A model for others to follow

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Aug 19 2012, 08:44am hrs
Thanks to 109-year-old Rosakuttys photographs showing her training on computers floating around in cyberspace, Keralas early plunge into e-literacy is well known. Even before the concept of CSCs (common service centres) was crystallised by the Centre, Kerala had dabbled in it through its Akshaya centres.

This was as early as 2002. While the programme initially lagged in getting entrepreneur support, its e-literacy component was a thumping success. When Rosakutty, with her 40 great grandchildren, completed the computer literacy course with enthusiasm, it brought ample media attention in 2006. But very soon, entrepreneurs who had come forward to host service delivery centres, burnt their fingers financially and started wriggling out of the project.

This was when the state government took review of the ground situation and redefined the concept and terms of Akshaya centres to create a more effective CSC model, remembers Ajaya Kumar, former Kerala IT secretary.

From 2007, Akshaya centres sporting a multitude of government and private services came under one roof. Services like submitting applications and obtaining certificates, online payments and even booking railway tickets became much more easier.

What salvaged the credibility of Akshaya centres was that they never promised unconditional government support to entrepreneurs. The centres only built their confidence to face the market on their own steam, Korath Mathew, director, Akshaya Project, tells FE.

In its new avatar, the project started rendering new government to citizen and business to consumer services.

Today, Akshaya centres command transactions worth over R200 crore across the state, besides several national and international recognitions. In fact, the Centre has even sought Akshayas consultancy service for implementing similar common service centres in other parts of the country. The Kerala government has already set up an Akshaya consultancy centre in Lakshadweep.

Each panchayat in the state has at least two Akshaya centres. The young entrepreneurs, in over 2,000 CSCs in the state, undertake citizen service tasks like e-filing of tax returns, computer training programmes of international standards, UID registration, and even finding skilled labourers for construction or maintenance work from the local Akshaya database. Affiliated to Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), the centres function as its distant arm.

With returns on investment improving, from 70% in 2005, the attrition rate of Akshaya entrepreneurs fell to below 5% in 2012.

My experience is that if you invest about R3 lakh, you can easily get returns in the range of R20,000-22,000 per month, says V Sreekumar, who runs an Akshaya centre in Thiruvananthapuram, adding, People accept a local guy who can communicate well with them.

In fact, the network of Akshaya centres is phenomenal, says Korath Mathew. He adds: A well-known company took one whole year to register 20 lakh families in the comprehensive health insurance scheme run by Health Insurance Agency of Kerala (CHIAK). But the Akshaya programme in 2012 logged in 15 lakh families in just 45 days.

The Intel IT training programme offered through Akshaya centres has trained over one lakh students.

Because of the 20 lakh Gulf expatriates and their families at home looking for low-cost means to communicate with them, computer literacy took easy roots, even in the once backward districts of Malappuram and Wayanad.

The state IT officials admit that the base of 100% e-literacy (at least one computer literate in each family) helped in the upgrade of Akshayas to CSCs.

Although the inspiring IT grandma Rosakutty is no more (she succumbed to chikungunya two years ago), her spirit remains.

And, Akshaya CSCs have not stopped brandishing her picture as some kind of posthumous brand ambassador.