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When I first visited Puducherry in 2004 on my travels to look at all the marquee projects in Internet and communication technologies for development and governance, I learnt about the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation’s work with the local fisherfolk. The initiative was supposed to get weather reports and broadcast them through a public announcement system that was installed in a temple in a fishing village. The centre also provided other relevant information to fishermen.

Since then, I have been to Puducherry regularly and always stayed in a particular guesthouse close to French Town. Every time I walked to one of the fishing villages, I thought there should be community information resource centres (CIRC) in them. Although many of these villages are close to French Town (some are about 500 metres away), life in the town and the villages was radically different. This year, the Digital Empowerment Foundation decided that we will establish such a centre and I promised a local partner that if they could find and bear the cost of a local place, we would bring in all the necessary equipment and support the running cost of the centre for at least two years. A CIRC is a community gathering place that is broadband-enabled and equipped with at least 5-6 computers, printers, a photo printer, camera and projector and offers anything from digital literacy to training in digital skills.

While we were looking for a place to house the centre, we saw how the local social dynamics work, some of them quite extreme. About 300 metres from French Town is Vaithikuppam village, where we thought we would set up a CIRC. However, we soon found out that there were two village councils with two different communities who were hostile to each other. They have separate temples, separate public places and separate panchayats.

Anyway, we chose one of the panchayats of Vaithikuppam and opened the CIRC, thinking that some day it may bring the two communities together. That’s yet to happen, but I want to share something even more revealing. The centre was opened last month and we found there were just seven candidates who wanted to join our digital literacy programme. Later, we found 50 candidates, many of them girls. I was then told that five married women have taken admission to become digitally literate.

I was again in Puducherry last week and wanted to meet those women. It was an extraordinary experience. I met Lavanya, who is 19 years old and already married for five years. She has two children, lives in a nuclear family and her husband works in a beauty parlour, earning about 10,000 a month. She has passed her higher secondary exams and wants to join a computer class because she wants to look for a job as a computer operator in a shop or in an outfit with a sales department. She had not told her husband about joining CIRC. She does not own a mobile phone. Her husband has a feature phone, but she has never dared to ask to use it or play games on it. For that, she sometimes uses her mother’s phone.

I also met Radhika, 26. She was married when she was 17 and has three children. Her husband works in a butcher shop where his average monthly earning is no more than 5,000. She has passed Class X, likes science and dreams of learning computer science. When she heard of CIRC and its low fees, she could not resist and joined. Even she hasn’t told her husband that she has joined CIRC, saying she will “manage".

The third woman I met is Nandini, 23. She has completed her bachelor’s degree in science. She was married when she was 19 and had finished her Class XII. Her husband is an M.Sc in physics and employed in a company as quality checking staff, earning 7,000 a month. Nandini wants to do a B.Ed and said it is necessary to learn about computers. Even she hasn’t told her husband.

While I was talking to them, our CIRC coordinators, Shiva and Nazat, were very uncomfortable with the questions I was asking about the families of these women. Later they said they had surveyed and visited about 150 households to gather information and to inform them that a CIRC is starting soon. Not a single house, they said, is free from domestic violence and wife-beating. None of the husbands want their wives to go out of the house for work. They think that if their wives learn something useful, they won’t like to be at home and they won’t listen to their husbands. They’d rather have low household income than a wife with a sense of freedom. Yet, our CIRC team claims each and every one of those young married women will join CIRC one day. Why? Because computers and the Internet makes these women confident, liberated and independent.

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 the masses at the ministry of communication and IT. Tweet to him @osamamanzar

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