Rural network rings in the death of distance.

It’s a sunny winter afternoon in early December, when VK Raju and his friend Narasimha, both farmers from a nearby village, walk into a nondescript, spartan office bearing the sign "Nemmadi Kiosk" located on the busy main street of Yelahanka Old Town, a semi-urban village on the outskirts of Bangalore.

The two give a number to Manjunath, the operator of a computer information kiosk. Manjunath keys in the number on his PC, reads the screen that pops up in Kannada, checks a few details and prints out a document for his customers. The entire transaction takes less than three minutes, including clarifications on some counts and sundry conversation.

Nemmadi is a Kannada word that translates into "peace of mind" - and that’s exactly what these information kiosks seek to supply to India’s rural population. Nemmadi kiosks in the southern Indian state of Karnataka are part of a nationwide network of 2000 e-kiosks set by Bangalore-based Comat Technologies. These kiosks or Rural Business Centers (RBCs) were developed by Comat to create some kind of information equality. "For years, a large part of India has never had access to information. We wanted to set this right using technology," says Comat CEO Sriram Raghavan.

"For years, a large part of India has never had access to information. We wanted to set this right using technology."


The initiative took root when Comat digitized land records for the Karnataka government under an e-governance project called "Bhoomi". The digital form meant that information could be accessed from any authorized centre and not just from within government offices. Comat took the idea further and set up 800 kiosks throughout Karnataka, where a common infrastructure is used to deliver a diverse set of services.

Raju and Narasimha, for instance, are here to get documents that prove that they are the owners of land in nearby villages. "We have a land dispute case on in the High Court, and we need these documents as evidence", says Raju. Over the next half an hour, at least ten other customers come in, asking for land related documents. Some of them have either sold or bought land; others need documents as collateral security against which they can apply for bank loans. Manjunath draws their attention to a board on the kiosk wall announcing new services including issue of other government certificates such as birth, death and caste certificates.

"Land records and government certificates are very vital in rural communities. They help to define your status in society, based on which a resident can prove eligibility for loans, government schemes and subsidies," says Raghavan. No wonder then, that a centre like the one at Yelahanka gets as many as 100-150 requests a day for various property related documents such as paanis, RTCs and mutation certificates. "The Nemmadi centre has definitely helped a lot," says Raju.

Nemmadi centers charge exactly the same nominal rates as the Government and document prints cost Rs.15 each. In any case, prices have never been an issue. "Rural customers have greater purchasing power than we think. They are willing to pay for services that they see value in," says Raghavan.

The biggest advantage lies in the convenience factor. Customers no longer need travel long distances, spend an entire day waiting in long queues and - most painful of all - face the inevitable corruption at Government offices in Bangalore city. "The Nemmadi centre really makes transactions tension free," he says.

The Nemmadi centre in Yelahanka caters to Yelahanka, Jala and Hessarghatta, three ‘hoblis’ or groups of villages, within a 15 kilometer range. It is run out of a functional office equipped with just two PCs, a printer, a scanner and a UPS. The kiosk is networked with central databases through a VSAT network, bypassing less reliable and lower bandwidth fixed line systems.Thanks to the satellite network and the back up provided by the UPS, the Comat network routinely polls a 99% uptime. Raju, the customer agrees. "Sometimes, there is a breakdown in the system, but I have never had to wait for longer than half an hour," he says.

The real miracle however is that this nation-wide network of RBCs adds up to a profitable enterprise


The real miracle however is that this nation-wide network of RBCs adds up to a profitable enterprise."While land records bring in the maximum revenue, we try to drive down costs by sweating the assets," says Raghavan.

For example, after 6 pm when peak business hours are over, the Yelehanka centre turns into a tele-education hub. Teachers in a studio in Bangalore conduct classes over the VSAT link for students all over the state. Thanks to the link, the interaction is two way, and rural students can communication using videoconferencing with some of the best teachers in the state. The cost of hosting and transmitting lectures is amortized over all the regions. "We just completed a three-month long online CET coaching camp for a batch of seven students," says Manjunath. (CET or the Common Entrance Test is an examination that students have to pass if they want to join any of the engineering or medical colleges in Karnataka.)

Nemmadi centers also collect insurance premiums, offer mobile recharge and cable TV services. "Technology has helped us deliver these services in a manner that makes good business sense too," says Raghavan.

Viewed on a larger canvas, the network has helped create jobs: for centre operators, back office staff, field officers and insurance sales persons. Comat provides direct and indirect employment to over 6000 people in rural Karnataka.

In effect, the Comat initiative is a small step forward towards a huge social change that India desperately needs. A change in the economic ecosystem where rural youth no longer have to migrate to big cities in search of employment.

Manjunath himself has much to thank the centre for. A trained certificate holder from the Industrial Training Institute, he used to work as a salesman at a fair price shop in Sidlaghatta, 45 kms away. The opening of the Nemmadi centre in Yelahanka gave him a chance to return to his village,Kogilu, to be with his father, who has been unwell of late.

In effect, the Comat initiative is a small step forward towards a huge social change that India desperately needs. A change in the economic ecosystem where rural youth no longer have to migrate to big cities in search of employment.

It is such connections that make the Comat network such a vital bridge in India’s developmental journey. Sometimes, it seems, the network can bring you home - literally - even as it helps others make the journey outward.

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