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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Connecting the villages
A patient uses the internet kiosk for his consultation with the eye surgeon
Seeing the doctor via the webcam
Mandayan is a farmer in Padinettankudi, a poor rural village in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. For months he has been suffering from watery eyes and blurred vision.

Today he has come into the thatched hut behind the village tea stall to seek help, not at a doctor's surgery, but at what has become the village internet kiosk.

The young local woman who runs the kiosk switches on a webcam. The computer whirrs on the desk beside her as she carefully takes pictures of Mandayan's eyes and records his symptoms, using an online patient questionnaire.

She then sends the pictures and voice recording to the world-famous Aravind Eye Hospital in the city of Madurai, 40 km away. What would have taken days or weeks by post is achieved instantly, by e-mail.

Online doctor

An eye specialist calls back for an online chat with Mandayan. They discuss his symptoms and the doctor gives him an appointment at the hospital the following week, where he can get free treatment.

Mandayan is thrilled. Most of the villagers in Padinettankudi have never been to a hospital or even spoken to a doctor before.

Internet projects around the country are transforming people's lives
Village women run a computerised information centre in Pondicherry
The Padinettankudi kiosk is one of 30 launched in the district over the past year by n-Logue, a commercial offshoot of the prestigious Madras Indian Institute of Technology, and the company has ambitious plans to wire up the rest of rural India within 10 years.

Each kiosk is run by a local entrepreneur and provides a wide range of services such as farming advice, applications for government loans and e-mail, all at an affordable cost of a few rupees.

Global reach

For villages like Padinettankudi, which have no public telephones and where many people are illiterate, the internet kiosk has become their means of communicating with the outside world, and the link to the Aravind Eye Hospital is one of the most exciting recent developments.

Dr G Venkatasamy
Dr G Venkatasamy: Behind the Aravind Eye Hospital
Founded over 25 years ago by Dr G Venkatasamy, the hospital runs the biggest community eye programme in the world, treating over a million patients each year. It does cataract operations, provides glasses and any other necessary treatment free of charge to anyone who needs it.

But the problem lies in reaching all the people that need eye care, and that is where the new technology is proving its worth.

The Aravind Eye Hospital is the first hospital in Madurai to introduce telemedicine to the villages and its medical staff are already benefiting from the global reach of the internet.

Exciting potential

They discuss new medical information with other eye experts and can even watch operations in Boston or London, so enabling them to bring the latest knowledge to their patients.

Dr Venkatasamy is fully aware of the huge potential of the internet for reaching the millions of people in rural India who are needlessly blind, and his vision goes beyond simply restoring sight.

"This is very exciting, because poor people need not be poor. If a man recovers his sight and earns even a dollar a day, that means six million people recovering their sight each year could be earning 6 million dollars a day," he says.

"Imagine what a huge difference that could make to the economy of the country."

Putting The "I See" Into ICT is the first programme in a new series about pioneering internet projects that are improving the lives of rural communities in India and Sri Lanka.

E-Villages, presented and produced by Mukti Jain Campion, goes out on BBC Radio 4 at 1545 BST daily from 17 to 21 June.

See also:

14 Jun 02 | South Asia
23 Apr 02 | South Asia
02 May 02 | Country profiles
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