Bridging the Bureaucracy MORENA DISTRICT, INDIA
In almost any rural village in India, you'll see the same scene we saw in the Morena District, a region in the state of Madhya Pradesh, one of many stops on our four-year journey. Along the road, camels, bullocks, and donkeys pull carts sometimes piled up to two stories high with goods. Adults and children run freely, and whole families parade on foot.
ILLUSTRATION: TONY SALVADOR/JOHN SHERRY
Speeding by are bicycles and pedal rickshaws, tractors, buses with passengers hanging from the sides and on top, and trucks moving noisily along in various stages of repair. Vehicles with two, three, and four wheels carry any number of passengers (we once saw five people on one moped).
Typically, this traffic competes with sheep, cattle, goats, dogs, and birds in sharing the two-lane roads that connect one village to another, villages to the towns, and towns to the cities of India. If the road is paved at all, it may not have a center line. The left side and the right side are pretty much interchangeable with respect to direction of travel. One-way segments are one way only inasmuch as no one is going the other way at that moment.
For a village resident to go to the district headquarters to handle any kind of government business, he--and increasingly she--must get out on these roads and make what often ends up being a daylong journey into town. He must pay for his bus fare and bring food for the journey, and most certainly will lose a day's wages. And when he gets to his destination, he will probably stand in line for hours, not necessarily completing his task and possibly having to do the whole trip all over again.
The list of tasks that requires this arduous journey is long. Rural Indians make the trek to larger regional cities to learn the market prices for crops or to obtain marriage or gun licenses, caste or domicile certificates, and land records. They go to register complaints about government services--inoperative wells, for instance, or delays in turning on electricity that was promised. And they go to complain about their neighbors--disputes that in more developed locales are handled with civil lawsuits.
The arduous and often fruitless journey to deal with day-to-day bureaucratic necessities is a huge problem for village residents, and a technical solution could make a difference in their everyday lives.
It is an idea that occurred several years ago to Satyan Mishra, a social entrepreneur and the CEO of Drishtee, which is a for-profit, Indian company based in New Delhi. Drishtee is in the business of franchising information kiosks and has some 300 of them [see photo, " Open for Business"].
Inside each information kiosk is a small shop and a personal computer with dial-up access to a Drishtee hub. The hub is an office housed in the main government building of whatever district the kiosk is in. Each kiosk is owned and operated by its soochak , the person a villager meets with to obtain a certificate or file a complaint. The soochak types the information onto the appropriate electronic form, pulled from an assortment of forms he keeps on the computer. At the end of the day, the soochak dials in to the district office hub, uploads the day's requests, and downloads any returned documents--dispositions of complaints, licenses, and certificates.
At the district hub, two Drishtee employees print out the requests from all of the information kiosks in satellite villages. The next day they hand-carry the requests to the appropriate government offices, and wait or return later to collect the results. Villagers return to the information kiosk to find out the resolution of their complaint or request.
The cost to the villager is the standard filing fee of whatever document is used, plus a little extra as profit for Drishtee; that markup is usually less than the equivalent of US $1.
One of the most challenging aspects of Drishtee's business is locating appropriate soochaks . Drishtee staff members approach village and business leaders inquiring as to who might be an appropriate candidate. As franchisees, the soochak s not only have to be able to work the PC and operate a business. They must also assume the capital expenses of the kiosk, either on their own or by qualifying for a loan for the licensing fee charged by Drishtee and other costs, like hardware and phone services. The equipment expenses include the PC and an uninterruptible power supply that keeps the business going even in the face of daily power outages.
The technology is modest and completely straightforward: dial-up Internet access from an off-the-shelf PC to a Drishtee server in a distant city. The business works not because of any custom software or hardware innovations but because Drishtee's employees at the district capital painstakingly build relationships with the highest officials there, enabling them to smoothly navigate the choppy waves of local bureaucracy. The district officials in turn benefit by more easily attending to rural areas that since time immemorial have been difficult to reach. Between Drishtee and local officials, there are typically no formal contracts and no bids.
Also important is the ability of the Drishtee employees to work within the social networks of each village, building trust, because many of the matters handled are highly personal. Drishtee selects the local kiosk operator in conjunction with leading citizens in the village. Drishtee might approach the village elder and begin inquiries: "Who is the most educated? Who's the wealthiest?" These characteristics are important to finding people who have a good chance of succeeding.
Eventually, the choice is made. Implicit in the approval of the village elder and the other important citizens is the understanding that these people will support the new entrepreneur in whatever way they can. Several times we saw the village elder actively work to promote the new business. The new soochak likewise understood the best ways to mobilize additional people in his sphere of influence, for example, by asking friends and colleagues to assist in such chores as gathering people together or distributing flyers, both ways of publicizing the business.
With a Drishtee franchise in place, village residents save time and money in their dealings with the government bureaucracy, making their lives much easier. Though the value of the technology is shared, its use is not; only the soochak uses the PC. Computer literacy is not required for computers and communications to make a huge difference in daily life.
Phone Booths and Movie Theaters LIMA, PERU
When we visited Lima, Peru, the weather forecast in the newspaper said 100 percent humidity but no rain. It's a climatic condition called garúa, and it goes on for five to six months every year. Tiny water droplets are suspended in the air. You might even feel wet, but you'd be hard-pressed to prove that you're wet. It's an odd sensation.
Similarly, to a world traveler who's familiar with a wide range of cybercafés, it's odd to step into a cabina pública. It feels like other cybercafés you've been in, yet something's different.
Cabinas públicas are public booths or cabins that are independently owned, for-profit businesses providing shared access to computing, communications, and the Internet. Situated almost exclusively in cities and large towns, they appear to be no-frills cybercafés to a passing observer.
Physically, a typical cabina occupies a small storefront. Most have 10 or 20 PCs and connect to the Internet through one DSL line for every 10 computers. Cabina hours are often very long to accommodate a wide range of users--from early morning commuters to young people who play networked games with each other well past midnight. The latest estimate we have puts the number of cabinas throughout Peru at 2500 to 3500, mostly in and around the capital, Lima; others put the total closer to 2000.
The distinction between cybercafés and cabinas is best seen in Cuzco, the former capital of the Incan empire in Peru. This key tourist destination is the starting point for treks to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. The self-proclaimed "Internet cafés" located near the town's center appear just as you might expect. These cybercafés offer breakfast, evening snacks, full bars, comfortable seating, music, and in some cases, an interior decor theme--a jungle setting, for example.
The cabinas públicas, on the other hand, are located roughly a mile away from the center of Cuzco, near the National University of San Antonio [see photo, " Cuzco Cabina"]. They are virtually indistinguishable from their sibling cabinas in Lima. Inside you see 10 to 20 machines, side by side, with minimal surroundings--no drinks, no food, and no fancy decor.
Cabinas are not a luxury but rather an economical alternative for several important services. They get most of their profits from their role as phone centers, allowing families to keep in touch with relatives all over the world. Using voice over Internet Protocol, cabinas let customers make international phone calls far more cheaply than they could with conventional telephones.
Families need to talk, even if only to arrange for sending remittances. Making these calls not only satisfies familial and social obligations, but the money sent as a result represents a significant portion of many household incomes.
Some cabina operators have figured out how to download movies over the Net and put them in shared files on their network. Individuals and couples come in, sit together, and, for the cost of a couple of hours of computer rental--about US $1 or $2--watch a movie. It's cheaper than what it would cost to go to a cinema--and most neighborhoods in Cuzco do not have cinemas, anyway. Some people also use the computers at the cabinas to maintain their business accounts, keeping the data on floppy disks.
But perhaps the biggest factor distinguishing cabinas from conventional Internet cafés is their history. José Soriano, a Peruvian journalist who wanted to develop a computer network and also help his country progress, conceived cabinas. He figured out a formula for them and proceeded to offer, throughout Lima and then in Cuzco as well, free how-to classes on setting one up. More than 100 000 people attended at least one of his classes.
In these sessions, he basically gave out the recipe for starting, operating, and making money with a cabina. Any attendee who could afford the capital expenses and could arrange for the DSL lines could start one.
While cabinas públicas continue to thrive in Peru, competitive pressures have emerged from this seeding. So many have opened up that the price competition is intense; imagine if a big city were to deregulate taxi services so that any car could be a taxi. In India, by contrast, Drishtee guarantees its franchisees a certain number of villagers per Drishtee information kiosk. And yet, somehow, cabinas seem to thrive and replicate, bringing real benefits to the people who use them, profits for owners, and jobs for employees.