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OCTOBER 16, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 15

Wiring the Villages
Computers among the sugarcane
By MASEEH RAHMAN Warana

ALSO
The Great Web Bonanza: India has unexpectedly and unintentionally found a future through the Internet, one fueled by the largest pool of engineering talent in the developing world
Interview: "Our Net revolution is here to stay"
Viewpoint: Why India, not China, is a high-tech whiz

  ALSO IN TIME
COVER: The Great Web Bonanza
India has unexpectedly and unintentionally found a future through the Internet, one fueled by the largest pool of engineering talent in the developing world
Wave of the Future: Villages get hooked up
Interview: "Our Net revolution is here to stay"
Viewpoint: Why India, not China, is a high-tech whiz

TAIWAN: Rookie Mistakes
The resignation of Premier Tang Fei highlights the fragility of Chen Shui-bian's young and still fumbling administration

THAILAND: Back to the Brink
Changing sexual habits and a decline in funds for AIDS prevention is leading to a dangerous rebound in HIV rates
Burma: The generals battle the disease by lying about it

MALAYSIA: All the News That's Fit to Surf
Stymied by the nation's traditional, conservative press, more and more readers are going online for information

CINEMA: In the Mood for Wong Kar-wai
Fifteen months in the making, the Hong Kong director's latest film leaves viewers both delighted and mystified
On Location: A long night on the wild side

BOOKS: A Walk on the Wild Side
An entertaining biography examines the man who has chronicled Bangkok and its sex scene for 35 years

TRAVEL WATCH: Check into the past at one of Asia's Grand Hotels

Shantappa Ghewari understands that the future can come in many disguises, even to a remote village like Pokhale. In 1997, satellite TV came to the sugarcane-growing region of Maharashtra state, some 400 km southeast of Bombay, and "even one-year-olds started shaking their hips like those MTV girls," he says. More than a year later, another magical, illuminated box was installed in the village, holding the promise of a much more radical transformation: Pokhale became one of 70 villages in the Warana region participating in an ambitious $600,000 information-technology project initiated by the federal government. All the villages in the area now have computers linked to a central network, while training centers have been opened in six villages to impart computer education to rural youth and to provide access to the Internet.

Connectivity promises to transform a way of life that could be mistaken for timeless. With computer kiosks in every village, Warana's "Wired Village" project already provides farmers access to essential information. The network keeps detailed records of all their transactions with the local sugar and milk cooperatives; it lists prices of farm produce in the region's agricultural markets (to help farmers decide what to plant or where to sell their produce); and it offers a daily weather forecast.

The network also helps reduce a major anxiety plaguing farmers in the region. Once a sugarcane crop is ready, each day's delay in harvesting reduces its sugar content, and therefore the money the farmer gets from the cooperative for his crop. The cooperative owns only one harvester, which is usually monopolized by the bigger, more influential farmers. But now the harvesting dates for every village and farm are available on the network, and the farmers can use the computers to complain to the cooperative chief if the harvester fails to arrive at the appointed hour.

No wonder Ghewari, 63, who grows cane in a two-hectare field, was quick to realize the new technology's potential—he made his only son Bhalchandra give up a tire-company job to become Pokhale's first computer operator. Says the peasant, as he sits outside the computer kiosk next to the village temple: "The sky and the earth are changing."

India hopes eventually to replicate those transformations in other parts of the country. Similar projects have already been launched in other states. "The basic objective is to use IT as a tool for development, and to bring government to your doorstep," says N. Vijayaditya, of the New Delhi-based National Informatics Center, the state-owned technical agency behind the project. The hardest part, though, may be mobilizing India's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. Nearly two years after the project was launched at Warana, the local state government has yet to transfer onto computer the region's land record data, necessary for simplifying land transactions and revenue collection.

The villagers of Warana have nevertheless embraced the opportunity to play pioneers. Farmer Balu Jadhav owns less than a hectare of land, plus a buffalo and a cow. Once he worried about how his son, whose legs are atrophied by polio, would earn a living. Now he feels there's hope for him beyond the land. Says Jadhav: "I will teach him computers."

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