Prakriye, IT for Change's field centre in Mysore, is primarily engaged in exploring the new possibilities opened up by Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for the socio-political empowerment of marginalised communities. We believe that working towards a just and equitable information society requires us to move beyond critiquing the mainstream ICTs for Development (ICTD)discourse for its techno-centricism and apolitical leanings, and start focusing efforts on evolving an alternative grammar for development practice in the digital age. Thus, the work of the field centre is pivotal to our larger organisational vision.

"Over the years, we have attempted to deploy the transformatory possibilities of community radio and community video for carving out a dialogic forum for women's collectives."

Prakriye – Centre for Community Informatics and Development

At present, Prakriye is primarily invested in the question of developing context-specific, ICT-based strategies for the conscientisation and citizenship education of rural, marginalised women's collectives. Forging strategic partnerships with other institutions and groups working in the area of community development, in order to help them effectively harness the new possibilities opened up by digital technologies to enhance their intervention strategies, has been another priority area. The core idea that informs the entire gamut of activities taken up by Prakriye is that transformative change arises in creating a new 'politics of technology', carefully navigating 'the politics of context'; what emerges in this maneuvering needs to make a real difference to those who stand at the margins of society.

In 2012-13, we continued our long-standing engagement with women's collectives (sanghas) of the Mahila Samakhya [1] governmental programme in Hunsur and H.D.Kote blocks[2] of Mysore district. This year marks the seventh year of our collaboration, through which we have been supporting the programme's larger vision of 'education for empowerment' by exploring multi-pronged ICT strategies for enhancing the sangha women's critical learning-action processes, and supporting their empowerment journeys. In specific, over the years, we have attempted to deploy the transformatory possibilities of community radio and community video for carving out a dialogic forum for sangha women. We have supported women in developing a counter-discourse on gender – using community media to build solidarities and articulate experiences of oppression and marginality. Additionally, we have tried to create an alternative community informational architecture that privileges the realities of marginalised women, continuing our work on ICT-enabled community information centres owned and managed by sangha women. These centres are evolving into local institutions that challenge traditional information hierarchies and gate keeping exerted by formal and informal power structures.

This year, we have attempted to build upon the work of our earlier years, and focus on women's ability to effectively exert their claims on state structures. Two main priorities this year have been:
- utilising community information centres as key nodes for advocating the agenda of gender-responsive governance with Gram Panchayats[3], and
- enabling sangha women translate the dialogic forums opened up by community media into spaces where they can effectively exercise their communicative power to engage with local governance structures for accessing their rights and entitlements.

Prakriye's work in this period has been mainly supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, as part of a two-year action-research project 'Women-gov' (March 2012- March 2014). 'Women-gov' investigates the question of how we can deploy ICT-based strategies in context-appropriate ways, to enhance women's active citizenship by engaging with women's collectives and women leaders from communities and young women's groups in India, Brazil and South Africa respectively. Prakriye's work on 'Women-gov' is therefore one of the many sites of action research.

IT for Change, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan(kmvs), and Area Networking and Development Initiatives (ANANDI) are partnering in the 'Making Women's Voices and Votes Count', a two-year field project funded by UN Women. Under this project, which commenced in January 2013, the three organisations with the support of the National Mission for the Empowerment of Women, aim at using ICTs to catalyse a critical mass of women in local governance, construct a horizontal platform for peer-based support, and develop a discourse of governance and politics that is informed by women's rights perspectives.

Also, from January 2013, we have been investing significant energies towards creating a network of Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) in Hunsur and H.D.Kote blocks, and strengthening linkages between sanghas and EWRs in Panchayats in order to build a vibrant women's political constituency at the grassroots. This direction came about through a collaboration between IT for Change, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (Kutch, Gujarat), and Area Networking and Development Initiatives (Bhavnagar, Gujarat) titled 'Making Women's Voices and Votes Count', a two-year project funded by UN Women and supported by the National Mission for the Empowerment of Women. Under this project, the three organisations seek to harness the new techno-social possibilities opened up by digital technologies for networking, communication and content-creation, in order to make local governance structures and processes more gender-responsive. Between January-March 2013, the groundwork for the institutional partnerships under this project was carried out, and from April 2013 onwards, the project has been engaging with a core group of 70 EWRs and over 550 women members of grassroots collectives across the three sites.

Another key area of engagement for Prakriye has been the creation and strengthening of linkages with other institutional actors in the space of community development and ICTs for development. The subsequent sections proceed to discuss the various elements of the work of our field centre, in greater detail.

Community Information Centres: Key nodes for strengthening women's linkages with local government institutions

"We at Mahila Samakhya Karnataka value our partnership with IT for Change as we share the same passion for social change and transformation with better information for the have-nots - especially poor rural women who often not only lack daily necessities but also the access to information that can make their lives better and more meaningful, and empower them with knowledge and connections that will enable them to be change-makers for the betterment of all."
-Ms. Cynthia Stephen (State Programme Director at Mahila Samakhya, Karnataka)

One of the cornerstones of Prakriye strategy, in working towards the empowerment of Mahila Samakhya sanghas, has been the development of a village information centre model for public information access called the Namma Mahiti Kendra[4]. It is run by sangha women in select villages, and operated through a young woman information intermediary, sakhi[5], supported and mentored by sangha women and the Prakriye team. The sakhi addresses the information needs of the village community and continually dialogues with local institutions such as government departments at the block level, and elected officials of the Panchayats, to push for transparency and responsiveness in the delivery of welfare schemes and entitlements to marginalised groups. Two such Namma Mahiti Kendras have been functioning in Attiguppe and Hosavaranchi villages of Hunsur block, for over 5 years. Along similar lines, Taluk Mahiti Kendras (Block Information Centres) in Hunsur and H.D.Kote blocks have also been operational for about 5 years. One of the main functions of the sakhis at the block level centres, is to regularly keep in touch with block level government functionaries, and act as an information link on local governance issues, between line departments at the block level and sakhis at the village-level centres.

In 2012-13, we have focused on strengthening our four existing information centres and also setting up additional village information centres in Hunsur and H.D.Kote blocks. Strengthening these information centres requires us to primarily focus on two areas: a. Mentoring the sakhis and investing in their capacity-building b. Working on strengthening the capacities of the sangha women involved in the management of the information centres to ensure the sustainability of our intervention, in the long run.

Mentoring the sakhis is an area that needs a lot of energies from the Prakriye team members as most of the sakhis come from extremely troubled family backgrounds, with minimal support from family members. Also, day in and day out, the sakhis have to deal with the pressures of breaking prevailing gender norms on what constitutes appropriate conduct for adolescent girls – their outreach visits, their interactions with government departments and Gram Panchayat[6] members defy conventions and invite criticism from many sections of the community. As mentors, we constantly try to help the sakhis negotiate these pressures.

Introducing the sakhis to the brave, new world of the Internet

In the past, our efforts at building the capacities of the sakhis (infomediaries) have focused on enabling them to: effectively challenge the informal power structures in the communities they work in, cope with the pressures from their families while performing a role that challenges traditional gender norms, and building their skills in collecting information from a range of sources including government officials, and information outreach and dissemination. The capacity building efforts are mainly though monthly meetings with the sakhis at the Prakriye office, and are steeped in peer-to-peer learning and critical reflection approaches.

This year, another focus area was added to our capacity building efforts – introducing the sakhis to the communication and collaboration possibilities of Internet platforms. In late 2012, we started exploring the possibilities of online networking to enable sakhis to strengthen their peer networking, so that they can form a community of solidarity through which they extend support and help to each other, in times of personal and professional crises. We have also set up a closed blog for the sakhis to share reflections about their work, and the challenges they encounter within the household and in social spaces, when discharging their responsibilities. The sakhis are beginning to identify the blog as a dialogic forum as a 'safe' space for dialoguing and learning with peers.

After we found out that the sakhis were taking to social media and social networking platforms rapidly, soon after they had been introduced to the idea of blogging, we felt that alerting them to issues of online safety was very critical. Therefore, we decided to conduct a workshop for the sakhis, in Februrary 2013, around the issues of safeguarding privacy and protecting oneself from harassment in online spaces. By using the public street as an analogy for the online public sphere, we demonstrated to the sakhis that that the new spaces for communication and networking opened up by the Internet may be open, but neither completely safe nor entirely 'public' in character. As the sakhis put it at the end of the workshop, “The Internet is easy to navigate if you remember that it is just another street, though a virtual one... Then, the decisions about who to talk to, who to be 'friends' with, who to avoid, and who to be cautious about, are simple.”

Another area of focus has been strengthening the linkages of our community information centres with public institutions such as the village school and anganwadi[7],and with elected representatives of the Gram Panchayat. Previously, the sakhis would mostly visit government departments at the block level to obtain information about the various welfare schemes of the state and eligibility criteria. The sakhis would also help visitors to the information centre in applying for entitlements under the various schemes they were eligible for. From our experience, we found that more needed to be done, to ensure that marginalised groups can effectively access their entitlements – as the final selection of beneficiaries under various welfare schemes is a process that involves heated debate, confrontation and negotiation between different stakeholder groups in the local community, in local governance forums such as the Gram Sabha[8]. Therefore, we have actively encouraged sakhis, with the support of the sangha women involved in the management of the information centres, to interact with, and question elected representatives of the Gram Panchayat, substantively participate in the Gram Sabha, and actively engage with legally mandated, participatory committees constituted at the Panchayat level to facilitate citizen involvement in local governance – particularly the Village Health and Sanitation Committee(VHSC).

Nutrition Day

In early 2013, the sakhi of the Attiguppe information centre found out that funds for organising an awareness-building event on reproductive and child health could be availed by the Village Health and Sanitation Committee (VHSC), under a state government scheme. When she conveyed this information to the sangha women of the village (some of whom are also part of this committee), they took the initiative of organising a 'Nutrition Day' celebration – and also invited community level health workers to participate in the event. In fact, the women even pooled together an additional contribution to the funds received from the state scheme, in order to fully cover the event costs.

Another significant development has been the increasing legitimacy of the centre, in the eyes of local government institutions, as the experience of the sangha women of Hosavaranchi village reveals. Recently, the sangha women had raised a question in the Gram Sabha, on certain households not receiving their allotments for construction of toilets, under a rural sanitation scheme, in spite of meeting the eligibility criteria. In response to this, the Panchayat Development Officer suggested that a household survey be carried out by the information centre, to assess beneficiaries!

Lakshmi, a sangha woman from Attiguppe village, filming the 'Nutrition Day' celebrations

We have also initiated steps towards establishing new community information centres in Bharathwadi village in Hunsur block and Bhuktalemala in H.D.Kote block. These villages were selected for the intervention, after a rigorous process of village selection that used multiple criteria such as: communities' 'felt need' for the centre, the extent of information scarcity in the village, the geographical and social distance experienced by the people of the village, especially the women, from local government institutions, and the capacity and willingness of the sanghas in the village to participate in establishing and managing a community information centre. As of March 2013, in both these villages, we have obtained the support of the sangha women and buy-in from village opinion leaders for the intervention. Setting up these new information centres is one of the first steps in our long-term vision of developing a critical mass of sangha-managed community information centres in the geographies we work in, for catalysing awareness of rights, public deliberation and eventually, collective action by women, for realising gender-responsive local governance.

Community Media for citizenship education of sanghas

"I find videos very useful. Very often, when we go to officials asking for information, we don't remember many of the nuances they point out with regards to schemes and programmes. If I have a video camera with me, I can record the official speaking about it and play it before other women in the community. Also, government officials and panchayat members say a hundred different things but hardly fulfill their promises. Videos can help us in holding them accountable to what they have said on previous occasions, in public."
- Jayalakshmamma (Sangha woman from Hosavaranchi village, reflecting on Prakriye's community video strategy)

Our community media strategy has consisted of two components: (1) A weekly radio programme titled Kelu Sakhi (which means Listen, my friend) that is broadcast over the Karnataka State Open University FM channel in Mysore. It reaches out to Mahila Samakhya sanghas in their idiom, carving out an alternate public sphere that enables rural, dalit women to speak their concerns, and (2) A community video strategy that focuses on utilising locally produced video resources for generating dialogue and debate on women's participation in public-political life, and their right to exert claims on the state.

The Kelu Sakhi programme has been on air, without a break, since its launch in late 2006. However, there have been substantive changes in 2012-13 to the programmatic content of the 30 minute weekly slot. From its prevailing focus on the discursive marginalisation of women's issues in the local public sphere, we are slowly pushing for greater focus on women's entitlements, and women's role in local governance, and the importance of sangha-EWR networking (as a feminist agenda- setting measure in local governance). Also, we are trying to bring in a more intimate integration of the radio programming with the local geographies that we work in. Inserting specific identifiers while programming content, we are hoping to ignite energy and enthusiasm among women who are socially and economically marginalised; women who see the radio as an extension of their lived experience – a space in and through which they will find joy, get to know things that matter to them and feel a sense of pride in being acknowledged as public actors in the eyes of their community.

As part of the community video strategy, we have produced new video resources on women's rights and entitlements. We have experimented with new formats for Digital Storytelling to create awareness-generation videos. Digital stories often present content in compelling, emotionally engaging and interactive formats, and are of short duration. The two video resources produced this year, in this format, pertain to the following themes: entitlements available under various government schemes for women's reproductive health , and the process for obtaining a 'Proof of Residence' certificate (an important supporting document that is a vital part of applications under various governmental schemes). We have also continued our efforts at making longer films in the traditional format.

In Lakkankoppalu village, sangha women organised a moonlight dinner -- an activity that they felt, would help them focus on their well-being.
Moonlight Dinner

In March 2013, we completed the shoot for a film on a moonlight dinner organised by Mahila Samakhya sanghas - an activity that women felt was a great idea for focusing on their own health and well being. This happened in the village of Lakkankoppalu, a village in Hunsur block that also has close linkages with one of our community information centres, and women have since gathered routinely to enjoy the small pleasures of bringing their individual culinary contribution for a communal feast. The film is on the editing table at the moment and we hope to use it as a medium to engage other sanghas on discussions about body politics and solidarities.

Meanwhile, relying upon our existing video bank of about 20 odd video resources, we have conducted a number of video screenings for sangha women at the block and district level, and also encouraged video screenings at the information centres. A video-based pedagogy for citizenship remains a cornerstone strategy for us. The videos that were screened pertained to the following thematic areas: entitlements from the Departments of Agriculture and Horticulture, micro-credit and economic empowerment of sanghas, and adult literacy. Even as we are engaged in producing locally relevant content from the standpoint of women's citizenship, screenings become vital to build readiness of sanghas to engage with video learning resources. We are also keen on establishing the information centres as repositories of multiple learning resources in the imagination of the sanghas and the local community.

We have also been carrying out a series of trainings for sangha women and sakhis in digital photography, videography and audio recording so that decentralised, local production of audio-visual learning resources becomes possible at the community information centres. We want more and more sangha women to utilise these technologies in local action efforts and to initiate local dialogues with government actors around women's rights and entitlements.

Investing in new techno-social processes – exploring the trans-local networking possibilities of SMS platforms

A major area of exploration in 2012-13, has been the possibility of utilising SMS platforms for fostering communication among sanghas and EWRs. There were a number of initial challenges to be surmounted, at the level of the supporting technological infrastructure, for setting up a local SMS based network. Though we made considerable progress in identifying the technical architecture for sending mass SMS, we were unable to identify a solution for successfully sending messages in the local language Kannada– especially as the hardware of most mobile phones available in the market does not support the Unicode format necessary for reading non-English text. As we were working with a largely non-English speaking, non-literate group, this turned out to be a major difficulty. Finally, after exploring multiple technological possibilities, we decided that setting up an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) [9] to network sangha women may be more context-appropriate than setting up an SMS network.

We have been taking the help of CG Net Swara - an Indian resource group that has a lot of experience in developing contextually appropriate IVRS solutions for grassroots organisations' peer networking processes – in developing the technological backbone that will support the creation of an SMS platform where sanghas & EWRs can network and share insights from their learning-action processes. We will also use the same platform to share perspectives on gender as food-for-thought and tiny bits of information about governance, women's rights and gender.

Advocacy and Networking

We have continued our efforts of engaging with other institutional actors in the space of community development, and ICTs for development, in order to bring in insights from the work of Prakriye into the mainstream 'technologies for development' discourse. Some of the key advocacy and networking events that the field centre has been involved in, are detailed below:

  • Shivamma, Field Associate, and Rajesh Hanbal, Project Associate, from Prakriye, participated in a workshop on 'Taking stock of community radio initiatives and assessing future steps' that was organised by the Department of Information, Government of Karnataka, on 14 September 2012. The workshop was a platform for community radio practitioners from across the state, to dialogue and share learnings' from their models.
  • Rajesh Hanbal participated in the 'National Workshop on Geo-informatics Application in Decentralised Governance', organised by the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, between 11-13 July 2012, in Hyderabad, India. The workshop was a forum for generating dialogue between technical experts, government functionaries and field practitioners on the possibilities offered by geo-informatics applications for enhancing decentralised governance. IT for Change used this opportunity to advocate the need to move beyond a techno-managerial approach in such interventions.
  • In 2012-13, Rajesh Hanbal has also been regularly involved in the activities of the 'Open Data Camp' – a dialogic platform for technologists, journalists, researchers and development practitioners to meaningfully explore the utilisation of data that is available in the public domain, in the course of their work.
  • The Prakriye field centre has also started networking with activists engaged in the Right to Information movement in India, and the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme[10].

Looking Ahead

In the coming months, in addition to our work towards the consolidation of our information centres strategy, we will focus our energies on building a network of Elected Women Representatives that also builds connections with sangha women across H.D.Kote and Hunsur blocks. We hope that creating such a network will foster a sense of collective solidarity among EWRs and that eventually they can challenge patriarchal power in local governance institutions. A key strategy for this trans-local networking will be the creation of a dialogic platform using IVRS, for geographically dispersed EWRs and sangha women to share insights on their specific experiences with local governance institutions.

Another key area of focus will be the exploration of the new pedagogic possibilities opened up by Geographic Information Systems. These systems offer tremendous opportunities for the visual representation and re-combination of multiple data-sets – when effectively used, maps can become powerful, political artifacts that reveal starkly the workings of local geographies of power, in unmistakable ways. In 2013-2014, we plan to initiate a household survey of access to amenities and resources, and undertake a participatory mapping of public infrastructure points and public institutions, in a range of villages in Hunsur and H.D.Kote blocks. UNESCO has agreed to support the public institutional mapping effort in Hunsur block.

Finally, we will focus on bringing in the insights from our experience at Prakriye to advocacy efforts towards developing a gender-responsive local governance model, by engaging with state actors such as the National Mission for the Empowerment of Women, the State Institute of Rural Development, Karnataka and the Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Karnataka. Thus, we hope to further our vision of carving out an embedded approach to ICTD practice.

  1. Mahila Samakhya is a pan-Indian governmental programme that works with the aim of 'education for empowerment' through a collectivisation strategy that mainly focuses on rural women, especially those belonging to economically and socially disadvantaged sections.
  2. A block is a sub-district unit of administration in India
  3. This is the lowest tier of governance and administration in the quasi-federal Indian system, which is situated at the village level. Tremendous fiscal and administrative powers were devolved from the State Governments to the panchayats by the Central Government of India, through the enactment of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India in 1992.
  4. A Kannada expression that translates into 'Our Information Centre', in English
  5. The Kannada word literally translates into 'friend', in English
  6. This is the lowest tier of governance and administration in the quasi-federal Indian system, which is situated at the village level. Tremendous fiscal and administrative powers were devolved from the State Governments to the Panchayats by the Central Government of India, through the enactment of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India in 1992. However, in practice, the devolution of powers to Gram Panchayats has been broached with reluctance by State Governments.
  7. Anganwadiis a government sponsored child-care and mother-care center in India. It caters to children in the 0-6 age group.
  8. Gram Sabha, which means “Village Council”, refers to the village level electorate – in other words, the body consisting of all registered voters in a village. Indian law ,policy and the resolutions adopted by an Inter-State Ministerial Conference on Gram Panchayats in May 1998 require the elected representatives of the Gram Panchayat are required to convene a meeting of the Gram Sabha on a single pre-determined, at least every quarter, and the approval of the Gram Sabha must be taken before implementing any village level development works that would affect the local population.
  9. Interactive Voice Recording System is a technology that allows a computer to interact with humans through the use of voice and DTMF tones input via keypad.
  10. This is a Government of India scheme that promises a minimum of 100 days labour at minimum wages to every village level household that applies under the scheme. Corruption in the implementation of this scheme is one of the key local governance issues, in the project area.