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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 166
April 24, 2010

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Access to information at the grassroots

Fayazuddin Ahmad

INFORMATION can lead to interaction into transaction and resulted towards the aimed transformation i.e. development. And for this government and non-government recent initiatives of setting information & services centres at upazila and union level can play a vital role as it is in most of the cases situated in common pubic places where anyone can have access to basic information and communication tools to not only find and get together information but also communicate with others- developing their skills with technology. This began, few years back, merely as an information hub now transformed into a movement- a strong network- of groups and organizations- with the aim- to establish information and communication technologies role accelerating development at the community level.

Information and services centres are one of the most rapidly growing applications of Information and Communication Technologies i.e ICTs in the developing world. Their rationale lies in shared-access models that allow provision of a wide range of services to more users at lower cost than privately-owned home or office computers which are often out of financial reach of poor people. Although the word information and services centres conjures up the image of a newly setup centre with computers and internet, the centre can very well be in a post office, a Union Parishad, a city corporation, a school, a shop or wherever. Some of these can be rights-based and some of these can be profit-driven, and some can employ a mix.

The primary goal of an information and services centres is the public provision of tools and skills to enhance communication and the sharing of information. A number of administrative and operational arrangements are possible, and although community information & services centres can be organizationally differentiated from franchises and cyber cafés they are all functionally of the same genre. Whatever the management model, there is general consensus that the information & services centres concept is a valid development tool.

Information and services centres exist in almost every country in South Asia and Bangladesh is not an exception in this regard. They exist under a variety of names that reflect their diversity and richness. People use them as community centres and learning centres, places where people can meet, talk, share stories, and learn new skills, access information resources and online courses. People use them as technology centres, to make photocopies, to access the internet, to contact family members in distant places and to get important information regarding agriculture, health, education and so on. They enable communities to access new knowledge and information that can be incorporated with local knowledge. Finally, people use them as business centres, to transact business, to pay bills, to look up business opportunities, to advertise services, to develop marketing materials, etc.

Information and services centres have the potential to help break down some of the largest barriers to development that is presently faced by low-income populations, particularly in rural areas. Use of a information and services centres would enable a rural inhabitant, for example, to gain on-line access to distant productive assets and services; opportunities to learn better practices through formal and informal sources; to crucial market intelligence through informal networks that enhance bargaining power; to information on projects, financing institutions and options and support for the rural population; to expanded distant job opportunities and timework; and to persons with similar interests willing to work for a common cause.

Present information & services centres of Bangladesh disseminate information to the rural community through various methods e.g. text contents, multimedia contents, animated contents, video documentary etc. To disseminate the information, information and services centres use mobile phones, Internet, email, sometimes printing services of the contents, brief written explanation, customized consultation etc. In some areas information and services centres provide community people's access to online newspapers. Usually the information & services centres operators read out the contents preserved in digital format to the illiterate people. Some information and services centres have taken social mobilisation and training initiatives to aware the community people about different social and human development issues.

One of the major strength of information and services centres is the recruitment of infomediaries from the local area who can communicate comfortably with the people and understand the community dynamics. Computer literacy of the intermediaries and information and services centres staffs helps them use modern technologies to provide better information and value added services. Some information and services centres practitioners arrange training on operational aspects for the information and services centres staffs which help better manage the organization as a whole. Local information intermediaries have good capacities for personal networking and build confidence among local people about different activities undertaken by the information and services centres.

At the community level both government and non-government service providers do exist. They are involved in operating various development activities in the rural areas. However, government and non-government organisations do not have any substantial role in providing specialized information services to the communities. In most cases still people depend on traditional sources such as neighbour, local physician, teachers and media for information regarding various aspects of life. Only agricultural extension worker plays a major role through providing useful advice and information about agriculture to the community.

The information and services centres can be a repository of indigenous knowledge generation. Old and experienced people (village doctors, farmers, technicians) in the community may be of immense use. They have invaluable indigenous knowledge, which can be explored, generated and used for socio-economic development of the locality. This indigenous technology is effective and environment friendly. (e.g. use of decomposed fish instead of insecticides to drive away insects from eggplants field or trap of light can be used in restraining insects from paddy field).

e-UP could be a good opportunity for the government of Bangladesh and others to introduce e-Government at Local Government Institutions (LGIs) to strengthen their capacity. In Bangladesh UPs are formally entrusted with gazette compulsory and optional functions. ICTs can support the UPs to perform these civic functions like informing people about the services, setting up web notice board that will include all the relevant UP information like budget allocation or block grant for the UP for a year, the area covered under the UP, new development schemes; preserve all information about local people and resources through database, relief and Vulnerable group distribution, birth and death registration etc.

Present ICT Act and the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2009 are the two key sources, allowing delivery of financial and critical basic needs services utilizing digital means and modern technologies. Absence of the right to information legislation supplemented by outdated regulations denying people's fundamental right to know and access to basic needs services. Global norms should also be reviewed together these two acts which will build the framework for e-Governance following to e-Development- resulting development in the region.

The primary legislation for the sector should consist of the framework that will be used to regulate the sector. To the extent possible, this should be issued through a legal instrument not susceptible to easy revocation by a government authority in order to ensure stability and predictability. It should lay out the basic elements and framework, such as the establishment of the regulator, the powers and responsibilities of the regulator, the role of the minister responsible for communications, enforcement powers and ability to sanction. While the primary legislation should address fundamental regulatory issues such as universal service and interconnection, the details of such issues are better addressed through secondary legislation. When looking at primary legislation in both civil and common law traditions, many of the same elements are included.

People's participation in development planning, budget preparation and development projects implementation can be ensured. The management information system of the UP can be digitalized and the UP will have its website which will contain useful information regarding the structure, functions, activities, services of the UP. It will also serve as a data bank of the locality. For instance, records of various services provided by the UP are not maintained properly and records are non-accessible to the beneficiaries which could have paved the way for creeping corruption. Through digitalizing the UP, a better scientific accounting and record keeping system can be developed. Record keeping will become more transparent and updated. Local service providing organisations at the field level and their staff (e.g. health worker, social worker, agricultural extension worker) will receive necessary information from Information and services centres and ensure people's access to information.

Though Bangladesh has many other problems of overriding importance, its journey has started with due emphasis on e-Governance at the state level. But making the facilities of e-Governance accessible to all strata of people remains a critical problem for Bangladesh because the state is ill equipped to make it happen sooner rather than later. Electronic governance depends on the use of IT by the general population. e-Governance promises a lot to better the service providing functions. It also augurs well for democracy as it has the makings of enhancing people's participation through widespread internet access. If the digital divide is negotiated well, e-Governance- because of its extensive facilitating dimensions has every chance to make the world a better place to live in. Its true significance lies in the proposition that it would pave the way for making people's choices more extensive and sophisticated, enhance people's participation in the spectrum of state policy making thereby giving democracy a better foundation.


The writer is a legal researcher.


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