By Kalinga Seneviratne
KOTMALE, Sri Lanka, Feb 15, 2000 (IPS) – Villagers in this picturesque mountain region of Sri Lanka, 150 kms from Colombo, are logging on to the Internet via their local community radio station.
The Kotmale Community Radio (KCR) project may well revolutionise rural communications in South Asia, by showing just how information technology can become accessible to rural folks.
”We have opened the doors to knowledge, understanding and entertainment through radio,” says Sunil Wijesinghe, controller of KCR. ”This has motivated the community to participate and express themselves freely and receive information without censorship.”
KCR, established in 1989 by the government-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) as a low-powered community based radio service carrying development messages to the rural people, is now run by the community.
The staff and volunteers are the well-educated sons and daughters of plantation workers and farmers from the surrounding areas, where literacy rates are over 90 percent. They take information off the Internet to produce programmes for broadcast.
Madhushini Nilmabandara does a weekly programme on human rights using the Internet. Her programme is funded by the University of Colombo’s Human Rights Centre.
”People were not aware of their human rights. So we give them information … how to take action to protect it. Now we have set up human rights clubs in schools and do programmes with them (on radio),” she said.
Kotmale has become part of the global World Wide Web under a pilot project funded by UNESCO, which ended last October. A 50,000 dollar grant in 1998 helped establish an Internet hub here, which includes a local server and five computer terminals.
Local volunteers have been trained to log on and some have even learnt to put up websites. They have also recently started a webpage on the community using information provided by listeners.
Since April last year, KCR has been broadcasting a one hour programme at night, five days a week, to introduce the Internet and the information therein to listeners.
”We wanted to be the first to open a gateway for rural Sri Lanka to the emerging information society. I’m glad to say this is happening,” observes mass communication expert Michael David of the University of Colombo who is the KCR project coordinator.
Both he and Wijesinghe admit that the domination of the World Wide Web by the English-language is a barrier to access, but at KRC they have enlisted the help of bilingual speakers from the community to help programme producers.
”We have in this area well educated people like doctors, lawyers, teachers. We get them involved in the programme. They extract information from the Internet and interpret it for our listeners,” Wijesinghe said.
During the programme itself, listeners are encouraged to contact the station if they need more information on the subject.
For instance, ”school children ring us up or send letters asking for specific information. We go to the Internet, find the information and tell it on air in summary form. We send them a print out of the information as well,” he explained.
Listeners are also encouraged to drop in at the radio station to explore the Web. This has proved so popular that KCR now regulates the use of computers, and Wijesinghe said they may soon have to take older volunteers off to make way for new people.
KCR is also setting up computer terminals in three public libraries, including in Gampola, to widen community interaction with the Internet. At Gampola, 20 kms from the station, the librarian has been trained to teach people how to surf the net.
”The Internet is a very useful tool for my education,” says Nayanasiri Dissanayake, a Grade 11 student, who was trained at KCR. ”I have been able to get a lot of information from the Internet, especially for science projects.”
With UNESCO-funding stopping last October, KRC has had to find alternative sources of money. Coordinator David says they are working closely with hotels in the nearby hill town of Nuwaraeliya to attract foreign tourists to the region.
In addition the telecommunication authorities are waiving their telephone bills and the Kotmale webserver could become the Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the region.
Confident project officials are also considering other ideas like setting up a computer training centre for rural people and a webdesign centre for rural businesses which could use the Internet to promote their products within and outside Sri Lanka.
During a recent meeting with staff and volunteers here, UNESCO consultant Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former SLBC broadcaster, advised them to turn KRC into ”an advertising agency to create income for the project and yourself.” Kotmale resident Mahendra Wegodapola has done just that. He used the Internet to start an NGO, the Green Lanka Nature Conservancy Association, and ”now we use the Internet to communicate with donors and international NGO forums.”