India’s tech-driven citizen engagement left Obama impressed (Roundup)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MUMBAI - Even the US has not taken technology and connectivity to remote corners in the way India has to deliver social services and empower people, President Barack Obama remarked Sunday after a sneak peek into some citizen engagement programmes.

Chicago-based tech evangelist Sam Pitroda, who is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s adviser, put together the Open Government and Citizen Engagement Programme, including a video conference with farmers of Rajasthan village, said the president was impressed by India’s progress in bridging the digital divide.

Obama said he was amazed the way information technology revolution was taking shape in rural India, how citizens were interacting virtually with local government bodies using internet and accessing information and services such as tele-medicine and e-education.

“Many of these innovations are because of public and private collaborations between the US and India,” Obama said, giving the example of the green revolution in the 1970s where scientists of the two sides collaborated for better seeds, making India self-sufficient in food production.

Large screens were installed at the St. Zavier’s College here and at Kanpura, some 25 km from Ajmer - a town famous for the shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti - for those two sides to “meet and interact” with each other virtually.

Incidentally, both Pitroda, who put together the programme, and the moderator stationed at the village, young Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology Sachin Pilot, have been educated in the US.

Presently an advisor to the Indian prime minister on public information, infrastructure and innovations, Pitroda has studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology, while Pilot is an alumnus of the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Kanpura was chosen not just because it falls in the constituency of Pilot, but also because a pilot project there has connected it with optic fibre network for online access to land records and birth certificates.

The village chief Jagdish Bairwa, 26, holds a degree in mechanical engineering.

Pitroda told the US president that India, a country of 1.17 billion people, today boasted some 700 million mobile phones and had this ambition of reaching broadband to each of its 250,000 local village bodies by 2012.

“This will not only help reach government services online like land records and birth certificates, but also empower people,” Pitroda said, adding the plan also included networking some 100,000 research institutions.

The US president was visibly pleased when the village local body secretary Shiv Shankar said how his complaint about a faulty handpump over internet was rectified almost immediately - in a departure from the weeks that it would have otherwise taken in the past.

Similarly, healthcare worker Sunita Rathore explained how she could access digitised medical records of the villagers, especially children, to plan their vaccination schedules, with some children in the backdrop.

“It doesnt look like he was that happy to get the shots though, the President said, referring to one of the children. Its OK. Malia and Sasha dont like getting shots either,” he said referring to his daughters.

These apart, a student of management, Vipul Johar, told the US president how he was pursuing further studies via internet by downloading course material, sparing him the need to travel 25 km to Ajmer for the direct-contact classes.

Tonusree Basu of the New Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research that works on governance and accountability and had Obama come and visit their stand, said: “There were about 10 booths. The president visited each of them and spent about three-four minutes each.”

“He interacted with representatives of the organisations and listened to the kind of work that each one does,” she added.

Besides PRS, NGO Pratham which works on education, Association for Democratic Reforms and The Hunger Project were among ten organisations that participated in the programme. The Ministry of Panchayati Raj and Rural Development also took part in it.

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