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Kudumbashree volunteers undergoing classes in Internet
 
 
Kerala breaks the mould to assert Internet rights

The  Kerala Finance Minister's promise to make Net Access a right for Keralites,  is in the state's long tradition of   leading the nation in assuring  the quality of life of her citizens. 
Thiruvananthaputram March 9 2017: The assertion by Kerala Finance Minister  T.M. Thomas Isaac  in his budget speech, that the state proposed  to make  access to Internet,  a citizen's  right is at the same time,  a bold  idea ahead of its time -- and possibly out of the comfort zone of the central government.
Consider  the time line of recent global developments in this sphere of human rights.
In 2010, Finland  led  the rest of the world by making Internet -- with a 1 MBPS connection -- a basic right of  all her  citizens.   Since then,  some more nations like   Spain, France, Finland, Costa Rica, Estonia, and Greece have  made changes to their  constitutions or laws,  to similar effect.
Sensing the global mood,   over 70 nations,  in June last year,  voted to pass a UN Human Rights Council resolution,  that declared the Internet to be a basic human right.  India was in the  company of   a handful of nations including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia that dissented. It was particularly ironic in the case of India, because her form of government set her apart from  the other nations who voted against. Even more so,  because  the government has been relentlessly driving home the message of Digital India  and pushing her citizens into adopting Internet-driven e-cash ways to overcome the pains of demonetization.
So  Kerala's   road map  to  make Internet a right, starting sensibly with the less advantaged sections of society and  setting an 18-month timeline to  create a statewide fibre optic network, while laudable, is unlikely to  be replicated or imitated by other states or even the Centre, any time soon.
That in itself,  is not a reason to go slow but rather a spur to press on,  regardless.  Why?
Because  Dr Isaac's vision,  which has been elaborated by IT Secretary  M.Sivasankar in this newspaper yesterday,  is consistent  with what Kerala has been  working towards, for over a decade and more, cutting across party lines.
 Kerala at UN summit
In 2003, at the first UN-sponsored Global Summit on  the Information Society in Geneva, Secretary General Kofi Annan, for the first time,   mooted the idea of the Internet as the biggest  social catalyst, capable of empowering every man, woman and child on earth.  Standing beside him  in support, when he made his remarks was Tim Berners-Lee the 'father' of the World Wide Web -- and Shashi Tharoor, then a  UN Under Secretary General. 
In the audience were  the then Kerala IT Minister   P. K. Kunhalikutty and IT Secretary Aruna Sundarajan.  The Kerala team  found itself fielding many questions from   officials  of other  developing nations, about the logistics of its e-literacy programme, Akshaya.  Due to happenstance, that programme, captured   huge attention in Geneva's cavernous Palexpo  conference venue: This correspondent  was at the event on the strength of his  news story in  an Indian paper  which reported on India's first computer -literate  village --  Chamaravattom in Malappuram district of Kerala. The  moving photo accompanying my story, by Akshaya coordinator  M. Vinod, of a housewife, Shantakumari,  taking her final computer saksharatha e-test with her child cradled in her arms, was seized by the UN media apparatus as  symbolic of the conference theme  and   was widely distributed albeit in a pre-social media way. 
At any rate, Kerala's reps at WSIS came back with renewed determination to  hitch the state to the Internet -- and the bipartisan success story of Akshaya,  is one  visible result. The  sustained  thrust towards computer and Internet training across a spectrum of  institutions from IT@School to kudumbashree to Institute for Management in Government (IMG)  is another.
Some times,  intent is not enough, it takes a  rare coming together of like-minded  people to take any programme to the next level. And Kerala might just have the perfect combo today  to deliver on Dr Isaac's promise.  I heard him articulate his ideas about what Internet could do for India,  even  a decade ago, in a crowded classroom in Thiruvananthapuram's University College  during  the International Congress on Kerala Studies, when he and I shared a panel discussion. 
M. Sivasankar who drove the Akshaya programme in its pilot years as head of the  Kerala  IT Mission is  today the state's IT secretary.  Anvar Sadath whom I used to see  toiling away across the  hilly length of Malappuram as Akshaya District Coordinator in 2002-03,  is   happily back in charge of Kerala's IT@School programme.    Sashi Tharoor's knowledge and experience  as the UN's principal communicator,  across two WSIS conferences  and alongside Kofi Annan,   will be an invaluable asset. There are others who have quietly toiled to e-nable Kerala for decades -- and who will willingly come out of retirement  to make "Internet, my right", not just another mantra but a living breathing reality in Kerala.- Anand Parthasarathy
A shorter version of this article appeared on March 8 in the Time of India ( Kerala editions)

 




    


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