e-Sri Lanka


There was a small but high profile Government Transformation Forum organized in Kovalam, Kerala, Feb 5-6, 2012. The Kerala Chief Minister and the Minister in charge of IT made appearances and the high-profile MP of the area, Dr Shashi Tharoor, delivered the keynote address and showed deep engagement. I chaired the session on international and Indian best practices and made a presentation based primarily on the experiences of designing e Sri Lanka back in 2002-03 and LIRNEasia research. My key message was that there were no best practices that could be imported to Kerala. What were best were what fit the specific circumstances.
When government goes online, what happens to citizens who are not? This was central to our thinking when we designed e Sri Lanka. That is why such importance was placed on voice access, on the government information center. But it looks like it has not been fully thought through in the US, according to this NYT story. “You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that,” Mr.
Sri Lanka has a peculiar media structure. The government has its own TV stations (2), radio (2) and also an entire newspaper publishing company. These have no similarity to the BBC and CBC, on which they were modeled. These are out and out propaganda operations. I cut my media teeth at the government radio station in 1978-79 (it was a monopoly back then, so I had no choice) and have done many programs there since.
e Sri Lanka, when designed in 2002-03, broke new ground. Now six years later, it seems opportune to assess whether it delivered on its promise. This assessment was triggered by discussions on how best to respond to the Brazilian government’s invitation to Helani Galpaya to share the learnings of e Sri Lanka. It also builds on our work on indicators and indices and discussions on this site. What did it achieve in its originally allotted five years?
Politicians are not known for strict adherence to truth, but I personally thought the Minister of Science and Technology Tissa Vitarana being a man of science was cut from different cloth. The first time he stated that the original telecenters set up under e Sri Lanka (Vishva Gnana Kendra or VGKs) were in urban areas and that after the government changed in 2004, the decision was taken to take them to rural areas (renamed as Nenasala), I blamed not him, but the flunkies at the ICT Agency who did not give him the true facts. None of the VGKs were in major urban centers, while some Nenasalas are in the centers of major cities (e.g., one inside the Dalada Maligawa premises and another inside the Natha Devalaya, in the heart of Kandy).
The looks may deceive, but this is a radio station. Prabhavi Community Radio – the first Internet community radio in Sri Lanka comes from Prabhavi Resources Center, Weranketagoda, Ampara – the post-conflict district in Eastern province (8 hours travel from Colombo). It operates from a Nenasala, one of the 500 odd telecenters funded by the World Bank under e-Sri Lanka program. A brainchild of Ajith Karunarathne, it runs as a nonprofit venture entirely by volunteers Asiri (red shirt, first photo) and his team. Strangely, this radio station connects to Internet thru a 128 kbps pipe.
Ambuluwawa, about 1,100 m above sea level, is probably the highest point in the vicinity of Gampola. Not surprisingly, all telecom operators exploit the geography. Transmission stations/towers encircle the summit. (See above) That is what one calls infrastructure. Just 10 km away, Sirimalwatte Ananda thero, a young and energetic Buddhist monk, runs a Nenasala, a telecenter established under the World Bank funded e-Sri Lanka program.
Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka, was recently elected to the chair of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Committee of ESCAP – the Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific Speaking to Sandeshaya Weeratunga said that “during the past three years computer literacy in the country has increased from 5 per cent to over 20 per cent” He elaborated that the ‘e-Sri Lanka’ initiative has enabled people to obtain authenticated copies of Death, Marriage and Birth Certificates – essential documents within a few minutes. Responding to a question that some rural tele centers have been dysfunctional Weeratunga said there are about 600 Telecenters and it’s not unusual for a few to fall behind. “However we will relocate them if necessary”, he said. Commenting on the Sri Lankan expertise of the diasporas, Weeratunga said that there are those who want to help but in actual fact most of them are really in search of jobs. “We cant pay them the salaries they expect but if anyone wants to genuinely help they could log in to the ICTA web site (www.
The 2009 Budget contains the following statement: Allocations were made in the 2006 Budget to connect rural villages in backward areas with the rest of the world and enable them to blend with the global community and economic trends, through Information Technology. This program has enabled online connectivity through around 500 Nana Sala Centres, between villages, schools and state and public institutions, and also facilitates to broaden the knowledge of English and Information Technology. I propose to name the year 2009 as an year dedicated to expand the knowledge of English and Information Technology and allocate Rs. 100 million to broaden the scope of this programme. The questions are: * The Budget contains no other allocations for ICT related activities, explained possibly by the existence of a USD 80 million or so e Sri Lanka program, funded primarily by a concessionary IDA credit and a Korean loan which has not been fully disbursed and is in danger of being cancelled.