Monday, April 27, 2009

The Dark Horse of Sri Lanka’s ICT4D

Appreciation: Pragathi Mahilal (1964-2009)

Sri Lanka’s relatively higher PC literacy rate (16.9%) is often erroneously attributed to Nenasala telecenter network, under World Bank’s e-Sri Lanka program. No doubt, Nenasalas have played a minor role, but Pragathi Mahilal, as the co-founder of three successful Information and Communication Technology (ICT) publications, alone contributed more to bridge the digital divide in Sri Lanka. In the eve of his untimely demise, I would be doing grave injustice to my dear friend Pragathi, if I leave the story of us launching arguably the most widely read local language ICT magazine in South Asia untold.

When Wijeya Newspapers, the leading publishing house in Sri Lanka decided to launch what it called a ‘Computer and Telecommunications’ magazine in Sinhala, in 1997, it hardly looked like creating history. The market looked limited. Nine out of every ten have not seen a PC – let alone used one, and those who used invariably were business executives. E-mails circulated only in private sector, that too rarely, and government did not know this ‘new’ mode of communication. Internet outside Colombo city areas was non-existent. Forget all that. The total number of mobile phones has not even crossed 100,000. (Don’t doubt that because I remember celebrating the milestone in our fourth issue, with one angry reader complaining we cooked the numbers to promote telcos! Today this number has increased by hundred fold to 10 million plus in an 18.5 million population.)

Publishing a local language computer/communication magazine for such a readership reminded Phillip Kotler’s text book example of an optimistic marketer, who identified a remote African population that never wore shoes as the ideal market with infinite potential to sell Nikes. Not sure whether his prospective customers ever wore shoes, but ours certainly started using PCs and reading ICT related stuff.

Lal Jayawardena, then General Manager and Siri Ransainghe, Editor, Lankadeepa were behind us always, offering their fullest support, but it was Pragathi and myself did the grunt work for the monthly 16 page tabloid ‘Pariganaka’ (meaning ‘Computers’) first launched in August 1997. Having other jobs to earn our bread and butter, we both could work part time. I was the one-man editorial – had to wait for two long years to get my first sub editor. Pragathi was responsible for everything other than content; which included printing, distribution, hunting for advertisements, promotion and running errands. One of Pragathi’s first tasks was to purchase every computer book published in Sri Lanka. We were looking for not just prospective contributors but also correct Sinhala technical terms.

It was not easy compiling a readable magazine for those who didn’t know the difference between a hard disk and a floppy. Pragathi’s commitment was the only consolation. He was the ideal colleague. I cannot remember ever having a work related debate with him. Always, it was the two of us together fighting with others. To every problem Pragathi had an innovative solution. When the press was down once, he immediately got the job done elsewhere and we manually inserted the copies overnight to Daily Lankadeepa. Sales agents complained about the few hours delay, but having heard our side of the story the management agreed we did the right thing.

I am not sure whether I was Pragathi’s boss or vice versa. That never was an issue. Between the two of us, and among the team that gradually grew, it was not important who did what. All shared the same goal. We also shared the credit and of course, blame. I point blankly refused running advertorials. That was the only way to avoid promoting dubious products. Particularly some computer training schools, offering courses with questionable quality eagerly looked for our endorsement. Instead of doing so, we exposed them. As the Advertising Manager, this did not make Pragathi’s life easier. He missed a client once in a while, but in the long run we cultivated few good clients without compromising our credibility.

Launching an IT magazine was not the only challenge Wijeya Newspapers offered us. While doing so we had to computerise the semi-manual publishing process. Till then the layout department for Sinhala publications didn’t exist. The only compuetrised part of the process was type-setting. Pariganaka was the first Sinhala publication at Wijeya newspapers to have its pages set in computers. We realized the intricacies, the hard way, after losing the pages of one whole issue. The staff were not trained to take backups. We had to redo it fully to meet the publishing deadlines.

Still within few years we showed results. This was what Digital Review of Asia Pacific noted in 2006: ‘Wijeya Pariganaka’ is a monthly Sinhala magazine exclusively covering ICT, published by Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. Since its launch in 1997, the magazine has blazed a new trail in nurturing indigenous traditions and talent to meet ICT challenges. While its editorials offer the perceptive analysis of ICT policies and practices, its combination of journalistic and instructional material have helped clarify and demystify the role of ICTs in economic, social and personal development. Because it does not engage in business promotion of individuals or companies, this magazine comes closest to a chronicle of the emerging ICT culture in Sri Lanka.’

The content progressively improved from basic computer science in 1997 (Parts of a PC, MS-DOS, Windows 95, What is Internet?) to more advanced topics. We gradually introduced lessons on computer programming. Visual Basic and Java lessons became instant hits as they were not offered even by most of the computer training centers of the day. Series on 3D animation graphics too was popular. One of our early readers later contributed even to a sci-fi movie. With the assistance of International Open Source Network ( we also attempted popularizing open source software in Sri Lanka, but for some reason apart from Linux none of them became too popular.

Our hallmark, of course, was the policy oriented debates. We provided a platform not only for the ICT professionals but other leading decision makers and personalities to voice their opinions on ICT related issues. We interviewed surprised CEOs of leading banks for our issue on ‘Internet Banking’. Present Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga gave his first interview on e-gov efforts of the government to Pariganaka magazine. When contacted for an interview, Wimal Weerawansa was puzzled what we wanted to know from him about ICTs. His interview, published side by side with another with Ravi Karunanayake made ripples. Weerawansa’s statement that ICTs are only an extravaganza of the middle class started a heated debate instantly.

Saying Wijeya Pariganaka magazine created a new ICT generation is not an exaggeration. We opened the doors of technology to millions of young men and women, particularly from rural areas, who were not conversant in English. At a time ICT education had no state patronage, it was the only source of ICT knowledge. We discovered and told the story of Mahavilachchiya. We also revealed the news of e-Sri Lanka launch dedicating an entire issue. We even started the now famous Sinhala Unicode debate – by interviewing Donald Gaminitilake in 2003 – though it was later fought mostly in the blogsphere.

The sales record too has been impressive. After running two years as a supplement in a daily newspaper, it was in 1999 we were given the challenge to stand on our own feet. IT pundits were pessimistic. Even the most optimistic - media guru Edwin Ariyadasa was one - predicted a monthly circulation of 10,000 copies. We met that with the first issue itself, which Pragathi was largely responsible, while I was attending a one month training course in Singapore. (“I am taking a bath without water” was how he described the effort!) Not surprisingly, the sales dropped with the next few issues. With no precedents, we have misjudged the market. When it hit the rock bottom of 5,000 copies we even thought of discontinuing. Fortunately from then onwards the figures gradually rose, at a rate of 1,000 on average each month. By the time I left in December 2004, we had a print order of 42,000. I am told my successor, the young and energetic Palitha Amarasuriya, has increased it more than two fold and certainly doing a better job in content and quality. With no competition at horizon, Wijeya Pariganaka is the absolute market leader. Pragathi would have been proud of its achievements.

Pragathi also organized perhaps the series of first local language public IT seminars in Sri Lanka. It was all his – my involvement was marginal. Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, the Chief Guest of our first seminar lauded Pragathi’s personal efforts. Prof. V. K. Samaranayake, Prof. Gihan Dias, Dr. Bandu Ranasinghe, Chrishantha Silva (present President of the Computer Society and one of Pragathi’s buddies), Edwin Ariyadasa, Gamini Gunawardena, S.M. Banduseela, Nalaka Gunawardena, N. P. Wijeratne and T. M. G. Chanrasekera (of ‘Antharjaalaya Obe Nivasata’ fame) were some of our resource personnel. All of them contributed voluntarily. The participants were mostly from remote areas like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Badulla, Hambanthota, Matara and even Vavunia and Ampara.

Pragathi also managed two popular IT publications in English. PCQuest was short lived as its editor, Anthony David Raju met with an untimely death – not too different from Pragathi’s. Then he tried resurrecting it as ‘IT-Times’ with Indi Samarajiva as editor. When Indi was discontent about the resources, Pragathi virtually begged him to continue, trying his best to sort out the differences. Even that did little to overcome some of the inherent problems all of us had to encounter, in an environment where publishing an ICT magazine was seen more as a Corporate Social Responsibility, rather than core business.

I doubt whether we exploited Pragathi’s full potential. Hailing from a village near Anuradhapura, it was a great achievement reaching the middle management level in the one of the topmost publishing house but I feel he still had much more to offer. It is sad that we could never use his energy in bridging the digital divide, for the benefit of poor rural children, particularly in his native North Central province.

‘Good Night – Sweet Prince’ was the title of the obituary I did for David Anthony Raju, founding editor of PC Quest eleven years ago. I guess it was not inappropriate for Pragathi too.

Courtesy: Chanuka Wattegama - LIRNEasia

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