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India's first e-literate district

George Iype in Malappuram | August 19, 2004

In the past one year, Kerala's most backward district, Malappuram, has witnessed a revolution.

The Muslim-dominated district with nearly 600,000 residents has achieved a formidable national first.

A rural e-learning project that the state government launched a year ago has made Malappuram India's first e-literate district.

People who used to undertake long bus journeys to pay bills now walk across to any of the 600 information kiosks that have sprung up across the district.

The kiosks, called Akshaya Kendras, offer multiple e-services including payment of electricity, water and telephone bills, registration of complaints in police stations, birth and death certificates and internet telephony.

The government has tied up with the State of Bank of India for the payment gateway.

Mohammed Bashir, a 62-year-old banana merchant, can manage the mouse under his shivering palm. "Initially it was a problem. Now I know how to handle the computer," says Bashir, who sends an email to his son in Dubai.

Like Bashir, hundreds of thousands of Malappuram residents are tech-savvy these days. "It is a revolution that has changed our lives. We are thoroughly enjoying it," says Bashir's neighbour K P Koya.

Launched by President A P J Abdul Kalam last year, Akshaya was set up with the help of entrepreneurs and the Kerala State Information Technology Mission, which spearheads the project.

Kerala IT Secretary Aruna Sundararajan, who oversaw the project, says Akshaya has now emerged as the biggest rural information technology project in the country.

Hundreds of project executives travelled across Malappuram and offered a 15-hour PC and internet training to one member of each family in the district.

The Kerala government also tied up with Tulip IT Services to implement a wireless network across the district for less than Rs 5 crore. Akshaya kiosks run on Tulip's low-cost wireless technology, thus eliminating the need for telephone lines.

All public offices now have access to computers and internet through these multipurpose community centres. A significant volume of content that is relevant to Kerala has also been developed in Malayalam.

Each Akshaya Kendra is equipped with computers, printers, fax machines and photocopiers. It has now facilities for DTP, printing, computer rental, browsing, chatting, internet telephony among others.

"It has not been an easy task for us. But our unique experience has succeeded well. Now our mission is to replicate the Malappuram success story across the state," says Sundararajan.

Akshaya now aims to generate self-employment opportunities for nearly 45,000 people and enhance the income of those who possess basic computing skills.

Already, hundreds of youth in Malappuram have become entrepreneurs thanks to Akshaya.

The Kerala government has titled the project 'Bridging The Digital Divide'.

It has already aroused international interest.

Recently, professors Kenneth Keniston and Andrew Mellon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came visiting.

"Pretty exciting. This is some truly unique for India," Prof Keniston commented after going through Malappuram.

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