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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Nichlagarh is out of digital exclusion

Nichlagarh is an amazing place located in the foothills of Mount Abu. It consists of many hamlets and is part of Abu Road tehsil of Sirohi district in Rajasthan. If you look for Nichlagarh on a search engine, you will come to know that it is the same Nichlagarh that was in the news when US President Barack Obama, on his June 2015 India visit, spent 20 minutes with Sharmi Bai, then sarpanch of the village.

However, most of the news that one gets to read about Nichlagarh is about extreme poverty, illiteracy and government apathy.

It is paradoxical for Nichlagarh that while it made global headlines when its female sarpanch met the President of the US, the village itself lives in darkness—with illiteracy, unemployment and the absence of connectivity.

Take a look at these statistics: according to the 2011 census, there are 555 families in the village with a population of 3,079 and average illiteracy is reported to be 70%. Needless to say, 94% of the population belongs to the scheduled tribes, more than 72% people have no access to electricity, while 94% have no toilets. 40% of the population accesses water by walking to government-installed public hand-pumps, and only 45% claimed they have hand-pumps on their premises. Interestingly, 77% of the people have their own land, yet 43% claimed they were daily wage workers.

As if these gloomy statistics that we gathered through a small survey of 160 households recently weren’t enough, Nichlagarh also suffers extreme natural conditions like drought, hilly terrain, and floods. It is on the banks of a couple of rivers and although Nichlagarh is only 17 kilometers (km) from Abu Road and about 15km from National Highway 8, as soon as one takes the single-lane road to get to Nichlagarh, one feels nature take over, with hills on all sides, greenery and silence ruling the environment. “No service" is a constant for a 10-km radius around Nichlagarh.

When I was travelling to Nichlagarh on 22 December 2015, I felt it would be the perfect destination to detox—away from the noise and stress of the city.

But the situation in Nichlagarh may not remain the same for much longer. And that’s the story I want to share. A few months ago, with the support from Tata Trusts, Jaipur-based Center for microFinance, and education-focused Rajasthan-based organization called Doosra Dashak, and Digital Empowerment Foundation got together. We collectively decided to put up a digital resource center in Nichlagarh with Internet connectivity.

But it turned out that Nichlagarh would not be like community information centres that we have set up in the hundreds so far—there was nobody locally available to give us connectivity. We did a feasibility study and ended up finding a broadband source in Abu Road, aerially approximately 16km away with no clear line of sight.

We got our barefoot wireless engineers who started identifying spots to create line of sight and to our surprise we needed three hopping spots to achieve line of sight and to bring in the broadband that existed in Abu Road to Nichlagarh village. And two of the spots had to be on the top of hills standing tall between Abu Road and Nichlagarh.

Luckily we found a tribal family around 10km from Abu Road. We rented a small portion of his terrace to put a small antenna, and then we found a temple on the top of the hill to get the space to put another small tower to link the sourcing and destination spots. We needed another natural height before the final point, which came in the shape of a non-working and unused telecom tower.

Nichlagarh now is a tribal Wi-Fi village, without any functional telecom service. I have no hesitation to say that this is actually a sign and symbol of Digital India, where one can convert the most excluded tribal village into a broadband-enabled Wi-Fi village.

Having done that, the exciting news, however, is that every other institution is asking for Internet connectivity, like the police station, school, shops, ration outlets, almost all the youth of the village. In fact, the youth who have got mobiles are coming to the centre every day and insisting that they be allowed to access the Wi-Fi.

I would like to invite you to have a look at the video (bit.ly/1K83Ml9) to actually appreciate how last-mile broadband connectivity can be achieved without fibre optic wireless technologies and at a very affordable cost.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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