Knowledge is an important prerequisite for making informed, rational decisions. The 21st century has seen the industrial economy take on new dimension- knowledge as a key input in production. In large-scale industries, knowledge is being considered as a catalyst for greater efficiency. The world in general has shifted into a “knowledge era”.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, mass communication had already made information creation and access less tedious. With the introduction of user-friendly IT, information access and creation has become uncomplicated.  However, this is just one side of the coin.

Many of us believe that online knowledge platforms such as Wikipedia and social networking sites have the ratio of internet usage, newspaper readership, radio listeners; TV viewership is highly skewed in favor of the developed nations. 88% of all internet users live in the rich world. A demographic analysis of the other 12% will reveal that they are the rich in the developing world country.

Put together, a new dimension of poverty has emerged- information poverty. Information is the currency that an individual requires to be an active participant in society. Knowledge is empowerment. This is evident in the amount of money and resources spent on awareness generation in development programs. Poor suffer due to this lack of access to knowledge at multiple levels. They are life with little option but to resort to local, outdated sources of knowledge and quite often leads to their exploitation. Due to their lack of awareness, they sell their produce at prices that are well below the market rates.

In reality, the so-called knowledge revolution has encompassed only a fraction of the world’s population.  It is the portion of the population that already had access to numerous knowledge resources and could afford access and use modern technology. Moreover, knowledge platforms are managed and influenced by educated, middle and upper strata of society. Therefore, it is not surprising that the media mostly panders to the needs of only a section of the society. Despite the depth of knowledge in the modern age, it has failed to cover the needs of a wider audience.

When we talk about reaching out to the poor with knowledge or spreading awareness among the poor, it is first important that we understand that the poor’s knowledge needs are distinct from the “mainstream”. Their vulnerabilities and realities determine their knowledge requirements and access to resources. They need useful and simplified knowledge that is easily available at various platforms. Traditional sources of knowledge among the poor such as local resource persons, leaders, etc. that often carry outdated information and are fast losing relevance in a world where the shelf-life of information has reduced greatly.

To add to this are high-levels of illiteracy among poor that has prevented them from making use of knowledge resources such as newspapers. This is why audio-visual media such as TV and radio have become popular among the poor. While these media have gone a long way in bringing awareness among the poor, there is still a vacuum left by the absence of a knowledge platform that meets the specific, local needs of the poor, in their language. Given the centralized operation of TV, radio and newspapers, the information they carry is usually nationally relevant.

Further, web content (the dominant knowledge resource) is often analogous to English content. This in itself is a major constraint in a country where only a little above 10% know English.

Therefore, the challenge in ushering the poor into the knowledge era needs to be dealt at multiple levels. New developments such as the rapid spread of mobile technology among the poor and a growing consciousness among development functionaries to bridge the knowledge gap are positive trends.

The poor have already shown their capacity to use the ICT medium in other spheres such as microfinance and livelihoods. With the penetration of mobile phones to remote areas, poor have been able to carry out financial and business transactions.

There have already been numerous initiatives in the country to provide the poor with relevant knowledge at easily accessible entry points. These initiatives have mostly concentrated on providing valuable information on livelihoods or on other dimensions of development such as health and nutrition, education. On the whole however, much of this has been in an “awareness generation” mode rather than have a trained focus on creating a tangible knowledge platform for the poor.

Broadly, knowledge dissemination to the poor is working at three levels: establishing the infrastructure to access ICT, providing relevant knowledge to the poor and creating an environment that is conducive to accessing information (Right to Information).

For long, knowledge dissemination to the poor was primarily through mass media such as print, TV and radio. Given the high production costs in these media, very few ventured into meeting specific knowledge needs of the poor. Moreover, low literacy among the poor prevented them from making full use of these media. Internet, with its potential for hosting a wide variety of information in numerous languages, came as a solution. Though easy to use, the IT medium needed some basic infrastructure- computer and an internet network- too lavish for a country that was grappling to provide drinking water and sanitation to all its citizens. Slowly, the potential for IT to be an effective channel for knowledge delivery was realized and efforts began to build infrastructure to support this medium.

The government has taken an interest in reaching the poor with ICT applications, especially in establishing infrastructure for ICT. It introduced the Village Knowledge Centres (VKC) scheme with the aim of establishing tele-centres in every village of the country. The purpose of setting up the VKC is to not just disseminate knowledge to the poor but to establish the infrastructure for them to access the IT medium. The knowledge centre is equipped with VSAT technology and internet facilities. It is connected to a central studio that receives and answers the queries of the villagers. Similarly, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has established Village Resource Centres to provide “space enabled technology services directly to the rural population”. While ISRO provides the physical infrastructure and technical support, it has tied with a number of development organizations and education institutions to provide the knowledge inputs. 275 VRCs have been set up till date across 16 states and 3,000 programs such as e-Governance, tele-fisheries, weather forecasting, land and resource management have been conducted through the VRCs.

Under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), the government has set up Common Service Centres (CSCs) at the village level. The CSCs provide video, voice and data content and services, in the areas of e-governance, education, health, telemedicine, entertainment. They also provide other services including selling application forms, certificates, and utility payments such as electricity, telephone and water bills.

A Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) model has been adopted for establishing and running these centres, allowing private players and NGOs to be partners in the project. Each CSC is to be operated by a Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE) who would help the community in using the web/ICT sources at the centre. The CSC project was approved in 2006 and hoped that 100,000 CSCs would roll out by March 2011. As of 2012, only 97,558 have been established in 33 state and UTs.

One of the important partners of ISRO in the VRC project is the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation which started the Grameen Gyan Abhiyan (GGA) initiative in 2007 to make “every village a knowledge centre”. The GGA floated the National Alliance for Grameen Gyan Abhiyan that has brought together organizations working towards bridging the rural-urban digital divide. The alliance points to an important trend that knowledge platforms need to take into consideration. There are numerous infome diaries that the poor have access to- service providers, local leaders, media (print and electronic), government departments, etc. In order to ensure that the knowledge divide is effectively filled, it is important that these diverse players are brought on the same plane. The knowledge creation and dissemination sector by itself is huge. To add to it the dimension of meeting the requirements of such a large, diverse population makes it even more gigantic. Further, the purpose of creating and disseminating this knowledge is to help the poor graduate out of poverty. This calls for concerted efforts from various quarters. No one player can entirely take up the responsibility of meeting the entire knowledge needs of the poor, but this responsibility can be broken down into several tasks, with organizations having different expertise doing their bit.

In the bid to making the poor an informed part of the citizenry and bringing them at par with the “mainstream” the repositories of knowledge that exist with the poor should not be ignored. Many a time, knowledge platforms are used to propagate a certain kind of lifestyle and try to impose on society what is right and what is not. The answer to this partly lies in one of the distinct characteristics of the knowledge era- democratization of knowledge platforms. Websites such as Wikipedia are testimony to this democratic trend wherein people are enabled to decide the content and monitor it. Increasing literacy and IT literacy and the spread of mobile phones are promising trends that would aid in making knowledge platforms an instrument of empowerment in the hands of the poor.

This trend of knowledge of the poor, by the poor and for the poor is already visible in the community radio initiatives. For long, many NGOs and CSOs demanded for the right to set up community radio stations which finally culminated in a Supreme Court verdict that vindicated their stand. Even though there is no formal legislation to create a space for community radios, quite a few have been initiated by NGOs across the country to aid the development process. Myrada’s Namma Dhwani in Kolar, Karnataka, Deccan Development Society’s Sangham Radio, and Ujjas Radio by Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan are a few examples.

Providing Relevant Knowledge

A major challenge in creating a knowledge platform for the poor is to make the content relevant to poor. The linguistic, cultural and regional diversity of the poor in our country further adds to the challenge. The vulnerabilities of the various demographic sections determine their knowledge requirements and their access to knowledge. Meeting such micro-knowledge requirements requires that there be knowledge generating and disseminating forces working closely with the poor. Knowledge creation and dissemination too ought to be decentralized in order to meet locale-specific knowledge needs. Further, the knowledge should be available to the poor in various forms and through various entry points.

ITC’s e-Choupal is an example of how relevant and easily accessible information can transform the livelihoods of the poor for the better. The agriculture scenario in India is plagued by many perils- fragmented lands, lack of proper infrastructure, uncertain weather conditions and too many intermediaries (or middle-men). Instituting a source of information easily accessible to the farmers could go a long way in reducing these hurdles. ITC realized that the internet could help filling this gap. Still, low literacy levels among the poor would prevent them from actually using these information kiosks. A Choupal Sanchalak (the chief farmer) was appointed to facilitate the interface between the website and the farmers in the village. The Sanchalak is provided with the necessary inputs from the Choupal’s functionaries at the cluster and higher levels.

Today, ITC reaches out to 4 million farmers in 40,000 villages through 6,500 e-Choupal kiosks. The farmers receive information regarding weather conditions, market prices and other relevant bits of information that have significantly contributed to the decision-making power of the farmers. Not only does e-Choupal provide information on the market prices, but it also provides information on the prices the farmer’s produce can fetch elsewhere. This motivates the farmers to adopt better methods of agriculture that will yield high-quality crops. The e-Choupal provides inputs to the farmers to enhance their agriculture practices. Therefore, e-Choupal provides holistic solutions for small farmers, helping them with valuable information at all stages. The e-Choupal model has proved to naysayers that given the right platform, the poor too can make good use of IT and be knowledge-seeking citizens. E-Choupal basically first tried to meet the generic needs- market information, weather information, etc. of the farmers. Once engaged, it tried to solve farmer-specific or area specific needs of the farmers. It helps the farmers aim at selling in bigger markets and not buckle under pressure to sell in the local markets.

India Development Gateway (InDG) is a multi-lingual online knowledge platform that aims at meeting the knowledge needs of the poor. The portal provides information and knowledge in numerous domains of social development in 10 languages (9 Indian languages + English). The portal works through a network of tele-centre operators and grassroots organizations in order to reach out to the poor.  InDG also allows the users to upload and share content on the portal, an important move towards the “communitisation” of the knowledge platform.

One of the first moves to create a democratic environment for accessing information came in the form of the Right to Information. The passage of the Right to Information Act in 2005 hoped to usher in a new era of transparency in the country. The Act empowers the common man to seek information from the government. Besides empowering the average citizen, the Act especially hoped to empower the vulnerable and marginalized. Government departments are an important source of information for the poor. Often, the poor are harassed by the government officials and are forced to give bribes to retrieve valuable information. The Right to information Act sought to put to an end to such instances. But, 7 years into its implementation, questions are being raised about its effectiveness in helping the poor access information. To be able to use the RTI  to fight for rights (to entitlements) one needs to have basic literacy, a luxury for most poor It is often the case that government departments produce volumes of department orders and memos as “information” rather than providing information in a simplified manner.

Knowledge is considered to be instrumental in the development process of the poor and aiding their graduation out of poverty. For long, spreading knowledge among the poor has been through mass media such as print and electronic media. As print media requires minimum literacy which most poor lack, audio-visual media such as TV and radio grew to be widely accepted and used by the poor making knowledge dissemination much simpler. Yet due to high costs of producing programs on these media, the information delivered to the poor is often generic.

Internet, with its potential for ubiquitous reach and low investment costs, has enough space to host demographic and geographic specific knowledge. This opportunity has not been reaped well by non-poor.

Over the past decade or so, the web has grown beyond being an enabling communication medium. This tremendous growth of the web has not been augmented by parallel developments in the electronics industry that have made mobile phones and laptops affordable, encompassing hitherto excluded vulnerable sections of the population. This promising trend provides hope for the creation of knowledge platforms for the poor, managed by the poor. When it comes to knowledge for the poor, the challenge goes beyond making information & knowledge resources available to the poor but also to make it relevant to their needs.