A recent trip to the North-East to explore a distant community turned out to be an extraordinary one—extraordinary, because it ignited in me the feeling that there can’t be a single approach to India’s digital poverty.
If India’s diversity is her strength, this diversity should be matched by a diverse approach to meet digital needs of communities that are so distinct from one another.
I had gone to Tura, the district capital of West Garo Hills in Meghalaya, to implement an Integral Digital Development Programme (IDDP), a joint project of a local lawmaker, the National Internet Exchange of India and the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
Tura lies 220km from Guwahati and 303km from Shillong. It is the cultural and administrative centre of the Garo tribes, with a population of 58,391 in 2001.
The town isn’t connected either by rail or air. The rich culture and heritage of Tura is eye-opening.
The local culture, arts and handicrafts, and the talent of local craftsmen are remarkable.
Tura’s human resource strength is equivalent to any town in, say, Andhra Pradesh.
It has an average literacy rate of 73%, higher than the national average of 59.5%. English is the language of the new generation, and the youth population is a key strength.
But the development gaps are worrisome. The poor telecom and digital infrastructure is a bane for Tura.
The reach of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), the only service provider, hardly moves beyond 4-5km from Tura.
Internet reach is ghastly; in most cases, dial-up dominates.
The challenge for a place like Tura is to reach out to the world, economically and otherwise.
The local produce, crafts and handloom products, are constrained for market reach and a regular supply chain; produce doesn’t even properly reach markets in Shillong or Guwahati.
The lack of basic road, power, connectivity and livelihood requirements is a common grievance, made clear after we met people in the villages.
In one instance, grievances poured out of a community meeting of a 100-plus locals.
For the youth, the biggest challenge is to acquire advanced skills to work in bigger cities; the only training institute in the town is the Tura Polytechnic.
Information poverty persists; locals are rarely aware of public schemes and programmes.
This is compounded by the fact that the local Garo language is the native lingua franca of the citizenry, whereas government outreach is in English.
The use of digital apparatus is minimal. In one village, only 15% of the locals had either a radio or a TV. In one group of youths, 30% had a mobile phone.
This is a combined case of digital divide and economic disempowerment.
Programmes for a town like Tura must meet digital needs specific to the local ecosystem.
For instance, wireless mesh connectivity would work in addressing information gaps here, as it has in Dharamsala.
Mobile handsets can be more than just talking apparatuses; they can send and receive critical information on a daily basis. There is also scope for community radio in an environment like Tura, to serve the diverse information and content needs.
Existing programmes for the North-East, such as the Community Information Centre (CIC), designed to address information and communication needs, have failed to serve their objectives. The problem is poor design and implementation, even though huge resources have been expended on infrastructure.
So the question arises: Do we need a separate design for digital empowerment in hilly areas? While technology has tremendous scope to bridge geography, this must be proven in places like Tura with a sensibly crafted programme.
Perhaps this is where the IDDP will find workable local solutions.
As a multi-stakeholder approach, this is a pilot to explore the challenges in deployment and use of communication technologies and the Internet in a hilly ecosystem, to connect and empower the local community.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards.
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