With full Wi-Fi, a taluka in Gujarat begins the year trying to connect

Primary schools with computers but no Internet, and villagers who say ‘we need jobs’ .

Written by Satish Jha | Khedbrahma | Updated: January 1, 2016 10:07 am
manjuben, Nana Mota village, manjuben Nana Mota, taluka, taluka wifi, gujarat wifi, gujarat latest news, india news Kamlesh Gamar, 18, opened his Facebook account just two weeks ago in Khedva, Gujarat. (Source: Express photo by Javed Raja)

Manjuben, 45, who never went to school, recently learnt to say “laptop”. Smiling indulgently at her 19-year-old son Ashok Kateriya, who is busy surfing the Internet, surrounded by the family’s goats, cows and calves, in Nana Mota village, she says one needs “mahiti (information)”.

“Times have changed. We should have information. If you go to the market and you have no information of what is going around, you will come back like a fool. And I don’t mind my children spending money or time on this thing. It is much better than spending on tobacco and other such things,” says Manjuben.

She also likes watching movies on Ashok’s Lenovo. Her son, meanwhile, is going through his newly opened Facebook account, balancing the laptop as it charges from the switchboard hanging precariously above. His profile page is full of pictures of lip-locked couples and quotes on love in English and Gujarati. His friends’ list shows several girls.

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“They are simply acquaintances,” says Ashok.

Nana Mota is one of 32 villages in Khedbrahma taluka, of Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat. At the beginning of the year, a Wi-Fi scheme was introduced in Khedbrahma, with Chief Minister Anandiben Patel promising to make it “the country’s first Wi-Fi taluka”.

Ninety per cent of Khedbrahma’s two lakh population is tribal — the Kateriyas are Dungaria Garasia Bhils — its literacy rate at 57 per cent is lowest for the district, and it generally makes news for practices such as witchcraft. However, that’s not what has come in the way of the scheme.

Officials say the target was last-mile connectivity in backward areas. Internet towers were supposed to be installed in each panchayat, covering a 10- to 15-km radius, with panchayat offices themselves serving as browsing centres, providing instant information on government schemes and allowing online submission of forms.

In reality, the scheme has benefited only a handful. Officials put the number of those who have taken wi-fi connection at 200, most of them non-tribals and relatively richer. In the beginning when the wi-fi was free for 30 minutes everyday, more than 1,100 people had subscribed to it. The number plunged as soon as that came to an end.

Officials also admit to failure to correct frequent technical glitches — a fallout apparently of the high expense of maintaining the service. The heavy rainstorms this year compounded problems by toppling several towers.

At the Khedva panchayat office, a tall tower stands adjacent to a primary school. It’s 11.10 am and youngsters are lined up outside the locked building, waiting for it to open. However, it’s not Internet they are waiting to access; no one even knows what the tower is there for.

Inside, four computers are kept in a room on dusty tables that haven’t been touched in days. A schoolteacher who speaks on condition of anonymity admits children are being taught computers but there is no Internet. He too is unaware about the purpose of the tower “that came up a few months ago”. He comes from Himmatnagar, the district headquarters, he says.

Maljibhai Gamar, a Bhil tribal in his 30s who is a daily wager on a farm, says he was never impressed with the wi-fi promise. “We don’t even need such a thing (Internet). We need employment opportunities.”

Even if they had a wi-fi connection, Gamar adds, “We can’t afford a smartphone or computers.”

Sabarkantha district development officer (DDO) IAS officer M Nagarajan says they have figured out the technical and other issues. “A new arrangement has been made. We have brought Railwire (a broadband service and telecom arm of Railways) as an Internet service provider,” he says.

Under ‘Digital Setu’, district authorities have brought several schemes such as MNREGA and primary health centres online.

While distribution of rations through PDS shops has also been computerised, Ramabhai R Gamar, who runs the PDS shop in the village and puts in Rs 200-300 a month to recharge his Net connection, says, “There are five villages in Khedva panchayat and I can say with authority that none has a computer or a laptop. There are five primary schools in the panchayat and all have computers with no Internet.”

There is one benefit of computers though, Gamar adds grudgingly. His sons have become well-versed at them.
This month, Gamar’s youngest son Kamlesh, 18, took the next step. Ignoring a goat and cow, that look away uninterested, he tells you he now has a Facebook account. “After a three-month course in basic computer science, I can surf the Internet.”

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  1. R
    Rajesh
    Jan 1, 2016 at 10:05 am
    Instead of trying to appreciate the fact that someone is such a remote area now has access to an entire world of information (good and bad of course), the pressutes are nitpicking and finding faults. Things take time to improve. Give it a couple of years and the connectivity will improve.
    Reply
  2. D
    din
    Jan 1, 2016 at 11:02 am
    If congress did not have 2G,3G scams some of WIFI service providers would have, and could have afford to sponsor some of the remote villages, BUT who will be able to afford costly towers just for a few connections - it is not viable and will not be appreciated by existing paid users if cost goes up !
    Reply
  3. D
    din
    Jan 1, 2016 at 10:56 am
    We all get it even if you pay top price for fiberopic broadband services
    Reply
  4. K
    Kunchan Nambiar
    Jan 1, 2016 at 7:26 am
    In short, it is a tragedy as of now . As the caption aptly says..'trying to connect'.
    Reply
  5. L
    LogicalAamAadmi
    Sep 2, 2016 at 4:16 am
    #GujratModel of which now a days nobody talks @arvindkejriwal @drkumarvishwas
    Reply
  6. N
    nrmantena
    Jan 1, 2016 at 5:19 pm
    If the country were not embroiled in 2G and 3G scams that siphoned away thousands of crores, all the 6 lake villages would have been provided WiFi access by now. This facility is much more useful than TV to the rural potion to know the commodity and agricultural-input prices and what they can get for their produce. The key issue is the cost. There are great technical breakthroughs in wireless networks that need to be used to reach all the villages at an affordable cost of Rs.20-30 per month. There is no doubt that great deal of resources and time have been wasted in the past. Now is not the time to weep over it, and it is the highest priority to get low-cost rural WiFi connectivity by way of affordable laptops and access. If you look at the numbers, no computer company worth it's salt can afford to neglect this huge market. Let them make a new start.
    Reply
  7. P
    Param
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:44 am
    Indian Express, which world do you live in? This WiFi programme was started in 2011-12 by Gujarat Government and not 2016. If you don't have anything new please don't print old stale stories that too as if it is the biggest breaking news in this country. What a useless story on the first day of the year. Your stale journalism is stinking Indian Express. Your reporter Satish Jha has copied this from newspaper or channel and out up a piece as if it's his own. Sad state of journalism.
    Reply
  8. P
    Param
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:50 am
    Who is the Editor of Indian Express? Does he/she read newspapers? Or is this Satish Jha a political hand and is being pampered for such useless stories by editors/seniors. This is for you:- Your own paper's link-
    Reply
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