When the President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama, had met the woman sarpanch of Nichlagarh, Sharmi Bai, during his India tour in 2015, Nichlagarh still existed in the dark age of connectivity. Illiteracy level was at 70 per cent and digital illiteracy at 100 per cent. Today, Nichlagarh has become a beacon of digital inclusion. And we were there to document their amazing story of digital inclusion this month. Nichlagarh, home to Garasiya tribe, is a Wi-Fi-enabled tribal village — a status it gained in a matter of months.
Located at a distance of 17 kilometres from Abu Road, as one head to Nichlagarh, one can see the roads winding through the deserted Aravali Hills. Occasionally, one is met with signs of life in the form of a passing Mahindra Jeep, but mostly roads are left to their designs.
Nichla means ‘below’ and garh means ‘place’; a village that is situated under. This name came about purely out of geographical compulsion, but even metaphorically it existed in the subterranean zone. So we descended the last couple of kilometers before finally reaching our destination.
Nichlagarh is totally cut off from the outside world during rains. The river that runs through the village gets flooded and makes physical access to the village near impossible. It is also impossible to find a mobile phone with a signal here, at any time of the year.
But now the situation is turning around. Nichlagarh has turned a new leaf. The same people who walked around with hung shoulders of helplessness are springing about to address the gaps in their life with a new found vigour. Internet is like a magic wand in their hands that they believe would resurrect them.
The process of digital inclusion in Nichlagarh began with the implementation of Wireless for Community (W4C) project. DEF implements W4C in for last mile connectivity in no access zones through ‘Line of Sight’ towers. In Nichlagarh, this was made possible through a partnership between DEF, Doosra Dashak and Tata Trust. Following the setup of a wireless Internet network, a CIRC was set up. I believe CIRCs have become the lighthouse of digital inclusion across India.
We visited the government school, and interacted with many students who have taken up the computer course at CIRC. The best part of it is that the students who have been introduced to the Internet share their learning with those who are yet to be brought closer to the World Wide Web. So the process of digital inclusion is faster, one student is teaching another. After school, various groups of students can be found sitting at the CIRC huddled around a computer. They would either be looking up something on Google or watching an informative video on YouTube. Some students can also be seen exploring their artistic proficiency on Paint.
Women from a local self-help group say computers have made their lives easier. Now, they can track their earnings and expenses more efficiently. But they need some time to orient themselves with technology. Until then, a CIRC student assists them in handling technology.
The youth of Nichlagarh are the biggest beneficiary of the digital movement in the village. It is amazing what can be achieved through awareness. The world of possibilities and opportunities has opened up for them. Initially, their vision was limited when it came to career options. Now they believe they can achieve anything. In fact, the youth have been instrumental in setting up the infrastructure to bring Internet connectivity to Nichlagarh. Now they welcome rains because they believe they have sufficiently addressed their connectivity problem. Even if their physical access with the outside world will be cut off, they will always be connected through the virtual world.