I have coined a new job role—agent of the Internet and information—and the inspiration for this is the unusual story of two Indians who are spearheading the use of the Internet for empowerment. One is a 27-year-old former electrician and the other is a 67-year-old woman sarpanch, the head of a village council. Both are dedicated to empowering other villagers to use the Internet to understand their rights.
Sanjay Sahni was born in Ratnauli village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. He studied up to class seven, which makes him the most educated among his parents and three siblings. Until last year, he worked as an electrician in Delhi, residing in Janakpuri with his wife and two children and earning Rs.12,000 a month on an average.
I met Sanjay last week when he was being felicitated by Civil Society Online magazine, which gave him a Hall of Fame award. The magazine calls him a “wired hero”. I spoke with Sanjay at length, conversing even in Bhojpuri. Sanjay had never used computers, but he had heard of the Internet, and that it had something called Google that could answer any question. When he got to use a computer one day in Delhi, he logged on to the Internet and Google with the help of others, and typed in the first thing that came to mind: NREGA Bihar.
He had been constantly hearing stories of the government’s flagship scheme meant to help poor villagers find jobs—MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act)—and how hundreds of his fellow villagers back home never got their wages or job cards under the scheme.
Clicking on a number of connected links, Sanjay reached a webpage that had a list of all the job card holders in his village and information that they all were paid. This wasn’t what his fellow villagers were experiencing. Sanjay took 3,000 pages of printouts of his village’s muster roll, and paid a huge sum for it. That was in August 2011. Since then, Sanjay has not been able to return to Janakpuri. His savings of Rs.35,000, too, have dried up.
But Sanjay is now an agent of the Internet and information. Having gone through turbulent times and having faced the ire of local politicians and powerful village heads the past year, Sanjay is now an established source of information empowerment, helping people find information that can empower them with knowledge of their rights and get them jobs and access to opportunities. Although this affords him no earnings, Sanjay is clear that the people in his village and their expectations have motivated him enough to pursue his new role seriously. To eke out a living, he takes up MGNREGA jobs.
Sanjay’s efforts reach beyond his village now. He provides information to seven panchayats (village clusters) across two blocks—Kurhani and Sakra. His major expenses relate to Internet access, printouts of MGNREGA-related information and meetings. But the MGNREGA beneficiaries bear these costs.
Elsewhere, in Rajasthan, Norti Bai, at the age of 67, is now a seasoned computer and Internet user, having been at it for over seven years. She first learnt to use computers at Barefoot College in Tilonia in Ajmer, where she used to run a cyber dhaba, a local version of a cyber cafe. Norti Bai hasn’t done much schooling and first set her hand on a computer and the Internet when she was 60, but since then she has been upgrading her involvement in public life proactively. I would say, in her case, the Internet made her the sarpanch of Harmara panchayat in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. Norti Bai is also a Right to Information (RTI) activist, and was instrumental is making her village significantly literate. Her office has a computer, a printer and data-card enabled Internet access.
Sanjay and Norti show how necessary it is to empower, using the Internet, the huge population that has been exploited for several decades due to lack of information.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan Award. He is a member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communications and information technology. Follow him on Twitter @osamamanzar