One might wonder what does digital empowerment have to do with tea gardens and the answer lies in the exclusion from accessing basic needs caused by lack of access to the world of the internet.
Tea gardens of West Bengal spread mostly over the northern part of the state near sub-Himalayan hills and adjacent terrain. The population in these regions majorly belongs to scheduled caste and scheduled tribes, thus limiting their access to various necessities in life. A project, conceptualised by Digital Empowerment Foundation in partnership with other organisations, helps to create a digital ecosystem in tea gardens to facilitate providing services that enable access to basic needs. So far it has covered 16 tea gardens in four districts where seven tea gardens are from Alipurduar, four tea gardens are in each district of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling and one from Cooch Behar.
The gardens chosen to implement this program are considered based on the distance from township, strength of labour (permanent worker) and absence of digital centres in the neighbourhood. The average labour strength of these gardens are 800-900. The SoochnaPreneurs (SP) with an orientation towards entrepreneurship were picked from the community in these tea gardens. Till now we have 16 SPs who are all women. They are trained to run the centres which will provide services on government schemes and entitlements, financial transactions, digital literacy etc.
The SoochnaPreneurs have helped to conduct a baseline survey to help DEF to align project objectives with the needs of the community. Here is an update on the survey conducted so far covering all the tea gardens which helps in understanding the socio-economic position of the community.
In Cooch Behar, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri district the socio-economic conditions are similar. Mostly the people from the villages suffer from health issues related to tuberculosis and malaria as proper health related infrastructure are absent. Low rate of literacy is prevailing in all the gardens and the digital literacy rate is negligible. People suffer from poor housing, sanitation systems and drainage conditions. Scarcity of clean drinking water is also a concerning issue. The villagers are unable to avail the opportunity from different social security schemes due to improper documentation like faulty Aadhar cards. They lack awareness of various government schemes and entitlements.
For better understanding of the issues prevailing in the tea gardens and to connect with the community, DEF and other partners organised a session on 24th September at Lankapara Tea Garden, in Alipurduar district. All the team members from OAK, DEF (Digital Empowerment Foundation) and SWANITI attended the meeting to discuss the issues which were identified during the baseline survey, infrastructure related issues and the future strategy to overcome such issues during the implementation of the project.