How you can contribute to the spread of digital literacy in small-town and rural IndiaChoose your dates, come along with me and meet some of the most unassuming people. These people have overcome many difficulties to adopt digital tools, and access devices and Internet connectivity. Most of them have little education, they are “backward” and live in abject poverty. But they represent key milestones in India’s great journey towards becoming “Digital Bharat”.
And yes. For you, these remote destinations may be worth exploring and asking yourselves simple questions: Can I expect connectivity in these parts when I travel here next? And can I help enable one person in a cluster of village households to become digitally literate?
Internet and information communication technologies (ICT) can address significantly our deprivations and problems of alienation in remote parts of the country. With this realization, I launched the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) 10 years ago. Today, DEF’s efforts extend to 30 locations in India, mostly in remote areas.
Let me take you to four milestones of our “digital Bharat yatra”, traversing Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
Shahpur, a Muslim-majority panchayat in Umrain block in Alwar district, Rajasthan, is known for its backwardness. Literacy and education are a 21st century challenge here. In 2010, DEF organized a digital panchayat workshop for the elected members to become digitally literate and make use of the digital resource centre set up on the outskirts of Alwar. That was where up-sarpanch (vice-president) Nawab Khan first began using the computer and Internet. By November, Nawab had created a new digital ecosystem in his village, imparting digital literacy to youths and girls, panchayat members and community fellows—something that is still difficult for many of his panchayat brethren in other parts. Today he represents his panchayat at the annual Digital Panchayat Summit in Delhi.
Baran is a tribal-dominated area in Rajasthan. Forty per cent of its residents are from the Sahariya and Bheel communities, and the majority are destitute, bonded labourers. Amid them, you will meet Vijay Roy. In his mid-20s, Vijay is a vagabond turned barefoot network engineer. The first time I met Vijay years ago, he showed great eagerness to learn about everything digital—computer, mobile, Internet, video and radio. As a member of our wireless networking team, he learnt about the Internet and broadband. His contributions have helped to build eight community digital and access resource centres with wireless broadband network, many of them 40-60km apart. He mobilized youth and children to avail of the services at the centres—to acquire digital literacy, learn vocational skills, and use tele-health and e-learning packages.
Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh
Let’s make inroads into Madhya Pradesh and travel straight to Chanderi, the historical weaving township. The municipality has around 40,000 residents, with more than 3,500 weaving families. Today, Chanderi is perhaps the only weaving cluster based on traditional skills that has a digital design centre run by weavers and the community. If you are in Chanderi, you must meet Kalle Bhai. A grass-root writer, historian, precision handloom weaver and development activist, Kalle Bhai has also donned the mantle of a digital ambassador. He will talk to you about how a traditional skill-based cluster can be developed holistically if the residents are digitally enabled. The Chanderi cluster today is completely Wi-Fi-enabled; more than 70% of the youth are digitally literate, and an e-commerce portal connects the weaving entrepreneurs with national and global markets.
Ratnauli is a village panchayat in the Maniari block of Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. Most people here are dependent on daily-wage work, especially Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) jobs. Amid the thousands of households, let me take you to the families of Heera Devi, Basmati Devi and Savitri Devi—none of them is literate or can speak anything but Bhojpuri, and all of them lost Rs.4,000 in MGNREGA job opportunities as others took up the jobs in their names and withdrew the money by conniving with a few panchayat functionaries. They got their lost jobs with the support of the Community Information Resource Centre (Circ) that DEF established in Ratnauli. Run by Sanjay Sahni, Circ provides access to all MGNREGA-related information, including the names of each person allotted a job, and payment details.
Ø In 2009, DEF launched the Digital Panchayat Programme wherein selected digital panchayat fellows work with a cluster of panchayats at a district level for three months. The fellows are supposed to make elected members digitally literate, and digitize the records of the panchayats to make these available through dedicated digital panchayat websites. Visit online panchayats at www.epanchayat.in
Ø The Wireless for Communities (W4C) initiative establishes wireless-based broadband Internet clusters and provides connectivity in remote areas. As a digital wireless fellow, you can join the W4C programme for a minimum of three months and explore on the ground how to connect rural and remote locations. For details, visit www.wforc.in
Ø The Chanderiyaan project was initiated by DEF in 2009 as part of the digital cluster development flagship programme. As a fellow, you can join the digital fellowship of The Loom programme and contribute in textile and apparel designing, and in making entrepreneurs out of weavers.
Ø DEF has established more than 30 Circs across India. These provide information services, digital literacy, ICT skills, governance, citizen services and livelihood opportunities. As a fellow of the digital information fellow programme, to work with Circs you can join a three- to six-month programme and help make one person in each household digitally literate. Click here for details.
Osama Manzar is the founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation.