"India is like a long snake. While its head is moving into the twenty-first century, the tail is still in the sixteenth. And there are people all over its body." Those lines by computer guru Ed Yourdon sum up the inspiration behind Jagriti e-Sewa ("Jagriti" means "awakening" in Punjabi and "Sewa" means "service"), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses open source technologies to bring much-needed knowledge and advice to farmers in the Indian state of Punjab.
The model that Jagriti has adopted is strikingly simple. Kiosks or centers that provide IT-enabled services are set up in rural areas to help farmers keep abreast of the latest developments in agriculture through the Internet, give them access to experts, and organize training programs for them. Since these kiosks are franchised mostly to educated youth or ex-military men, they also create jobs.
Jagriti's initiative to help farmers procure cheap loans for agricultural operations is worth a special mention. The NGO has partnered with a major nationalized bank to ensure that farmers don't fall into the debt trap laid down by notorious middlemen and private money-lenders -- a vicious circle that has driven thousands of farmers to suicide in recent years.
Counting on Linux
All the Web servers that enable Jagriti services are powered by Linux. The reasons behind the choice are obvious. Jagriti is a small organization venturing into an area where it has no precedents to follow. It has to keep costs low without compromising on performance or security. And there is another important consideration. J. S. Sandha, CEO and founder of the project, says, "We Indians recycle anything and everything." Jagriti wanted a platform that would make the most of available hardware and not favour any particular vendor, since the bulk of computers in India are unbranded. Linux fit the bill perfectly.
Although the Web servers central to the project are Linux-powered, franchisees are free to use any OS on their terminals to provide services to villagers. Many potential franchisees come to Jagriti with obsolete machines and ask if they can start kiosks using them. The mentors at Jagriti encourage them to use Linux by demonstrating its benefits, and help them reach the right learning resources.
At Jagriti, the adoption of open source software was coordinated by Sandha himself. "Initially, our lack of technical expertise and the scattered documentation of open source projects seemed to be problems, but things are improving now," he says. The numerous Indian LUGs helped Jagriti often by answering queries and giving advice.
Sandha says Linux has proved to be a viable choice for the project. "We are not only satisfied, but have proved that Linux is most suitable for reaching out to the masses -- whether you consider the TCO angle, reuse, or localization." Realizing the need for quality software to fulfill the needs of the Indian rural sector, Jagriti has developed applications like e-Khad (to help farmers find the lowest-cost combination of fertilizers they need) and e-Khet (to help analyze the soil of a farm) atop open source technologies. "We are in the process of developing many more online applications," Sandha says.
The project's single greatest achievement is that it has introduced many naive villagers to the wonders of the information age. It has given them access to easy finance options and scientific methods of farming.
Sandha urges the open source community to focus more on localization. "It is only through localized applications that we could bring IT closer to the common man," he says. He feels it is important to popularize open source in a country like India, and points out that the open source philosophy is consistent with the Millenium Development Goals of the UN and the Vision 2020 of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, former president of India.
The success story of Jagriti underlines the importance of technology reaching out to those who really need it. After all, in the end, it is the quality of human life that should benefit from all advancements.