Access to ICT4Ag in India


An advantage of having a peer coach is that you may never know what they might lead you to in your own sector. My WhyDev peer coach Eric Couper introduced me to the budding ICT4Ag industry in India when he was in Ethiopia! ICT4Ag means Information & Communication Technology for Agriculture. This introduction is for readers outside of the agriculture and rural development sector.  ICT4Ag in India largely comprises of mobile agricultural advisory services (mAgri) with Digital Green being an exception. Thanks to Eric, I listened to the webinar by Mr. Jawahar Kanjilal of Nokia India on how Nokia is making inroads into the agriculture sector with it Life Tools.

mAgri is the 21st century’s answer to 20th century TV shows like ‘Amchi Mati, Amchi Manasa’ (Our Soil, Our People). DD Sahyadri’s agriculture extention education show was undoubtedly one of the first ICT4Ag ventures witnessed by India and many Marathi families would without fail tune into the show 6:30 PM every evening before the arrival of cable television in India. The show continues till this date.

I decided to get the farmers we worked with to use these services and to know what they think about such services. Here is the story of the roadblocks I faced for the 2 services that I talked to farmers about.  On being explained the use of mobile advisory services for information on weather, crop inputs and market prices, farmers say that they will willingly buy these services. My mAgri popularization flight faced numerous logistical snags in the town of Mandla. It clearly isn’t easy to access mAgri services of several companies. My account here is that of someone operating from a tribal area of Madhya Pradesh, specifically the districts of Mandla and Dindori.

1)      Nokia Life Tools

I had seen this video of Nokia a long time ago but had completely forgotten about it and had never bothered to check out how they were going about it.

I explained Nokia Life Tools and its uses to some farmers in the Ghughri block, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. People were keen on accessing such a service but here is the hurdles.

1. You have to buy a Nokia phone to be able to use Life Tools. Given that most people I had met already had phones, (Lava/ Micromax), there was no way they were going to buy a Nokia phone just for the sake of the Nokia Agriculture Life Tools service. Villagers say that they prefer the Lava and Micromax phones because they have long-lasting batteries which are necessary given erratic electricity supply in rural areas.

2. Nokia Life is not supported by BSNL cellular services. BSNL is the mobile network available in Ghughri, Mandla. Nokia will face this problem across India where BSNL is the only cellular service provider.

3. The non-availability of Nokia Life in the higher end Nokia phones is problem no.3. A wealthy farmer who has profitable business(es) apart from farming, or a rich sugarcane farmer who can afford a Nokia Lumia model cannot access Nokia Life despite being a Nokia phone owner.

2)      Reuters Market Light

Given that people have to buy a Nokia phone to access its ICT4Ag service, I searched for services that did not require the purchase of a cell phone of a specific brand. I found Reuters Market Light (RML).

RML provides agriculture related information on weather, market crop prices, insect and pest management details during the period for which the farmer has subscribed to RML. The customer has to buy RML direct cards just like mobile talktime recharge cards and activate the service on their existing cell phones.

I explained how RML works to some women’s self-help groups in Mandla block. They did show inclination to buy the RML service because they said that they would go to Jabalpur to sell their sugarcane stock if the prices were higher there as compared to Mandla. Moreover, the Mandla block does not have network connectivity problems as much as the Ghughri block does due to its mountainous and forest terrain. I checked the website of RML to know where one could buy RML cards. You can buy them only in Aadhaar stores.  The closest Aadhaar store was in Indore, 610 kms away from Mandla!  I decided to explore other ways of getting RML to our women farmers.  I found Mr. Manav Khosla of RML on Twitter.

I called up the RML toll free number. They put me in touch with their distributor for the Jabalpur division. This gentleman explained that customers will have to make the payment to the nearest branch of State Bank of India (SBI). The RML service will be activated on the basis of this payment. Nice!

Instead of sending the whole village to the SBI office in Mandla, I decided to visit SBI myself to understand the procedure. Turns out, that the SBI officials weren’t very sure themselves about proceeding with this and how to accept payments. Their lack of information ensured that I was turned into a shuttle-cock for a quarter of an hour as they sent me from one manager to another. After being tossed from here to there about 5 times, I finally got to the right person. Here is what he had to say.

“The RML people had visited us some months ago to make a presentation about RML. We do accept payments for RML but only if the customer has a SBI bank account.”

My question, “So if a person does not have a SBI bank account and wants to subscribe RML service, they’ll have to open a SBI bank account first?”

SBI Bank officer said, “Yes, madam.”

The problem over here is that the more popular bank in Mandla is the Central Bank of India (CBI), not the State Bank of India. Most villagers have accounts with CBI . RML should have kept the option of subscription via CBI open. People aren’t going to open bank accounts in SBI to access RML.

Moral of the story: SBI gets to decide whether RML can have more customers or not in areas that have no Aadhaar stores.  Methinks this marketing and sales strategy needs to be updated.

Given the logistical difficulties for getting the people we worked with to use ICT4Ag services, I decided to leave ICT4Ag alone and focus on the work I already had on hand.

Now for the famous LEARNINGS:

1. Purchasing ICT4Ag services in India is not yet as easy as subscribing to a mobile connection & buying mobile recharge.

2. Certain ICT4Ag services are dependent on specific cellular network providers.

3. Farmers across India aren’t yet aware of the existence of ICT4Ag services and this calls for better advertising and marketing.

4.  Indian farmers are keen to pay for ICT4Ag services for accessing market prices, weather information and insect & pest management information.

The Indian ICT4Ag sector is still setting itself up. Access to these services will simplify in the next decades. While there are studies on the content delivered by ICT4Ag services in India, a lot more feedback is needed from the customers for their perspectives on the ease of purchasing these services.

P.S.: Thank you WhyDev & Eric!

Edited on May 1, 2014 to include a better code for the Nokia presentation from Slideshare thanks to Nalini Kumar Muppala.

Getting India subtitled


If I were to be given the choice to do just one thing for India’s development, then I would make it compulsory for every TV channel in India adopt same-language subtitling (SLS) for their shows. Live TV can be spared. This idea has compulsively played itself on a loop in my cranial development jukebox for the longest time now. Yes it sounds crazy but its ok. I had myself used SLS to learn French and had raved about its effectiveness on my old blog here. Having personally experienced the benefits of SLS, I have come to conclude that making SLS obligatory for TV channels will help India improve its HDI rank (136 out of 187 countries).

Dr. Brij Kothari, professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and an Ashoka Fellow, is the pioneer of Same Language Subtitling in India. He is the winner of the 1st Internation Literacy Prize of the Library of Congress that was announced last week. SLS was first used on the Gujarati programme Chitrageet in 1999. It immediately caught the fancy of the masses. Doordarshan being a laggard paid heed to Dr. Kothari’s patriotic idea only 4 years later in 2002.

The Problem.

  1. Officially, India is home to 778 million “literates” and 273 million illiterates, however an estimated 389 million “literates” are, at best early-literate.
  2. The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment of 2009 make experts estimate that an Indian class 8 student is at the same level as a …class 2 student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.
  3. The Education NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2011 found that in Class 5, 51.8% of the students could not read a Class 2 level text.
  4. Studies conducted at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, confirm that over 50% of ‘literates’ in India cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

See Mr. Kothari inform Mr. Shashi Tharoor about this on Twitter:

So what is functional literacy?

There are varying levels for being literate. Here are the 3 important ones.

  • Baseline literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables self-confidence and motivation for further development.
  • Functional literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables someone to develop and function in society, at home, in school and at work.
  • Multiple literacy: the ability to use reading and writing skills in order to produce, understand, interpret and critically evaluate texts received through a variety of media and in many forms (print, digital, audiovisual)

Source: http://ec.europa.eu/education/literacy/about/what-is-it/index_en.htm

What does SLS offer?

While watching a subtitled show, the viewer subconsciously associates the spoken word with the words displayed on screen, thus practicing reading in an unobtrusive and hassle-free manner. It involves no extra cost or time investment for the viewer. This method effectively increases literacy levels even with just 30 minutes of exposure to such programs every week. SLS on television shows unobtrusively gets TV viewers to practice reading thus helping viewers who can’t read properly to become functionally literate.

Planet Read – Film Kyun Ho Gaya Na Image copyright: Eros Entertainment

Which sectors will benefit from SLS?

  • Literacy for the sake of literacy.

Nielsen-ORG survey, conducted in 2002 and 2007 to measure the influence of subtitling, showed that only 25% school children could read a simple paragraph in Hindi after 5 years of education. However, this touched 56% if they also watched subtitled songs for 30 minutes a week on Rangoli. Subtitles can even help children acquire reading skills before they start school. The Freakonomics reports that “In Finland, whose education system has been ranked the world’s best, most children do not begin school until age seven but have often learned to read on their own by watching American television with Finnish subtitles.” (What Makes a Perfect Parent? Freakonomics) Trust the Scandinavians to pull off something like this! 148 million of the 231 million households in Indian (2012 TAM data) stand to gain from SLS. Out of these, 79 million households are in rural India. During my stint in rural Madhya Pradesh (Indian state with the most severe level of hunger), I noticed that rural folks do not have the time to follow TV soaps due to the agrarian nature of their work. What they do watch on TV when they have time are channels that broadcast films, songs and of course satsaangs. So if we leave out the general entertainment segment and if only movie, music, children’s and religious channels were to start subtitling their shows, the benefits would still be enormous. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports will finally start recording huge improvements instead of the status quo.

  • Improved public health

A study conducted by the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge had found that the average income level is only a statistical red herring as an indicator of the state of public health. The literacy rate of a district was the truer indicator. Districts with lower average incomes but good levels of literacy tend to enjoy good health as compared to those with lower levels of literacy. The most significant impact of literacy is has been observed on the infant mortality rate (IMR). It is estimated that for a ‘typical’ Indian district in the early 2000s, a reduction of 25% in the poverty gap would have led  to the saving of 1 child per 1000 live births. The same effect could also have been achieved with only 4% increase in literacy rate! Even if one Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) was to start SLS for its shows, it will lead to great improvements in functional literacy rates in the states of Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh which in turn can lead to a dip in the IMR of these states along with improvements on other indicators of public health as well. It must also be understood that SLS is not a panacea. IMR cannot touch a low of 2 per 1000 live births (Scandinavia, where else?) without significant investment and upgradation of neo-natal healthcare facilities across India and strong political will for the strict enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. SLS will lead to higher levels of functional literacy, which in turn will lead to better public health. What more can we ask for? Apparently a lot more.

  • Easier TV viewing for the hard-of-hearing

The estimated 60 million hearing impaired people in India will without a doubt welcome this move (well those who have TVs at home) as already experienced by Zee Studios. The Zee folks received a letter from students of an institute for the deaf-mute thanking them for the subtitles as they don’t have to lip-read now. 

  • Crime fighting

This one can convince the reader that optimism has taken pathological proportions within the author’s head. I assure you, madness is my middle name. Jessica Aptman of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment writes on Good that “up to 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate; studies show that if a child reads on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there is a 99 percent certainty that child will never be incarcerated”. Thanks to Ms. Aptman’s article I did some cyber snooping on the link between functional literacy and crime and here is what Wikipedia served me:

According to the paper ‘The Health Literacy of America’s Adults‘ of the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

According to ‘Literacy Statistics’ page of begintoread.com:

  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. Pfizer puts the cost much higher.
  • 16-to-19-year-old girls at the poverty line and below with below-average reading skills are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.

This data is based on the United States of America so may be the US can also benefit if more of its citizens watch TV with the sub-titles for the hearing imparied turned on when the children are around. What needs to be studied however is whether there exists a causal relationship between low levels of literacy and crime rates in India. In all probability it does. I shall leave this to the experts. If funtional literacy can indeed help prevent crime, then SLS can also make society safer by turning TV viewers into TV readers.

  • More revenues for channels

A conversation regarding the introduction of Hindi subtitles on a popular Hindi GEC with a TV executive of that channel had him asking, “It’s good for deaf people but what’s in it for us?” Well, more viewership. Almost every English language channel that airs in India has English subtitles. Viewership of  Star Movies saw a 12% increase after the channel started airing English movies with English subtitles. One might argue that an English language channel is bound to gain in India as English is not the mother tongue of most Indians. However, even Hindi music shows Chitrahaar and Rangoli on Doordarshan saw a jump of 10 to 15%.  Since the subtitles garner more eyeballs, it is bound to make the whole triad – audiences, advertisers and broadcasters – happier.

Can there still be inhibitions for implementing SLS?

Some people in the TV business might still harbour multiple reservations regarding the adoption of SLS. Some might say that it is not their job to make up for poor quality of education in public schools. Some viewers might themselves consider SLS to be an ‘insult to their intelligence‘. Subtitling takes time and this can prove to be a hindrance for daily soaps and others might simply complain that this will hurt their bottomline. More importantly, only people who have access to televisions stand to benefit.

How can politicians take an interest in this?

SLS needs political support for widespread adoption and important policy directives can benefit from the implementation of SLS. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had stated in 2009 that literacy, especially female literacy,  was crucial for the successful implementation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information Act that he had flagged off back then. In 2009, the UPA had aimed at achieving 100%literacy by the end of 2013. We stood at 73% according to census 2011 data and we plan to touch 80% by 2015. According to the 11th Five Year Plan, the literacy rate for persons of age 7 years or more was to have touched 85% by 2011-12.  However, this can change dramatically, even in a span of 6 months, if major GECs start subtitling all their shows or are made to adopt SLS.

The Human Resources Development Minister M M Pallam Raju has stated that India plans to achieve 80% literacy rate in the period between 2013 to 2015. In order to touch 80% literacy in 2 years, the HRD ministry is also willing to  undertake requisite administrative and if required legislative measures to integrate formal, non-formal and informal learning and to formally recognize forms of education other than formal. The HRD Ministry is presently developing a Core Curriculum Framework for adult education and is willing to adopt ICTs as a medium of instruction. SLS definitely fits in with this measure.

Politicians can definitely choose to make SLS a part of public policy as they help fasten the race to meet many of the MDGs for 2015. Infact, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ought to endore the implementation of SLS on Indian television. There really isn’t a need for endorsement from either Mr. Amitabh Bachhan or Mr. Shah Rukh Khan to popularize this as Mr. Kothari himself has regretted. 

Where will the money come from?

SLS is in itself a TRP boosting move and hence makes sense for the TV channel to invest in it. To make things easy, SLS can be woven in to the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. The new Companies Bill recommends that companies with revenues exceeding INR 1,000 crore (roughly 117,658,130 Euros) spend up to 2 percent of their average net profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the funds spent on CSR are to be mandatorily reported in company balance sheets.  I do not know if it is legally acceptable to use CSR funds for an activity that will also lead to profits for the company. This suggestion is open for debate.

Implementing SLS across all channels will be in tune with the 12th target for achieving the Millenium Development Goals for 2015. It is “to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication, in cooperation with the private sector.” India is already on track for the achievement of this track. This move will only strengthen the current efforts.

Smaller channels can be given the option of accessing government funds if necessary. A part of the yearly allocation for capacity building and job-led education can be set aside for the implementation of SLS. For the financial year 2013-14, Rs.65,869 crores were earmarked for this sector.  The SLS is very cheap investment since PlanetRead.com reports that every US dollar spent on subtitling a nationally telecast program (Chitrahaar) of Hindi film songs, gives 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 10,000 people, for a whole year which is the equivalent of one paisa per person per year in India. In specific states or languages, it would range from 5-20 paisa per person per year. Implementing sub-titles across most Indian TV channels will provide a great boost to the subtitling business which is estimated to be a Rs 100-crore industry in India.

What can we do?

Television addles our brains in many different ways but Professor Emily Oster found out that Ekta Kapoor turned the TV into the Empowerment Box for rural India. Implementing SLS on all Indian TV channels will fire up the television driven progress of Indian society. Write or Tweet to your favorite TV channel to subtitle your favorite shows if you agree. Cheers to armchair development practice and more power to Dr. Brij Kothari!

Clarification – added on December 3, 2013

Some readers asked me if I meant all shows should have subtitles in Hindi or in English. What I meant is that the subtitles should be in the same language as the speech. For example, Marathi television channels should have subtitles in Marathi, Gujarati channels in Gujarati, Kannada channels in Kannada and so on.

Petition for Subtitles:

Do sign this petition created for implementing subtitles on Indian TV:

The Government of India: Implement Same Language Subtitling on Music shows in India for higher functional literacy

https://www.change.org/petitions/the-government-of-india-implement-same-language-subtitling-on-music-shows-in-india-for-higher-functional-literacy#supporters