Launched in June 2000, 'e-Choupal', has already become the largest initiative among all Internet-based interventions in rural India. 'e-Choupal' services today reach out to over 4 million farmers growing a range of crops - soyabean, coffee, wheat, rice, pulses, shrimp - in over 35000 villages through 6100 kiosks across 10 states (Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu).
The problems encountered while setting up and managing these 'e-Choupals' are primarily of infrastructural inadequacies, including power supply, telecom connectivity and bandwidth, apart from the challenge of imparting skills to the first time internet users in remote and inaccessible areas of rural India.
Several alternative and innovative solutions - some of them expensive - are being deployed to overcome these challenges e.g. Power back-up through batteries charged by Solar panels, upgrading BSNL exchanges with RNS kits, installation of VSAT equipment, Mobile Choupals, local caching of static content on website to stream in the dynamic content more efficiently, 24x7 helpdesk etc.
Going forward, the roadmap includes plans to integrate bulk storage, handling & transportation facilities to improve logistics efficiencies.
As India's 'kissan' Company, ITC has taken care to involve farmers in the designing and management of the entire 'e-Choupal' initiative. The active participation of farmers in this rural initiative has created a sense of ownership in the project among the farmers. They see the 'e-Choupal' as the new age cooperative for all practical purposes.
This enthusiastic response from farmers has encouraged ITC to plan for the extension of the 'e-Choupal' initiative to altogether 15 states across India over the next few years. On the anvil are plans to channelise other services related to micro-credit, health and education through the same 'e-Choupal' infrastructure.
Another path-breaking initiative - the 'Choupal Pradarshan Khet', brings the benefits of agricultural best practices to small and marginal farmers. Backed by intensive research and knowledge, this initiative provides Agri-extension services which are qualitatively superior and involves pro-active handholding of farmers to ensure productivity gains. The services are customised to meet local conditions, ensure timely availability of farm inputs including credit, and provide a cluster of farmer schools for capturing indigenous knowledge. This initiative, which has covered over 91,900 CPKs, has a multiplier impact and reaches out to around 11 Lakh farmers.