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SANTOSH CHOUBEY

India,

Santosh Choubey sees the IT and mobile revolution connecting all of India in the next ten years and wants to ensure that rural youth will be equipped to take the opportunities that come with it. An avid author of books and poetry, he is committed to bridging the skill and IT gap between urban and rural India and creating local opportunities for rural youth.

This profile below was prepared when Santosh Choubey was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

Santosh Choubey sees the IT and mobile revolution connecting all of India in the next ten years and wants to ensure that rural youth will be equipped to take the opportunities that come with it. An avid author of books and poetry, he is committed to bridging the skill and IT gap between urban and rural India and creating local opportunities for rural youth.




THE NEW IDEA

Santosh sees a future where rural citizenry would be left behind if tools, such as science and information technology that have been accelerating development in urban India, are not also made accessible. Santosh bridges the educational and digital divide between urban and rural India, by adapting these tools to local contexts and spreading them to create equal opportunities for rural India.

By designing educational and skill development tools as the context evolves, Santosh has continually redefined what that bridge means over the last twenty-five years—moving from science to literacy to information technology. Targeting the poorest and most isolated regions of India, he has created a dense network of entrepreneur driven centers that deliver quality science and IT education to rural citizenry. Along with various affiliated services the centers also enhance youths’ skills and generate local opportunities. Santosh believes that to create a widespread entrepreneurial network, compassion must be built into the institution’s design. He sees the choice of services and the manner in which they are delivered playing a critical role in building compassion into the DNA of the network.

In 1985 Santosh founded the Society for Electronics and Computer Technology (now AISECT). It has become a robust IT training and educational services network with an unrivalled spread over 8,500 centers across twenty-seven states and three union territories. AISECT has worked with close to one million students through a host of skill enhancement programs and generated over 10,000 entrepreneurs in India. 




THE PROBLEM

Indian cities have charted unprecedented growth over the last two decades. This growth can be largely attributed to the development of the IT industry; largely aimed at software exports. It has catalyzed urban economies by attracting investments and technology and developing job opportunities. This became possible when several universities and training centers focused on enhancing the IT and professional skills of urban youth. 

In contrast, rural areas have remained almost untouched by any technological development. While most government and private sector jobs require employees to be computer literate, there are limited platforms through which rural youth can equip themselves with the skills required to become employable in today’s market. The power of technology to increase skills opportunities and enhance development in rural areas has remained untapped. 

Further, it is estimated that only 2 to 8 percent of Indian youth are trained in any kind of formal vocational training; one of the lowest percentages in the world. The corresponding figures for developed countries are much higher, varying between 60 and 96 percent. Community colleges in the U.S. typically provide skill-based training that is integrated into the formal higher education system. This has been successfully emulated elsewhere in the world in what is called “short cycle higher education” which has a shorter duration, mobility into higher education, and is socially held in good regard. In contrast, vocational training in India is being catered to by the unorganized training sector. Most do not provide quality certifications that play a critical role in securing jobs. Further, the industry estimates that only about 40 to 50 percent of the graduates from various technical and vocational streams are actually employable, as the quality of education is poor. Today, this has resulted in the emergence of skill gaps in almost every sector.

While 220 million students pursue an education, fewer than 15 million take up higher education. India pegged its unemployment rate at 9.4 percent in 2010, an increase of 1.2 percent from 2005, when a previous comprehensive survey was done. As per the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), India needs skilled manpower of over 500 million by 2022 to reap the fruits of its demographic dividend. This means that 50 million people need to be trained every year (the present installed capacity is 4.3 million). 

Given this context, there is a huge opportunity for the non-formal education sector to enhance skills and train youth in rural areas. Although post 2000, there have been attempts by large private companies to replicate urban models to spread IT education to rural India, most attempts have failed; unable to factor in differing conditions in rural India. For instance, Internet connection is poorer in rural areas, and as a result, most of the curriculum needs to be delivered offline. Further, horizontally connected centers in urban areas that provide only one solution or service are not viable in rural areas. The nature of demand in rural areas is such that for centers to be viable they will have to be multifunctional. Also, language and gender issues need to be factored in. Rural centers should not only be low-cost, but must also be equipped to tackle language barriers and demystify IT. 




THE STRATEGY

AISECT’s mission is to reach the most remote parts of India and bridge the skill and service gaps pertinent to the emerging needs of a growing economy. It has built and strengthened the non-formal education sector in rural India by promoting information and communications technology (ICT) based training and services.

Recognizing that language is a huge barrier to accessing IT, AISECT prioritizes content development in local languages. It established a full-fledged cell of academics and professionals to continually update and design content in Hindi and other local languages. AISECT pioneered IT content in Hindi and has to its credit more than a hundred Hindi IT modules and a widely read science and IT magazine, Electroniki, with a circulation over 30,000 copies/month. Such content, which is used in courses and vocational youth trainings, is also converted into e-content to provide a resource base to the center for e-learning. AISECT has developed “e-gyan” a multilingual website to conduct computer literacy programs in nine Indian languages and an e-learning platform to conduct online software, hardware or vocational programs with available ICT facilities. 

AISECT provides a host of certified courses, including diploma and postgraduate diploma programs in the fields of software and IT, hardware and networking, industry-oriented vocational education, insurance, management, arts and commerce. Starting with educational/skill development courses using ICT as an entry point in the village, Santosh carefully observed rural needs and environments to develop a model that could spread. 

The pivot of the model that came out of Santosh’s observations is the rural entrepreneur who sets up a center for his own as well as his community’s betterment. Such entrepreneurs are typically AISECT graduates or other carefully identified and rigorously trained rural youth by AISECT. Santosh designed the center to be multipurpose by layering the educational component with other services that could be provided in villages. Entrepreneurs have the option of choosing from a multitude of services offered at the center, ranging from placement to banking services. This provides entrepreneurs with the flexibility to choose services to be provided (and add others) depending on their local needs, and generate additional revenues. The centers function primarily as IT training, education and skill development centers and slowly expand to provide other services. 

AISECT’s unique value proposition arises from the breadth of its offerings which leverages its IT infrastructure. Its spread and credibility in rural areas has helped it partner with a number of government and private players to offer IT enabled services in rural India. AISECT’s partnership with the State Bank of India (SBI) allows these centers to act as business facilitators and correspondents. Several centers facilitate the process of opening new accounts, accessing loans and making deposits and withdrawals for rural citizens. Together with SBI, AISECT also launched a scheme to benefit rural migrants and to facilitate the process of cash remittances to their homes. AISECT has partnered with government and private institutions to create access to insurance and telecommunication. AISECT is also an agency of the Government of India to implement e-governance initiatives through Common Service Centers (CSCs). The centers facilitate payment of telephone bills and taxes, applying for various government services, accessing pension and land records for citizens. AISECT has set up over 5,000 CSCs in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. They have also been working with the government in various developmental initiatives and providing training under government schemes. Most importantly, AISECT centers act as placement agencies connecting rural youth to local opportunities.

Santosh picked his points of intervention at three levels: The District level, Block level and Panchayat level. Focusing in central India, and the most remote of regions, AISECT conducts IT Yatras (using mobile IT vans) to periodically conduct awareness campaigns and increase an interest among the rural population. Then a needs-assessment is done in each area to identify skill gaps and to plan the required activities. The entrepreneurs are responsible for setting up the rural centers and enrolling students, and need to invest INR 1.5 to 2 lakhs (for two to three computers) at the Panchayat level; INR 5 to 8 lakhs (for ten to fifteen computers) at the Block level, and INR 10 to 15 lakhs (for twenty to thirty computers) at the District level. They typically retain approximately 80 percent of the revenues and 10 to 20 percent is given to AISECT as a fee. Santosh has designed a decentralized management system, where identified District level entrepreneurs supervise the Block level entrepreneurs and they in turn monitor the Panchayat level entrepreneurs. Over the years, AISECT has established six hundred District centers, 5,500 Block level centers and over 20,000 Pachayat level centers across India. Santosh believes that the choice of products and services offered at the centers play a key role in developing compassion among entrepreneurs. For instance, he sees them develop compassion when they teach and mentor rural youth, cater to the needs of old men and women (to access pension and other benefits), and engage in local languages. 

Over the years, Santosh recognized the demand for quality formal education (specifically in central India) and the need for university level certification. Toward this, AISECT has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Indira Gandhi Open University (IGNOU) that provides their students with the added advantage of IGNOU Certification for the courses offered. Moreover, select AISECT centers that meet the infrastructure norms and faculty criteria of IGNOU, act as AISECT-IGNOU study centers and offer IGNOU Certified Degree Programs to students. Currently, there are 1,200 centers running thirty IGNOU courses. Santosh also established Dr. C.V. Raman University in 2006—the first private university of Central India to offer a host of graduate and technology programs. AISECT has been able to set up four other colleges in engineering, professional education, and science and technology. These institutions are well known for providing high-quality, industry-oriented and knowledge-based education to their students. 

AISECT has two entities it operates through, a for-profit that is responsible for increasing the network, trainings, publications, and services, and a charitable society that oversees the educational institutions, CORE projects, and e-governance. Santosh believes that several Southeast Asian countries exhibit similar conditions to India and plans to expand AISECT’s work to other emerging markets.




THE PERSON

Born in Khandva, Madhya Pradesh—a literary hub—Santosh graduated from NIT Bhopal with a degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering in 1976. After college, he moved to Delhi and joined Bharat Electronics, BEL (a large public sector company in India). 

Just as he began his career, a political emergency was declared in India. This period of turmoil brought many scientists, engineers, and young people to engage in reconstructing India. Deeply influenced by his father who was a Gandhian—a renowned educationist and an avid writer—Santosh was drawn to the educational perspective. In particular, he saw science as a politically neutral and yet critical instrument for societal change. With the intent to take science and scientific temper to rural India, he co-founded the Delhi Science Forum—a science and technology policy planning citizen organization. During this period, Santosh worked with several professors and scientists and focused on demystifying and popularizing science and technology by writing and communicating extensively in Hindi and regional languages. 

In 1983 Santosh moved back to Bhopal. While he worked as a consultant to IDBI promoting science and electronics projects in the state, he also set up the Madhya Pradesh Vigyan Sabha (MP Science Forum) working with artisans to put competitive processes and technology in place. When the Bhopal Gas Tragedy took place (1984), he set up computer electronics and IT training centers for women affected by the tragedy. His experiences in rural India made him realize that science could not be communicated until literacy was improved. So Santosh became actively involved with the literacy movement and mobilized several volunteers to improve literacy in remote areas. This period saw literacy rates increase from 48 to 62 percent.

At the same time, small computers were coming into India. While the country saw significant progress in software exports from cities, Santosh explored how to use IT to empower people in rural areas. In 1985 he founded what is now AISECT and started offering classes in rural schools on basic computer education. Seeing the positive response from students, the Madhya Pradesh Government asked him to take his classes to one hundred and fifty rural schools. However, Santosh sensed the need to develop content in Hindi and wrote a book on computers, Computer ek Parichay (Introduction to Computers) in Hindi. This book sold 100,000 copies in its first year and validated the demand for IT education in rural India. Over the next years, Santosh continued to develop methodology and curriculum for basic IT education. Determined to take IT beyond schools and prove the model can work in any remote area, he mobilized a group of engineers and volunteers from the literacy movement, who demonstrated IT in villages, and opened school centers for other villagers in the evening. 

Santosh also began to sense the need to generate his own resources and not depend on external funds. He set up a small center in Bhopal, developed training manuals in Hindi, content that could be used offline (CDs and manuals) and built a flexible model that would go beyond education. Enrolling volunteers from the literacy movement who also had the skills to organize and motivate communities, their work expanded quickly. By 1995 AISECT had one thousand centers in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Seeing the interest and confidence of AISECT graduates and other unemployed youth to set up similar centers in their villages, Santosh developed a franchisee model for expansion. He was also part of the IT committee of the Central Government and played a key role in shifting the government’s focus toward software exports but to also disseminate IT within rural areas. This policy shift resulted in the eventual launch of the Common Service Centers and the tender process for companies to launch IT training centers in rural India. Santosh has also written several fictional and educational books in Hindi. In his spare time, Santosh writes poetry and translates novels.




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