Digital literacy in rural areas has made us see sights that we had only dreamt about. We have seen children in Rajasthan use Google images to travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We have seen women in Bihar jumping over the boundary walls of their houses to escape the elder men’s glare when they go to take their digital literacy classes. We have also seen children in Madhya Pradesh breaking the barriers of geography and electronically befriending youngsters their age from different parts of the country. We have also seen old men in Uttar Pradesh recording their songs and uploading it on YouTube.
In an effort to connect poor and marginalised communities in rural and remote locations of India with the digital world, we started Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2002. Our focus has been to bring them closer to technology and help them preserve their education, culture, heritage, folk art, handloom and micro enterprises.
About five years ago, we met an interesting lady, Gyarishi Devi, a 49-year-old woman of the Sahariya tribe in Rajasthan. A founding member of the Jagrut Mahila Sangathan, Gyarishi Devi has been fighting the problem of bonded labour and overall backwardness of the tribe in Baran district for the last decade. She and her organisation feel strengthened today because video conferencing has made it possible for women in different parts of the district to get together and raise their problems. People no longer need to travel long distances for a meeting. The organisation that had just 250 members in 2002, can today boast of a 1500-strong army.
In Puducherry, there is a small nomadic tribe of 21 families. The place where they live has no name; and like the Agariyas, they have never been part of any Census of India. Some families in this settlement make phenyl and sell it in reused bottled. Some others make handwoven pouches out of discarded clothes. Some are beggars and some are professional street performers who dress up in bright and eye-catching costumes to earn a livelihood. For them, digital literacy has no direct or immediate benefit. Yet, the children gather in groups (as their mothers stand around and watch to learn) when our local trainer reaches their village with four fully charged laptops (there is no power supply in the area). They do this because they understand that knowledge of computers and access to the Internet will build their future.
Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, meanwhile, is a perfect example of how access to technology and knowledge of digital tools can help local products reach global customer base. Under our Chanderiyaan project that was introduced in the handloom cluster in 2009, weavers of silk sarees now design on advanced CAD/CAM software, photograph monuments to replicate the motifs onto sarees, archive their traditional patterns on computers, post on social media platforms to promote their handloom, and sell their products to a global audience through an exclusive eCommerce portal.
Over a period of time, working with communities using digital tools as means to enable and empower, our villages have taught us how to work with them. And one of the ways of working with villages is to never ignore the value of community.
People in villages are always the last to receive anything. They are always excluded from any plan of economic action or implementation agenda. However, we realise that connectivity or access to the Internet is the single most effective means of bringing about a change, of giving power in the hands of the people, of empowering people to empower themselves. This way, we can bolster our fight for information poverty in India’s rural areas.
– Osama Manzar is the Founder-Director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.