Kolombata Internet – gamata kekirinet

Posted on May 22, 2007  /  8 Comments

‘Digital divide’ may be a term which came under the spotlight quite recently, but what meant by it existed in our societies for centuries, if not millennia. Significant differences between banks of knowledge possessed by different sections of society were visible probably since medieval times.

The ancient Hindu society was an ideal example. In that society, the supreme right not only to protect and nurture the knowledge but also to generate the same, to some extent was solely on the hands of the Brahmins. That was how they, not the Kshathriyas – the rulers – or the Vaishyas – the rich – formed the most important, most powerful and the most honoured layer of the society. Brahmins had neither money nor power, but they could easily control both, as they only had the access to knowledge. They were the traditional teachers, academics, researchers and preachers. The information flow was effectively controlled to prevent the lower strata of community accessing the knowledge. This ‘information divide’ created a situation, in which Brahmins had the hegemony to control the behaviours of the rest, to the level to decide even the days on which they should or not bury the dead.
This knowledge gap has taken a multi dimensional form today. The age-old theories on information or knowledge are no longer valid. The ‘thibu theneka sora sathuran gatha nohena’ aspect of information has long become inappropriate. In the contemporary society, information means money and vice versa. Thus, in a way, the ‘digital divide’ can be interpreted as another dimension of income poverty. If A has money, he buys information; if B does not, he could not. This builds a correlation between information and money though it does not have to be perfect. It also hints a close interdependency between information and money. When you increase one, the other automatically increases usually, though not necessarily proportionately. In simple terms, a sure way to bridge the economic and social differences of the society is to ensure a fair distribution of information and knowledge. Didn’t we know this? Wasn’t it the whole idea behind introducing the free education system in Sri Lanka in nineteen forties?
With the advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) this information gap has taken a more complex form. The ‘digital divide’ not only speaks about the financial issues but also considers the technical and social aspects. The ‘digitally poor’ might not necessarily be the have-nots. Perhaps even some of the financially ‘athi-heki’ in the society might be termed as digitally ‘nethi beri’. This is where the urban rural disparities appear.
In Sri Lanka, there can be no better way of summarising the situation than by the popular call: ‘Kolombata kiri; gamata kekeri’

. This might first have been coined to emphasise the income differences between the two communities, but it explains the information differences much better. There exist an enormous information gap – larger than many of us ever think – between Colombo and the rest of the country, with even cities like Kandy and Matara not fully excluded.
This needs little elaboration but this case study deserves a mention. Few months ago, I happened to notice a project report done by the daughter of a friend of mine, for her A/L individual project. It was a thick report on the life of a star from a white dwarf to a red giant until it undergoes a supernova to form a neutron star and then finally converts into a black hole. On the face of it, it appeared to be an excellent endeavour, completed with images and graphs. Obviously, it has been awarded with the maximum marks. I too was quite impressed with this work, which I estimated to be an effort of at least six months and asked her how long it took and how she could manage to do such a comprehensive and presentable report with all the rest of work. She smiled and replied it took her not more than three days. This naturally surprised me, but then she explained that she played some time on Internet searching for all the information (with the help of an elder cousin) and cut and pasted them to the report. At her level, she was expected only to collect information and present them, not to analyse them and build any theories. Therefore, it was perfectly done. No wonder she got the highest marks.
Now imagine what a counterpart of her, studying in a rural area (Let’s call this second girl Niluka.) could do if given the task of completing the same type of a project. Niluka might not have a PC at home and it is difficult to think her school having a computer lab. Even the small town she might infrequently visit to buy textbooks or clothes might not be equipped with a cyber café. Some communication centres do offer Internet surfing facilities, at unbelievably high prices, so even if they are available, she might not be able to surf for long. Again, she herself might not know to use a PC or to surf Internet. She does not have friends who can help her through E-mail. So for her project, Niluka has to solely depend on whatever the information she could gather from the school library. She may have to draw the necessary pictures by hand and will get no help from latest computer graphics in designing the cover of the report. However, both reports will be evaluated for same criteria. It appears unfair, but that’s that.
Let me further elaborate this point taking some hard facts. The following table presents some economic, social and digital indicators with respect to four provinces in the island and all of them come from the Consumer Finances and Socio Economic Survey Central Bank of Sri Lanka conducted in 1996/97.

North Central
North Western
Average of seven provinces
Average Income per month per spending unit in Rs.
Availability of Electricity
(Percentage of households)
Literacy Rate
Availability of
Telephone/ Mobile phone
(Percentage of households)
Availability of Personal Computer
(Percentage of households)

This clearly shows the socio economic differences among provinces are not as noticeable as the so-called digital differences. The income per spending unit and the percentage of electrically furnished households in Uva, North Central and North Western provinces are in the range of half of what the same are in Western province. On the other hand, when it comes to the use of telephone and computers, the differences are stunning. This could have been more evident if the figures for the Colombo district are compared against the same for the provinces.

When it comes to Internet, this difference is even wider. Unfortunately, still no comprehensive surveys or studies have been done to compare the Internet penetration in rural areas versus that in urban areas of Sri Lanka. One way of doing this is to analyse the number of Internet accounts given for each district, and check what percentage of that falls within rural areas. This figure, for one reason or the other, has not yet been made available by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. It only furnishes the aggregate number of Internet subscribers (not users, as one subscription might be used by a large number of users), which fell somewhere around 70,000 by the end of last year. On a fair ‘guesstimation’, I do not think there cannot be more than 5,000 connections given to subscribers out of Colombo.
With the absence of any indicators to evaluate the rural Internet penetration, Sri Lanka Telecom has checked the Internet traffic on different exchanges throughout the country for a given period. The outcome was a useful revelation. As presented by an SLT official at the Annual Sessions of Computer Society of Sri Lanka, few weeks back, 87% Internet traffic was attributed to exchanges within Colombo district! Next came Kandy, with a pathetic 2%! All the rest of the country contribution was summed up to 11%. There can be several limitations to this study itself, but this gives the picture. Out of all Internet users in Sri Lanka about 87%, reside in Colombo district! Talk about ‘Kolombata kiri; gamata kekeri’!
The rural Internet penetration is low due to several key reasons. Some of them can be summarised as:

  1. High cost of Internet usage (In a survey conducted by the author among 244 Internet users in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, Matale and Hambantota districts, 25% found the surfing charges very high while 66% called them high.)

  1. The low computer literacy levels

  1. Difficulties in using in English – the de facto language of the net (Unlike in India, where vernacular languages constitute a large percentage of local web content, in Sri Lanka, still English rules. Not even many of our local government organisations have bothered to present their content in Sinhala and Tamil. This makes an unbridgeable communication gap between the technology and the users.)

  1. Attitude problems (Most belong to the older generation still feel that Internet is not for them. The above survey also revealed that out of the respondents, only 15% is above 45 years of age. Most of the users belonged to the lower age categories.)

  1. Technical issues such as the difficulties in obtaining computer maintenance services, user support services etc., at the village level

Another interesting point is that a rural user has to pay more than his urban counterpart does, to use Internet facilities. This is because in many cases an outstation user has to dial a server in Colombo paying national telecommunication charges, while the Colombo users pay only the local charges. Some telecommunication service providers have taken steps to address this situation by specifying local charges for Internet users irrespective of the location from where they dial-in, but that solution has still failed to overcome the issue completely.
An estimation of Internet usage costs, at the rural and urban levels respectively, by the author, with reasonable assumptions, has revealed the following:

  1. Compared to what an urban user pays, a rural user always pays a higher charge. The amounts rural and urban users pay for an hour of Internet usage decreases with time, but the two curves always maintain a gap roughly equal to Rs. 60 per hour. (Interestingly, this different is shown even in the charges applicable at urban and rural cyber cafes. While a cyber café in Colombo charges around Rs. 60 per an hour of Internet usage, a public library in a rural area, was observed to charge Rs. 125.)
  2. The cost of Internet access to a rural user varies from Rs. 295 (for 10 hour usage per month) to Rs. 225 (for 60 hour usage per month) per hour. This includes the cost of the computer equipment also. This amount is too high for a population of which 45% has to live by less than US$ 2 per day.
  3. For a rural user, the highest cost component is telecommunication charges, which varies from 40% to 50%, depending upon the usage. In comparison, the telecommunication cost component for an urban user varies only within the range of 25% to 35%.

To be fair, it should be mentioned that at least some initiatives to address this situation are already on the way. These include the steps to be taken under the recently introduced e-Sri Lanka programme as well as the attempts by the Ministry of Human Resources, Education Cultural Affairs to establish computer laboratories at 800 schools, including many in the rural areas. Under the e-Sri Lanka programme it is expected to establish multi-purpose Internet kiosks at village level, which will be used to address different needs of the rural community. However, this is more an exercise of introducing e-Government concept than an attempt to proliferate Internet at the rural level. On the other hand, the programme of installing computer laboratories aims at developing the Internet usage at school level, among other things.
Another commendable attempt towards meeting the same objective is taken by Sarvodaoya. Multi purpose experimental tele-centres have already been installed at several locations including Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Ratnapura. Sarvodaya intends to establish an information network consisting similar tele-centres throughout the island, at village level and to use these tele-centres to make Internet access available to the rural population at an affordable price. The theme of this programme has been declared as “Information Technology for community development”.

It is too early to comment on any of these programmes, as all of them are still at their infancy. Nevertheless, there is no doubt, that they should be given the maximum priority at every level, because the so-called ‘digital divide’ is now becoming increasingly wider. If this divide is not successfully bridged, as done in most of the developed countries, that will only be the beginning of a modified version of the above mentioned call as : ‘Kolombata Internet, gamata kekirinet’.


  1. Popularizing Internet is not the important thing. We must teach people to use internet in useful manner. Most people use internet for chating, reading useless emails which are coming from entertainment groups, visiting xxx sites … etc. If this is our way to use internet it is useless for country. But we must teach people how to use this magnificent resource for benefit of us and other people.

  2. It is good that data is being used to support arguments. But why obsolete data? In these matters, 1996-97 data are pre-historic.

    Consumer Finance Survey data from 2004 are available in any of the Central Bank reports that were issued since then (and CBSL reports can be downloaded free from the website). I have these numbers in excel and in slide format. If anyone wishes to post them on the web I can provide them.

  3. Please see some analysis done using the more recent CFS data on electricity and telephones: http://www.lbo.lk/fullstory.php?newsID=222878524&no_view=1&SEARCH_TERM=24

  4. I agree with Indi’s poppy. Things have changed so much in Sri Lanka over the last past decade. Growth in ICT has been exponential during this period. You must be out of your mind to rely on 1996 statistics.

    45%+ (July 2006) of the households in WP have phones, as opposed to your figure of 10.3%.In NorthWestern it was 23.1% last year, not 1.1% as you say. There is hardly any young person in Colombo (aside from the poorest of the poor) who doesn’t have a computer and a mobile phone.

    Netsurfing in communication centres is incredibly cheap. Have you ever been to one? PCs and internet are also quite affordable, especially considering the fact that Sri Lanka is no longer a low income country. I remember when I was in Sri Lanka (late 90s/early noughties) my parents wouldn’t let me use the internet but there was a whole network of young kids trading hacked SLT passwords and using Moratuwa uni’s Learnmail (popsmtp) for free. Our mating call was “do you wanna swap hora passwords”.

    You’re using some outdated statistics to support a similarly outdated preconceived opinion of Colombo being unfairly advantaged and most Sri Lankans being shit poor. This is not really true for 2007. You really need to get out more.

    Your catchy militant slogan may have been suitable for 1996, but even the JVP would not use it today. Much of your commentary show an old-left bias, generally seen among rural boys made good. You’re really out of touch uncle.

  5. Dear all,

    It is heartening to see a healthy discussion taking place on this interesting topic. I like the introduction to the topic made in the above aticle. It sets a general background for us to start discussions. I also agree that in this fast changing world of ICT it may not be proper to rely on data which are older than 10 years. Even without any hard statistics, we can easily visualise the changes that have occurred duing the last 10 years in terms of ICT in this country. Thanks for the updated statistics provided by some subsequent contributors to this forum.

    I am aware of several national initiatives currently underway with an objective to expand/popularise e-Learning in Sri Lanka. They include initiatives launched by ICTA, Nenasalas,SEMP and Disance Eduation Modernisation Project (DEMP) funded by ADB.

    e-Learning can be used to minimise the social disparities that exist between rural and urban communities of our country. If the opportunities provided by the new technology is not properly used the existing disparities will be further enlarged and the rural communities will be further marginalisd by what we call “Digital Divide”

    I see three important areas that need to be addressed in popularising e-Learning in Sri Lanka:

    1) Provision of relaible, fast (sufficient bandwidth) and affordable ICT networks and related infrastructure,
    2) Campaign to increase IT awareness and IT literacy throughout the country (including English language competence)
    3) Sound Instructional Design of Computer Aided Learning (CAL) material to teach important subject matters using CD ROMS,Intranets, and the Internet.

    Out of the three areas mentioned above, I feel that the real challenges are in the area of development/expansion of skills in Instrutional Design (ID).

    I would like invite you all to read a few articles I have written recently on these topics. Please read them when you have time and let me have your comments. Realted links are given below.

    1) e-Learning: An Excellent Opportunity to Bridge the Economic and Social Gaps Between Urban and Rural Sectors (http://gaminipad.blogspot.com/2005/11/article.html)
    2) Instructional Design: Means to Ensure Effective Learning (http://gaminipad.blogspot.com/2007/03/instructional-design-means-to-ensure.html)
    3) Blended Learning: How Can Sri Lankan Rural Masses Benefit? (http://gaminipad.blogspot.com/2007/03/blended-learning-how-can-sri-lankan.html)
    4) Online Tutoring and Mentoring (http://gaminipad.blogspot.com/2006/05/online-tutoring-and-mentoring_29.html)


    Gamini Padmaperuma
    (former Senior Lecturer of the OUSL)

  6. Since you mention rural tele centers, I am dragged to this discussion
    Its a pity the statues of how tele centers are run.

    The Tele Center Operators have not been trained well, they have lots of problems and
    broken promises by Tele Center Creaters.

    There is no e-Learning facility at Nenasala, Not even in simple form, No educational content in local language, So how can you support e- learning.

  7. Thanks for your response. I am not surprised. This is a typical situation in Sri Lanka where efforts are not properly coordinated to ensure accomplishment of designed objectives of projects and programmes. Priorities are not properly identified and resources are not duly allocated.

    I totally agree with your comments regarding the lack of learning content. This is why I assigned high priority to the development of CAL material(see my previous post)to be used in e-Learning. You may have the infrastructure and even trained staff but if you don’t have the content to be delivered, overall objective of e-learning cannot be achieved.

    From my personal experience, I can confirm development of CAL material is a very time consuming effot which require pooling of several different special skills. As a rule of thumb, it is believed that about 300-400 differently skilled manhours are required to design and develop a learning content that can be studied in one hour.

    Development of learning content is in our own languages is a good idea. However, I feel that we should try to make e-leaners learn English and Computer skills so that they can even access internationally developed contents through the Internet, etc. High prioirity should be given to teach these skills to e-learners first.


  8. This is a good discussion “topic”, but done in an abstract form. The issue of IT use in SL, especially in rural society should not and can not be discussed outside NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT. Therefore, it comes within “Education and Development”.

    In SL, there had been IRDP’s from June 1974 in 19 districts (sadly ignoring districts in N/E)and most have had second phase extentions too. All these IRDP’s(some were later redesigned as REAP) were heavily funded by foreign donor agencies. But their performances were pathetic to say the least. The maximum utility of committed funds have never gone beyond 40%. And most have been on “rent, vehicles, foreign training for project staff, salaries, etc. The SL administration system, which is the apex implementing tool, is a wholly inefficient and corrupt apparatus. Also, NONE of these IRDP’s had anything to do with primary and secondary education. And the rural society has NOT GAINED anything out of them, after more than 30 years. Thus the issue of rural development, that needs to include education reforms to go hand in glove with rural market expansion, appropriate technology for value addition to products and services, improved infrastructure, that would increasingly absorb school leaving youth into decent and viable livelihoods.

    Take this summary into count. At an average, around 450,000 sit O/L annually. Around 170,000 qualify to pursue A/L. Out of this segment, only about 75,000 QUALIFY to enter University, but only about 20,000 are admitted annually. What is there in the education system for those 280,000 who terminate education at the O/L exams? And then the other 150,000 who miss universities? Unless they have an opportunity to get to some limited stream in Colombo, which is darn little, the majority which should be over 90% of the 430,000 “missed outs” are, FRUSTRATED YOUTH, with no place to go in their future.

    This is why, education and development needs to be taken together in discussions of this nature. Why rural development becomes a component in discussing education.

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