In October last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited a village in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Again, in the middle of a raging debate on Net neutrality, he mentioned that trip. Uma Vishnu finds out why Chandauli
Hajrat Sapwan is a Dabangg-style police officer, complete with dark glasses and a cap. He soon gets bored of it. So he stands with his arms crossed, in the same killer glasses, next to Santa Claus and with red stars in free-fall. That’s so ho-hum. Next, he makes a grand appearance on a giant screen at the ‘New World Tower’ in Beijing, his name “h.s.khan” featured prominently. This is it then, decides the 15-year-old, and he makes it his cover photo on Facebook. Sapwan is a Class 9 student of the government senior secondary school at Chandauli, a village in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, and most of his photographs on Facebook are the result of some deft photoshopping that he does at the village’s Internet centre.
When Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited India in October last year, it was to Chandauli — and to this Internet centre — that he headed to understand the way rural India connects to the Net. Now as the country netizens take positions in a raging debate on Net neutrality, it is again Chandauli that Zuckerberg keeps mentioning to explain his position.
Six months after that visit, Chandauli is as far removed from the Net neutrality debate as Sapwan is from that ‘New World Tower’ screen in real life. All the 15-year-old knows is that Facebook is the most exciting thing he has seen. “We do a lot of things on Facebook — take photographs using the web camera, upload them using a USB cable… We even video chat with each other in the same room. We are friends with Zuckerberg. We read all his posts,” he says. In English? “No. We translate them on Google Translate,” he says, holding up his two palms to indicate two parallel computer windows that he opens to aid him in the translation.
Chandauli, over 160 km from Delhi, is part of Alwar’s Mewat region. Meo Muslims make up over 70 per cent of the village’s population. People in Chandauli are traditionally farmers with fragmented landholdings where they grow wheat, mustard, bajra and onions. The others work as farm labourers or travel to Alwar for odd jobs. The region is one of the most backward in the country on various social indicators such as health and education. “But if there’s one happy change that has happened in the last few years, it’s in education. Mewat’s Muslims are slowly sending their children to schools,” says Noor Mohammad of the Alwar Mewat Institute of Education and Development, an NGO that works in Alwar villages to change attitudes towards education. “It’s a slow but steady change,” says Mohammad.
But as Sapwan demonstrates his computer skills, it’s clear that the Internet has redefined the rules of the game. Change is no longer “slow”, not even when it comes on a 2G network that’s beamed from 10 km away through a router. In February 2014, Chandauli got its Internet centre as part of a pilot project run by the Minority Affairs Ministry and the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a Delhi-based NGO that takes the Internet to India’s hinterland through its 120 community information resource centres. Chandauli has two cellphone towers which five operators share but no telephone lines; the BSNL line stops 10 km away at Vidyamandir Palace.
“People come to this centre for a lot of things – they browse, search for jobs, look for exam results, book train tickets, check their land records. It’s only children above 13 who get to access the Net,” says Mohammad Ameer, project manager with the DEF, standing in a sweltering room that has two rows of computers and unpacked boxes. The pilot project ended in March this year but the DEF decided to continue with the centre, though it has had to move out of its earlier location in the village’s panchayat bhawan to this room on the outskirts of the village.
“I am on Instagram… and Twitter… and I have a blog. I also check cricket scores online. I even helped my sister get her BA admit card online,” says Sapwan, beaming and breathless as he shows off his Internet prowess. “But Facebook is my favourite. Every child here has a Facebook account,” he says.
“Bahut badlav aa gaya hai Internet se,” says sarpanch Om Prakash, 22, before talking about Kamaruddin, Chandauli’s most intrepid online shopper who ordered a track suit on Flipkart and a motorcycle on OLX. Om Prakash then pulls out his smartphone to show how farmers in the village now check mandi prices online instead of travelling 15 km to Alwar. And then, he takes us on a quick tour of his phone’s apps. “See, there’s WhatsApp… and this is Facebook. I think 70 per cent of people here have Facebook accounts.”
At least in Chandauli then, Facebook is the Internet. But isn’t this just the argument that those in favour of Net neutrality make? That Facebook’s is part of a grand corporate design to confuse about a billion unconnected people into thinking that Facebook is the Internet?
“Facebook is akin to a walled garden unto itself, almost distinct from the open network that is the World Wide Web. While the World Wide Web won against closed networks like AOL, it seems to be seriously threatened by Facebook and by site-specific mobile apps,” says Pranesh Prakash, policy director of the Centre for Internet and Society.
In response, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We strongly feel that arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity.”
But Chandauli isn’t getting drawn into this debate. Cradling her grandchild in her arms, 50-something Champa says she accompanied her daughter twice to the Internet centre. “I really liked it. I was scared initially, but after two visits, jhijhakk khul gayi (I opened up),” she says.
Back at the Internet centre, there’s the sound of thunder and the name Hajrat Sapwan, in 3D, drops from the top of the screen and does a little twirl before settling down at an angle. Another twirl and it settles down on another box that says, ‘Chandauli’. “Yeh sab ho jaata hai computer pe. Madamji, aap to jaldi mein hain. Nahin to mein aur bahut kuch dikha sakta tha,” says Sapwan, his eyes fixed on the screen.