Vijay Roy, who lives with the Sahariya tribe in Baran district of Rajasthan, was trained in 2008 to establish wireless networks through the Wireless for Communities (W4C) project run by the Digital Empowerment Foundation. Today, the 28-year-old young man looks after seven Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs) in the state that among many others are helped along by DEF, providing broadband connectivity to remote areas and villages that are still unconnected by a paved road. The CIRCs have also proved to be the catalyst to make 2,000 Sahariyas digitally literate.
Rajkumari is known as Lady Wi-Fi in her neighbourhood because of her enthusiasm in providing broadband connectivity in Baran. Born a Sahariya, who are among the most vulnerable tribes of the country, Rajkumari had studied till Class X but had never seen a computer until she joined DEF’s W4C programme in her district. Today, she teaches children computers and science, besides editing a local tribal newspaper called Khoj Khabar.
Eighteen-year-old Reena Sahariya of Rajasthan wrote her Class XII examinations in 2009. After joining a W4C digital literacy course in 2011, she acquired the skills needed to run the CIRC’s digital literacy programme at Mamoni village, and today teaches children computers. She now wants to wants to learn Photoshop to broaden her career opportunities in photography and design.
Om Prakash from Baran is another Sahariya who had already cleared his Class X exams when he joined CIRC Bakanpura and went on to gain proficiency in several computer applications. It also resulted in an all-round improvement in his skills, which makes it possible for Om Prakash to provide technical support to people at e-Mitra kiosks in the village. A network of these kiosks are being opened in the state to deliver government services.
Emerging from the Digital Dark
These are just some of the stories that DEF has helped create in Rajasthan. The Sahariya tribe once upon a time lived a sustainable life in the deep forests of Rajasthan. However, rampant de-forestation exposed them to exploitation by feudal landlords and loss of their natural habitat. This led them towards leading miserable lives as bonded labor until it was abolished in the 1970s. Our efforts for the Sahariya tribe were inspired by the determination and will of our mentor Late Motilal ji, who worked relentlessly towards empowering and rehabilitating the tribal people. We helped Motilal ji in his endeavour to make tribals aware of their rights. For this purpose, we used simple ICT solutions and digital literacy, and noticed girls took to technology faster than boys. Soon, awareness and knowledge opened up their world. They knew about their rights and the laws governing them, learnt to file right to information (RTI) requests and even find better livelihood opportunities and grow into independent individuals. The way the community has taken to education and digital literacy has left us overwhelmed. They have started believing that the onus of preparing a next generation of knowledgeable and aware people is upon them. The Sahariya children are extremely proficient in using the Internet for education. They speak with children from nearby Sahariya communities through video conferencing and share their knowledge and life. Looking at their passion for Internet, it is hard to believe such wasn’t the case too long ago.
It’s the same case in Jharkhand. Kamlesh Thakur of Thakurgaon in Jharkhand hails from the Oraon tribe. Unfortunately, his family had always faced financial problems. To escape poverty, he boosted his employment skills by learning computers at a local CIRC. Today, he runs his own educational institute in Burmu where he teaches computers and spoken English to children and also adults.
Living beyond the pale
India has about 635 tribal groups and sub-groups, including so-called 73 primitive tribes that together constitute about 8.2 per cent of the population. They are present in high numbers in seven states in central and northeast India, according to official estimates. The primary occupation of tribal areas is still largely agriculture, and most of them live a largely self-sustainable life in and around forests and other remote areas, away from the mainstream. The literacy rate is below 50 per cent. Other common traits of our tribal community areas are poverty, illiteracy, low income, food insecurity, lack of basic infrastructure and civic amenities, poor educational facilities, poor standard of living, loss of land and unemployment. More than 93% of tribals do not have an income more than Rs.10,000 per month!
How can we utilise technology to improve their standards of living, bring them into the mainstream and ensure that they can access all the information and benefits they are entitled to? DEF has been focusing its efforts in doing such that. We’ve already seeing the results of how low-cost technology and community involvement has been changing the ground scenario.
The indigenous tribes of the country are often the most neglected sections of society in terms of overall progress. It is ironical that these culturally and ethnically rich communities lag behind in socio-economic parameters, lacking basic infrastructure and facilities, including health, hygiene, education and ICT connectivity. Digital Empowerment Foundation, through its CIRCs spread across the country, has been working towards the uplift of these tribal communities by identifying there inherent skills, enhancing their digital knowledge, ensuring ICT connectivity and facilitating in their sustainable development.
Women lead the way
A network of CIRCs in the districts of Hoshangabad and Betul in Madhya Pradesh have empowered women belonging to the Gond tribe by providing them rigorous training in computer hardware and software applications. These women, who hadn’t even seen a computer in the past, are today groomed as successful entrepreneurs who manage and run CIRCs.
dCIRC Wadsa in district Gadchiroli of Maharashtra has been taking the Madiya tribe towards healthier and hygienic way of living. Recently, in a community meeting was organised by the dCIRC, people were made aware about the Toilet Construction Scheme introduced by the government under which households that lack personal toilets would receive a stipulated fund for toilet construction. As a result, 22 tribal families could build toilets in their homes.
The CIRC network of Baran has made immense contributions in improving life of those belonging to the Sehriya community. Today, every family would have at least one smart phone. Empowered with digital knowledge, people are now able to keep track of MNREGA rural job guarantee scheme status and payments.
The people of the Kuli tribe of Barpali in Bargarh district of Odisha are traditional weavers. CIRC Barpali has been conducting basic digital literacy classes for learners from all age groups and genders from this tribe. Now the weavers are keen to learn about e-Commerce so that they can showcase their products on global platforms.
The neighbourhood around CIRC Nichalagarh in Sirohi district of Rajasthan is populated by the Garasiya tribal community. This area lacked basic as telephone connectivity and electricity. After DEF’s intervention, people of Nichalagarh can now enjoy seamless wireless network, keeping them connected to the rest of the world.
Several other centres, including DCIRC Pohri in Madhya Pradesh and CIRC Kumbhalgarh in Rajasthan, have been striving to bring these remote tribal communities at par with mainstream progress.
Fortifying a strong future
Kumbhalgarh is a fort on the Aravali hills of Rajsamand district in Rajasthan. This magnificent structure extends to 36 kilometres, making it the second longest wall in the world. The fortress itself is home more than 80 families. On one side of Kumbhalgarh is a cluster of hillocks, which form the tranquil village of Udavar. On one of the hillocks is located a CIRC which was inaugurated in December last year.
Owning to the hilly and remote nature of the terrain, Udavar and its neighbouring villages are cut off from modernity. The region is inhabited by the indigenous Bhil tribe. Their primary occupation is agriculture and farm-related activities. People own small pieces of land, where they grow seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as Ayurvedic herbs. Some also extract honey for sale. Being a hilly area, the land does not hold much fertility, yielding meagre crops. The area has many Panchayats, each with a school. However, due to limited infrastructure, the schools could only offer humanities-based subjects to higher classes. Fewer schools have computer labs, but the systems were untouched due to lack of computer teachers.
In such scenario, the CIRC of the region has taken up the responsibility of conducting computer literacy classes in schools. The staff of the CIRC has covered four schools so far, including one established within the Kumbhalgarh Fort. It plans to expand and conduct digital literacy classes to more schools in the future. In fact, schools having their own computer labs readily offer their computers to the CIRC staff for teaching. While for the rest that are devoid of any equipment, coordinator Rajinder would carry six laptops on his back every day and visit each school on his motorbike to take computer classes, not to forget that each school is located on different hillock.
So far, over 200 school students have been made digitally literate. These are the children from the Bhil community who have always longed to learn computers but couldn’t, either due to lack of infrastructure or qualified teachers. During school vacations, the centre people conduct computer literacy classes at different Badiyas. A badiya is basically a settlement where a group of families belonging to the same community live together. At present, digital literacy classes are conducted in 3 different badiyas, with 20 to 30 enrolled students from each. In this way, from its base in Udavar, the CIRC impacts a radius of 20 kilometres.
Providing ease of access
Besides digital literacy, the our centres in tribal areas have been providing digital services at highly affordable rates. Students applying for admissions or scholarships earlier had to spend Rs. 50 or more to get all important documents photocopied. At the centre, they can get their work done at nominal prices; in twenty rupees or less. The centres organise community meetings twice a month and people are made aware about the MNREGA scheme, Widow Pension Scheme, Palanhar Scheme and provided information regarding other entitlements that can help them improve their lives.
Learners from all ages and genders show great enthusiasm during the digital literacy classes. Most of the people in the tribal communities had not even seen a computer before. Today, they can work on various computer applications with ease. Besides basic computer literacy and services, the centres have also transformed into community hubs for the tribes. People throng the centres every evening and discuss local problems. In this way, the centres give a platform for community participation in addressing issues, and collectively finding solutions. The centres capture the very essence of CIRCs, acting as a medium that enables free, unhindered flow of information within the community.