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)