Is the Internet about to go local?

There is a possibility of community Internets arising—made, run and maintained by local communities by and for themselves


Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Even as the debate on Net neutrality rages, I see a possibility of many Internets and their customization, packaging and new colonization. Two tribal girls from the villages of Baran in Rajasthan have taught me that there is a possibility of community Internet—made, run and maintained by local communities by and for themselves.

About five years ago, I went to Baran for the first time and the destination was Sankalp Sansthan, a non-profit organization that works mostly with Bheel and Sahariya tribes, who include thousands of landless daily wagers and bonded labourers. Based in Mamoni village in Kishanganj block, Sankalp Sansthan had a nice campus with a basement room with ancient computers, keyboards, mouse and monitors. There was no Internet for everyone on the campus. There was only one computer in the office that used to have Internet connectivity that everybody used, mostly for email.

I visited several communities and met many Bheel and Sahariya people. Most of them lived from day to day, eking out a subsistence. I also visited a centre called Doosra Dashak, and met about 20 girls. Among them, Reena Sahariya and Basanti Kumari drew my attention due to their proactive engagement. Doosra Dashak is an educational initiative that has inspired thousands of out-of-school children and youth to engage in educational activities for livelihood and entrepreneurship training. Reena and Basanti were part of one such four-month camp. Reena from Papalda village was a Sahariya, and was about 12 years old when I first met her. Her father was a bonded labourer, who only recently had been freed from bondage with help from Sankalp. Basanti was a Bheel from the small Mahodari village of some 50 families.

Baran is one of the most underdeveloped places in the country. Tribal-dominated Baran figures prominently as a hotspot in the list of 22 Rajasthan districts (comprising 65% of the state) that were designated as being food insecure in a 2010 report jointly prepared by the United Nations World Food Programme and the Institute of Human Development, according to a Mint report. Given this backdrop, the story of Reena and Basanti is inspiring because it shows what the Internet and digital tools can do in even the remotest of communities.

What is unique about Reena and Basanti is that they got themselves attached to Sankalp and used the community information resource centre (CIRC) that the Digital Empowerment Foundation had set up with the help of the non-profit in various parts of Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks. CIRCs are supposed to be digitally enabled resource centres established at villages for communities to use. These two girls made full use of the centres and completed their Class XII without ever attending a formal school while working as resource persons at Sankalp and the CIRCs. In fact, for the past few years, they have been in-charge of one CIRC each—one in Mamoni and another in Bhanwargarh. Not only that, when we started working on establishing a wireless network in Baran, they both jumped into the fray and trained themselves on the job to become barefoot wireless network engineers.

In Baran, we are now running 10 CIRCs with the help of Sankalp and its sister organization Jagrut Mahila Sangathan, fully run by tribal women. These are all connected through wireless networks with broadband connectivity in Bhanwargarh provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. All the locations have video-conferencing facility and several other chatting and content-sharing facilities that use open-source technologies. The centres also avail telemedicine facilities by connecting to designated doctors stationed in Kota, which is about 100km from Baran.

Ironically, half the time BSNL broadband does not work. But the good news is that Basanti and Reena and all other CIRC coordinators are leading the centres to connect to each other and, even without the Internet, they create their own network to engage, learn and teach each other. The major activities that they conduct online include video-conferencing, educational content-sharing, updating each other about community grievances and lodging details of various complaints related to the rural jobs guarantee programme, pension and land records, drafting applications, building cases for redressal with government officials, and so on.

Because of the wireless network, Basanti and Reena log into hamarakhata.com, a website with all land records, download all the records related to their community and area, and conduct field surveys to find out if any of the land has been captured and used by anyone other than its tribal landowners. This effort created serious pressure on the government, which ordered a re-survey of the entire tribal land so that tribals could rightfully own and use their land.

When I now talk with Reena, Basanti and others who run the CIRCs and maintain the local wireless network, I find them singing a new song. “Why do we have to be dependent on the Internet so much if it is not reliable and not up all the time. We have already gotten used to work within our own network, and we can gradually increase and expand the network to each and every village of our tribal communities and have all of us get connected to each other, where we will not only access each other’s knowledge but we will also contribute to creating local and relevant content and services which could empower the local community at large with better contextualization.”

Sitting in Delhi, I wonder, is the future of the Internet as a global good going to be challenged? Will the large Internet become the superset of several small Internets—localized, specific and like small colonies and municipalities and villages and tehsils and blocks and panchayats? Is the Internet on the threshold of being customized? And, if there are going to be local and sub-Internets, how will we see Net neutrality?

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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