Silence filled the room as people viewed a video on grassroots voices and how they have always missed from policy making fora such as the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) process.
The grassroots caucus a lead by One World South Asia screened a film called “Missing Grassroots voices.”
Conchita Poncini from the International federation of University Women chaired the session and acknowledged that it was necessary to look at the reality of issues on the ground as they affect grassroots communities.
The film brought out issues on how grassroots voice their concerns to the policy makers, what appropriate media to capture and disseminate their voices. The film questioned weather the voices of the grassroots were really heard.
The film was followed by a discussion that traced the journey of grassroots from being silent sectors to actively voicing their issues and concerns.
A grassroots representative from Mirgakunja Bufferzone User Community, Bashu Dev Dhungana the President of a Nepal Community Library Association speaking in Hindi got the attention of all the delegates as they listened to the issues that affect the grassroots.
Dhungana spoke of realistic things as they affect people in his community and voiced concerns of the community incorporating it with information communication technology (ICT).
In a situation where 42% men and 78% women in Nepal are illiterate and of the literate only 10% understand English, is the information society going to be able to reach these people in their own languages and provide them with relevant education and information?
In a country where only 12 out of every 1000 household has a telephone connection, is there a clear commitment and plan in the WSIS process of providing equitable and affordable access and infrastructure to the people which is a pre-condition for establishing an information society?
He observed that the information society could benefit all issues but he wondered weather issues of gender inequality, environment, cultural barriers, literacy, language, human rights, health, livelihoods and education will be addressed by the WSIS process.
He wondered weather people who do not have food and shelter would “afford this expensive technology.
He also wondered weather Civil Society Organisations can allow grassroots to talk about their needs.
“I was there this morning and really they were no room for grassroots to contribute,” he said.
His presentation raised similar issues with delegates acknowledging issues he raised as a real problems on the ground.
The grassroots caucus also lobbied the gender caucus to take on issues of the grassroots caucus as gender issues were one of the cross cutting issues affecting grassroots.
In their charter of principles grassroots state that information societies should be sensitive to needs of women, children, youth, disabled and marginalised groups.
They also demand that the information societies must ensure equitable access to knowledge, breaking the barriers of social status, religion, gender, economic status, language and age at grassroots.
Grassroots are communities, many of whom live below poverty line with minimum literacy level and a limited knowledge base.
The participants, while endorsing the views presented by Basu, also felt that there was need for using new and traditional communication technologies and methods while reaching out to the people.
The WSIS process has largely ignored the potential of media like community radio, print media or even the more traditional ones like theatre. While it was certainly important to provide communities with new technologies like the internet, it needs to be done in synergy with older media as well, especially those that the community have been using and are comfortable with.
In some instances, mobile telephones had successfully been used by illiterate men and women to share information and the tremendous potential of various forms of media cannot be ignored.
Financial constraint was another concern for the grassroots especially for projects that were working on local content and in local languages. There was a need for the private sector and governments to pro-actively come forward and support such projects if the WSIS process is to have a far reaching impact on the lives of people.
Clearly, the WSIS process needs to take these very relevant concerns into account as they move forward with finalizing the documents. The plan of action will have to be based on the premise that the information society will need to address the very real needs of the people who have been largely missing from the decisions taken so far.
It is still not too late and is therefore imperative, that grassroots communities be recognized as key stakeholders in the formation of an information society and not just as mere beneficiaries.