How the digital age is reshaping the face of India

Since the wave of the Internet revolution reached the shores of Indian subcontinent, about a decade ago, it has gradually submerged even the most remote and deprived villages, affecting the livelihoods of people from all levels of Indian society, from the very top to the very bottom. Although widespread deprivation and illiteracy are still a sad reality in India, the strenght of the digital revolution has started showing its effects, promising to sweep away endemic poverty as well as changing for ever the face of a country that for centuries has separated itself for the rest of the world, because of its culture, religion, dress and lifestyle.

India is currently one of the fastest growing major markets in the world and its economy – according to the latest prediction by Roubini Global Economics – may surpass China’s in the next 10 years. Yet, the world’s largest democracy and second populous country is a land of contradictions and great extremes. If on the one hand it is one of the major powers, militarily strong, with a fast-growing economy, and average of two million college graduates every year, on the other hand it is the country where ⅔ of the population still live in objective poverty, where the average wage is only 1/10 to ¼ of that in the United States or Europe, and where huge social, cultural and environmental problems represent a big challenge for the government.

Where else, then, will the world wide web revolution best show its effects on society, culture and identity if not in India?

According to the latest statistics released by InternetworldstatsInternet use has soared from 2000 to 2010 by a spectacular 1,520.0%, with currently 81 millions Internet users, which places India at the 4th place globally. However, the statistics refers to users and not to Internet connection, whose access reaches only 5 million people. Also, at least 37% of computer users still rely on cyber cafes to go online, mostly because they cannot afford a PC.

Big international corporations, whether for altruistic reasons or not, have lent a hand to India, and supported its digital development in the last years, by testing some of their technological devices in the country. Nokia, for instance, has opened some labs in India, where it develops many of its ultracheap cellphones. Citibank first experimented here a special ATM that recognizes thumbprints, to help slum-dwellers who struggle with personal identification numbers. It’s no coincidence that India has become Microsoft’s primary hub for researching technologies for the poor, and its recent advancements in text-to-speech software for illiterate users are just one example. Other companies are joining the fray: Dell, HP, Acer, HCL and Lenovo have all recently launched low-cost netbooks in India.

Above all, the Indian tech revolution has been boosted by the rapid surge in tech start-ups and social entrepeneurs, whose driving mission is to fight poverty by bridging the digital divide. Since the early 1990s, when the Indian government opened the door to more foreign investing, the country has experienced a tremendous economic boost, and it is currently in the throes of a communications revolution. In the last decade, India has become the focal point of most outsourcing activities, with many entrepreneurs and large multinationals investing in computer innovation targeting the poor.

The Hole in the Wall project: how to turn a slum child into a natural born hacker

Aron Chavan is a young student from New Delhi. As a child he lived in one of the most deprived slums of the capital of India, and that’s when he first laid hands on a computer. The machine was left unguarded, fixed to a wall. This made it an easy attraction to the curious and excited children of the neighbourhood, who immediately started playing with it, teaching themselves how to use desktop and mouse although they had never seen a computer before. A decade later, Chavan is a postgraduate student in biology at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and he is planning to do his PhD in genetics at Stanford or Cambridge.

Aron Chavan’s success story is just an example of how the world wide web is increasingly bursting into the lives of millions of people in India, dramatically diverting their path by breaking down the chain of illiteracy and poverty.

Scientist Sugata Mitra, director of the Indian National Institute for Information Technology, is one of the pioneers of the India Internet revolution and the one who made Chavan’ story possible. He started the Hole in the Wall project in 1999 in South Delhi, wondering what would happen if you made a computer frelly available to slum children.

What we fund out is that children are natural born hackers”, says Mitra.  His experiment showed to what extent children are able to operate a computer without training – by teaching themselves English, calculation, and application – and, more importantly how curious and motivated they become to learn more and move forward t once they are introduced to the potentials of the Internet.

As a result of this extraordinary experiment, Sugata Mitra developed a revolutionary scheme to educate India’s poorest children. He called it minimally invasive education.

“One kiosk, which taught some 160 children, cost 150,000 rupees (£2,343) to build, plus the same again for the dedicated internet connection and maintenance. If we built 100,000 kiosks it would cost US$2bn (£1.4bn) to keep them running for five years. In that time, assuming 200 children learn from each kiosk each year, 100 million children would become computer literate. The 13 year-olds of today would be 18. They would vote. I think we would have irreversible social change in India”.

In 2000 the British Institute for Social Inventions awarded Mitra’s project the prize for social invention of the year because of its novel method of empowering large numbers of people in a lasting way. Today there are 500 Internet access holes in the wall throughout India, Africa, Cambodia and Bhutan.

Babajob.com or ‘the village version of LinkedIn’

The man behind the Bangalore-based start-up Babajob.com is Sean Blagsvedt, an ex-Microsoft employee, who came up with the idea of the portal after reading a study by economist Anirudh Krishna showing that the primary way to escape poverty in the developing world was job diversification. In other words, the report found that many poor Indians stay poor not because there are no better jobs, but because of the lack of connections to discover such jobs.

When Blagsvedt was sent to India in 2005 to help building the local office of Microsoft Research, the fight to poverty became his major focus.

“In India, you can’t escape the feeling that you’re really lucky. So you ask, ‘What are you going to do about all the stuff around you? How are you going to use all these skills?’”.

Hence the idea of what he calls ‘the village version of LinkedIn’: a social network that connects employers to bottom-of-the-pyramid workers (i.e. maids, cooks, drivers, etc.) by creating greater market efficiency in the informal sector through voice and web features such as SMS, UssD, automated voice systems, and operator manned call centres, enabling employers and job seekers to find each other.

How does it work? Staff of Babajob.com go to slums equipped with papers and digital cameras, they take people’s pictures and digitize their profile on the site, where eventually seekers advertising their skills and employers advertising positions in their company are matched. Babajob currently has a staff of 16 full timers, over 60,000 customers and sends out over 1 million job alerts per month.

Hi-tech rural India

But if in the main urban areas Internet penetration is visibly on the rise, it is in rural India that the digitalisation process represents the major challenge. 70% of the population lives in rural areas, where the lack of basic infrastructure and poor levels of education still tie people to grinding poverty. The traditional rural scenario is expected to change very soon thanks to a lively ferment of development policy, foreign investors, and a proliferation of local tech-innovators who are instilling awareness of the revolutionary strenght of both education and technology.

One of the first social enterprise focusing exclusively on rural India was founded in 2000 by two entrepreneurs who understood the shortcomings of existing solutions to reach the people at the base of the pyramid, and the difficulties and frustrations they inspired. They startedDrishtee, providing technology goods and services to rural India through village kiosks that are run and managed by local entrepreneurs using a franchise and partnership model.

What we do is: we go to a village, find an entrepreneur and inspire him, try to explain [to] him how he can do more for his community and for himself. If we can actually […] make this a sustainable model and bring real good services, like banking or microfinance or health, then I see a lot of potential for this. But it’s hard work and [there are] lots of challenges” said Siddharta Shankar, co-founder of Drishtee.

Over the years, Drishtee has facilitated and supported a network of over 14,000 rural enterprises to cater to the critical needs of base of the pyramid and it is currently present in three states of India. Its model has inspired many small entrepreneurs in exploring new business opportunities in remote villages of rural India, where one of the main technological incubators in the world is expected to take off.

The Rural Marketing Congress India 2010 took place in Bombay between December 7th and 8th.

This entry was published on December 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm. It’s filed under Activism, Civil rights, English, Internet, Politics, Tech world and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “How the digital age is reshaping the face of India

  1. Really nice article. I’m sure social media can be used to improve the lives of people who live in poverty. It would be nice to part of that movement.

    I love the way Sugata Mitra attached that computer to a wall. Where do people get those kind of inspired ideas from?? This article has given me lots to think about. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Oye. What they do is really inspiring indeed!

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