Indian Villages, Internet and Crazy Headlines

21 Comments

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.

21 Comments

wayan

I am always sad when people believe technology equals salvation and/or instant change. With any technology, be it new ways to irrigate crops to $100 laptops, its the use of that technology that matters.

A website is as mute as a tree falling in a forest if neither is heard.

lata

It is being too pessimistic to think that the website is futile. It is better to put a place on the map of awareness rather than to let it remain in obscurity. For the people of this country or for society in general which is rather immune to the suffering and the backwardness in which fellow citizens are immersed, maybe having websites of these backward villages right on their faces will do some good.
We are a uselesss country anyway which believes in showing off when it has nothing to feed its people. For instance we have a Commonwealth Games plan for Rs 80,000 crore when we dont have schools or a single doctor for each of our six lakh villages. About 40,000 villages dont have electricity.
I recently visited schools in Rajasthan where children and teachers were carrying on wit studies under a tree for there was no school.
And imagine their chief minister has been shopping around in US for funds for some projects totally unconnected with these basic needs of the people. Unless you educate your people, nothing will help them. THey are as good as cattle.
Maybe Indians especially in th cow belt want their brethren to remain like that. For you dont see a single crorepati industrialist with bleeeding hearts for these unlettered villagers, who are after all their parents, uncles and relatives…Sorry for being so bitter. But I am bleeding in my heart for these people.
Maybe a website to expose the sorry conditions of our villages will showcase the pathetic condition of this counmntry to the world at large even as its government is shamelessly splurging on Olympics, and Commonwealth and whatnot.

Ritesh

very true. India requires more than a couple of websites to improve technologically. Its very disheartning to read people complaining about inconsistent WiFi bandwidth when we have to start at the grass root level of having inconsistent power. The IT concentrated hubs aside, other places are stil struggling with power and telecom infrastructure. I am a regular at your blogs and i want you cover the pityable state of IT jobs in India. I mean outsourced work.

Cruncher

Come on, what did Tatas and Birlas do to the community?.what did Ambanis do? what did Mittal do…nothing, we, Indians, take pride in their success but at then end one should try help comunity problems,contribute to charities,hep the needy.

Look at Gates, look at Buffette, two richest persons on the planet, donated most of their earnings to charity. a whopping $80 billion dollars. If it is some Murthy or some Gupta (no offense, just threw some names), the kids will inherit all the wealth, and make sure family last name will be more puplar, will try to double or triple or whatever best they can do in their lifetime and then pass it onto their children.

I am not blaming/supporting any body. There is so much gap between rich and poor in India that something has to be done.The rich should actively invlove in helping the needy.My complain is that philonthrophy is not in the rich’ culture.It is always about me, my family,my relations, and sometimes my cast.

With all the IT boom, lot of new riches came in.Gap between rich and poor is widening even more.Millionares became billionares.Middle class bacme upper class.But poor are ven more poor now. People just dont give damn to the issue of poverty.We have grown up ignoring poverty.Come on, people committing suicide for not able to pay dept of 1000 rupees (~$50), come on that is insanity, nobody does anything to solve it becuase it is not them.

Things should change.Wealth is always relative but you dont need 1000 crores to live happily, there is nothing wrong helping the community and the poor, espcially where people loose lives for mere peanuts.I hope the new techie riches will get this concept.

phew,,,sorry Om for making this chat room’sh. just had to vent it out.

aswath

I am not sure on what basis you suggest that philonthrophic activity in India is nil. One could take exception to the form and delivery of such activities; but to suggest that it is nil (even if almost) is gross misrepresentation. What are Dharmasalas? What about countless individuals who fund educational activities (even if they are classified according to different reginoal or religious groupings).

I see some real benefits if many villages have websites and they coordinate their activities like this. The primiary benefit must be that they form a group and think and act like a group. The public persona must be supported by day-to-day activities and interactions; this should lead a more harmonious group. And so on. I see only positives.

Anonymous

Sorry prev post somehow got submit’ed in the middle.Here it is.

You have to look at underminig problem.There are number of villages in India and there are all sorts of problems starting from no proper drinking water,no roads, no work etc., What is the solution?

Let’s say this concept of having website clicks and every village has website, how is it going to solve the problem? One should look at the roots of the problem. Government does not have that much money, can not produce that many number of jobs.

At abstract level, I think it is good start.Something has to be done and this is something.

However as others have mentioned as this is in English it is not useful. You can not always get the best method on day one.

One problem I see is rich Indians do not care about the needy.Rich keep on multiplying money and give it to kids but philonthrophic activity is almost nil.Dad builds a palace with 20 servants and son inherits and builds multiples with 100 servants, there is no concept of really helping the poor.

Cr

You have to look at underminig problem.There are number of villages in India and there are all sorts of problems starting from no proper drinking water,no roads, no work etc., What is the solution?

Let’s say this concept of having website clicks and every village has website, how is it going to solve the problem? One should look at the roots of the problem. Government does not have that much money, can not produce that many number of jobs.

I think

At abstract level, I think it is good start.Something has to be done and this is something.

However as others have mentioned as this is in English it is not useful. You can not always get the best method on day one.

Rohan Freeman

The Hansdehar website is notable because it is non-rational. A non-rational approach is not irrational. It simply means an action is undetaken for the sake of the action.

Sure, when pushed, the people involved come up with reasons – the government will take notice, etc. etc.

But this site has uploaded details on every single resident in the village. It is self expression for the sake of self expression.

Non-rational endeavour has driven most of the world’s technological progress over the last 500 years. That is why people took note.

Subhash Bose

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.

Matt Lemmon

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!

Krish

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.

Raj

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!

Edward K

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.

Smruti

“…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/

Santosh

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.

bala

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!!

Tejas

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.

...?

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

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