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Building Bridges of Information

Founder of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, Osama Manzar has done extensive work across numerous villages in South Asia spreading digital literacy making access to the internet a reality for even very remote areas. He will deliver a talk ‘The World of Unconnected Billions’ at MOG – Museum of Goa on Sunday, January 29, at 11 a.m. NT BUZZ talks to him about his efforts in bridging the technological gaps that plagues the developing world today and why India is not yet ready to be a cashless society

Janice Rodrigues| NT BUZZ


Osama Manzar, a name not many may be familiar with, however it is one that a lot of people from hinterland rural, tribal, and others would be aware of. Having worked with people in the areas considered remote, Manzar through his ‘Digital Empowerment Foundation’ (DEF) has propagated universal digital literacy and digital access for all to overcome the information gap and parity. A social entrepreneur and writer, he has visited 2000 villages in South Asia and 30 countries to bridge the information divide through digital literacy.

Among his many accolades, he is a member of the working group of the internet proliferation and governance for Ministry of Communication & IT, Government of India. He has also been a member of the task force on growth of IT, ITES and electronics HW Manufacturing Industry, Ministry of Communication & IT, India. He is also a member of the Advisory Board for National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) of the Universal Service Obligation Fund under the Indian Department of Telecom at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Manzar is also a member of the Screening Committee for the Community Radio Licensing.

A physics graduate, Manzar has a post-graduate diploma in journalism and is credited for covering at least 200 ICTD (Information and Communication Technologies and Development) case studies in India and South Asia. He continues to write columns for national dailies and has books discussing the digital media to his name.


  1. The title of your talk at MOG ‘World of Unconnected Billions’ is an interesting one; can you please elaborate?

While India is one of the three most internet connected countries in the world by population, India perhaps also is a country who tops the list of unconnected population and according to World Bank Report we have more than a billion population who are yet to connect to the internet. And most of the unconnected people are largely at the bottom of the pyramid, classified as illiterate, uneducated, poor, rural, tribal, women, Dalit, minorities and so on. The reason for this topic is to explain and highlight how important it is to connect such people because most of the knowledge and wisdom lie with them and by connecting them we can create better and a wise and equitable society.


  1. What propelled you into working towards spreading digital literacy?

I realised that while the world is moving towards information economy where all the information are going to be available on the internet or cloud and people would access them from anywhere, being digitally unconnected and illiterate could leave the entire country and society far behind both as a consumer of information and also as producer of information. The lesser we produce information in digital medium the lesser would be our visibility and thus we would be a country and people living a life of information poverty and keep the country perennially backward and unknown. Pretty much like saying if you are searchable you exist, if you are not then you don’t exist. By spreading mass digital literacy, we would leapfrog from being an illiterate society to a digitally enabled knowledge society.


  1. As people living in advanced societies we are rather ignorant about the scenario in the rest of the county, can you explain to us what is the scale of the digital disparity in India today?

India has a long way to go. According to me India is one of the most information poor countries in the world. Compared to our population we are almost invisible on the cyber world or digital world. More than 80 per cent people in India do not have or access internet. Our mobile penetration is just about 65 per cent or less. It would surprise you that more than 72 per cent of Indian women do not have access to mobiles.


  1. What are the challenges faced in India and in Asia?

Connecting women or lack of connecting women either by mobile or by internet is one of the biggest challenges in India and Asia in general. Besides, the adoption of digital tools in order to make life efficient is a biggest casualty in governance. In the governance we do digitisation in silos (towers) and without linking them contextually. So we end up harassing people rather than making their life efficient. In other words, digital inclusion is resulting in serious digital exclusion.


  1. What steps have you undertaken to the bridge information poverty and facilitate social, political and economic development through digital access? Tell us something about the work of your Foundation?

We have been able to make a significant contribution through following outcomes:

l Making more than 2 million people digitally literate and digitally enabled so far and we are working on making another five million in the next 2 years.

l Creating a mode to establish community information resource centres at village and panchayat and underserved community level as means to enable people to access information, entitlements and other daily needs; this in perspective to consideration that most of the village level institutions are non functional.

l To showcase the mode of CIRC (Community Information Resource Centre), we have established close to 200 of them in 22 states across 85 districts, all of them in backward states and underserved areas.

l Created a model of digital cluster development where we have highlighted that India lives in traditional skills based clusters like handloom, bamboo, silk and so on; all of them need to be digital enabled in a holistic manner to make not only business sense but also a complete holistic mode of development where from education, health, civic amenities to entitlements, designs, e-commerce and market linkages could all be digitally enabled. Similar mode was shown in Chanderi cluster in Madhya Pradesh that became very successful, and which we are replicating in eight more clusters like Nuapatna and Barpali in Odisha, Trichy and Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, Barabanki and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Narayanpet in Telangana and Paithan in Maharashtra. It is called Digital Cluster Development Program.

l We have been able to show how last mile connectivity of broadband provisioning could be possible by using wireless technologies and by usage of unlicensed spectrum. We have connected more than 50 locations with hundreds of villages enjoying broadband internet, in many cases even without proper electricity in their areas. The program is called Wireless for Communities.

l In order to ensure that the majority of the social sector represented by civil society organisations and NGOs be digitally enabled, DEF under its eNGO programme (a web service package at a minimal cost for grassroots organisations) has put on more than 5000 grassroots NGOs online in the last five years.


  1. Do you think the government’s efforts to promote a Digital India (DI) have been done in a right manner? Do you think this is the need of the hour, considering there are pressing issues like health care, education, farming, sanitation, that also need to be tackled?

As far as creating momentum and the need of necessity are concerned, DI is a great programme and campaign but government needs to also drive on the ground which is lacking especially in the areas of last mile connectivity.

All the existing pressing issues are directly linked to digital to make their delivery and even citizens’ participation interactive and reactive. Digital is nothing in isolation it is a tool to enable.


  1. Do you think India is ready to function on a cashless society, considering that most of the transactions in such a scenario would rely majorly on digital literacy?

No, India is not ready for cashless society because the cash technology is far superior and efficient than the digitally enabled cashless society for now. The cashless system has to be far more efficient and economical and democratically powerful to make a real impact and pervasive in the society.


  1. How far being dependent on digital technology is healthy for a society at large? In other words how do we find the right balance?

The right balance will come with time and change. We cannot expect the two decade old digital system to efficiently takeover thousands of year of analogue and brick and mortar system, and society itself will guide what is wrong and right and gradually we will find our balance.


(Osama Manzar will deliver a talk ‘The World of Unconnected Billions’ at MOG – Museum of Goa, Pilerne on January 29 at 11a.m. It is open to all.)

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