In the nineties of the last century United Nations ratings for the different regions of the world recorded Kerala as an economic miracle. In several social parameters the State was at par with the developed West. This unbelievable feat was achieved in spite of a lesser per capita income and lack of industrial back up. The great economist –Amarthya Sen attributed this achievement to the spread of education to a wider level in Kerala society. A section of educated among Keralites utilised the services of information technology for further economic development. But the vast majority did not take to this technology for consolidating and furthering the achievements on the social front. A digital divide developed in the State as elsewhere between a minority that could use information technology for development and the majority that could not do so. Planners in the socio-economic front sooner realised that the consolidation of socio economic development in Kerala was possible only by removing the digital divide in the society. The vast majority of the populace have to be equipped with the tools of Information and Communication Technology to achieve tangible progress. The less privileged sections had to be empowered with ICT. Those at the helms in the three-tier panchayat system in the State realized the importance of ICT for socio-economic development and they came forward with plan proposals and programmes to bring information technology to common households. Meanwhile, Government constituted the State Information Technology Mission for achieving transparency and speed in administration so as to make it more responsive to the needs of the people and for grass roots level application of information technology as part of social engineering for development.
The IT policy of the Government besides providing for specific initiatives for ICT industry within the State laid emphasis on using ICT in all walks of life to improve living standards. One area identified was government itself. The Task Force on IT implementation in government also recommended to adopt a strategy of administrative reforms-based computerisation simultaneously with highly visible and immediately penetrable citizen-centric projects. The approach to citizen interface was based on the assumption that all direct Government – citizen interactions can be IT-enabled and can be categorised as making payments, getting entitlements, getting providing information and grievance redressal, etc. The implementation of State e-governance projects such as FRIENDS and Information Kerala Mission are examples. In spite of the good social and digital infrastructure ICT and internet penetration in Kerala was comparatively low. Some early attempts for grass root level ICT application did not make much headway.
During this period lots of programmes were initiated worldwide to address digital divide and to familiarise the tools of Information and Communication Technologies to the common man, which were also discussed in Kerala but limited to academic circles. Computer literacy was becoming the buzzword and many local bodies, NGOs and private computer institutes started offering courses and programmes in computer software like Microsoft, DOS Word and Excel. But the IT policy of the government required that the government should intervene to take the benefits of IT to the grass roots level.
Now, some of the local bodies in the three tier Panchayat system came forward with valuable project proposals for computer education at the grass root level. The proposal submitted by Malappuram District Panchayat had many notable features. Even from an international perspective such a massive computer education programme as was suggested in the proposal had not been attempted till then. Many international projects were limited to village level. The details of the project proposal had to be thrashed out for clarity. After a few round of discussions, a small team consisting of six members were formed in KSITM to study various ICT modules for development projects, implementation plans, business model etc. for the initiative.
Discussions about the project led to the important finding that e-literacy was one of the most important components of any such project. A two-pronged approach was needed. While providing computer facilities in the rural areas focus must be given to impart education to the citizens to make use of those facilities. On the basis of further deliberations it was decided to provide a user-friendly content/courseware to the citizens to educate them on the uses of ICT. Creation of functional e-literacy was thus found to be a pre requisite.
As a preparatory measure for the implementation of the project several meetings with the participation of District Panchayat, Block Panchayats, Grama Panchayats, Municipalities and organisation like C-DIT were held. A survey in Malapuram district was held to assess the requirements. 6.5 lakh houses were visited as part of the survey. Spatial mapping was done with the help of Town and Country Planning Department to identify locations to establish the centre of the project.
Establishment of Akshaya-e-Kendra as an ICT access point, one for every 1000 families living in two/three municipal or Panchayat wards was the most important strategic decision. Other details chalked out for implementation were:
Akshaya e-centres were envisaged to have five computers and other infrastructure at a cost of Rs. 3-4 lakhs per centre and they were to be within 2-3 Kilometre distance from every household. Entrepreneurs from the locality with service orientation were to be selected, on the social entrepreneurship model for running the centres. At least one person from every family was to be given training for ten days. It was planned that the local bodies should fund this e-literacy initiative Rs. 140 was fixed as tuition fee for 15 hour training programme (Grama Panchayat Rs. 80, Block Panchayat Rs. 20, Dist. Panchayat Rs. 20, beneficiary fee Rs. 20) Strategies were evolved for the involvement of community, civil society organisations, youth and welfare organisations, local bodies, etc. for implementation. Positioning Social Animators for linking Akshaya centres, citizens, local bodies and government Strategies for establishing connectivity, creation of locally relevant content etc. Positioning of District Project Team in Malappuram The Akshaya pilot project was launched at Trivandrum by Dr. A.P. Abdul Kalam, His Excellency, the President of India on November 18, 2002.