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Summary:

A mere Web site or a laptop doesn’t empower the underprivileged. Developing countries like India need technology, yes, but what they need more are coherent projects with reliable delivery systems that link technology to the country’s needs. A Reuters story, ‘Indian village uploads itself onto Internet,’ […]

A mere Web site or a laptop doesn’t empower the underprivileged. Developing countries like India need technology, yes, but what they need more are coherent projects with reliable delivery systems that link technology to the country’s needs.

A Reuters story, ‘Indian village uploads itself onto Internet,’ was picked up by a lot of newspapers around the world this past weekend. By ‘uploads,’ all that was meant was that Hansdehar: Pop. 1753, the north Indian village in question, got itself a Web site.

Big Deal.

The village doesn’t have a single Internet connection, though the article says one is “imminent.” It only has two computers, on one of which someone is learning to type. It has just two high schools, which, going by the pictures on the ‘uploaded’ village, look pretty woeful. Worse, it doesn’t have a medical clinic. (The village web site says there is one primary health center that is three kilometers outside the village.)

Yet the villagers have been given to think that having a web site will somehow revolutionize their lives. “Now we can put our problems on the Web site, and then the government can’t say ‘we didn’t know’,” one villager is quoted as saying. Hate to dash his hopes to the ground (or to upload them) but methinks the government already knows. Does it care? We don’t know.

The article says the younger denizens of the village plan to use the Internet –whenever they get a connection, no, make that if they ever get a connection — to help hasten their exit by searching online for college places and jobs in big cities. Not to be a total cynic, but most online content is in English, which they most likely don’t understand well enough to access. And most of the jobs advertised online require qualifications beyond the purview of the village school system. And before I get brickbats about my comments on English and jobs, see this. I don’t believe it is right but there it is.

One gets fairly fed-up reading articles that tout such trivial things like getting a Web site as this great signpost of development or that (falsely) show technology as being the great equalizer and an end in itself. And at the risk of being considered partisan — towards the Indian bureaucracy, Bill Gates and Intel all rolled into one — I hold even Nicholas Negroponte’s “One Laptop per Child” (OLPC) initiative guilty of overemphasizing technology as an end in itself. What is a kid who goes to a school with rampant teacher absenteeism, no infrastructure to speak of –like desks, fans or electricity to run those fans –going to do with a laptop?

There are ways that telecom and the Internet can be used to help rural India, but the key is identifying the relevant content and services that the villagers need and coming up with a plan to deliver them through the web. One promising project is Ashok Jhunjhunwala’s Telecommunications and Networking Group (Tenet), run under the aegis of the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras.

Among other things, check out Tenet’s Gramateller, an ATM that delivers low cost banking services to rural areas, or its Remote Diagnostic Kit that can be installed at villages and other remote locations that have Internet connectivity (which Tenet companies also enable); its online tutorials that seek to enable rural students to pass examinations and its Indic Computing that tries to ensure that people who don’t speak English aren’t left out of access to information on the Internet.

Hansdehar’s Web site has a picture of the village Panchayat, the local self-government body, “assembled at Guru Dwara discussing
issue of misplacement of a Bull.” The Reuters article says they never found the bull. If anyone has seen it, please email Hansdehar village here. Oh, wait, they don’t have Internet access yet.

Sometimes a Web site is just a Web site.

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  1. The Illuminati are at again! I’ve been saying it for 10 dang years! AIN’T I BEEN SAYIN’ IT MIGUEL!?

  2. I don’t think you are seeing the big picture here. Before this people had no idea about websites, computers or the internet. A couple of computers with no internet connection will go a long way in generating curiously and awareness about technology. So what if they are only learning how to type, I remember as a kid that was the first thing I did on a computer. Exposing people to something even if they are not using it to it’s full potential is a taking a step forward. Remember some of these people are seeing a computer for the first time in their lives.
    Also, having a website has already exposed them to the world. I am sure there are already people out there who have looked at the village problems section or the ongoing development section and said hey maybe I can help or contribute in someway. You will be surprised as to what a simple thing like a website can do. Maybe somebody will donate a bull to them and they won’t need to find that bull.

  3. I agree with Tejas, things do not happen in one day…getting out word is important, and this village got great PR out of these two computers/one website.

    It is great to see the power of internet, and how the word spreads, this is just the beginning, more good things will happen in future as others learn how this little village put itself on the internet with one website, and being noticed by everyone.

    Shailaja, I completely understand your efforts to show other side of the coin you just highlighted in your article!!

  4. I think having website for a village is one step towards educating people the power of communicaiton/technology.
    I am sure you would have heard of ITC’s e-choupal project, it is a simple concept around using IT technology to empower villages/communities.
    Taking the same thought further, if village has a website today, and a e-choupal type hub tomorrow, I think this is step enabling participation of 60% of Indian population(village/semi urban population of India)
    Let’s encourage.

  5. “…but the key is identifying the relevant content and services that the villagers need and coming up with a plan to deliver them through the web.”

    The question is, who will decide what is relevant for the villagers? Middle class Indians in big cities who have never set foot in a village? I think a better model would be to use services like the ones provided by Tenet to make villagers familiar with technology, provide the infrastructure (e.g. wireless narrowband if not broadband, $100 laptop) and let local entrepreneurs come up with relevant content and services.

    Having a website addresses the ‘familiarity with technology’ part of the puzzle. Maybe the internet connection (access) will follow. If not then I would agree that this website thing is just a gimmick.

    http://techiesfordev.blogspot.com/

  6. I find this post arrogant.

    The fact that you and others are writing about “this” village may be proof enough that a web site will have value for them. The website puts them on a map where others may find then and perhaps want to learn more.

    I have been surprised by the way technology such as mobile telephones are used in small villages in Africa. It seems every adult has access to a phone which is a shock in itself given the cost. Most people in the villages are not educated but have found novel ways to use the phones. An example that is frequently thrown about is farmers getting/sharing price information for cotton or coffee. Text messaging has become the primary way of reaching relatives and friends during emergencies (in the past this was done via announcements on the main radio stations.)

    A computer in a small village may not see the uses that “you” value. But I am certain that the villages will find ways to benefit from it. We should all be prepared for surprises as more computers find their way into such communities.

  7. I totally agree with Shailaja’s comments.

    The website of this village has become a laughing stock atleast from my perspective. What’s really hilarious is that the site is in English and is meant for people who don’t understand “E” of English! What a waste of resources. My first impression was that the site was meant for Reuters and the likes just to gain some popularity which might later be used to extract grants and all. What a pity!

    Content in English is like, kala akshar bhains barabar to people in villages. Content made only in local language can be effective.

    These senseless people have a false illusion of converting every Indian as Englishman, a task which even British could not accomplish even in 200 years. Really weird!

  8. I fully agree with what Shailaja says in this article. What is the point in having a website with the names of villagers on it if it is not going to solve the basic issues confronting them every day. It appears to me as yet another useless gimmick by some NGO. I may be wrong but it is just what propped up in my mind when I read the story.

  9. In reaching out to third world countries, I think it is important to first focus on the development of infrastructure, such as health care, access to drinking water, good elementary and secondary education, etc. Only when these things are in place can a village benefit from access to a gloabl marketplace and global communication. These ideas are expressed very clearly in the book, The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, which I highly recommend.

    But I think this article is less about the failure of development efforts in India, and more about the failure of modern journalism. Why does Rueters tout a village website as a major success story? Because many Rueters writers come from a tradition of little to know real research. This is why I like GigaOm.com. I feel like you guys dig a little deeper and think through some of the issues you address. Thanks for the article!

  10. Shailaja says:
    “There are ways that telecom and the Internet can be used to help rural India, but the key is identifying the relevant content and services that the villagers need and coming up with a plan to deliver them through the web.”

    And then Ed K says:

    “I find this post arrogant.

    The fact that you and others are writing about “this” village may be proof enough that a web site will have value for them. The website puts them on a map where others may find then and perhaps want to learn more.”

    The fact is each of you have totally different perspective. Shailaja has seen these kind of villages all her life (in fact almost everyone in India has) and she is closer to the ground reality and know the problems facing these and other villages first hand. That knowledge helps her to realize that this website is not the solution but a misguided effort because it pretends to be a solution.

    On the other hand I doubt if Mr Edward K. has lived closer to the ground reality of India like Shailaja has , so for him having a website like this is interesting because it is a window to the other side.But Mr Edward, please note Shailaja is not arrogant , she is simply worried about the general despair that hangs around in the rural heartland. Looking at her article through the prism of the “burden of the white man” only points to your own internal arrogance.

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