Better connectivity to fuel rural growth

Better connectivity to fuel rural growth

From my travels, I’ve learnt that India’s poverty lives in clusters. For instance, there are at least 400 handloom and handicraft clusters in India, involving no less than four million weavers and artisans, producing approximately Rs45,000 crore in revenue.

All 400 clusters are inhabited by poor, exploited, highly traditionally skilled but majorly unemployed youth. Often, the majority of these clusters have a rich heritage.

Interestingly, the Planning Commission, under its 11th Five-year Plan, has constituted a committee to oversee a programme that doubles the revenue generation of these 400-plus clusters and doubles employability by 2012. Alongside, over the next 10 years, the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has a mandate to make 150 million individuals employable. Both NSDC and the Planning Commission recognize that information and communication technologies (ICT) will be crucial in achieving these numbers.

Over the last two years, we’ve been working in a weaving cluster, introducing ICT with the help of the ministry of communication and information technology.

This experience could well be a model for future replication.

Chanderi is a small town near the river Betwa, part of the Guna constituency of Madhya Pradesh.

It has a population of around 40,000; roughly one third are weavers. With at least 375 monuments in a radius of 7km, a history dating to the 11th century, and an abundance of medicinal and therapeutic plants, Chanderi has the potential to be a significant tourist destination.

But Chanderi is largely made up of migrant weavers from Lakhnoti (now in Dhaka), who came in the era of King Alauddin Khilji in 1305 AD. It is also an isolated community, situated in hilly terrain, far from cities.

A hub of weaving for several centuries, Chanderi has 8,000 weavers on 4,000 looms; around 60% of its inhabitants are linked to the trade.

Contract-based weavers constitute the majority of the weaver community (at least 95%), and they tend to be fully dependent on master weavers, who provide raw material and control product marketing.

Although Chanderi has an estimated turnover of Rs65 crore, the monthly income of most families is Rs2000-3000. At least 80% of weavers are in debt, and only 10% are involved in self-help groups (SHGs).

Ironically, Chanderi silk work weaves only basic cloth; stitching and the creation of final products takes place elsewhere. I was aghast to note, two years ago, when we started working there, that nobody even knew how to hold a pair of scissors.

As a result, weavers don’t have direct access to retail markets for their products.

For example, one group, Bunkar Vikash Sanstha, comprising 11 SHGs, sells products to a retail chain, which has a price mark-up of 500%. If the weavers were able to sell directly to consumers, incomes would increase significantly.

Weavers also have no access to working capital to buy raw material; they are reliant on master weavers.

Most weavers cannot build up a reserve of stock. At least 70% lack funds to support their families for longer than 10 days, so they sell their product immediately.

At present, barely 1,000 tourists a year visit Chanderi. There are two guesthouses and no community tourism. Electricity is available only for eight hours a day. There are only 80 computers in the town, many non-functional. There are no automatic teller machines (ATMs); there is one dysfunctional health centre, and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) is the only broadband provider.

We knew from the beginning that ICT could not solve everything, but we started using ICT as a tool to attract people, get them acquainted with modern ways of communication and gradually target all areas of daily life: education, entrepreneurship, financial inclusion, tourism and community development, supply chain and market linkages.

We set up a broadband line, at least 30 connected computers, textile and apparel designing software, 20 looms for the poorest of the poor, an embroidery unit, a block printing unit, a digitization unit, a telemedicine unit, and a showcase shop of the products made by the SHGs.

With the help of Internet Society, we established a wireless mesh network for the entire population, within a radius of 5km. The good news is that the network has been put up with the help of people from the community, who were trained for the purpose. The Chanderiyaan centre is now hoping to start rural business process outsourcing services using the wireless network, and gradually offer all requisite information to the common man right on his doorstep .

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards. Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.

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