The day we ‘Meshed up’ Mahavilachchiya

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  1. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga discussing problems in the area with the community leaders, villagers, etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRNpg7Kdtdo
  2. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga’s speech (Part One) in Mahavilachchiya. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fYsE-O6wtA
  3. Mr. Lalith Weeratunga’s speech (Part Two) in Mahavilachchiya.

Ranjith Gunarathne

A historical event took place today at Horizon Lanka Foundation at Mahavilachchiya. According to Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka, “Horizon Lanka Foundation has been creating history for the past 8 years.

” The first ever mesh network sponsored by the Pan Asia R&D Grants Program through the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, was declared open by Mr. Lalith Weerathunga, the secretary to the President of Sri Lanka and the chairman of the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Regulatory Committee. Many distinguished guests, including Mr. Sunil C. Wijesinghe, Deputy Chairman Bartleet Group, Prianca Perera, a Director at Bartleet Group, Mr. Kithsiri Gunasekara, Managing Director of Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Ltd – the company who made this groundbreaking project a success – Mrs. Chitranganie Mubarak, Programme Manager – e-Society Development Initiative of ICTA and Mr. Chanuka Wattegama, a former veteran journalist in the field of ICT, graced the occasion.

In its press release on mesh inauguration, the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) stated, “The Mahavilachchiya e-Village with its high density of computers is a significant chapter in ICT development in the country. Over 400 rural students receive ICT education and it is the only rural Sri Lankan village with 24 hours internet connectivity. Secondary level students are now commissioned to design websites and are currently earning more than their parents who are mostly farmers. This is symbolic and a message for marginal level communities all over the world.”

Mr. Lalith Weeratunga began his eloquent speech, which mesmerized the audience, quoting from the book ‘Ignited Minds’, written by the President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,

“Dream, dream, dream…
Dreams transform into thoughts and thoughts result in action.’’

He was referring to the man who had a dream and who was tenacious and resilient enough not to give up or look back until he made his dreams come true. The man who really transformed his dreams into thoughts, which resulted in action that overwhelmed the whole nation; Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka, popularly known as ‘Wanni’, is the founder of Horizon Lanka Foundation. He is the man, according to Mr. Weeratunga, who ‘inspired the spirit within the children’ of the poor remote village Mahavilachchiya where he was born. He has worked hard for a long time together with the ‘inspired’ children and they have transformed Mahavilachchiya into the first e-village in the country. Mr. Weerathunga promised to do everything possible in his official capacities to help Horizon Lanka and Mahavilachchiya, and other similar projects. He resolutely stated, “Take my word I will certainly go into this thoroughly.”

Mr. Weeratunga, went on to quote again from the preface of this book he said he specially selected for this occasion from ‘the huge collection of books’ he has accumulated over time, “I have written this book as an expression of my faith in the potential of India, and my countrymen.” He called Abdul Kalam ‘a man who loved India’. Then he said, “Let me say this; that we have faith in the potential of Sri Lanka and our countrymen. You (Wanni) have exemplified this.” Aren’t these the words of a man who loves Sri Lanka? His words, “I was offered many times to live abroad, the latest was in 1998 but I never want to leave Sri Lanka. I want to make sure that this is a place that we can be proud of.” tell us how he loves Sri Lanka, the motherland of us all.

He said that he “could have never imagined this kind of thing ever happening in Mahavilachchiya”, which he first visited in 1977. “This is not what I saw at that time 30 years ago, it was quite different and I think now I see a totally different Mahavilachchiya; you (Wanni) have taken it to a realm which I could have never imagined, not even in my wildest dreams that I could have imagined Mahavilachchiya would be like this but you have taken it not through normal routes.”

“The usual development is we build the roads, we build the small irrigation channels, we build the business opportunities of people, we build the school, we build the hospital; that is the normal kind of development that you do. We have done this for the last fifty odd years. But where have we gone? There are places where there is good infrastructure but people have not developed. There are places like Mahavilachchiya where you do not have the infrastructure, but your people are highly developed.”

Mr. Weeratunga had a proposition to make to Wanni and his team, “I think what we see here today is replicable. I want to ask your help in the creation of at least 325 e-villages because we have 325 Divisional Secretaries Divisions in this country. So at least if we can select one village per division, I think Wanni can walk us through because you have gone through the whole mill.”

Mr. Weeratunga further speculated on the issue of creating e-villages, “I invited Wanni to spearhead this whole task. Also, let Horizon Lanka be the training ground for those 325 champions that we are going to find. But you could all be the champions of champions. We have a fantastic programme in Mahinda Chinthana called ‘Gama Neguma’, which is to ensure that the village is developed in the total sense. Had I known, or had Mr. Rajapakse known about e-village concept we would have definitely put it in ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’, I am sure. Now that you have done it, it doesn’t have to be in that book but we can always copy, we can always work with you. I don’t want to do something different; I want to learn from you. And then do it the way it has come through. This is not top driven, this is bottom driven. That is why it is a success.”

Mr. Kithsiri Gunasekara, Managing Director of ETPL, gave a presentation on mesh technology in which he described briefly but very clearly what mesh is, and the immense potential it can bring about in developing the rural life. Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Ltd. is one of the premier Network Systems Integrators in Sri Lanka who provide ICT solutions for major Sri Lankan corporations and institutions. They recently started to focus on low cost networking solutions to rural areas.

ETPL, in a recent press release, called this “a pilot project, a model from which other rural villages can also benefit.” It also says that “the villagers in rural areas will be able to gain information and be knowledgeable to help stimulate economic growth by creating new products, increasing productivity and promoting new commercial and administrative methods. In addition to economic development, this connectivity would foster social development, cohesion and inclusion, through its applications in education, health and increased citizen participation in civil society and government.” (Read the complete press release.)

According to Mrs. Chitranganie Mubarak, Programme Manager – e-Society Development Initiative of ICTA “ICTA is always behind Horizon Lanka.” She also added, “We are very proud and this is a village we sight as a model to everybody else we talk to. We are thankful to Horizon Lanka because they are the ones who opened our eyes to what is possible at village level and we have taken it to other villages.” The ICTA had extended its helping hand to Horizon Lanka on many occasions. They are the ones who gave us the internet connection and Mrs. Mubarak happily announced that they had signed the contract doubling the bandwidth, up to 256 kbps, just the day before. And the Agency was behind us in the advanced training of our senior students.

“Just giving connectivity will not be enough. We know that people need to be helped in their capacities and we have taken Nirosh and Chamila, two people from the Horizon Lanka Academy, to India on a training program. Our vision is also that these villages to take that step to become a BPO business and we funded two of them, Isuru and Nirosh, in training travel to Laos and Delhi. That has again opened up a whole range of opportunities.”

Some students of Horizon Lanka Academy made a couple of presentations using the ICT skills they have acquired at the Academy , speaking in fluent English, which proved that they can compete with students from any big school in Colombo. Mr. Sunil C. Wijesinghe commented that ‘I wouldn’t see that kind of children in Colombo.’

They said in one of their presentations, “We believe that there should be an ICT culture in Mahavilachchiya… However, our knowledge in this area is still limited but we hope to improve it in the future. Horizon Lanka’s founder, Mr. Wanninayake’s dream is to send one of the Horizon Lanka students to study at MIT in the United States. We also hope to start e-learning if someone can help us. We are helping ICT educational projects in Ampara and Monaragala now.”

They further added, “We don’t have a single mobile phone company covering Mahavilachchiya. Having listened to our request, Dialog Telekom provided mobile coverage within 50-meter radius around Horizon Lanka last year. They are going to cover the whole village soon…”

Wanni started his short but forceful speech by reminiscing how it all began, “At an e-Society exhibition held in Colombo in 2004, Mr. Chanuka Wattegama and Mr. Kithsiri Gunasekara sparked the first flame for mesh. Having heard that Mahavilachchiya is the village with the highest computer density, they suggested that mesh technology could be easily implemented in Mahavilachchiya.”

Wanni said that the biggest hurdle they faced in the implementation of the Mesh was “The problem of getting permission for the frequency. Licensing cost us a huge amount of money. We expect that the TRC would take actions to free this frequency enabling us to replicate mesh in other parts of Sri Lanka as well. I have learnt that this particular frequency is free in other countries.”

He requested the ICTA to increase the bandwidth – as they have always done in the past in responding to the growing demand- at least up to 1Mb, to accommodate the expansion of the Mesh that will take place in immediate future, with the proposed addition of new computers to the 2 schools and the small home networks that students are building in their houses, which will result in a network of more than 100 computers.

Drawing the attention to the barriers Horizon Lanka still has to overcome in launching the BPO Project Wanni said, “Our to-be-investors’ main worry was the road conditions here. We get visitors every week and they find it difficult to travel due to bad road conditions. Then he expressed his hope that, “His Excellency the President will help the village by repairing the road to Mahavilachchiya via Anuradhapura and Nochchiyagama; not to mention the roads inside the village too.”

Speaking further about the problems Horizon Lanka has to face he said that we need government intervention about the frequently fluctuating electricity in the village too.

In conclusion Wanni, with the look of the same undefeated determination one can always see on his face, assured the audience that, “If the government, and also the private sector, help us we can make Mahavilachchiya another Andra Pradesh or Bangalore using ICT.”

Hansi Sumedha, a grade 10 student of Horizon Lanka Academy called the implementing a mesh network in Mahavilachchiya ‘our mammoth achievement’ in her vote of thanks.

The sponsors for the project are,

  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
  • Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP)
  • Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMICC)
  • International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
  • Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC)
  • Internet Society,
  • Pan Asia Networking
  • Microsoft.

Partners who worked with Horizon Lanka to make this venture are the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, the Information and Communication Technology Agency, the Asia Media Information Centre, and Enterprise Technology (Pvt) Limited.

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