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.
“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”.
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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.”