Osama Manzar is a global leader on the mission of eradicating information poverty from India and global south using digital tools. He is a social entrepreneur, author, columnist, impact speaker, angel investor, mentor, and sits on several government and policy committees in India and on international organisations working in the areas of Internet, access, and digital inclusion. With over 20 years of experience, Osama has worked in the areas of journalism, new media, software enterprise before he established Digital Empowerment Foundation, a New-Delhi based non-profit that works in India to digitally empower the masses with a footprint of 300 locations and interventions in more than 10 countries, mostly in South Asia. Osama is a British Chevening Scholar and an International Visitors Leadership Program Fellow of the US State Department. He has co-authored more than five books, including Internet Economy of India. Osama has also instituted 10 awards for recognising digital innovations for development in South Asia and is a Member of several national and international committees. He tweets at @osamamanzar.
In an exclusive interaction with The Policy Times, Osama Manzar, social entrepreneur, author, columnist, impact speaker, angel investor and mentor talks about digital empowerment, the relevance and need for digitization of rural India, digital panchayat, digital literacy and many more.
- Does digital awareness and literacy make much sense when the underprivileged sections of India society do not have to even access to basic education, healthcare and fresh drinking water?
OM: It’s always been a challenge for us to make people believe in the power of digital. People often question us, “What can Internet do for people who don’t even have to food to eat?” “How can Internet change lives for those who don’t have jobs?” “People don’t have food to eat, what is the use of Internet for them?” These are questions we have to answer wherever we go.
Digital tools and access to the Internet help individuals find out what their rights are, seek their entitlements, demands their rights, put forth their grievances and question the discrepancies. If a person is entitled to 100 days of labour under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) but has only received wages for 80 days of work, the person has the right to information — the right to ask about his 20 days of wages that he/she is entitled for. It’s easy to ask the purpose of Internet for those who don’t have food to eat but we often forget that ration can no longer be accessed without a biometrically-recognised identification database. Access to every utility is being linked to a digital identity and a digital path.
- Share your experience and observations of the difference on digital awareness of the minorities in rural India vis-a-vis urban India? Q. How has digital empowerment changed the perception of the common masses towards the society?
OM: “Digital Empowerment” is a phrase that has been used multiple times in explaining the government’s Digital India. Courtesy the government’s massive advertisements campaigns for Digital India, digital awareness is increasing in rural Indian communities — including Dalits, minorities and tribals — and so is the adoption of digital tools. Further, demonitisation and now the Goods & Services Tax have pushed even more people/enterprises under the digital ambit. However, there is no denying that access to digital tools and the Internet is extremely limited in rural India. Despite an ambitious plan on paper, success of the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) is still far; last mile connectivity is still a concern.
- How is digital literacy empowering women?
OM: As many as 72% of women in India do not have access to mobile phones, according to GSMA’s Connected Women report of 2015. Over 1.7 billion women do not own mobile phones in low and middle-income countries, and women are on average 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates to 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones. Over the years, we’ve seen several offline gender issues translate online. This only illustrates the urgency to give more and more women access to digital tools and bring them online.
At our Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs), we make a conscious effort to ensure that at least 40 per cent of members enrolled for digital literacy are women. In fact, we’ve even implemented projects that cater exclusively to women and girls. However, encouraging women to come to a centre or convincing families to send their girls for exposure to digital tools is not an easy task. We need to understand and make others understand that “digital” is not just a tool but a means to bring about social, attitudinal, behavioural and cognitive changes.
And providing women with this access never fails to surprise us or overwhelm us. We have seen women in Madhya Pradesh jumping over their boundary walls — to escape the gaze of male members in their house —to come to our centre to look up recipes online; we’ve seen young girls in Rajasthan gain confidence through digital literacy so much so that they refused to enter child marriages; we have even seen women accessing YouTube videos about tailoring, embroidery, pickling and even make-up tutorials in Tamil Nadu.
I am sure that in times to come, digital tool will become the weapon that women will use to challenge patriarchy and break out from social and cultural barriers to make themselves financially independent.
- Don’t you think tribal Indians need basic rights than Right to Internet? Will right to internet help them or be a tool to gain their basic rights?
OM: India has a tribal population of an estimated 100 million. Of them, 40 million live in and around forests and remote areas. However, 50% of village land in tribal areas is not documented or titled. Unfortunately, our tribal population has been cultivating on land passed on to them by their ancestors, without any documentation in place. And so, not surprisingly, most of the tribals are treated as encroachers of their own land. However, community involvement and low-cost technology can help solve this problem considerably. Even the poorest of the poor, illiterate and living in remote areas, can make use of simple GPS devices, if given, to prepare documentary proof of their land use.
Access to the internet and knowledge of using the Internet tools will not just help tribals map their land but also know about their rights, access government schemes & entitlements, and raise grievances if any — thereby improving their quality of life. Given the large tribal population and their consistent exclusion, the government should probably take a more targeted approach towards ensuring digitally literate tribal communities with access to the Internet. For example, under the National Digital Literacy Mission, the government can make it a mandate that a certain number of beneficiaries must necessarily be tribals.
- What is digital panchayat? How is internet helping Panchayats in good governance and transparency?
OM: A Digital Panchayat is one that integrates digital tools and technologies to achieve the desired efficiency of the Panchayati Raj System. This, unfortunately, is not being ensured at the moment in an institutional manner. The government does have an ePanchayat system but it looks into monitoring and management of a panchayat’s administrative responsibilities. It primarily looks into sending and receiving reports about a panchayat’s expenses on a regular basis. For this purpose, the panchayats use PriaSoft. It is a bouquet tool for all the software made for Panchayati Raj; however not all of them are implemented effectively or used aggressively. Then there is the National Panchayati Portal for all the 2.5 lakh panchayats. If one visits the portal, the user can look for state-wise, district-wise and block-wise websites or webpages of the panchayats. However, none of them have complete or comprehensive information.
Ideally, a Digital Panchayat should be one that has an independent website with its own URL. Its members should have control and knowledge to manage the website on their own. The panchayats should know how to use digital tools for their day-to-day functioning. They should have their own communication systems, and their websites should be updated regularly with relevant information about the region and activities carried out by the panchayat in the region. The website should also allow citizens to submit grievances to the panchayat, which its members should publish online and look into. It should be a portal that enables complete transparency in the roles and responsibilities of the panchayat and activities undertaken (and money spent) to meet these. Unfortunately, this is not being done right now.
DEF has 10 years of experience of working with and creating Digital Panchayats. We have not helped bring 500 panchayats online however not all of them are online or sustainable today because it’s very difficult to work with them. Considering the development deficit of the country, there’s no alternative but to make panchayats digitally empowered for the development of the community. A holistic Digital Panchayat framework should be developed and adopted by the government. And the state or central governments can take some lessons from Kerala, which is doing good work in this area.
There are 650,000 villages in India that are governed under almost 250,000 Panchayats. If an institutional approach to connectivity is adopted by the government in India, it would be able to benefit a larger population — and holistically — rather an individual-centric approach.
For example, every year, a certain amount of budget is allocated to the panchayats under various heads and subjects. If all panchayats are online, they can share the budget with the citizens who cannot only view the subject-wise allocation but also hold the village council and the government accountable for misappropriation or lack of utilisation of funds. Further, every panchayat is supposed to hold a monthly meeting with its members but it’s not always executed. If all panchayats are online, its members can conduct meetings through videoconferences. Additionally, if all panchayat websites hold a repository of information on the local demographics, needs, grievances, solutions offered and projects implemented, can you imagine the quantity of relevant data that will be available online for citizens and governments to access.
- Kindly share some major success stories of digital empowerment by the Digital Empowerment Foundation?
OM: You can gauge some of our success stories from these links:
- What are the upcoming initiatives of Digital Empowerment Foundation?
OM: Our approach has always taken us to rural, semi-rural, remote and tribal locations of India. In the last few years, we have been consciously trying to work specifically in the identified backward districts of India. There are 272 backward districts in India, and we want to digitally enable marginalised and underserved communities in these districts to bring them out of information poverty and empower them with digital tools and technology to improve their lives.