For Laxmi Kunwar, 28, the village is her world. Her life revolves around her family – taking care of her child, cooking food on a chulha or makeshift stove, feeding the couple of buffaloes her family owns, and doing other daily chores.
Kunwar quit her studies owing to family pressure and poverty. After marriage, she has been confined to the village, except a few excursions to Udaipur every other year to meet her relatives. For many women like Kunwar, as well as men, such is life in Rawatpura, a small village of 150 families in Rajasthan. This state government and the ones before it mentioned digital inclusion in their election manifestos. However, for millions of villagers like those in Rawatpura, it is an unutterable phrase. Villagers are aware of the change that digital inclusion can bring to their lives, but lack the wherewithal. They hope their children do not get left behind in this technology-driven world.
Rawatpura is in Girwa block of Udaipur district. It is about 60km from Udaipur city, but ages away from where the world has progressed technologically. Most of the residents are unaware of the phenomenon of digital inclusion and the benefits of staying connected to the outside world.
Only a few have ever held an internet-enabled phone and no one has used a desktop computer or a laptop. The local government high school, functioning in a dilapidated building, has not been helpful in making people understand the benefits of technology because it too does not have a computer; computer education is not part of the curriculum. The teachers are unaware of the full extent of benefits and power of technology. The headmaster has a smartphone and uses it to access only some of the social media applications.
When a telecom company introduced Voice over Long Term Evolution, or VoLTE, mobile phone service throughout the country, it affected the village adversely. This move pushed the only non-VoLTE telecom company that had a tower near Rawatpura to remove it as it did not bring good returns. Yet to comprehend the impact of losing the tower, the villagers, when informed, quickly grasped how Internet and technology could transform the life of individuals and communities.
In a focus group discussion that we held with eight prominent members of the community, they agreed that computer and technology could give them more control over their lives. They understand the unlimited possibilities of technology; they just seem unable to reach it.
We encouraged them to tell us how a computer could help them in their quest for a better life. The most enterprising of them explained how a computer with an internet connection would help them learn about the various agricultural practices and techniques to improve cultivation and increase yield. They also expressed keen interest in understanding more about the internet and its applications in their daily lives.
One of the reasons for villagers lagging behind in digital inclusion is their extremely low disposable income. Agriculture is the livelihood of most of Rawatpura’s residents. A few are daily wage labourers. The better households that we visited earned an annual income of Rs 30,000, that too in a good year. The peasants who cultivate crops on leased land earn much less. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is supposed to provide jobs for 100 days in a year to all poor rural households, does not do benefit the village much.
There is thus little chance they would invest their hard-earned money in adopting technology or mobile phones. A watershed project executed with the help of Prayatna Samiti, an NGO working in the village, is a ray of hope for the villagers; it would lead to increased crop production and hence increased household incomes. Then the villagers might not hesitate to invest money towards digital inclusion.
One way to help the villagers out of poverty is by connecting them to the outside world through technology. The first step towards digital inclusion is to get a telecom operator to set up a tower that enables good quality calls and high-speed internet. There can be no education without tools.
There are many ways in which digital technology can be introduced to these villagers in a constructive, non-invasive and non-frightening manner. The government should run campaigns to educate the villagers. Once they learn that digital technology is safe, they can explore other avenues to access information.
An alternative solution would be the rural version of experience stores that government and NGOs can set up as hubs to help the villagers experience and adopt technology. The community digital hubs could have mobile phones and desktops either crowd-funded or provided by the government. The villagers could use them for free or by paying a nominal charge.
We had a discussion with an all-women self-help group. The women, all in their 30s and having borne at least one child, understand that their children need to be ahead with technology.
After joining the group, Rupa has started saving whatever meager amount she can. When asked what she would do with her savings, she said she would use it for her child who was playing nearby. She wants to make sure her child does not get left behind in the fast-paced world increasingly driven by technology.
When technology is within their reach, the villagers would fully realise the benefits of having information at their fingertips. Be it information on vaccination that Rupa and Laxmi Kunwar could use for their children, or on better management of the buffaloes they own, or on the market prices of the produce from their fields, digital inclusion would benefit the villagers immensely.
It rests upon us and the government to make sure the village and its residents are included in our country’s digital revolution.
Some names have been changed to protect identity.
Shubham Sharma is a student at the Indian Institute of Management, Udaipur.
This article first appeared on Village Square.