Lovebirds and their tech connect

Digital access changes lives in more than one manner

Raghav Mahto was 20 when I first met him in 2006. He was from a small village in Mansoorpur in Bihar’s Vaishali district. His house is hardly 10km from the famous Vishwa Shanti Stupa. He belongs to the Kumhar caste classified under other backward classes. He has not studied beyond Class II; yet, Mahto has the most innovative engineering mind I have ever come across. However, in the world of certificates and education, he will be considered barely literate.

The reason I visited Mahto 10 years ago was because he had become a poster boy almost overnight for independently running a community radio station. He was broadcasting for free to people across a 15km radius, and the media had come to know of this. People in the area were buying radio transistors to get hooked to his popular “Mansoorpur Radio" which broadcasted songs. The radio station was broadcasting from a shack, and Mahto’s palm-size transmitter used to hang on a tall bamboo cane erected on the highest terrace in the village.

He had made the transmitter from a cordless microphone, and all this had cost him under 100 at the time. Yet, the entire operation was illegal because he did not have a licence to run the community radio, neither did the transmitter have any recognized industrial sanction. Add to that, each and every piece of music that he broadcasted came from pirated music CDs. For obvious reasons, he was asked to shut down his radio station and hand over the so-called makeshift transmitter.

I still remember when I asked Mahto, who also ran a shop that sold electrical goods, if he could still make a transmitter despite the crackdown. He said yes but he was devastated, and had lost hope.

I asked him if he would be interested in learning computers and running a centre for digital literacy and services, and he agreed. We gave him a few old and new computers, and a printer to get started.

By 2007, he could operate the computers without a hitch and it was hard to say that until a year ago he had nothing to do with them. He was an antithesis to the conventional view that you need to be literate to learn computers. Sure, it was hard for him to teach computer education because he could not read the instruction manuals and at his centre, if you wanted to be digitally literate and learn computers, you had to do it on your own.

In this period, he faced a lot of challenges but help was at hand in the form of Kiran Kumari, a young and smart teenager who had come to learn computers and picked up so fast that she started helping Mahto run the centre.

One day in 2010, I got several panic calls from Mansoorpur. Mahto and Kumari had eloped and the villagers wanted to know if I knew anything about it. The duo did contact me eventually but the situation was complicated since Kumari was a minor.

A few months later, once Kumari turned 18, the couple married and decided not to return to Mansoorpur right away. I requested Barefoot College in Tilonia to provide space to this young couple and eventually, Mahto helped set up a legally licensed community radio station in Tilonia and his wife Kumari became an accomplished solar engineer.

By 2013, Mahto was homesick and needed something new to concentrate on. That’s when I asked him if he would be interested in learning wireless engineering to provide last-mile connectivity to people in remote areas. He joined our “Wireless for Community" centres in Guna in Madhya Pradesh and not only learnt wireless networking but went into the field to erect towers, establish line of sight, geo-map locations that needed connectivity, conduct feasibility tests, etc.

A fast learner, a born innovator and an independent character, Mahto decided to return home to Mansoorpur and the couple now run a Community Information Resource Centre equipped with 10 computers to impart digital literacy and IT skills, and facilitate access to information to the people in the village. Using his experience with radio technology, Mahto also provides an audio recorded message service through WhatsApp and has created several hotspot points for accessing Internet through a wireless Internet set-up.

Even today, Mahto has no certifications to speak of, but he uses all forms of digital media for his ambitions and innovations.

In conclusion, I think that digital access changes lives in more than one manner—it brings confidence, decision-making ability, gender equality, spirit of entrepreneurship, access to public goods or services, and creates an informed and knowledge-rich society. Let us work to get more digital access to more Raghav Mahtos and Kiran Kumaris.

Osama Manzar is founder-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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