge. Our involvement with ICT for rural development began some years ago with requests to develop GIS technology based tools and offer training on its value to grass-root level workers. Because of our mission to provide a neutral forum, to increase understanding of the intricacies of rural development and to focus on citizen empowerment, we were concerned at the outset about creating tools and methods that could directly involve the beneficiaries. If we were to develop tools and provide GIS training, we would also have to build the capacity within the grass root level workers and villagers to enable them to have the freedom to explore the questions they care about most. This was our beginning with Participatory GIS where the focus has been citizen empowerment through citizen use of Geo- Information technology. Geo ­ Information Technology in Rural Development: A Case Study PAN Network Private Limited had undertaken the challenge to disseminate the planning information through participatory GIS in Ramakrishna Mission Lokashiksha Parishad

Joint Forest Management Project. The detail of the work is presented here to articulate the breadth and depth of the classification of ICT applications for rural development. At a very basic level the ICT application developed for Ramakrishna Mission may appear to be customized software (Figure 1 is the invocation screen of the developed software), as an attempt to automate basic village level data with various locations displayed as maps. But, this database development and customized software developed with a local language interface is an ICT tool aiding both the villagers and Ramakrishna Mission to transparently plan and monitor developmental activities in a truly participatory manner.

Figure 1: Invoking Screen of the Village Planning System The GIS database is developed to incorporate spatial information, which is an extremely important element in all level of planning process. The windows based customized software was developed keeping in mind to show the GIS component and Attribute data in a way so that the villagers can easily interact with it. At the region level, location of important resources like river, roads, forests, network of canals and many other such features (See Figure 2) in relation to a cluster of villages helps the village committee members and Ramakrishna Mission planners to decide on alternate livelihood, to plan various infrastructure/civic facilities and to design proactive steps for natural and/or manmade disaster management.

Figure 2: Regional Resources and Infrastructure around a village cluster In a large area particularly in the target region alternate livelihood is a very important issue. Ramakrishna Mission and the village committee may jointly decide on land use

changes in a more scientific way. As all the natural resources, infrastructure facilities along with households are represented in the package in layer form (See Figure 3), it is easier to see the impact of land use changes on the surrounding environment. This helps them to take better decision for utilizing unproductive land for productive use or building water bodies/structures for effective irrigation in best possible location. This is extremely necessary to the stakeholders, as the resources required for such activity is limited to the committee. Moreover activities like well digging, repairing of road, pond repairing etc. for all the villages on priority basis require proper need assessment of various clusters. This helps to prioritize the villagers need for serial execution.

Figure 3: Village Resources with Land use pattern At the infrastructure/civic facility level, villagers at village committee meetings more effectively decide on location for schools or health centres based on population densities. The maintenance of household level data (See Figure 4), which also incorporate individual deposit and loan account, plays very important role. A villager can also transparently maintain his deposit and loan account of the village committee that maintains such funds for micro-credit with the help of the Ramakrishna Mission. The package incorporates a seasonal calendar (See Figure 5), which depicts month wise employment at individual village level, which comes from individual household level data. This seasonal calendar becomes a handy tool for Ramakrishna Mission for Livelihood planning all through the year. From all these levels of information presented and the Edit/Update facility to make data dynamic this standalone system is a decision support system, an automated system and an information disseminating system for empowering the villager.

Figure 4: Household data for demographic analysis

Figure 5: Seasonal Calendar

The development of this package at Ramakrishna Mission is an outcome of a process of interlinked steps forming a typical Geo ­ Information Technology System of Inputs ­ Processes ­ Outputs. The success of such customized package depends on the extent to which the process has been adhered. This process requires involvement of a host of people at various levels, it includes, scientists/technical professionals and more importantly the villager without whom the system will never be complete. There are two dimensions involved in the implementation of the customized package: the building of the entire Geo ­ Information Technology System, and the institutionalization of the Geo ­ Information Technology System. The Geo ­ Information Technology System A large number of Inputs of varied kinds forms the starting point for the building of the Geo ­ Information Technology System. Figure 6 is the schematic representation of the System. Toposheets of Survey of India are used for preparation of base maps of the region depicting the general topography of the study area, usually are in 1:50,000/1:25,000 scale. Village level Cadastral maps of state settlement department forms a special input to capture micro level spatial data of specific households/plots, these are in 1:6000/1:4000 scale. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) maps as prepared by villagers, incorporating various village level resources as viewed by the villagers are overlaid on the Cadastral maps. Satellite data is used to understand the region for its current landuse, infrastructure, vegetative cover etc. usually in 1: 12500 scale or sometimes at a smaller scale depending on requirement. Collections of spatial information from all the above components and bringing them under the same scale is an important task. From these, various themes are created as planning components. Many of these themes and features/resource bases are presented in layer form; the contents and numbers are user requirement specific. These individual layers or multiple layers overlaid on each other form a basis for the planning process. Each geographic object identified and mapped through the various spatial data sources are identified through attributes as data tables. These attributes in data tables provide a meaning to all spatial objects. The end user may add more attribute data depending on the nature of information that they desire. In the Ramakrishna Mission application, it is the loan repayment data of an individual villager along with his/her hut location is the localized attribute data. In some cases, it may also contain demographic data or socio ­cultural data or any other data that is deemed necessary.

The internal process of the Geo ­ Information Technology System, is not very different from other automated systems. The Geo ­ Information Technology System process includes manipulation, selection, exploration and confirmation of the input data gathered from various sources to generate meaningful outputs. Data manipulation provides various levels of abstraction for transforming, partitioning, generalizing, aggregating, overlaying & interpolating the input data. Querying or extracting data from the spatial and/or attribute database to create multiple "What ­ If" situations is data selection, outcomes of data selection allows exploration of trends, patterns and associations in the presented data, to generate thematic maps. This data analysis becomes a means for confirming specific intervention measures for a particular location. Through the Ramakrishna Mission software the decision on extending Tassar cultivation as an alternate livelihood is an intervention measure. This confirmation is based on manipulation, selection and exploration of all input data suggesting limited availability of farming land in a large forest cover and with idle manpower for large parts of the year. These decisions are the outputs of the Geo ­ Information Technology System at the Macro and the Micro Levels, which can have varying units ranging from a single village to a large district with several thousand villages. The micro level data usually used at the Panchayat level initiates village level implementation of plans. The data thus generated feeds into the macro level planning system for a larger area such as a Community Development (CD) block or a district. The macro level plans also feed into the micro level system for specifics concerning the micro unit. Both macro and micro level data continuously enters the Geo ­ Information Technology System for further data manipulation, data selection, data exploration and data confirmation to provide an absolutely different abstraction of the same region for a different purpose. Institutionalizing Geo ­ Information Technology The most important aspect is the institutionalizing part. The value of Geo ­ Information Technology (like any other technology) arises out of its use. Concrete applications of Geo ­ Information Technology is linked with social processes. Peoples participation in either of the stages of collection, analysis and processing of both spatial and attribute data and presenting of the resulting information, is a major factor for Geo ­ Information Technology to be valued and institutionalized. Through the use of the customized Village Planning software both villagers and Ramakrishna Mission are able to communicate on a regular basis, general and specific socio ­ economic indicators for the village. Data both spatial and attribute, available provides a forum for constructive debates ultimately strengthening the decision-making ability of all participants. This participatory approach aided by Geo ­ Information Technology may be utilized for a large spectrum of decisions from rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge in areas with water scarcity to determining the location of the special health camp etc. The decision based on Geo ­ Information Technology to begin Tassar cultivation in a predominantly forest region as an alternative livelihood has linked both Ramakrishna Mission and the local villagers both functionally and operationally. The customized

system provides the necessary control and monitoring mechanisms that are transparent to all participants. Updating data of the customized software provides a dynamic behavior to the entire application. This becomes instrumental not only to set up realistic goals and micro tasks but also control and monitoring mechanisms for both villagers and Ramakrishna Mission and to steer them to logical conclusions acceptable to one and all. Geo ­ Information Technology if applied within more or less organized groups of human beings (in our case it has been the Ramakrishna Mission led village committees) has the potential: to facilitate communication between participants of the institutions be it Ramakrishna Mission or the local village Panchayat; to help link all participants functionally and operationally together for initiating large scale developmental measures; and to be a tool to enhance institutions ability to achieve its goals and tasks. Success (or failure) of geo ­ information technology depends on technical and non ­ technical factors. The proper and sound technical design is necessary along with proper societal context and support to deliver the best possible result in a country like India. Information and Communication Technology tools like the Geo ­ Information Technology requires integration of science and engineering on the one hand, and institutional and societal challenges on the other.

The authors are Directors of PAN Network Private Limited, Kolkata, India

References 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. Geographic Information Systems an Introduction by Bernhardsen Tor Serving Maps on the Internet by Harder Christian Reflections on PPGIS : A view from the trenches by Merrick Meg Digital participation and access to Geographic Information : A case study of Local Government in United Kingdom by Smith S. Robin and Craglia Massimo A Framework for the use of Geographic Information in Participatory Community Planning and Development by Rug D. Robert Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) Guiding Principles by Aberley Doug and Cieber Renee Community Participation and Geographic Information System by Craig W.J., Harris T.M. and Weiner D. Participation and Geographical Information by Carver S. Application of GIS & Remote Sensing for Watershed Development Project ­ A case study by Chattopadhyay G.S. and Choudhury S Geographic Information System for Analysis of Livehood Opportunities for the Rural Community by Choudhury S

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An ICT Tool for Rural Development

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