The beginnings of a holistic strategy that aimed at using ICT to impact all sectors of Sri Lanka can be traced to the opening up of the economy to market forces in 1977. With the private sector given a lead role in development and a nascent software industry starting to emerge, a National Computer Policy was developed in 1983 by the Natural Resources, Energy and Science Authority of Sri Lanka. In 1984, an Act of Parliament then established a national statutory apex body of information technology, the Computer and Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka (CINTEC), which operated directly under the President.1 In line with its vision, CINTEC focused on several key areas: legal aspects of ICTs, training and education, increasing ICT access island-wide, public sector computerization including the launch of www.gov.lk,2 and the development of Unicode for the two local languages, Sinhala and Tamil. The work carried out by CINTEC laid a firm foundation for the development of the ICT sector that would take place decades later.
There were no major policy changes from 1983 to 2002 although several draft policies that focused on the development of the software industry, based on the Indian model, were produced. Progress was slow during this time as the country plunged into political turmoil. Although a Ministry for ICT was established existence in 2000,3 large scale funding was not available and e-government activities were “… often restricted to the computerization of departments, mostly the result of the efforts of groups of individuals with a vision to use ICT to improve workplace practices”.4 Some government departments such as the Department of Immigration and Emigration were nevertheless early adopters of e-government.5
One area of early government intervention was the ICT training and education of citizens (starting with tertiary education in 1967). However, it was only in the 2000s that a concerted effort was made to improve the digital literacy of the population. An early precursor to digital literacy efforts was the Kotmale6 Community Radio set up in 1989 to carry development messages to communities relocated due to the construction of a large-scale irrigation project.7 The Internet was introduced in 1995 to Sri Lanka by Lanka Internet. The Internet Exchange started by CINTEC spearheaded the development of Unicode and web content in the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil. In 1998, the Kotmale Community Radio and Internet Project (KCRIP), the world’s first multipurpose telecentre using mixed media, radio and the Internet, was initiated by the government with financial assistance from UNESCO and other international agencies. This project also had the distinction of: being the first to provide Internet facilities to remote areas outside Colombo; introducing a mobile telecentre/ broadcasting unit known as eTUKTUK; encouraging people’s participation and involve community youth in developing content; and being the first effort to use dynamic routers instead of fixed routers. Radio and television programmes were used to popularize the Internet while the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation introduced “radio browsing” - reading content from the Internet over radio.8
Although CINTEC was of the view that e-Commerce and e-Learning should be adopted fast to develop the country and introduce rural youth to the benefits of new technology, poor telecommunication facilities, high Internet charges and unaffordable hardware precluded the vast majority from acquiring the requisite skills. Consequently, starting in the early 2000s, CINTEC embarked on setting up Internet kiosks, which then became known as Internet cafes or cybercafes and telecentres. Vishva Gnana Kendra (VGK) (Knowledge Centres) were set up in communities in several regions, the first of which was located at Dambulla.9
The contribution of the NGO sector to the development of the ICT eco-system and enhancement of digital capabilities of citizens, especially women, prior to 2000 is noteworthy. One of these NGOs was Sarvodaya that worked in villages and included women in their programmes for information dissemination through telecentres.10 Another was the Centre for Women’s Research that set up connectivity-enabled community resource centres in several villages outside Colombo.
In 2002, the government of Sri Lanka embarked on the development of the ICT sector and the re-engineering of e-government programmes. The Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) was incorporated in 200311 as a government-owned, private limited company to “provide leadership, to energize the process of using ICT for reform and economic growth, and to create a more dynamic organization outside the rigidity of the government bureaucracy that is more flexible and responsive to such a fast changing technology as ICT”.12 A project integrating a comprehensive ICT vision and planning into the development process, 'eSri Lanka: An ICT Development Roadmap' was launched in 2005, funded by the World Bank as part of the government poverty reduction strategy, which was a key priority area of its country assistance programme.13
The vision of eSri Lanka was “to harness ICT as a lever for economic and social advancement by taking the dividends of ICT to every village, to every citizen, to every business and to re-engineer the way government thinks and works." It included a series of programmes for strategic policy and regulatory reforms towards achieving socio-economic development across multiple sectors of the economy and society, expansion of the broadband network throughout the country, re-engineering government (e-government), and the establishment of Nena Salas14 (telecenters) in remote areas to achieve its vision. It also aimed to enhance the competitiveness of the country’s private sector, by opening up opportunities for investment in outsourced IT-enabled services, and implementing several rural ICT initiatives through grants. The project, extended three times, concluded in December 2013. In its final report, the World Bank15 stated that the project had achieved its objectives because of strong government support, a robust implementing agency, and its emphasis on expansion of services into under-served areas. It stated further that the momentum created by the project had to be maintained to continue ICT development in the country.
The second phase of the eSri Lanka project ‘SMART Sri Lanka’ began in 2014 to respond to the challenges in the Mahinda Chinthana.16 The government’s ten-year development policy provided an overall framework for government planning up to 2019/2020. SMART Sri Lanka aimed at boosting the country's transition to a knowledge-based economy and information society, and enabling it to emerge as a key knowledge hub in the region. To achieve this aim, a ‘Whole of Government’ approach offering one common window for all services was adopted; and therefore, specific strategies were designed in the following areas: Smart Government, Smart Jobs, Smart Industries, Smart Information Society, Smart City, Smart Leadership and Smart Project Management.
However, in January 2015, there was a change of government, and the implementation of SMART Sri Lanka was put on hold, although projects that had began prior to 2014 were continued. The process of developing a new ICT policy commenced in March 2016. Its objectives are similar to those proposed under the eSri Lanka project: ICT is a major driving force for national development. Strategies and action plans highlight an enabling infrastructure, a legal framework, information security and standards, human resource development, e-government, and the use of ICT in trade and commerce, industry, and global competitiveness.17 The new policy is aligned with the goals of the eSri Lanka project.
Thus, the eSri Lanka project was instrumental in developing the ICT sector and introducing e-Government with the overall vision to use ICT for national development. The groundwork for post 2002 developments had been laid by CINTEC as early as 1985. Despite instability, the apex agencies charged with the responsibility of implementation were able to achieve most of the targets that had been set for the project. A lacuna was the lack of recognition of gender issues and proactive measures to address barriers to women's access to technologies.
- Council for Information Technology (CINTEC). Website, Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20040730190829/http://www.cintec.lk/ 21 January 2016.
- CINTEC provided “infrastructure for widespread connectivity among and within organizations in order to communicate, share information and transfer knowledge”. Assistance was provided to the public sector through advisory and consultancy services. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20040803002438/http://www.cintec.lk/public.htm, 21 January 2016.
- Fourth Parliament was dissolved after one year in 2001.
- Rainford, Shoban ESri Lanka: An Integrated Approach to e-Government Case Study Retrieved from http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un-dpadm/unpan040596.pdf, 21 January 2016.
- Kotmale is located in the central hill country approximately 193kh from Colombo.
- Mahaweli Irrigation Project
- Wijayawardhana, Harsha 2016. My involvement in the evolution of Internet in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Unicode with a discussion on Impact of Internet on Sri Lankans. Colombo (forthcoming)
- Dambulla is located in the North Central Province 150km from Colombo.
- The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement that works in over 14,000 villages island-wide set up telecentres, starting in 1997, as nodes for community development using a combination of technologies and methodologies. It initiated the Virtual Village Project in a traditional village community to provide ‘last mile connectivity’ and support livelihood development, with support from the International Development Research Centre. The virtual villages consisted of tele-huts that were networked to district telecentres of Sarvodaya using, for the first time in Sri Lanka, wireless technology, and providing free access. Another important aspect of this project was the incorporation of gender issues into the project and including a women’s organization - the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR) in the project steering committee. The project worked in partnership with the University of Colombo that provided technical inputs; and the University of Peradeniya that conducted research on socio-anthropological aspects of the project. CENWOR also contributed to the inclusion of women in the ICT sector through research and advocacy, training of women’s organisations, and undertaking action projects by setting up community information resource centres in several districts.
- Information and Communication Technology Agency Act, No. 27 of 2003.
- Rainford, Shoban Ibid.
- There were appraisals, negotiations, and debates within the World Bank about the project but the subsequent formation of multi-disciplinary teams at the World Bank and in Sri Lanka took the process forward, Hanna, Nagy K. (2007) From Envisioning to Designing E-Development. The Experience of Sri Lanka. Washington: World Bank.
- Built on the earlier community information resource centres, Viswa Gnana Kendra (Village Knowledge Societies).
- World Bank 2014. Implementation Completion and Results Report (Credit 3986 CE) on a Credit and Grant in the Amount of SDR 29.2 million (US$ 55 million Equivalent) to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka for a ESri Lanka Project. World Bank South Asia Region Finance and Markets Global Practice.
- Ministry of Finance and Planning 2010. Mahinda Chinthana-Vision for the Future. Colombo, Department of National Planning.
- ICTA 2016. Policy framework. Retrieved from https://www.icta.lk/policy-framework/ 31st Jan31st April 2016.