On 12 November, the eve of Diwali, while most of the country was preparing for the festival of light, I got a call from Arain Panchayat Bhawan, saying they wanted to talk with me on Skype. The people on the other side were mostly a young bunch of people from Arain village in Rajasthan and were bubbling with enthusiasm as their tablets and laptops allowed them to talk with and see somebody without being near them, and with so much clarity.
Arain is a big village in Ajmer district with a literacy level of just 52%. Their prevalent tool of communication, based on our survey of 380 households in the village, is the mobile phone. All 2,000 households have at least two mobile phones each. They mostly use the low-cost feature phones to make and receive calls. For the 6,000-plus population of the village, there are three primary and one secondary school. It also has two common service centres (CSCs) that are supposed to provide Internet-enabled government services through a local entrepreneur. In addition, there are two cyber cafes and two outlets providing photocopying facility. The main occupation of the villagers is farming, with 60% of them being small and marginal farmers. Although Arain village is the block headquarters of Arain block, and has many facilities such as banks, a hospital, a police station, a post office, a bus station and several government offices, in general there is no culture of digital life or the Internet.
But all that may become history as Arain panchayat (the village governance office) on 10 November became the first panchayat in the country to get a 100 megabits per second (mbps) broadband optic fibre line, and this is available in the vicinity of the panchayat office. I guess something happens when the Internet and computers come to a village. The locals think some magic box has arrived and even the government officials get enthusiastic. In the case of Arain, we are working with Intel Foundation and the national optic fibre network, enablers called Bharat Broadband Network Ltd at the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) office to provide a full-fledged digital literacy mission centre at Arain panchayat. The plan is to make one adult per household digitally literate in each panchayat wherever the network lines exist. To start with, we are at three pilot locations, Arain being the first. The other two villages are Panisagar in northern Tripura and Pravada in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.
I was trying to analyse how the 100 mbps broadband lines are going to change lives in our villages and the country’s economy. My simple answer is that our country needs highways to connect seamlessly to boost business and entrepreneurship. Since we never got one, the only possibility is to have information superhighways. High capacity broadband will allow exchange of information in audiovisual formats and conversation in oral formats.
The Rs.20,000 crore government project to connect all 250,000 panchayats in the country with 100 mbps lines is like providing 148 kilobits per second (kbps) dedicated lines to every household in rural India. There are 247 million households in India, as per the 2011 Census. If we divide the number of rural households of 168 million by the total number of panchayats, we have 672 households in a panchayat to share 100 mbps broadband lines.
It will be interesting to see how the government and private companies view this upcoming information infrastructure because the biggest question for all of us is: will the folks in our villages who live a life based on necessities be willing to pay for info highways?
I have a small tip: In all the baseline surveys that we have conducted for all our 20-plus centres in as many states, the desire of the people at villages is to have Internet for entertainment, education and government services, in that order of preference. Let me know if you would like to know about the digital literacy mission experience at Pravada and Panisagar.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is member of a working group on internet proliferation and governance at the ministry of communications and information technology.
Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar
Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar