The connected world of Jhamtse Gatsal
Lumla is a small village in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Bhutan and Tibet. It takes about an hour to reach Lumla from Tawang, the district headquarter. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) is the only wireless service provider in Lumla. There’s no data connectivity unless you install a satellite (VSAT) dish. In Tawang town, however, BSNL offers both voice and broadband services, while Bharti Airtel offers just voice.
There were talks of a WIMAX (a wireless communications standard) system being installed in Lumla by BSNL, but the technology failed in the testing phase and the programme has been shelved, local residents say. Lumla is largely populated by the Monpa tribe, who are into organic farming. However, living conditions in Lumla are abysmal and even food is scarce for many.
Yet among the people’s misery and nature’s beauty, there is Jhamtse Gatsal (garden of love and compassion in Tibetan), a home, school and a place for children of Lumla and its adjoining villages.
The primary activity of Jhamtse Gatsal is to provide a safe and secure home for the orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children. It is an integrated centre for children because it provides quality education and healthcare, and is host to a learning centre for organic farming, masonry, carpentry, renewable energy, leadership and social entrepreneurship. It excels in providing many experimental educational programmes to help develop multiple skills among the children from a young age.
The community school also helps in cultural preservation of Monpa traditions. Children are taught traditional music, dance and art as part of their activities.
Most interestingly, the community teachers and students are hooked to the Internet and expertly use computers and touchscreen devices. Jhamtse Gatsal has an integrated digital lab for the community as a cultural and basic necessity. As it is funded by foreign donors, the organization has to struggle to coordinate with funders and volunteers on a regular basis. Since there was no Internet in Lumla, the only option it had was to install a VSAT. The 85 children and the staff are used to the Internet. They pay about Rs.25,000 per month for the Internet connection and always struggle with bandwidth.
The children mostly use the Internet for their school research projects, reports, presentations, video and audio editing during their film-making workshops. Teachers use apps and other online tools to teach language and mathematics. Sometimes online services like Khan Academy are used to provide better individual assistance to the children. Jhamtse Gatsal also provides telemedicine services using the Internet to communities in the village.
Jhamtse Gatsal is a typical example of any remote village in India, which is deprived of being a part of the information-based society, but at the same time, it shows tremendous possibility of how a connected environment and digital technologies can integrate communities with people across geographies and nations. Jhamtse Gatsal reached out to us because the people are connected and could explore other people and organizations who could help them.
However, when Jhamtse Gatsal contacted us, the reason was unlike anything I had experienced earlier. They wanted high-speed Internet connectivity to each household in Lumla and adjoining villages. The more remote a community is, the more it needs high-speed Internet, they said.
We are planning to bring BSNL connectivity from Tawang to Lumla using wireless technologies. Once it’s there in Jhamtse Gatsal campus, the community can further use it to spread it across villages.
Can the department of telecom in conjunction with the department of education through its Universal Service Obligation Fund connect all 1.2 million schools of India using the national optic fibre network lines and allow schools use high-speed Internet and become an integral part of an informed and knowledgeable society. The time is now.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of mBillionth Award. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication and IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar