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Laying the framework for an e-society

Milinda Moragoda

Speech made by Minister for Economic Reforms, Science and Technology Milinda Moragoda when presenting the Information and Communication Technology Act to Parliament on June 17.

Information and Communication Technology or ICT as it is now commonly referred to, has been revolutionising the very way in which we live and conduct our work. ICT is quickly changing the rules of the game globally dictating who will win and who will lose in commerce, administration, governance and education. The future of our country is at stake. The Government cannot afford to continue to operate without incorporating ICT into the fabric of life of the nation. Otherwise, Sri Lanka will be left far behind, other countries which have adopted ICT progress.

Our main economic sectors of tourism, garments and agriculture are increasingly endangered. Take the tourist industry as an example. Consumers are now increasingly shopping for travel destinations and travel packages via the Internet. In response, there is stiff competition among many tourist councils of not only countries, but even cities now.

These reach out to potential tourists with attractive web sites and other clever stratagems using the new technology to attract the patronage of this large pool of sophisticated customers.

In agriculture, farmers in many countries are starting to use ICT which enables them to achieve higher crop yields which in turn brings down world prices, and which as a result, could make our farmers uncompetitive. While in the garment industry, the new possibilities for the individual customisation of garments which ICT brings is changing the way that garments are being sourced, manufactured, and sold, and is forcing garment manufacturers to be able to provide the ICT support which these new demands require.

Our current market strengths may no longer exist if we are not aware of and responsive to the challenges of ICT. On the other hand, our high literacy rate makes us ideal candidates to become exporters of IT enabled services such as call centres, back-office operations, and even software development. As we all know, several regions in India have excelled in providing these types of services on an international basis.

The Information and Communication Technology Act, which we are here to debate, was crafted under the leadership of our Prime Minister to address these very issues. This is a vital piece of legislation which will create the structure required to build a national policy framework, an ICT agency and the committees necessary to bring about the necessary action.

At the outset, I would like to point out that Section 10 of the Act deals with the repeal of Part III of the 1994 Science and Technology Development Act, that is, to wind down the Council for Information Technology or CINTEC as it is known. CINTEC will be succeeded by the new ICT agency. CINTEC employees will be entitled to apply to join the new ICT agency and those that cannot be accommodated would be offered compensation in the form of a Voluntary Retirement Scheme.

It is important to note that the new agency will itself have a limited life of five years which will only be extended if deemed necessary. In today's fast-changing world, where priorities continuously change, obsolescence applies to institutions as well. As such, we believe that this sunset provision is a pragmatic feature of this Act.

Computers-vitally important

Now I would like to highlight the major parts of the Act. The first concerns the creation of a National ICT Policy Framework. The e-Sri Lanka road map, an action-oriented plan which has been developed after much consultation both here and abroad under the leadership of the Prime Minister himself, clearly lays out in great detail the direction in which we need to go. The proposed Task Force will monitor the e-Sri Lanka action plan and will help us to implement, co-ordinate and monitor the actions taken by various agencies.

This action plan will require detailed implementation of areas such as e-government including the development of an intranet portal, the creation of a comprehensive population registry with unique identification numbers per each citizen, legal reforms to create an enabling environment for the online world, such as for e-commerce, e-procurement, e-billing and e-payments; and a massive e-literacy campaign through distance learning to educate the people.

The action plan will have to be implemented with the support and co-operation of the private sector, while at the same time dealing with the restructuring of the public sector and the willingness of the people to learn new skills.

The entire country will be included in this ICT programme. In fact, the telecommunications network must cover the entire country if we are to be successful. Recent reforms have brought about a set in this direction. As a result of the liberalisation of the international gateway, telephone costs for overseas calls have dropped dramatically, however, there is much more to achieve in this sector. Connectivity must be made available to everyone, and that is why the Vishwa Grama Fund was established on the back of this reform to create network-rollout subsidies to incentives operators to provide services to areas which are presently under served. By doing this we will help ensure that ICT reaches even the most remote villages eventually.

The second part of the Act concerns the creation of a National ICT Committee. This high-level committee will drive policy-making on ICT, and will include the Ministers for Telecommunications, Education and Higher Education as well as the Minister in charge of Public Administration. There is a rationale for this choice of Ministries.

For example, telecommunications is the key to creating connectivity and will provide the backbone linking all persons, whether the villager in the most remote rural parts of our country or the urban dweller, allowing them to effectively communicate, access and share information and conduct their businesses with the rest of the world if not only with each other.

On the other hand, public administration will be the vehicle which will implement and bring about the whole new world of e-government. It will facilitate the great and positive changes both for public servants, the private sector, and citizens alike.

Meanwhile, there will be a large emphasis on education. We will need to improve the teaching of ICT in schools and universities and perhaps just as importantly, we must set up distance learning centres throughout the country. Under the E-Sri Lanka program the Government plans to roll out a nation-wide distance learning pilot project in the coming months. That is only the beginning. The Youth Corps, which is the Prime Minister's initiative also lays great emphasis on the teaching of ICT. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the teaching of English which is also vital to good e-communications.

There are several ICT projects started under the earlier government which fit in with the e-Sri Lanka initiative. The Prime Minister has decided to integrate these projects as part of the ICT programme. ICT is too important an area for partisan consideration to enter.

The programme will also provide assistance to small businessmen who wish to set up their own e-businesses. We are in the process of setting up internet kiosks where people can both learn computer skills and have affordable access to computers. In the coming year we hope to help set up one hundred kiosks nationally and take this up to between five hundred and a thousand in the next five years. This programme is called Vishwa Gnana.

To make our dreams a reality will require many hundreds of millions of dollars. I am happy to state that the donor community led by the World Bank has already made substantial commitments towards e-Sri Lanka in their budgets. In fact, the World Bank is in the process of allocating around US $ 50 million to begin implementation of this programme.

Donors such as Japan, The United States, India, Sweden, Canada and the Asian Development Bank are committed to helping make e-Sri Lanka a reality. During the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development, the donor community identified e-Sri Lanka as a clear priority in their assistance strategies. We have a further way to go and with hard work, I am sure we will be able to put the balance resources together in the coming months.

The final element of this Act involves the setting up of the ICT Agency. The Agency will play the critical role in the implementation of e-Sri Lanka. We hope to staff this Agency with the brightest young minds Sri Lanka has to offer. This new century requires a fresh approach and a new generation. Section 9 (5), outlines the powers and functions of the Agency.

Mr. Speaker, today we are debating the future of Sri Lanka. We have the chance to create a framework for an e-society to improve governance, administration, the economy, education and the quality of life. The outcome will be a cultural, organisational and technological change for the government and the people. I strongly urge all members to support this Act.

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