On January 31, speaking in Parliament during the interim Budget session, President Ram Nath Kovind noted that under the central government’s Digital India initiative, 116,000 villages have been digitally connected, 40,000 gram panchayats have wifi hotspots and all gram panchayats together have 2,12,000 Common Service Centres.

An initiative in Palghar district, Maharashtra, is closing the gap between making such digital infrastructure available and the next step – providing digital literacy to people in rural areas so they can directly access the government facilities and services that are available online. Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research, or PUKAR, a Mumbai-based independent research collective under the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiative, has been working to increase digital literacy and access to e-governance in the Adivasi villages of Maharashtra.

Palghar, the headquarters of the recently created Palghar district, lies a little more than 100 km north of Mumbai. The district is home to three ethnic groups – the Agri, the Kunbi, listed among the Other Backward Classes, and the Adivasis. While the Agri and the Kunbi are largely landowners, the Adivasis, who are 35% of the population, work as agricultural labourers. Nearly every village in Palghar has a separate hamlet for the Adivaisis, called a pada. These hamlets lack the infrastructure and services available to the rest of the village.

Through a project launched in Palghar in 2014, PUKAR has been working to increase digital awareness and literacy, improve understanding of the 73rd amendment to the Constitution – which empowers self-government institutions such as panchayats and gram sabhas – and train local youth as e-sevaks to enable the villagers access government benefits via e-governance platforms.

PUKAR’s objective is to help the villagers secure the benefits due them under various welfare schemes and become more aware of their rights, with an emphasis on uplifting women, including by increasing their participation in panchayats and gram sabhas.

Expanding digital literacy

The Palghar pilot project began in Bahadoli village, where 75% of the population is Adivasi. These villages, despite being less than 100 km away from the metropolitan city of Mumbai, lack access to basic online services such as Aadhaar card correction or linking Aadhaar with PAN for filing income tax returns, and accessing cooking gas subsidy and banking services, said Kiran Sawant, programme director, and Shrutika Shitole, associate director, PUKAR.

PUKAR set up a computer kiosk in each of the 14 villages in Palghar and trained youth e-sevaks on how to enable the villagers to access government facilities and schemes available on the Maharashtra government’s Aaple Sarkar e-governance website, from registering for Aadhaar and linking Aadhaar with PAN, to availing welfare schemes. The kiosk is in the local panchayat office and the villagers can use them whenever they want.

PUKAR developed various print and video modules to train the e-sevaks, providing step-by-step information on accessing services online. The e-sevaks go door-to-door and run volunteer camps, while the panchayats provide basic facilities such as furniture and electricity.

As of October 2018, at least 64 e-sevaks were active in 31 villages where, along with trained innovators and coordinators, they had helped over 30,000 villagers access information regarding government services. The goal is to make the youth and, in turn, the village, self-reliant.

The villagers have been able to gain access to and information about more than 65 government schemes related to governance, farming, housing, subsidies and government certification. Villagers have saved a total of Rs 4.8 crore by accessing these kiosks and avoiding trips to the taluka office – about Rs 1,600 for each of the 30,000 users, more than the current monthly minimum wage of Rs 1,525 for a rural agricultural worker – according to reports by PUKAR.

PUKAR also conducts community service events in the target villages, and runs a cooperative called Unnati as well as an e-governance helpline. Any query about a governance-related issue is completed within 48 hours and the helpline reaches more than 80 villages.

A pressing concern in these Adivasi villages is access to satbara, or land records. This is especially relevant after the Supreme Court judgement of February 13 ordering the eviction of hundreds of thousands of indigenous forest dwellers and Adivasi families from forestlands in 16 states, including Maharashtra. Through the PUKAR project, 1,875 Adivasis across 31 villages of Palghar have been able to access their land records, a crucial step for obtaining exemption from eviction.

PUKAR’s methodology of community-based participatory action research has helped 360 women from self help groups become digitally capable through training in information and communications technology. These women now pay their electricity bills and access their satbara records online. More than 500 schoolchildren have also received such training.

Empowering women

In the Adivasi village of Tandalwadi, IndiaSpend met six young women who received e-sevak training for more than two years. They are now “innovators” who monitor other e-sevaks and help villagers form cooperatives such as Unnati.

These young women perform various tasks from getting permissions to hold awareness and registration camps from the panchayat to printing pamphlets, spreading awareness about and conducting camps. The e-sevaks also encourage women to contest panchayat elections and participate in the gram sabhas.

Their assistance extends to carrying a photocopier from village to village. “The Xerox machine helps people save time and money. Otherwise, for a few copies, a person has to travel all the way to the station,” said Vaishali, an innovator who gave only one name. “We also help them by printing out passport-size photographs, which saves them a lot of money. They use phones for online shopping too. Every house has at least one smartphone.”

Manisha Naresh Guru, a housewife and gram sabha attendee from Tandulwadi, has an Aadhaar card, PAN card, a bank account in her own name and uses the ATM. She knows how to pay her electricity bill online, albeit finds it a little tedious. Manisha uses WhatsApp to keep in touch with her extended family and knows a few online shopping sites. She is also a member of the gram sabha in Tandalwadi and attends it regularly.

“Sabha mein accha lagta hai. Panchayat sabki baat sunti hai aur kaam kar ke deti hai. Koi kaam baaki nahi rehta,” she said, meaning, “I like attending the gram sabha. The panchayat addresses our concerns and does all our work, leaving nothing pending.”

Manisha’s companion Vandana adds that they now secure the gas subsidy, have a Voter ID card and have learnt to access satbara records and pension schemes from the e-sevaks. Manisha and Vandana are among the many Adivasi women in the village who have witnessed a change since the PUKAR Palghar project began. “Ye log humaare bacchon ko padhaate bhi hain,” Manisha adds, meaning the volunteers also teach village children.

Volunteers teach children, conduct camps and discuss topics such as the Constitution, which are all spillover effects of PUKAR’s work here.

The idea of digital literacy as an “empowering tool” for women is a popular one as is evident from initiatives such as Digital Sakhi and Internet Saathi. Facebook recently announced an initiative, GOAL - Going Online As Leaders, to skill Adivasi girls from across India to become village-level digital young leaders for their communities.

PUKAR’s efforts have made this tool available not only to women but also to Adivasi and Other Backward Classes villagers.

“The villagers know who to approach now for any query,” Vaishali said.

This article first appeared on Indiaspend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.