Four-year-old Vishnu Kabaliya recites the “Barakhadi” (the Gujarati alphabet set) in complete sync with the audio and colourful animation popping up on the tablet on his lap. Sitting cross-legged on a brown jute bag, he has a vice-like grip on the tablet, preventing his classmates from even touching it. “I like watching Motu Patlu (an animated sitcom series), but my favourite is the rabbit-and-hare story,” says Vishnu, refusing to look up from the device.
In the scorching salt marshes of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, wi-fi powered tablets and laptops are drawing children of salt pan workers and members of the Agariya community back to the Rann shalas, the government-approved makeshift tent schools at Kharaghoda in the Surendranagar district of the state. “The Rann shalas are now registering an increase in attendance. Earlier, of the 251 students enrolled in 14 schools, only 60-65 per cent would attend. Now, 95 per cent do,” says Punabhai S Vakatar, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) district co-ordinator of Surendranagar.
The Agariya community usually spends about eight months in the Rann, working in the salt pans while their children attend the school here. They return to their villages by mid-May.
The excitement is palpable at the Manish Rann Shala, 30 km from the nearest habitation of Patdi town in Surendranagar district, where the white “digi-van”, which brings in the equipment — an LCD screen, five tablets, a laptop, a laser printer, a lamination machine and a camera — has drawn all 21 of its enrolled students, including Vishnu. “The children are very excited by the entire setup. They do not mind staying back in school now. Earlier, it was difficult to get all of them to concentrate as students of various classes and ages sit under one small tent,” says Himmatlal N Patel, the teacher at the Manish Rann Shala, where, apart from the tent, a small blackboard on a wooden stand is the only other infrastructure.
What has really got the attention of children these days is “Tublo” — the local term for YouTube. Despite language and digital barriers, children as young as four years old are using YouTube to find their favourite Gujarati poems, rhymes, alphabet tutorials and mathematical puzzles, says Rahul Chaudhary, co-ordinator of the project, Zero Connect, the brainchild of three NGOs — Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), Internet Society (ISOC) and the Ahmedabad-based Agariya Heet Rakshak Manch (ARHM).
While the students dabble with web pages, they also have access to elementary study material. “We have uploaded various Gujarati songs, an application with math puzzles and alphabet rhymes,” says Shah Alam, the DEF co-ordinator, adding that more applications will be installed on the tablets in the coming days.
“The children also have access to video conferencing, which connects them to the outer world. Through this, they will also study what their peers are being taught in the cities and even across the globe,” says Harinesh Pandya, director, AHRM.
Apart from bringing children back to school, the technology is also digitally empowering the population of nearly 5,000 salt pan workers. For one, video conferencing is a massive step up in a region where mirrors are still used to relfect sunlight and send out signals — rigorous vertical flashing of a mirror signifies a medical emergency.
Despite its relative success, NGOs insist that the project is still in its nascent stage, and will require “acclimatising” to the extreme environment here. “We did not realise that even on such a barren, unobstructed piece of land, we would face aligning problems. The earth’s curvature was hampering the signals from the Wi-Fi tower we had set up at a location bordering the Little Rann of Kutch. Then, after several tests, the tower was installed at Zinzuwada police station, nearly 30 km from Patdi,” says Osama Manzar, founder, DEF.
“Of the 162 projects we are running in over 22 states, this is the first that is operating from a moving vehicle. The rest are all stationary centres,” says Manzar. The project, he says, aims to end the “600-year-old isolation” of the Agariyas. “Poora desh jinka namak khata hai, unke liye kuch karna chahiye (We should do something for the community that gives salt to the entire country),” he says.