EVERY evening, Govardhan Angari lights a joss stick and offers a silent prayer to a computer in a poky 20-sq-ft room in Dehri Sarai, a village 40 km from Indore in Madhya Pradesh's Dhar district. Beside the Pentium II machine on a creaky table, there is a modem, a sheaf of white paper and a battery back-up. This unremarkable paraphernalia has changed the life of the 21-year-old boy, a landless Bhil tribal and son of a daily wage labourer, who takes home Rs 40 on days when he finds work. These days, Govardhan earns up to Rs 3,500 a month ferreting out crop market rates, e-mailing villagers' grouses, generating caste and land certificates out of this rural cyberkiosk. On the side, he teaches some 16 village children the basics of computing. "I saw a computer for the first time only last year," says Govardhan.
That was when he was on the verge of giving up plans of going to college for a degree in history as he had no money to buy books. That was also when the Madhya Pradesh government began a project called Gyandoot to fund rural networked cyberkiosks through panchayats in backward Dhar to offer villagers a range of services through an Intranet based at the district HQ. A curious Govardhan qualified during a fortnight-long training of village boys in operating a computer. He became the first soochak (coordinator) or manager of a soochanalay (information centre) as these kiosks are called. These days, he's running the booth, studying for his first year college exams and plans to take a diploma course to learn more programs. "The more you learn about this machine, the more you earn," says Govardhan. "It benefits both the operator and the user of the information it generates. Isn't that wonderful?"
Some 1,700 km away, in Pondicherry's Veerampattinam, a fishing hamlet on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, G. Balaraman is preparing to set out for the day's trawling. But unlike his father, he won't be scanning the skies alone to hazard a guess about possible storms. Suddenly, the loudspeakers dotted around the village crackle to life, announcing the weather forecast. The announcer also gives details of the tide, wind direction and height of the waves. This is part of a two-year-old project started by the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation to transmit critical information to six villages in the area. "Now we are always prepared," says Balaraman, before setting sail. "The information is very useful during rough and stormy weather."
Suddenly, the digital divide doesn't seem to be a yawning chasm any more. To be sure, India has just three phone lines per 100 people against 11 in China. It has a paltry five PCs per 1,000 people compared to 14 in China. Infrastructure is crummy, so power outages remain the norm rather than an exception in villages. Still, infotech has gone grassroots and begun transforming lives of ruralfolk like Govardhan and Balaram. They are participants in a few committed efforts at wiring up villages, disseminating information, simplifying procedures and eliminating middlemen. "These kinds of projects demonstrate that rural consumers can and will benefit from connectivity," says Aditya Dev Sood, who works with the Bangalore Centre for Knowledge Societies and is working on rural connectivity projects. "They will enjoy new access to agricultural inputs, new markets for their products and in a few years from now, will find new educational and employment opportunities through these human-mediated Inter/Intranet access projects."
For more evidence, travel west to Warana, in Maharashtra's sugarcane belt, some 400 km southeast of Mumbai. Septuagenarian cane and dairy farmer Mahadeobhau Chowgule is happy with a PC installed in his Pargaon village, which gives him information about the harvesting time for the crop, the results of crop sampling (a field officer from the cooperative takes a sample of the crop of every farmer which is tested for the volume of sugar and quality) and a forecast about the expected yield. It also keeps records of all his transactions with the local sugar and milk cooperatives. The modestly well-off farmer, whose 10 acres generate some 500 tonnes of cane every year, used to travel a dozen times every year to the Warana Sugar Factory, the local cane growers cooperative, some five km away, to obtain this critical information till two years ago. Now he trusts the computer in Pargaon, one of the 70 villages that are part of the Warana Wired Village project. "I get my information so quickly without much effort these days," he says. "This is a boon."
In Thiruvarur, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, the boon promises to reap benefits for all its residents. For this is possibly India's first electronic district where infotech is slowly reinventing the stodgy, colonial district collectorate into a modern, service-oriented edifice. Today, Thiruvarur residents access old-age pension payments and records, land records, community, birth and death certificates in a jiffy thanks to large-scale computerisation. The results have begun to show. K.S. Ratna, a 31-year-old farmworker of Nanilam, had been trying to get a government loan for over eight months. When the e-governance scheme began and records were computerised, he got it in three weeks flat.
The fading away of the middlemen and a check on corruption in local bodies is possibly the best thing infotech is doing to these wired villages. Mohan Patedar, a 40-year-old soyabean farmer from Tirla in Dhar, sold his last crop at the district mandi directly for Rs 600 to Rs 700 a quintal after checking the rates in different markets on the Intranet at his village cyberkiosk. He just pays Rs 5 for the service. A year ago, things were vastly different: Pateder would spend Rs 10 on bus fare and endure a 30-minute back-breaking journey to Dhar just to find out crop prices in the wholesale market. Then the seth (middleman) who picked up his crop would pay at least Rs 50 less per quintal. Now Patedar wants to rent a truck and ferry his crop to the Baroda mandi, more than 300 km away, because he has accessed the highest price—a cool Rs 900 per quintal—from his village kiosk. Infotech has also made farmers vastly ambitious: Kaluram Patedar, a soyabean farmer from Aahu, is cajoling the local cyberkiosk operator to hook up to the Internet so that he can get the D-oil cake prices—the international price of D-oil cake, a soyabean byproduct, has a direct bearing on crop prices in India—in the benchmark Chicago markets which "will let me know what price to expect in the Indian mandis in the near future". Says he: "Mujhe Chicago market ka bhav chahiye (I want the price in the Chicago market)."
Digital empowerment is also prodding slothful administrations to become more accountable. In Premnagar, Dhar, Rami Bai, 87, a destitute widow, and two neighbours didn't get their Rs 150-a-month old-age pension for four months last year. The three trudged to the nearest cyberkiosk and paid Rs 5 each to e-mail their complaint to the administration.The next day, a team of officials landed up at the village and found out that 47 other villagers where sharing Rami Bai's plight.
Since Gyandoot kicked off a little over a year ago, over 6,000 e-mail complaints have poured into the central server of the district administration at Dhar. The citizen-administration electronic interface is not limited to MP. "I thought it must be just a fantasy to expect the government to be responsive. But I was proved wrong," says T. Manickam of Valangaiman, in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvarur district, of the online governance in his area.
The cyberkiosks themselves present employment opportunities for local young men and women. In Pondicherry's Embalam village, 50 per cent of volunteers who run the kiosks are women. In Dhar, home to possibly the best-designed empowerment project, which has won the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award, 33 youngsters operate government-funded kiosks, usually out of panchayat-owned buildings, and charge villagers anything between Rs 5 and Rs 15 for an impressive range of 17 services—from crop prices to land records to caste certificates to e-mailing grievances to matrimonials to electronic sales of farm equipment. During the lean crop season, operators make up to Rs 10 a page typing villagers' applications, giving Rs 250 worth of computer lessons to local kids and even churning out Rs 50 worth of astrological charts and forecasts.
That's not all. In the villagers' rush for on-time critical crop and weather information which helps them get better prices and make a better living, prejudices and retrograde customs are being given the go-by. In Embalam, villagers have allowed the use of the local temple to run the information booth for fishermen. Ironically, the lower castes and menstruating women continue to be shut out at one of the temple's two entrances. The other entrance leading to the makeshift information booth allows one and all to access information!
But the roadblocks to digital empowerment remain. In Dhar, for example, five-hour power cuts are a daily feature. All the kiosks are equipped with uninterrupted power systems which supply six to seven hours' back-up power. Connectivity is another bugbear: kiosk operators planning to offer Internet services fear slow download speeds. Dhar's Gyandoot project is trying to beat the connectivity problem and soaring local phone bills innovatively: adapting the Wireless Local Loop technology which will offer hassle-free bandwith of 70 kbps round the clock, up from 32 kbps now over phone lines. The other option is to adopt the Warana example of expensive v-sat technology, which cost the project close to Rs 3 crore compared to some Rs 20 lakh for the Dhar wire-up. Then there is babudom. "There's still some resistance to computers in the administration," confesses Dhar collector Rajesh Rajora. "But the bureaucrats know this time around non-performance is going to be recorded. We can find out easily how fast the complaint was redressed."
Clearly, the grassroots infotech revolution is beginning to take off. By end-June, Dhar will have around 80 cyberkiosks (many privately run now), up from 33 covering five lakh villagers in 400 villages. Emulating the Gyandoot example, six similar cyberkiosks supplying essential information have opened in MP's Ratlam district. In apple-growing Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, the government is starting 40 rural cyberkiosks to benefit farmers. Ten such kiosks are planned in Sonepat and Sirsa in Haryana.In Kerala, work is on to network the state's 1,215 local bodies to the state planning board and other key government agencies. Forget the shrill infotech naysayers and proselytisers who debate endlessly on the possibility of a rural infotech revolution. It has already arrived silently—and even begun kicking.
With Charubala Annuncio in Warana, Vatsala Kamat in Pondicherry, A.S. Panneerselvan in Thiruvarur and Venu Menon in Thiruvananthapuram