Until Google came calling at Khaula, one of the nearly 100,000 villages in Uttar Pradesh, early in 2016, few among the womenfolk there had heard about the internet. A few had seen their men watching videos on smartphones, but none had accessed the internet on her own.

Now, more than 1,100 women in Khaula and neighbouring villages know how to access the internet and regularly log in. They teach their children, they teach themselves new skills, they look up fixes to niggling medical problems, and watch YouTube videos.

Khaula is ground zero for an ambitious Google initiative called Next Billion to spread use of the internet in developing economies. The initiative rides on the shoulders of women—internet saathis, who have been roped in to carry the “here’s how to access the internet" message across India. The success or failure of the saathis (saathi means friend in Hindi) in the internet literacy project will make or break the programme.

India, whose over 400 million data consumers make it the No. 2 market by internet users, only behind China, is the top focus country in the Next Billion programme. The project also covers Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and parts of Africa.

The internet saathi programme, run by Google along with Tata Trusts is designed in such a way that two-three women in a village are handpicked and trained to use the internet. They, then, further train thousands of village women—not men—on how to access it. This design is with good reason: less than one-third of internet users in India are women and the number is far lower in its villages, explained Rajan Anandan, Google’s vice president for Southeast Asia and India, in a Mint newspaper article in April.

Neetu’s story

Four years ago, Neetu Bhagour, now 22, had made news in the village when she won a state-level wrestling event and was selected at the national level. But, she never made it to the nationals. “My parents didn’t allow me to… girls in our villages are not allowed to play much," Bhagour said, her disappointment showing in her smile.

After leaving wrestling, she decided to pursue studies. The college was far away from the village and she didn’t attend every day, yet completed her graduation in science earlier this year—one of the few to do so in Khaula.

It was on one of the days she was home, bunking college, that her uncle told her that if she had time, she could teach village women how to access the internet. That was about one-and-a-half years ago.

“I had only seen my brother using (the internet). He had an Android phone, but he would never let us use it," Bhagour said. “I decided to learn how to use the internet. People from Google trained us for three-four days… That was the first time I used the internet."

Google gave her a Lava smartphone and a Celkon tablet—both entry-level brands—to use and train other village women. The cost of the two devices was around Rs11,000, a price that the women of Khaula would perhaps never be able to afford. The trainers also get an umbrella and 2GB of monthly data for each device—all provided by Google.

Till now Google has spent about Rs50 crore on training 35,000 saathis. That’s a tab of between Rs14,000 and Rs15,000 per saathi which includes the Rs11,000 spent on the devices, umbrella and data.

It was not easy for Bhagour to convince women in her village that learning to access the internet would be useful. Often they would scoff at her: “We don’t need it." She stayed persistent. “It’s okay if you don’t need the internet, but teach it to your children," she told them. “Use Google to know anything in this world."

Internet saathi Deepa Rajput (extreme left) with her husband, and student Babita Singh in Dehtora village, Uttar Pradesh.
Internet saathi Deepa Rajput (extreme left) with her husband, and student Babita Singh in Dehtora village, Uttar Pradesh.

Next billion

Bhagour is one of the 35,000 internet saathis in India Google is backing. And, in a move atypical of the search giant, it is pouring crores of rupees training them. “Tata Trusts are equally funding the initiative for us. Google brings in the devices, the data, and the technical know-how of training the saathis. And Tata Trusts are managing the on-ground implementation, the saathi stipend," said Neha Barjatya, head of ads marketing & digitizing initiatives, Google India.

The saathis are trained on how the web works, especially how to use various Google products such as Chrome, Search, YouTube, and PlayStore. They are not trained to use any other product, not Facebook or WhatsApp.

Since the beginning of the internet saathis project in 2015, Google has covered 105,000 villages in 12 states and taught 11.5 million women how to use the internet—making it the biggest project by Google under its Next Billion initiative and perhaps the single largest such outreach programme anywhere in the world.

Google wants to take the programme to 300,000 villages. “These women discover the internet (through Google and its products), and eventually discover how to use the internet for their needs," said Barjatya.

Internet hard-sell

It wasn’t easy for Bhagour or any of the other saathis, initially.

Deepa Rajput of Dehtora village (near Khaula) is a Ph.D in Hindi. She teaches at the Shree Jagdamba Degree College in Agra. She was introduced to the internet saathi initiative by a friend of her husband’s. “Our family is one of the progressive ones in the village, so it was easy to convince my in-laws," said Rajput.

But when she went out to teach, it was a problem. At the start, women didn’t allow her to take their picture, which is needed to enrol them in the programme. Some even refused to fill the enrolment form.

Rajput’s pitch was simple, yet compelling. “Google pe saara vishwa ka jankari prapt kar sakte hai… Agar aapka bhains bimar ho jata hai toh aap uske karan dekh sakte hai (You can find the entire world’s information on Google… If your buffalo falls sick, you find the reasons there)," she told the village women.

Most women liked the idea but they had to take the permission of their in-laws and husbands. “Women are weak… their survival depends on how much their husbands provide," Rajput said.

When Google first went to a few villages in 2013, it started by training women directly for three-four hours. This was done at a school or the village community centre. It didn’t work out. The turnout was dismal. Folks at Google knew that they had to fix it if they had to expand beyond towns.

The saathis are trained on how the web works, especially how to use various Google products such as Chrome, Search, YouTube, and PlayStore. They are not trained to use any other product, not Facebook or WhatsApp.

A pilot was done in a village near the Maheshwar town in Madhya Pradesh. Google piloted something called the internet cart, like an ice cream cart, which had internet-enabled tablets. Google-contracted agents would go from village to village, home to home, with these carts and teach the village women how to use the internet.

But, even that wasn’t enough. Google realized that it was important to stay in the village for a long period of time and keep training the women. That’s when the internet saathi concept was born.

The other problem was that women didn’t have devices to access the internet on. So Google gave them devices and free data. In 2015, Google and Tata Trusts started identifying trainers. Initially, Google also provided the saathis with a cycle in 1,500 villages, but stopped it as the women preferred walking.

Changing lives

For many of these beneficiaries, the internet is the only form of empowerment. For Deepmala, a primary school teacher in Atus village not far from Khaula, the internet helps her children learn English. “Children often ask things we don’t know… I have started using Google to explain things to children," she said.

Deepmala’s first acquaintance with the internet was when she enrolled to become a saathi. She has trained 1,500 women since then. It wasn’t easy to convince her husband to allow her to learn how to use the internet but his mother stepped in. “My mother-in-law allowed me to learn… she used to go with me for the training," she said.

For all the world that the internet has opened up for her, some centuries-old habits haven’t changed. Deepmala doesn’t know much about her husband’s work or what he earns. All she knows is that her husband works in a shoe factory near Agra. Without her mother-in-law’s backing, Deepmala said, she wouldn’t have been able to become a saathi.

When she showed the village women the internet, they were initially afraid to use it. There are a lot of myths about the ills of the internet in the villages. Rightly so, as often boys and men in the villages click pictures of girls and upload them to porn sites.

Women are shy and shun anything that may intrude on their privacy. It is in such a context that the world of information—access to Bollywood, culture, lifestyle, pornography, information, email, voice calling, and dozens of applications—suddenly opened up to them.

The saathis need to have a minimum education of up to Class VIII and should be comfortable with English. But there are no restrictions on the saathis to pick educated women. Many of their students don’t know how to read or write. For them, Deepa Rajput of Dehtora village said, Google voice commands are the easiest way to search the internet. “Women are seeing videos condemning domestic violence and oppression of women… That is a big change," she said.

Making money

Deepmala, the school teacher saathi, taught women to search for mehendi designs and facial makeup on Google and YouTube. “Some of them have even started searching new salwar and blouse designs… The women tailors make more money for these designs," she said.

Some women have started charging Rs50 for drawing mehendi designs. Others have started using the internet to look for agriculture and health-related information.

There are other avenues of making money, too. Deepmala and few of the women she trained landed a contract from research firm Nielsen to do a survey of the villages and the shops, for which they were paid. A list of 96 shops was given to them with a list of 80 questions. “The form was on the internet, we surveyed these villages and filled the form. It was about things like what products are sold, which shops have shut down, updating contact information…," said Deepmala.

Monica Sisodiya from Barhan village has trained 2,000 women, most of them who are young. After being trained by Monica, two of them opened a beauty parlour. “She gets customers from 10-12 villages because of the new ways she has introduced," said Monica, who wanted to study law in Agra, but couldn’t because her family wouldn’t allow her to go to the city. She is now pursuing a nursing course at Maa Bhagwati College, 7km from her home.

Google makes most of its revenue by serving digital ads. As more people join the internet and as more of them use the worldwide web, Google can negotiate with brands to get a higher share of the digital advertizing wallet.

Others like Babita Singh are evidence that the lack of information access is not a problem of the poor alone. Babita, 20, whose father is an intelligence officer with the Uttar Pradesh police, lives in a house that is prosperous by Dehtora standards. Her house has four CCTV cameras monitoring the front and rear of the building. The images are captured on a 42-inch LED television on the living room wall.

Yet, Babita used the internet for the first time only four months ago after getting trained by Deepa. Babita refers to the Chrome browser as ‘kromee’. She said she uses the internet to fill forms for banking entrance exams. At leisure, she browses designs of cushion covers and sweaters and tries out new food recipes that she pulls up from the Net.

Babita’s neighbour, Malti Rajput, teaches in a school for the mentally challenged in a nearby village. She isn’t well off and got her first phone from Google.

“We have started using the internet in our schools to teach the children dance steps… They also see craft designs. We sell some of these products to raise some money for the children," said Malti.

It’s business, of course

For Google, this is not any corporate social responsibility activity. It is about getting every individual in India online. “This is not a social initiative for us. It is very much a business or marketing objective," said Barjatya.

Getting more people to use the internet lies at the heart of Google’s business. Google makes most of its revenue by serving digital ads. As more people join the internet and as more of them use the worldwide web, Google can negotiate with brands to get a higher share of the digital advertizing wallet.

Barjatya said Google does not measure what it is getting back from the initiative. “It’s very much to get these women online and the rest will follow," she said. “We are only seeing how many villages and how many women are coming online, and how does it tie back into our Next Billion initiative."

But experts say Google alone can’t change rural India. “Google is probably worried that rural India might end up like Myanmar where most users stay within Facebook and do not explore the rest of the internet," said Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru-based research organization Centre for Internet and Society.

Moving the needle

All the saathis FactorDaily spoke with said that at their training sessions they are taught only how to use Google products, apart from handling the hardware. Those, too, only on Android phones. No Facebook, no WhatsApp, no Snapchat, no Twitter, no Paytm, no Flipkart...

“This is a smart business decision for Google but it does not really bridge the digital divide. We need all stakeholders, including Google to work together to reduce the cost of hardware and connectivity," Abraham said.

Still, a Google-commissioned study by research firm Ipsos suggests that the internet giant has made some headway in rural India. Here are some pointers from the study:

■ 90% of women who have attended the training have a better understanding of the internet

■ 25% of women continue to use the internet (Gujarat is the highest at 35%)

■ 7% of women trained under the program feel that their social standing has improved

■ 33% trained women think that their economic condition has improved by learning new skills

■ 1% increase in village income in instances where training was conducted

Even though most of the women are not taught to use Facebook and WhatsApp, most of them eventually get on to social media. This is little consolation for Facebook, which has failed to mainstream itself in rural India the way Google has.

While Google gets a large number of the first-time users, some of the women have also started buying things online. Mamta Mahour of Bijpuri village bought earphones and books from Amazon and a saree from Voonik. The products are delivered at one of the shops in the village and Mamta collects it from there.

Some of the households have also started disconnecting their cable connections, said Mamta. Her’s and Deepmala’s houses are two, for instance. Deepmala watches ‘Piya Albela’ and ‘Big Boss’ on YouTube. “We can watch it anytime. There is so much (power) load-shedding that you can’t watch an entire episode on television… that’s not the case on YouTube," she said.

Slow going

Mamta has taken a Reliance Jio connection. She watches her shows on JioTV and YouTube. “JioTV is free. I don’t see the need of having a cable connection at home. Rather I would use that money to recharge my phone," she said.

Still, the going is grindingly slow. While Google has been successful in teaching women in these villages to use the internet, three out of four stop using the internet after the training.

When the saathi project started, internet penetration in villages was about 10%, said Barjatya. A recent report by industry lobby Internet and Mobile Association of India and market researcher Kantar IMRB shows that it has gone up to 17%.

Barjatya said Google spent a lot of time understanding the needs of the rural India. These 11.5 million women trained by Google have at least been introduced to the internet. “Over time we have seen that they have found value in going and buying a smartphone," Barjatya is optimistic.

The data story in India is changing, especially after the launch of Reliance Jio. Google is already in talks with Reliance Jio to provide 4GB of 4G data at Rs149 a month to the saathis. Right now it is 2GB of 2G data.

The feedback from the saathis, meanwhile, is that the training module needs to change: the time is too short to train someone who had never used the internet, according to them. The saathis were given the target of training 250 women in a week, based on which they would receive a stipend from Tata Trust. It varies between Rs4 and Rs8 for each woman trained.

Barjatya said the target has been brought down to 100 women a month.

Changing data story

While Google has set up a call centre to check how many beneficiaries use the internet after training, there is no way it can ensure that women continue to use it. Call centre agents make random calls to check if the training is sufficient and if they are using the internet. Google might also contemplate returning to the same village to train more women.

Also, very few women own devices in male-dominated rural Indian society. “We haven’t really got into creating access beyond spreading awareness. However, yes, this is something we are open to and can consider. But right now it is just the literacy part," Barjatya said, talking about subsidising mobile phones for women in villages.

The data story in India is changing, especially after the launch of Reliance Jio. Google is already in talks with Reliance Jio to provide 4GB of 4G data at Rs149 a month to the saathis. Right now it is 2GB of 2G data.

In the next two years, Google will need more devices and more data. For its target of covering 300,000 villages, it will need an army of about 100,000 saathis— nearly a 10-fold jump.

Meanwhile, back at Khaula, Bhagour, the former wrestler, has started studying for the entrance test to join Delhi police. YouTube, she said, is handy for her studies. She is learning tricks to solve math problems quicker. Something else happened on Dhanteras, the festival to worship wealth, that made Bhagour proud.

“I got Rs4,211 for training the women. I got the money on the day of Dhanteras," she said. “I gave the money to my father to get the house painted."

This story has been published in association with FactorDaily.

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