February 2007

ICTs in the heart of rural India

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TARAhaat telecentre network, a commercial venture of the Development Alternatives group and TARA, has made a serious impact on the people it serves in the heart of rural India, covering the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and more accurately the region of Bundelkhand.

This place known for its rich heritage, warriors and opulence now only hosts the remnants of that historic past in the endless fortresses and temples which titivate the surrounding areas. The dry, arid land now tells a different story. Rains have not come calling for a greater part of the last three years. The villages bask in lazy sunlight, and a step into the area is enough to make one feel that amidst all the changes, time sometime, has stopped, nonchalant about the hours its loses.

Of those who sit and watch and those who go and do, Sushila from Tarichar village in Bundelkhand definitely belongs to the latter group. A student herself, hands-on eLearning TARAhaat  software, she intends to help change the world around her.

I visited a TARAgram in Orchha, near Jhansi. This was a district headquarter connecting 26 villages in the adjoining area and by itself was connected to the Delhi centre. One of the challenges of such a remote control of the villages is that unlike many other places in India, the villages in this area are separated by huge distances; the areas between two villages are often unpopulated and desolate. This in a way also warrants an inherent need for connectivity. With the opportunity in place, TARAgram started functioning in 1998, as an attempt to connect, and if possible bring in the realization in the people that the right to Information and Communication was an amenity as basic as the need of food, if not more important, but surely as critical.

It has taken nearly 9 years for TARA to seep into the soil and become a recognizable part of the geography. The challenges have been multifarious and the TARA team has risen to the task on more occasion than one.

Taking the TARAhaat home

Most definitely one of the biggest challenges in the setting up of telecentres in Bundelkhand has been the lack of inbuilt local interest. As a result, the process has been such that for ICTs to reach people, TARA has had to go to the people, to make them adopt and understand the utility of these technologies. An important difference in the TARAhaat centres is that everything comes for a price! For using the telecentres, and enrolling in the various IT courses run in the centres, the locals have to pay. This is considered to be helpful in the circumstances, as with a price local people have had a tendency to attach 'value' to the services, as most free services are thought to be ineffectual. It is noteworthy however, that Bundelkhand has one of the lowest per capita incomes in India. Hence 'selling' ICTs to the villagers is no mean task. The team has done a demographic analysis of the areas it caters for, and the areas have been divided into classes – A, B, C, etc. Depending on these classes the fee on the IT for every group varies from INR 50 to 7000. The various courses being imparted also vary from 1 hour courses to 6 month courses. Some courses are Microsoft certified also. All of these courses are administered by the TARAgram at Orccha and the course material (print and online) is provided for by the centre in Delhi. Some of these courses are promoted as being essential in obtaining jobs, which is the reason for quite a lot of young job seeking people joining the centres. Some of them are employed within the TARAhaat centres itself, as tutors or coordinators.

In a place where people would walk 2 Kms to save INR 2 by avoiding local transportation, even with the advantages, the aforementioned figures seem exorbitant. As confessed by the team members themselves, 'marketting' the computer as a new kind of TV and bringing out its utility by emphasising how it saves time, to people who own nothing baring time, is a futile strategy. The TARAhaat team thus often has to adopt flexible approaches, like letting people know how much money they can save by adopting new communication technologies. The centres have initiated some eGovernance services- “ePrashasanik Sewayein”- by which they make documents like land records, diving licenses, information on applications, complaints etc., easily obtainable on the centres (through Internet usage and connectivity to relevant state government departments) against payment of a small sum of money. This service has proved quite useful as people are told that their transportation charges to the state capitals to get such papers would cost much more. Even if potential consumers agree to spend an amount on such a service, this is only the first step, as their skepticism looms large. Once committed on a time frame by which the process would be complete and the documents will reach the consumer, there is no space for backing out, as it's very tough to get back the consumer to trust the centre. The team has to carefully promise only what the centre can deliver with mathematical precision.

As another innovative practice, a mobile phone is taken to the farmers and if at all they want to ask an agriculture related query, they are made to call up a number, where the query is registered and a reply is sought within 24 hours. This service is available at a nominal cost and the TARA team goes to the farmers making them aware of this service. This service particularly has had quite a few takers, though convincing people to take it up is expectedly not easy.

Involving the community- Get them to TARA

The best way to involve the local community as described by the TARAhaat team has been to get inspired locals themselves to join the TARA team to help involve the local community. These representatives are selected from within the villages and are then trained to either become teachers at the centres or join the marketting team to encourage more people from the village to join the centres. Often these representatives are past students of various courses in TARA centres, who are inspired to continue the good work. They first join in as students and if found suitable continue as paid tutors.

Another strategy developed by the TARAhaat team has been to go to the locals and ask them what they would want to learn, apart from ICTs. Taking this feedback in, an Usha certified sewing course has been started along with the ICT courses in the TARAhaat centres. Programmes like the English speaking course- “Vyavharik Angrezi Course” have been taken up instantly by the locals. This approach has worked as most people who came to the centre would automatically become curious about the computers.

There is also a specific team for community involvement and various programmes have been initiated to break the barriers and help the people to know the TARAhaat team.

Various competitions like a candle making competition and a cake making competition are organized amongst the locals. This is done in the villages and helps build an interactive relationship between the locals and the TARAhaat team. There have also been instances wherein the locals have been encouraged to start their own setups following the results of various competitions. Generally for these activities, a common place within the village is selected vis-

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