Redefining Literacy
Dr Nita Mukherjee 09 March 2013

Dr Nita Mukherjee describes a decade-old effort that is bearing rich fruit


Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a Delhi-based not-for-profit organisation, was founded by Osama Manzar in December 2002 under the Societies Registration Act. Its objective is to uplift the downtrodden using information, communication and technology (ICT). Since Mr Manzar worked in a software company, he was acutely aware of the need to bridge the digital divide which haunts India. A large chunk of India’s population is deprived of even basic ICT; telecom facilities and power are either not available or there’s errant supply. Penetration of computers and Internet is low, despite pious government pronouncements. 

DEF believes that lack of information is at the root of poverty and exploitation. Mr Manzar says, “If you lick the problem of information poverty, you would, to a large extent, overcome economic poverty.” He opines that just as, if you build a road, people begin to use it, if you have digital media, people start creating and sharing information. So it is necessary for the State to create and provide the infrastructure for digital media. DEF’s basic premise is that digital media—connoting anything that bridges physical distances for communication—radio, broadband, film projectors, mobile telephony, Internet, etc, have made it easier to empower people with information. Once people are empowered, good governance will follow.
In 2003, Mr Manzar gave up his job to concentrate on DEF’s operations. DEF uses three mechanisms for its development interventions, namely, advocacy, networking and project implementation. Its advocacy initiatives are facilitated by the fact that 
Mr Manzar is a member of government’s working groups on Internet proliferation & governance, national optic-fibre network for universal service obligation fund and screening committee for community radio licence. The Manthan Award, launched on 10 October 2004 to recognise the best practices in e-content and creativity, has enabled DEF to establish a wide network in the social sector. DEF has a database showcasing 5,000 social sector best practices from all over south Asia. Although 70%-80% of these are from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are important contributors.
DEF has done considerable work in ICT application at the panchayat level; although Mr Manzar says they have just made a beginning. Of the three million panchayat members in the country, DEF has trained 5,000 through the 30 rural centres it has opened and created 500 panchayat websites which can be accessed through DEF has held 60 e-literacy workshops for NGOs and developed 2,000 NGO websites for free. Mr Manzar says, “Since our objective is to enable NGOs to create information and share it by making it available in the public domain, we provide the entire service—creating full-fledged web domain and hosting it completely free of cost for one year. We develop websites in the language of the NGO’s choice. From the second year, we levy a nominal annual charge of Rs3,000. All these sites can be accessed through or”
Digital literacy is predicated on availability of broadband, because information at the grassroots is easier to create and communicate in audio-visual rather than textual formats. This has been DEF’s learning, especially in the field of education where it has enabled some 500 schools to upload content on Again, this is a drop in the ocean, but a beginning at least. “We have nearly 1.4 million government schools in the country but not even a tenth of them have IT connectivity. The challenge in such a scenario is: Can the government redefine literacy and announce that we are going to work together towards not higher literacy but for digital literacy. It would indicate that India is working on the medium of the future rather than that of the past.”
DEF has obtained FCRA registration which enables it to raise funds from international donors like the Ford Foundation, Vodafone Foundation and Intel Foundation. It also gets grants from the ministry of IT, Internet Society and Public Interest Registry
Digital Empowerment Foundation
House No. 44, 3rd Floor, Kalu Sarai (Near IIT Flyover), New Delhi 110016 
Tel: +91-11-26532786
Fax: +91-11-26532787


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