Indian Villages, Internet and Crazy Headlines

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.