TR: What part has industry played?
KENISTON: Microsoft has been very, very slow in localizing its user-interface to Indian languages. But the pressure is on Microsoft because companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard are pushing Linux. Some Indian states, such as Madhya Pradesh and Kerala, have taken the open source route.TR: What are Community Information Centers?
KENISTON: There are several models. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, the Gyandoot project had the backing of the deputy district collector but was designed to be largely self-sustaining. In Warana, the big impetus came from the Maharashtra government, the sugarcane cooperatives, and the National Informatics Centre. Then we have the ITC, which has set up a vast operation with 800 Community Information Centers operational and increasing to 2000 kiosks soon. Soybeans, shrimp, and coffee are transacted through these kiosks, and they have a very carefully thought out revenue model. By bypassing the middleman, ITC saves eight to 10 percent on the purchase of soy, which is very impressive. In Warana, I am told that enough savings are generated from the kiosks to sustain and maintain them. The interesting thing is that some of these setups are products of companies that are not philanthropically inclined in nature.
TR: You plan to do a study on the sustainability of ICT4D projects in India. Can you tell us something about this?
KENISTON: From the point-of-view of sustainability, the Drishtee Community Information Centers and the Sustainable Access in Rural India projects are similar. They plan to offer a variety of services through the Community Information Centers to recover initial investments and operating expenses. We do not know the degree to which these projects are self-sustaining, but it’s perhaps too early to say. Then there are the Bhoomi land records project in Karnataka, the government of [Indian state] Andhra Pradesh’s various e-government projects, the National Informatics Centre’s efforts to computerize the district collectors’ offices across India, and the efforts of Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi’s efforts to computerize the state’s functions. There’s the case of the SARI project’s collaboration with the Aravind Eye Hospital, where the retinas of people were photographed and the doctors identified cataract patients among them, but one doesn’t know how sustainable this is. India probably has more ICT4D projects than any other country in the world, but there are no studies on their impact on the common man.
TR: Why do you feel such studies are important?
KENISTON: When implementing these systems in rural areas, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Computers break down, viruses bring down the systems, and impact studies are 17th in the priority list. Then there are projects that have a low impact, and therefore there is no motivation to do impact studies.
TR: There’s a lot of skepticism about ICT4D-even Bill Gates says that for those living on less than $1 a day, there are competing priorities.
KENISTON: This is why impact studies are necessary. We need to know what works and what doesn’t work. It is not a philosophical question. It is a question of knowing the facts. Such studies have to be done by Indians themselves and not by people like me who don’t speak the local language.