Sewakapura, a small village in the easternmost part of Rajasthan, is a place where time stands still. The small settlement is buried in the rustic greens of the Dholpur district, known for its turbulent affairs with Mughal emperors, sandstone reserves, a combined cycle power station and close proximity to major cities like Agra and Gwalior. Still, the hamlet of farmers and farm hands in Sewakapura live life without electricity for most part of the day and rarely show signs of urban influence, given that city life is just a stone’s throw away. And also, they have only most recently discovered - the smartphone.
But, as much as it looks like a typical Indian village from the covers, there’s something revolutionary happening in Sewakapura, and it’s the women of the village that are stepping up to the mantle. How? By educating themselves and those around them in the ways of the internet.
"I did not even know how to hold a smartphone"
Internet Saathi, an initiative by Google and Tata Trusts, has taken upon itself the herculean task of providing digital literacy to the women of rural India. The programme spans across 5500 villages in Rajasthan alone, with a total inclusion of 60,000 villages in 10 states. Women from these villages attend a 3-day workshop wherein they learn the basics of using Android smartphones and tablets; things like using the calculator, camera, typing on a touch interface, performing simple Google searches, accessing useful information about new government schemes and policies, and then some. At the end of this 3-day workshop, these women emerge as Internet Saathis, the digital literates that then pass on their knowledge to other women, men in their home villages.
“I did not even know how to hold a smartphone. My husband did not let me touch a mobile phone for the longest time, fearing that I might break it or spoil it,” recalls Parvati Kushwah, the designated Internet Saathi of Sewakapura. Now, Parvati not only knows how to operate a smartphone and a tablet, she has applied her internet skills to establish a whole new source of income for herself and her family.
Parvati Kushwah in the Blue Saree
“While most folks around here earn their monthly income from farming and animal husbandry, I was unable to undertake any physically challenging tasks because of a chronic-illness. Parvati was also not earning anything. Our meagre resources were spent on my health and putting food on the table,” remembers Ram Niwas Kushwah, Parvati’s husband.
Both Parvati and Ram Niwas used the internet to source a machine for making paper bowls. With the help of the information they could gather from their Google search, the duo travelled to Agra and purchased the said machine with some financial support from friends and family. They now sell paper bowls and plates churned out by the machine, which sits pretty in their countryside courtyard.
Parvati at work making paper bowls
And It is not only the Kushwahs that are using their knowledge of the internet to their advantage in Sewakapura. The community of women who are now just discovering the potential of the web are using it to gain inspiration and enhance their skills. Some look for Mehendi art to recreate beautiful designs they find online, while others are learning how to make bracelets and anklets. Most of them go online to read the regional newspaper, look up operational timings for their banks and keep a tab on the farming schemes being introduced in the country.
The internet is not just a unifying force with the power to bring real change, it is change itself for the women of Sewakapura. The web is still uncharted territory for not only women, but also the men of the village. While programmes like Internet Saathi are a huge step in the right direction, these villages still suffer the lack of basic utilities like electricity and clean water. Connectivity is also a challenge and villagers resort to climbing rooftops or small hills in hopes of catching some network. Access to smartphones is another hurdle for most residents of the village as they struggle to afford the wondrous device, making do with feature phones for now.
However, initiatives such as Internet Saathi are gradually hoping to bring connectivity solutions to these villages. The Saathis get two smartphones and a tablet each, complete with monthly top ups for data and talktime. They then carry these devices, along with their chargers and a power bank in a box strapped to the back of a special bicycle. One can spot an Internet Saathi from a mile away, pedaling her way down winding village roads with an Internet Saathi umbrella mounted at the back of the ride.
Internet Saathi & I
True inspiration can be drawn from the women of Sewakapura, who not only have a strong will to make a difference to their lives and circumstances, but also have the drive to toil in fields all day long, tend to livestock, cook for large families, clean their homes, carry heaps of grass and firewood on their delicate frames, and make time to sit down for an internet lesson at the end of a very long day. All this, while the sons and husbands of the settlement set sights on neighbouring towns in hopes of finding a city job.
Being a woman herself, this writer truly hopes to see not one, but hundreds of programmes like Internet Saathi, take to the rural and economically, digitally weaker sections of our country. Their stories need to be told, and their determined lives need to be appreciated, if not rewarded. Almost 70% of the online population in our country is made up by men, leaving women in the bottom 30%. This colossal gap needs to be mended, and thankfully, repairs have already begun.
All Interviews in this article have been translated from Hindi to English