Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Using IT to change rural India

It is a dream that is gradually materialising - one that dares “making access to information ubiquitous”. And spearheading that drive is Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at IIT Chennai, and his brainchild, n-Logue Communications Private Limited. The firm, one of the 14 incubated by a group of like-minded faculty members at IIT Chennai, is determined to “significantly enhance the quality of life of every rural Indian by driving the digital revolution profitably”.

Central to the drive is a Rs 50,000-kiosk that offers a gamut of services like Internet, telephone, multimedia with web cameras, vernacular software and video conferencing. The amount even includes training for the kiosk owners, who are usually people who have studied till Class X, and maintenance. There are around 1,500 such kiosks running in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

“We expect it to touch 10,000 by the end of this year,” said Jhunjhunwala, who was in town on Saturday for a seminar on mobile technology. The kiosks have transformed villages by taking on flexible roles like a photo studio, a movie theatre, a communication-cum-computer training centre and even e-governance booths, among other things. Initiatives like Vet on the Net, online agricultural advice and web durbars also have been a hit. The latest addition to that is a Rs 10,000-wireless device that monitors the blood pressure, temperature of a person, and even carries out an ECG for a distant doctor to analyse.

But that is not the final frontier. Jhunjhunwala and his team have now designed a low-cost ATM that uses fingerprints instead of a PIN to identify customers. Smart cards are also planned. Expected to cost around Rs 40,000 – a normal ATM costs around Rs 8 lakh – it is in the prototype stage. The ICICI bank is working on the project too but other banks are already making a beeline for the model to be replicated for urban areas. “We don’t want to do that because once you get caught, it becomes very demanding. We want to focus on rural areas,” said Jhunjhunwala. It is expected to be ready for the market by August.

The dream initially was to get India 200 million telephone lines and the bars are now being raised further. “We want to take broadband into rural areas and see if we can produce a few billion dollar companies from India,” Jhunjhunwala said. Asked if n-Logue would make a foray into Rajasthan, Jhunjhunwala said that he was “very keen” to work in the rural areas here. He had a brief interaction with some government officials and said that the initial feelers were “positive”. Rajasthan is waiting!


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