22 November 2010 National obama visit: ground reality

The Missing Century

The village that chatted Obama up is stuck in a cesspool of scarcity
The Missing Century
Jitender Gupta
The Missing Century

A few hundred metres away from the video conference room where selected locals in Kanpura village near Ajmer told US President Barack Obama, watching in Mumbai, that broadband internet was changing their lives unfolds a not-so-heady IT story. Or non-story, if you like. At the village’s government secondary school, where Kanpura’s GenNext are, in theory, being schooled in IT, the only computer has been lying locked away more than four years because of a missing instructor. (Not to mention that several keys on the keyboard have gone missing too.) “We don’t have the funds, nor the power to appoint a teacher,” says principal Veer Singh Kachhawa. Words that Barack Obama never heard.

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As the media frenzy and official self-congratulation over Obama’s fleeting interaction with Kanpura dies down, the stark reality of its existential problems creeps back into view. Except that no one’s looking. Obama’s observation, in his video-chat with villagers, that India was leapfrogging past the 20th century straight into the 21st, is full of unintended irony here on ground zero. On a good day, villagers here do have access to 21st century broadband, but many of the things rural areas across the developed world came to take for granted in the 20th century—safe drinking water, reliable electricity—are still plain elusive.

So why was Kanpura chosen to add a touch of Bharat to Obama’s India visit? It apparently swam its way into the limelight because it happened to be one of the 10 panchayats in Ajmer district where the Union ministry of communications and IT introduced broadband this August. It was also perhaps no coincidence that Ajmer is the constituency of Lok Sabha MP and minister of state for communications and IT Sachin Pilot, who led the villagers’ interaction with Obama. As it happens, Kanpura was actually quite late to the broadband story—nearby Tilonia had been hooked to the Internet a few months earlier, not by New Delhi but the Rajasthan state government. But it was Kanpura that saw a team from the US visiting in September, reportedly on telecom guru Sam Pitroda’s recommendation, and sealed the video conferencing deal. 

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Children by the primary school. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

Broadband connectivity is, of course, no bad thing. It will, as Kanpura panchayat secretary Shiv Shankar Singh, who interacted with Obama, explains, help villagers gain easier access to exam results, birth and death certificates and land records, among other things. “What took three days earlier, will take two minutes now,” says Shiv Shankar, who has his lines pat. The new connectivity will also help health authorities keep a track on vaccination schedules and expectant mothers. However, the day Outlook visited the village, it wasn’t possible to see this transformation. Broadband, or “brassband”, as some here refer to it, can’t work without power, and there was no power during our visit.

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“Because Sachin Pilot came to Kanpura, we got drinking water that day,” says a resident of the parched village.

That might be an impediment to much touted e-governance, but for Kanpura’s residents, the much bigger curse is lack of drinking water. The entire summer, from March to September, they say, they did not get a drop of drinking water from the nearby Bisalpur dam, which is supposed to supply them. Water came only to the few who could pay for tankers that cost Rs 250 for every 5,000 litres. The rest had to survive on groundwater laced with fluoride, and excessive fluoride makes teeth and bones brittle and weak—as the villagers know only too well. Kanpura resident Pran Raj Chaudhary opens his mouth, exposing at least six missing teeth, to demonstrate what the groundwater has done to him. “It’s the same with other villagers. By the time they touch 40, their teeth start popping out,” he says. Look closely at the faces of the middle-aged men sitting around in the video-conferencing room, with the welcome placard for Obama hanging like a relic, and it’s clear he’s right. Most of them have cavities and teeth that are almost brilliant yellow. One of them, Kishan Lal, says he is 48 but looks at least 15 years older. “This is what the water is doing to us...making us older than we actually are,” he laments. “I have been dealing with terrible pain in my knees for the past few years.”

Govt school students with the unused computer.(Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

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Without water and power for irrigation, agriculture too has suffered. With barely an hour of daily high wattage power supply (necessary to run motors to draw out groundwater), Kanpura’s supposedly broadband-surfing farmers find themselves exposed to the vagaries of climate and rainfall. Since this kharif season (between July and October) recorded poor rainfall, farmers are reeling under losses. “Every family in this village must have lost anywhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000,” says Lal. While some villagers are hopeful that the interaction with Obama and the ensuing attention will bring some good to Kanpura, others are sceptical. “Because Pilot came to our village that day, we got drinking water. That was the only good thing. I hope he comes to our village more often,” says a bitter Chaudhary.

Back at the school, without regular power, electrical appliances have become objects of sport and amusement. The fans’ blades are bent downwards as students hang onto them in play. Switches are missing and wires spill out of boards. The primary school is still worse. With copiously leaking roofs, teachers are forced to send children back home at the slightest hint of a darkening sky. “We hardly have enough dry spots in the school building when it rains to keep 165 children dry,” says teacher Ajay Sharma. And while the panchayat may have surfed into the 21st century, the schools have clearly not kept good time, with maps of India that do not mention Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—states that were created in 2000.

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