Excuse Me, Will You Please Visit My Blog…

by Rakesh Raman

No thanks. This is the tacit response you’ll get invariably for your invite if you’re an individual blogger. Believe me; nobody is interested to read your blog posts except you, yourself. As you’re always looking for a few eyeballs, you’ve to virtually drag and drop visitors to your blog. But it’d be interesting to see how this new book “The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging” by the editors (including Arianna Huffington) of the Huffington Post will help you learn blogging and get some traffic.

You’d have heard the term quite often and many of you would have ventured into the blogging world, but there’s no new rocket science involved in blogging. Rather, blogging is just another herd phenomenon on the web like you’ve seen for social networks. As now you get free blog space, you always had free web space on services like GeoCities to write anything you want. Blogs are nothing but small websites in the shared domains.

Though it’s as difficult to count the number of bloggers on the web as it’s to count the number of crows in a town, by some ballpark estimates, for every 10 Internet users in the world, at least one is a blogger. As there are about 1 billion Internet users, you can expect around 100 million blogs, including active and sleeping ones. In fact, bloggers are like stars, stars in the sky – now they exist; now they don’t…when you open your eyes. And like stars, they keep appearing and disappearing. So let’s not get into the numbers.

While most of these blogs are in a state of deep coma, the blog hosting sites will keep counting them to ostensibly show their own strength. There are others, which hardly get visitors. You won’t believe, some bloggers would visit their own blogs a dozen times a day to see their posts that they write at the rate of one or two per week. If they’re lucky enough they’ll get their wife’s, son’s, granny’s, or neighbour’s support. And all these supporters would look at everything on the computer monitor except the blog write-up to which they’re specially invited. If there’s no other ray of hope, the bloggers won’t hesitate to tell about their new pursuit to even their washerman, milkman, or even the housemaid.

Some proponents argue that blogs give voice to commoners. Yes, agreed; but mostly their own ears are ready to hear that voice. Don’t think I’m exaggerating, but it’s easier to conquer the Mount Everest than getting some meaningful pageviews for your blog.

For most individual bloggers, it’s extremely difficult to survive in the blogosphere. Nobody is interested to read them because they lack discipline, their sources are shady, they don’t have control on language, they’re irregular, and so on. Writing is an art, and writing for the masses is a scientific art, which all can’t master – even after reading the books. To succeed, you need a lot of patience, passion, practice, deep subject knowledge, and plenty of reading. Only then you can hope to become a good writer to attract some readers.

After uploading a small video clip created with your personal camera on a free hosting site like YouTube, you can’t say that you’re ready to become a Hollywood director. Similarly, you can’t get the qualities of a professional journalist by writing a few posts on a free and freewheeling blog.

As this so-called “social media” has become a kind of “chaos media,” it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the serious readers to cut through the clutter and get some genuine information.

So what’s the lesson? The mass social media in its current form just can’t challenge the traditional media. There are only a handful of blogs that get regular visitors. You can call them blogs, but they’re actually full-fledged websites run by groups of professional journalists or writers.

If people are reading Reuters’ blogs, for instance, they’re not reading them because they’re blogs but they’re interested because they’re created by Reuters. That way, tomorrow if a popular media property like Reuters decides to write on flying balloons, people will fly in the air to read those reports. That’s the power of content. If your content is strong, people will come to read it. Then you don’t need any “social” support to get noticed and heard.

So by equating the naïve new media with the respectable traditional media, you can always hoodwink the gullible “learn blogging” book buyers, but you just can’t teach them how to create readable content. And that is the whole point.

Rakesh Raman is the managing editor of My Techbox Online.

This article first appeared in My Techbox Online, at http://www.mytechboxonline.com/mtomass/mass-rrartblog-12.html

The Internet needs steam

by Rakesh Raman

For many netizens who reside in India, the 0s and 1s of the Internet are like oxygen. Get too much, they get too high. Not enough, they’d sooner die. But there is a huge gap between fact and fiction. Don’t stay agape if you’re told that for over one billion people in the country, there are just about 50 million Internet connections. That’s right. There are five times as many cellphones.

In contrast, China, a country reputed to be informationally repressed, has more than 220 million Internet connections. Or about 20 per 100 people, at least four times India’s ratio. In absolute numbers, China has already edged past the US, which has just under 220 million connections, and avid web watchers wonder what the effects would be. Of course, the US has far fewer people, so it still boasts of a superb ratio—70 connections for every 100 people. Together, Americans and Chinese account for over 40% of the world’s Internet users, a dominance that could shape the world’s future.

Is India getting left out? Let’s hope not. One problem is that India continues to be a “user” more than “developer”. Indian enterprise on the Web has fallen behind its Chinese counterpart. Mass-based web services in China are roaring ahead, but not here. Internet traffic is basically driven by information search, community applications and content. However, Indian companies have proved lacklustre in all these departments.

Let’s take the search space, for example. Local players don’t even exist in this business. Agreed, Indians use global search sites like Google and Yahoo!, which offer local tools, but the Chinese have a clearer preference for search mechanisms that are wholly domestic in their privileging of information. Despite intense Internet censorship and a regulatory maze that baffles outsiders, China’s Baidu search engine—a Chinese language tool named after a poem written some 800 years ago that means “hundreds of times”—have been a fascinating success. Baidu, which exhorts users towards a “persistent search for the ideal”, has more than 11 million visits a day.

That’s not all. China is a frontrunner in other areas also to promote Internet usage. It plans to leverage the 2008 Beijing Olympics (August 8-24) to showcase China’s Next Generation Internet (CNGI) and the new Internet addressing system called IPv6. In the current IPv4 system, the number of Internet addresses will get exhausted in the next few years. Then, IPv6 will allow more addresses, all the more useful for future 4G communication platforms like WiMax and Long Term Evolution (LTE), by which even your smart mobile gadgets (including phones and cameras) would need an exclusive Internet Protocol (IP) address, as websites do today.

Next comes social networking. Though India has BigAdda and ApnaCircle, they don’t stand a chance in front of juggernauts like MySpace, Facebook and Orkut. For online content sharing, most locals prefer global destinations like YouTube and Flickr, though some desi stuff is available.

Content too faces a sorry plight. Traditional media companies are just slapping their print pages online. And most new-generation online companies don’t understand mass media, opting to be content aggregators instead of creators. No wonder the eyeballs wander away so soon. Yes, companies like Yahoo! have attempted to attract readers by offering localised content, and in multiple Indian languages, too. Yet, unlike in China, English remains the passport to economic mobility and online life.

So, there you have it, the crux of the problem. India has had the Internet open to all for some 13 years, but its penetration has trailed off prematurely. With 250 million mobile phone users, however, India surely has the numbers to be an Internet force some day. Will web service providers take their cues from the success of mobile services? Perhaps they will. But a more basic yearning for information also needs to be nurtured. Only then can Internet ventures gain critical mass in India.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at http://www.financialexpress.com/news/The-Internet-needs-steam/310329/0

More shriek than Shrek

by Rakesh Raman

The trouble with Bollywood bosses is that they get inspired by their Hollywood counterparts a little too easily. Stories, attire and film sets are looking more and more like raw adaptations, with only the details left to give the films their essential Indian market appeal. This time round, local producers’ eyes are set on animation movies. And why not? Recent hits like Ratatouille, Transformers, Meet the Robinsons, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles and others make this a temptation all too difficult to resist. But the worry is that their reputations are at peril here even as copycats. Judge from the series of local animated productions we have had, of late—The Legend of Buddha, Hanuman, My Friend Ganesha, another Bal Ganesha, Krishna and so on. Scheduled for release next year, Roadside Romeo is a collaboration between Yash Raj Films and Walt Disney. Will it be a trendsetter?

At first glance, these movies have all the bells and whistles that an animation flick should have. But, for want of presentation finesse and production quality, they fail to impress filmgoers. The result is empty theatres and low box-office collections. While Hollywood movies gross hundreds of millions of dollars, Indian products settle for revenues that are not even a hairline sliver of this amount. Pixar’s Ratatouille, for example, earned over $500 million in about four months of its June 2007 release. But an Indian cartoon film would be hard put to touch a little more than a million dollars.

One reason is that Indian producers are using arthouse cinema-type shoestring budgets in a film format that has inherently higher costs, and this results in compromises on quality. Dreamworks’ Transformers took $150 million to make, and earned more than double this money in just four weeks. Making significantly cheaper animation films, even at Indian cost levels (with digital outsourcing, cost differentials are shrinking anyway), is just not worth it.

Another reason for the ho-hum market response is that Indian moviemakers are not bold enough to create original characters or intellectual properties (IPs). They prefer to leverage timeworn mythological themes, and often bank on religious sentiment more than cinematic excellence to make their buck. While American animation is often paradigm altering (a rat as a master chef, for goodness sake?), Indian animation is trying to gain obeisance to religious characters. Mythology works in temples, not theatres.

So what’s ahead? As animation movies can be as successful as live character films, Indian moviemakers need to create their own IPs and promote them through integrated media (say, video games). They can also use blended animated-cum-live film formats, as in Transformers, to leverage computer-generated imagery techniques. Local producers also need their own heroes a la Batman, Wonder Woman or Shrek.

However, it may not be a walk in the park for domestic filmmakers to create globally acceptable animation movies because of prohibitive production costs. They may need to join hands to form a consortium to start a big animation project on a joint venture basis. Plus, production houses can use the latest technology processes, such as Machinima, to create virtual sets to cut costs. Computer software-based project management solutions are available too. And a clear strategy to include embedded ads in the movies would fetch more revenues as well. Further, merchandising is another area that producers need to develop effectively. Overall, they must change focus from low-end jobs for export markets to original indigenous content. Initial cash flows might be slow, but these efforts will create a base for the future.

The good news is that there is only one direction in which Indian animation films can move—and that’s forward. So local moviemakers have to get their acts together to emerge from the bottom of the heap and start wowing audiences with originality and pizzazz. Will they?

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/More-shriek-than-Shrek/240608/0

Social fission on the Internet

by Rakesh Raman

Can everyone talk to everyone else? Theoretically, yes, on the Internet. If you look at the mushrooming social networking sites, you might actually think it’s happening. Following the success of big American social networks like MySpace (over 70 million users) and Facebook (more than 40 million), myriad players in India are crowding in. Reliance’s BigAdda, Rediff’s iShare and Google’s Orkut are among the sites trying to lure Indian social networkers. Even Sabeer Bhatia has launched something called ApnaCircle.

But why this unruly surge? In the Internet space today, most marketers are confronted with saturated markets with ever-declining eyeballs. As sites multiply faster than a nuclear chain reaction, it’s increasingly difficult to attract and retain visitors. Estimates suggest that a whopping 150 million sites target nearly one billion Net users. Great numbers. However, research also says that even on a frequently visited social networking site, a user doesn’t spend more than an average six minutes a day on it. Since most users are promiscuous with site membership, they hop sites at the click of a mouse.

Content sites’ story is more tragic, as over half the visitors don’t have more than just 30 seconds a day to look at even those in which they are interested. They mostly throw just a cursory glance on the homepage of a site, and that’s it. (There are exceptions, of course.) Search sites like Yahoo and Google are used as springboards. Clickety click, they go, site to site. Net surfers are now Net sprinters.

To counter this increasing-sites-decreasing-visitors menace, Net marketers have been trying numerous gimmicks, ranging from animated ads to content video clips. But their sorry plight persists. This has led some prowlers to lure gullible wanderers with sensation and sleaze under the garb of social networking. This explains why so many sites are pleased to have such unseemly heat and hate being aired online through structures designed for the “sharing” of profiles, visuals, comments and so on. Orkut, for example, faced the Shiv Sena’s wrath in India a few months ago when the site allegedly carried content that hurt religious sentiments. In Turkey, a court ordered a ban on the video-sharing site, YouTube, for content that was deemed to have insulted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Thailand blocked YouTube when it refused to remove video clips that ridiculed King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Other forms of obnoxious content, pertaining to sex and organised crime, is also floating around these sites. A popular Brazilian model and MTV VJ Daniela Cicarelli, for instance, sued YouTube saying that the site showed her with a boyfriend having sex on a Spanish beach. Lurid content is alarming people almost everywhere. Earlier this year, the Australian state, Victoria, banned YouTube in 1,600 state-run schools when it carried vulgar clips involving a teenaged girl. And by introducing a Senate Bill known as the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, Senator Ted Stevens supported by some other US politicians tried to ban social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Digg in US schools and libraries.

So, is there a lesson for social networks in India? Driven mostly by tradition and necessity, Indian societies have aped the West shamelessly. Such is the impact of “Westoxication” that anything of Western origin is accepted unquestioningly nowadays, and there is much evidence of this mindless deference to all things “global” on social networking sites. There are also incipient signs that excessive e-interactivity is turning some human relations dysfunctional, with a generation beginning to display cognitive deficiencies with respect to facial cues, voice intonations, emotional inflections and the like. India, thankfully, continues to cherish some of the social values that prevent us from becoming digital zombies. It may be a globalising world, but still, copying “successful” sites without any independent thinking may not be a good idea. Online antakshari may be India’s idea of social networking, perhaps, for all you know. The onus is now on India’s own marketers, who seem all too enamoured of the social networking fad, to stop promoting the sort of networking that is more antisocial than social.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Social-fission-on-the-Internet/233367/0

Again, Will It Click?

Indian politics is going crazy to bring everything on earth under the e-governance ambit. The latest target: the panchayats. But are they ready to wear the digital garb?

by Rakesh Raman

Mahatma Gandhi in 1946 had pronounced his vision that every village ought to be a Republic. He should be happy with all the talk at out bestoming power to the Panchayats. But, the yawning gap between the current rhetoric and reality would turn his joy into sorrow. While the Panchayati Raj System (PRS) itself is yet to find firm footing, the government is hastily trying to introduce e-governance in the panchayats.

The objective of forming panchayats was to decentralize planning for the upliftment of the people at large, particularly, in the rural areas. Decentralization seemed to be the right answer to usher in local self-governance and to transform the top-down approach of centralized administration. However, as the politics is reluctant to give powers in the hands of common people, PRS couldn’t take off in the real sense. Moreover, the electorate is not fully empowered to hold elected panchayat representatives accountable, and the inept ways of administration at the state-level are being used at the panchayats also. As a result, the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have failed to evolve as support establishments for the commoners.

“Members of the village panchayats are like puppets in the hands of government bosses who are not allowing panchayats to function freely,” says KV Sundaram, chairman, Bhoovigyan Vikas Foundation (an organization working to achieve sustainable development) and former advisor in the Planning Commission, looking after rural area development and multi-level planning. “So the PRS is not quite successful.”

Governance first
When governance itself is in a mess, it would be interesting to see how e-governance works in the PRS. Experts believe that right governance should precede e-governance. “Radical changes are required in the PRS to ensure grassroots-level development,” opines M Moni, deputy director general, National Informatics Center (NIC), which is engaged in e-governance implementation at various levels including in the PRS. “E-governance can be applied only when the village-level information on various parameters is available.”

But as there are nearly 650,000 villages in the country, it would be difficult for the government alone to collect information at such a large scale. “For this, panchayats can involve educational institutions as development alternatives. Students from these institutions can be encouraged with small incentives to collect micro-level data for each panchayat,” suggests Moni. This data can be on, say, number of schools, hospitals, water resources, wasteland, information centers, and on all other local needs.

This is going to be a mammoth task considering the number of panchayats existing in the country. The passage of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992, provided constitutional status to the PRIs; 227,698 panchayats at village level, 5,906 panchayats at intermediate level, and 474 panchayats at district level have been constituted in India. About 3.4 mn elected representatives are managing these panchayats.

As the government may not be willing to deploy the traditional workforce for the systematic collection of data on these panchayats, using students for the task seems to be the right option, which would be cost-effective, quick, and unbiased. This data can be analyzed to define village-level needs for which e-governance could be introduced.

However, e-governance projects at panchayats would need special treatment. “E-governance shouldn’t stop at data collection in digital format. It should convert raw data into useful information required for village-level planning,” says Sundaram. The government would not like to repeat its approach followed in various states for the e-governance projects that generate only a few certificates-like birth and death certificates-through sketchy websites. “E-governance is not just about creating a website. Rather, it should delve deeper to build robust information systems on which information technology could be applied,” says Moni. In other words, it’s not just enough to first create the technology infrastructure for carrying information. But it’s also important to create the content and information that could use the technology platforms.

This content could be related to healthcare, agriculture, education, and general infrastructure in the rural areas. A blind attempt to create a website involving these application areas would go futile in the absence of empirical data on these areas for each village under a panchayat. For example, if a village (or a cluster of villages) under a panchayat needs education support, the information centers in these villages can be linked with the website of NCERT-that can be developed for such a demand-from where the necessary books and education content could be downloaded. Similarly, if the farmers in a village are interested in the commodity prices, they could be connected with a facility like the Agmarknet, a web-based service that’s supposed to inform farmers on wholesale prices of various commodities among other agricultural details (story carried in the May 31 issue).

Implementation approach
The supply of e-services should be based on specific demand in a particular area. In this case, there will be an unconventional demand-supply equation because the rural consumers-most of them are uneducated-are not clear about their requirements or expectations from e-governance facilities. So the onus will be on the marketers to spread adequate awareness among consumers about the advantages of e-governance.

Instead of following a herd approach, the government should first select only a few village panchayats (say, not more than 10) as a sample. With limited investment, these panchayats should collect the data from the villages under them. With the help of local people, this data should be analyzed to know the exact demand that would need the support of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for e-governance and other automation requirements. After running the e-governance systems thus created for a specific time period, their impact should be analyzed through a feedback system involving local consumers.

If the impact is encouraging in terms of villagers’ response, productivity, efficiency, transparency, and return on investment, the model can be emulated at other panchayats in a phased manner. This way, the government can save public funds from being squandered, as huge investments are involved in projects of such a large scale-assuming that for each panchayat, the capital cost of the ICT infrastructure is Rs 1 lakh; over Rs 2,000 crore would be required for automating village panchayats alone. Besides, there would be other operating and maintenance costs for the infrastructure and manpower training in the PRIs. The government should earmark and spend this money cautiously, because the vulture outfits-including the government ones-are trying to create an artificial demand for e-governance in the PRS, as they are eyeing big bucks in such projects.

Even the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) should link the allocation of funds with the success of the projects. UNDP has committed a budget of $5 mn during 2003-2007 and expects to mobilize $25 mn of additional donor support for “ICT for Development” projects in India. The areas selected for financial support include capacity building of institutions of decentralized governance (like PRIs) and e-governance.

For systematic monitoring of funds, NIC has developed a software package christened “Panchayati Raj Institutions Accounting Software” or PriaSoft. It also records the expenditure pattern and local revenue-generation streams at the panchayat level to generate reports that could be used by various fund-monitoring agencies. The donor organizations can also develop their own customized processes to measure the performance of e-governance projects and to keep a record of the funds.

Overall, the initiative of introducing e-governance in the PRS needs delicate handling. A toe out of line can jeopardize the entire exercise. Government should deploy technology effectively to accelerate the pace of transferring powers to the panchayats. Only then Gandhiji’s dream will become a reality.

This article first appeared in Dataquest, at
http://dqindia.ciol.com/content/egovernance/2005/105062702.asp

The computer as digiot box

Making cheaper devices may not be the only way to bridge the digital divide

by Rakesh Raman

Do we need a Nicholas Negroponte to suggest that a cheap computer could help India’s have-nots access technology with ease? At the recent World Economic Forum meet at Davos, Professor Negroponte’s two-year old idea of a $100 (projected price assuming significant volumes) laptop was discussed actively. The professor and founder of the Media Lab at MIT is promoting his ‘One laptop per child’ programme that aims to provide cheap computers to millions of children in poor countries. The plan is ostensibly founded on a strong belief that by improving education levels through computers, you can usher in an economic renaissance in places such as India.

Negroponte may be new to this idea, but low-cost computer initiatives have been toggling about the Indian market since the 1980s. Initially, the government promoted such microcomputers under its Class (Computer literacy and studies in schools) programme. But after a series of hiccups—such as lack of teaching skills, limited applications, and low machine maintenance resources—it was shelved. The next ‘people’s PC’ initiative came from a couple of government entities—ET&T and ESPL. But it was not a commercially viable proposition. Other products kept appearing and disappearing like fireflies. Now, companies like HCL Infosystems and Intel have decided to fool around with the idea of a Rs 10,000 computer. But there’s hardly any visible progress.

What, then, are the main deterrents? Surely, it’s not the affordability factor alone, because there are millions of buyers of mobile phones at over Rs 20,000 apiece, the price of a good computer. But they feel that the phone has more utility than the ‘digiot box’. So there’s poor PC penetration. Thus, it is the utility factor that must make the difference.

In any case, hardware cost alone matters little. Support solutions including software, Internet access, maintenance, and training must also be inexpensive. Power supply in India is another major irritant.

So, is a low-cost computer really such a big deal? Perhaps not. The current market is polarised. On the one hand, there are affluent buyers who can buy tech products on performance value. Low-cost product marketers need not worry about them yet, as this segment is moving towards infotainment applications. On the other, there are the rest—in need of technology-based upliftment. If thought, resources and a sense of ‘jugaad’ are applied here, we could possibly convert the ‘digiot box’ of popular perception into a ‘revenue box’.

Given a large market for used PCs at about Rs 5,000 apiece, they could deploy free open-source software and shift to corner-shop IT-enabled services such as word processing, e-mailing and low-cost Internet-based voice communication services. Rs 5,000 is roughly the price point that Negroponte has been talking about. Some big player needs to lead the initiative, that’s all.

For a wider effort, technology suppliers can offer frills-free economical appliances like thin clients, which use the computing power of backend computer servers installed by supplier companies. Power supply will still be an annoyance. But, with luck, value perceptions of the computer may undergo a transformation in far-flung parts of India—setting the base for a larger overall market in the years ahead, once the digital bug spreads far and wide.

Our mistake is to focus on machine cost in isolation, while it is the entire digital infrastructure that must open itself up to those on the other side of the digital divide. At this point in India’s evolution as a market for digital devices, it is possible to put heads and resources together to forge a digital future that is significantly more inclusive than the current scenario. Marketers who spend a lot of effort and money working on ‘affordable technology’ for those who cannot afford computers at the moment should think out of the box.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at http://www.financialexpress.com/old/fe_full_story.php?content_id=158980

Digital Farms

Agmarknet is an ambitious project pitched at farmers. Is it for real? Or is it heading for the graveyard of government ventures that couldn’t hope to live up to their hype?

by Rakesh Raman

(Circa: 2005 Setting: Countryside-villagers, vegetation, huts, a well, a goat, and a handcart.)
First man: ‘Hey, listen! Our market’s Agmarknet Centre is churning out free price info from India’s other markets.’
Second man: “Yeah, I got the price from the Centre and am goin’ to sell my crop in another market where I’m gettin’ more rate than our local market.’
Third man: ‘Hmm! I never knew that. I’ve sold my crop at a lower price.’

This scene happened on the back cover of an Agmarknet brochure. And this is the nearest translation, as the dialogs were in Hindi.

The men in the scene are trying to highlight the utility of Agmarknet (Agricultural Marketing Research & Information Network)-a Web-based service that’s supposed to inform farmers on wholesale prices of various commodities, among other agricultural details. Incidentally, these men are not real but cartoon characters. What’s the reality is anybody’s guess.

That’s because the network is spreading its tentacles in almost every nook of the country, but its actual utility is not being measured-at least not by the government organizations holding its reigns. It’s being run as a turnkey project by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and is sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture. “NIC has not yet done any impact analysis in quantifiable terms,’ admits N Vijayaditya, director general, NIC, “We need to do that.”

The network scope
Now covering over 1,000 agricultural markets in the country, Agmarknet would go to another 2,000 or so during the Tenth Five-Year Plan period, ending 2007. Eventually, it plans to have its footprint in all the 7,000 wholesale or principal markets and 34,000 rural markets. It includes nearly 300 commodities-with 2,000 varieties-categorized as cereals, pulses, oil seeds, fruits, vegetables, poultry products, and others. It’s a computer-based network that primarily uses Internet for connectivity (see box: How It Works).

“It’s a huge e-governance project aimed to empower the farmers so that they could leverage the power of information to progress in the emerging trade environment and contribute toward economic development,” says Vijayaditya. There’s no denying that farmers’ empowerment would benefit a country like India where the agriculture sector contributes 25% to the GDP, employs more than half of its total workforce, and generates 15% export earnings. Obviously, all possible resources would be deployed to strengthen the farming activity. And digital infrastructure is one of them.

Where’s the strategy
However, it’s not going to be a walk in the park especially in the absence of a game plan to execute the Agmarknet project on such a large scale. First, during all these years, the government didn’t feel the need to analyze its usefulness by collecting any empirical feedback from the target consumers-farmers. “Its impact can be measured by conducting farm-level surveys, which is not going to be an easy task considering the enormity of the work involved,’ says Sunil Khairnar, CEO, Agriwatch.com, an independent agribusiness services entity based in New Delhi.

Next, the project doesn’t seem to have the right business approach to increase its acceptability, though huge money is being pumped into the new infrastructure for extending Agmarknet’s reach. For example, there’s no model in place to calculate the return on investment. “Being a government-funded public project to provide information infrastructure to citizens, there’s hardly any need to measure tangible returns on investment,” says Vijayaditya. “However, we believe that there are enormous indirect benefits of Agmarknet in terms of improving the quality of life for the Indian farmers.” But without any data to support this fact, it sounds more like a disguised political statement.

Similarly, the business model for the kiosk operators is also not clear. At present, mostly the NGOs or self-help groups are running such information centers. “We are offering free service to the consumers,” says M Moni, deputy director general, NIC. But if the government wants to generate employment opportunity for villagers around Agmarknet, it needs to develop and promote a suitable pricing model for its services and a viable revenue model for the operators. Only then the project will stand on its feet and have a long, self-sustained life. “In a feasible business model, the government can handle the content creation work for Agmarknet and private parties can disseminate information using various communication means,’ suggests Khairnar. “It can run successfully in a public-private partnership mode.”

The success of the project is also directly proportional to the literacy and awareness levels of the farmers. However, there’s hardly any systematic attempt to overcome these bottlenecks. Among the alternatives could be the professionally designed outreach programs for promoting the service and offering information using blended methods-Internet and off-Net. Such schemes need to come out of the pipeline, if at all they’re there.

Overall, if the entire Agmarknet affairs are not handled with care, the project will surely meet the fate of its poor cousins that failed to deliver for want of strategy. One of them, for example, was the government’s CLASS (Computer Literacy and Studies in Schools) project. Launched in the 1980s, it was supposed to spread computer literacy among school children in the country. While it could distribute many computers in schools, it failed to spread the desired levels of literacy. Finally it was shelved, though it consumed a whole lot of public money.

A recent one was Vidya Vahini project that planned to use e-channels to spread uniform quality of education starting with government-run schools in India. After doing some pilot cases in a few schools, it went into a state of perpetual hibernation.

However, Agmarknet would prefer to meet its objectives of strengthening the market information system and help farmers realize maximum payback on the sale of their crops.

The path ahead
By tradition and necessity, the Indian farmers have been living in an exploitable state. They don’t even get the right monetary return on their investment in terms of cash and labor. For example, they get just 25%, as NIC quotes, of the retail price for their farm produce, while their counterparts in the developed countries earn up to 80%. That’s because the middlemen here gobble up most part of the money earned. “A technology-driven facility like Agmarknet will remove these middlemen layers and get the farmers their dues,” says Moni. “The immediate target is to help farmers double their earnings from the current 25% of the retail price,” he adds.
It would be a great achievement. But considering the present state of affairs, it seems an uphill task. Today, the focus of the government is to expand the network, but the rigors of the rural environment are coming as quite a shock. “Connectivity, power supply, local language and education are among the major issues that slow down the pace of technology introduction in rural areas,” says Vijayaditya.

While hybrid networks-combination of wired and wireless-are supposed to be an answer to the connectivity problem, non-conventional power-generation systems like paddle power are being considered to supply uninterrupted energy for running the computer systems.

“At present, NIC is offering four language interfaces including Hindi and English on the Agmarknet site. It plans to develop it in 15 languages by the end of this year,” says Moni. The lower literacy level is a major bottleneck because of which the farmers are not able to avail the Agmarknet facility. This can be overcome by creating iconic and voice interfaces among other measures. According to NIC, the plans are afoot.

NIC is also considering joining hands with mobile carriers for providing instant commodity prices and other related information to farmers over SMS. A voice-enabled service would help the uneducated farmers know the latest details over their mobile phones. Television is another medium being explored. Of course, such services are expected to have a direct interface with Agmarknet to cull out important data. And the government should ensure that the data is updated regularly on the server. At present, it’s learned, about one-fourth of the automated markets are supplying data. “Government can use carrot-and-stick treatment to collect data from other locations,” says Khairnar. “The markets that provide information regularly can be rewarded.”

Agmarknet can take cues from private sector projects-such as ITC’s e-Chopal or Tata Chemicals’ Tata Kisan Sansar-to improve its service. One area, for example, could be the automation of complete supply chain covering farmers, traders, processing units, retailers, and consumers. According to NIC, the government has conceptualized such a project called Seednet, which will be a sort of extension to Agmarknet and NIC will develop it. Likewise, there could be other areas where NIC can join hands with external organizations while augmenting its services around the network.

Now it’s time for Agmarknet to emerge as a thorough facility that’s more than a voyage of personal discovery for a handful of government partners. Only then its benefits would ripple out across the Indian farming community. And that’s the whole point.

Agmarknet: How It Works
The data-capturing work starts at the wholesale mandis (colloquial terms for markets). When the farmers arrive at these mandis with their crops, the market committee-a specially constituted body-announces the commodity prices through an auction. It happens 3-4 times a day at the time of arrivals. At the end of the day, the prices-minimum, maximum, and modal-are decided for each commodity, and the data is entered at the front-end PCs installed at the mandi office. Then the operator uploads the data using a dial-up Internet connection. The data is downloaded at the office of the Directorate of Marketing & Inspection, Ministry of Agriculture, at Faridabad. There a panel of economists checks the data authenticity. After evaluation and analysis at Faridabad, the refined data is uploaded on the NIC server installed at Delhi, from where it’s made available for global use. The farmers can access the prices for a commodity at their local information centers, say, Internet kiosks generally run by NGOs or self-help groups. Keeping in view the transport and other logistics, they can sell their produce at a market that offers maximum price.

This article first appeared in Dataquest, at
http://dqindia.ciol.com/content/egovernance/2005/105052103.asp

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