By Osama Manzar
When the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020 and everything was shut down, rural and remote India was the worst hit. Unlike the urban populations, people from rural and remote locations in India didn’t have access to fast-speed Internet connectivity, many of them did not possess a digital device per household member or have access to the many mobile apps that made the stay-at-home a little more bearable for their urban counterparts. Transitioning to online banking, grocery and food delivery or work from home didn’t come as easy to them.
This population was not just unable to access services but was also ignored by the systems largely, leading to their further marginalization due to reverse migration, loss of livelihood, poor access to health care, reduced access to food supplies and disconnect from educational opportunities, among others. In 2021, the situation was worse. With the pandemic entering Year 2, rural and remote populations saw their economic capacity dip even further, their quality of life deteriorate even more and their access to basic and essential services made almost impossible.
Access to essential services
When the COVID19 pandemic began in 2020, the focus of government, civil society organisations and other stakeholders was to curb the spread of the virus through imposition of lockdowns and increasing awareness. The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) too focused on creating awareness about Covid appropriate behaviour and ensuring access to sanitisers and masks last year. This year, however, the focus was more to ensure communities have access to their essential services, which had been rather abruptly disrupted during the first lockdown.
Several organisation have been using their experience and leveraging their networks and programmes to respond to the needs of the communities they serve, such as running helplines, ensuring access to food and healthcare services. We too responded to these challenges by leveraging our available Internet-enabled community-based digital infrastructure resource centres. These digital resource centres, which were operated and managed by young people from the community trained by us and called SoochnaPreneurs, acted as local service hubs. DEF’s SoochnaPreneurs, while ensuring all safety precautions, facilitated access to financial services for those with bank accounts, enabled access to government entitlements for those who relied on public schemes and benefits, and turned into classrooms for those who were missing out on regular schools.
It is worth noting that during the second wave young people’s participation and leadership has been integral to tackling local issues. This group, which faces great uncertainty and anxiousness about its education and livelihood aspirations, have been torchbearers in their communities when it comes to raising awareness around Covid-appropriate behaviour, vaccine hesitancy and ensuring their communities have access to essential services. We, too, witnessed this.
Our young SoochnaPreneurs ran hyperlocal relief work and resource mobilisation on the ground. This involved a barter system of sorts in the villages of India, to allow exchange of surplus ration supplies. Some SoochnaPreneurs, who had a large network on their social media, ran fundraisers online to reach out to well-wishers outside of their villages and districts, and encouraged them to donate cash via digital wallets like Google Pay and banking apps. One such SoochnaPreneur, Mohd Arif, managed to raise INR 25,000 for the people of Nuh in Haryana. This helped him support hundreds of people in his village by supplying rations to families, pay for mobile data of children to attend school, and ensure medical supplies for those struggling to access any. Arif succumbed to Covid a few months later but not before leaving behind a legacy of giving and caring in Nuh.
Access to healthcare services
Funders, bi-lateral and multi-later agencies have also been collectivizing young people both online and on the ground to champion various causes related to COVID. One such example is UNICEF’s Young Warriors Coalition, a partnership to catalyse a pan-India movement to mobilise and arm 5 million “Young Warriors” to combat COVID-19. With the support of UNICEF, our SoochnaPreneurs or Covid Warriors managed to reach 35 lakh individuals online — via instant messaging and social media platforms— with their messaging to tackle the pandemic. Additionally, a partnership with DocOnline enabled these young men and women to provide village residents with online video consultations at a time when even basic healthcare was hard to find, let alone Covid-related treatment and care.
Access to educational content
Young people’s access to education has also been severely impacted due to the pandemic. Continued school closure and transition to online classes has led to disparate and restricted access and loss of learning. In DEF’s experience, while relief work continued, we heard from several communities that education was a pressing concern for their children. Several organisations in the country have been working tireless to ensure children’s education is not disrupted through access to services or resources, and even through the availability of infrastructure. At our end, to solve for the digital divide, we saw our responsibility in leveraging our networks on social media and messaging platforms to raise about 5,500 used laptops and mobile phones. These crowdsourced devices were then used to create 500 community access points (common facility centres) at the village level for school-going children so that they could access online educational content during the lockdown.
Access to livelihood opportunities
The pandemic has put major strains on the development sector in India with many CSOs and NGOs facing challenges in terms of funding and supporting communities on ground due to restrictions on mobility. However, several funders and philanthropists around the world have mobilized additional funds and allowed flexibility in existing funding to support organisations and the communities they work in through this time.
We need to understand though that change does not happen not overnight. While an organisation can offer immediate relief, it can often take a while for the impact to sustain or for change to be actioned. For example, between 2010 and 2015, DEF had trained some 500-odd young boys and girls in digital literacy in the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. And we recently found out that at least 80 households in Chanderi had managed to sell at least one product online during the second surge by leveraging social media and eCommerce platforms. This shows that even efforts we made almost a decade ago have allowed some families to sustain themselves during the pandemic. Similarly, our efforts at creating a pool of SoochnaPreneurs who can support their community members in these times of crisis will help some of the most marginalised communities stay afloat as we eventually recover from this pandemic.
Today, access to a smart device and fast-speed Internet has become a necessity to access quality educational, livelihood, governance, financial and even entertainment content. Considering the intense adverse effect that digital divide has created across rural India amid a pandemic, many organisations like DEF have been strongly advocating to make smartphones affordable and Internet accessible for all homes. Funders, too, need to step up and see hardware and connectivity as key investments towards change. It is imperative for the government to consider digital access as a fundamental right and make provisions in welfare schemes to make the Internet available for vulnerable and marginalized communities.