I would like to share a little about the work I am doing currently. Let me dive straight into it. I am an SBI YFI fellow working in association with BAIF in Shahpur block, Betul district, Madhya Pradesh, India. It is primarily a forest region populated by Gond and Korku tribes. I am working on a project to impart basic computer education to villagers in two villages – Silpatti and Rathamaati/Khokra.
So, why this project? (The fellowship gives us the freedom of choosing our project based on our interest, the need of the rural community in the place we are posted and also taking into consideration the influence area of the NGO) The government of India (GoI) has provided each panchayat building with a computer system complete with a printer and scanner. But in many panchayats that I have visited in Shahpur block, the computer system is disused or missing. It’s either not in working condition or lying at a panchayat member’s house, most frequently the Sarpanch. In some cases it’s lying disused in some Panch’s house. In one case, the computer was lying disused in the Panchayat house because the Panchayat house had no electricity connection!
Let’s look at certain aspects of why I chose to do the above project.
- Why are computers provided to the Panchayats?
The Government of India is moving the entire government apparatus online. All the government data (that is not secret) is now available online whether it be land records (Khasra nakal as they call it here) or contact information of various government officials. The form filling for various government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission and subsidies like the one on sprinklers is done online. To facilitate access to all these services and information by every village, computers have been provided by the Government to each Panchayat house. There is also a person who usually is believed to be the one using the computer called the Rozgaar Sahayak (a post created under MGNREGA). But in my observation, they do not really depend on the Panchayat computer to do their work. Either they have smartphones or come to the Janpad office in Shahpur to do their work.
- Why are computers lying disused?
In almost all the villages that I visited, hardly anyone knew how to use a computer. When I say that , I also include the Panchayat members and the Sachiv( government appointee in Panchayat) in that statement. So what happens is when people don’t know how to use something, it means nothing to them. It could be there, may not be there, may be at some body’s place – it’s all the same. No one bothers to ask about it or its well-being or its resting place!
- Why the project on computer training?
There is a huge gap between the government of India’s initiative to go digital and the villagers’ (that I work with) ability to go digital. That gap isn’t the infrastructure gap. It’s the knowledge gap. The tools to go digital have been provided by the GoI, but the knowledge to use them has not been provided. Through my project, I am trying to close that knowledge gap. I am aiming to provide the necessary know-how to fill forms of various government schemes. It will obviously go through the route of computer basics, internet basics and basic knowledge of using a search engine. After the computer education course is completed, the project entails documenting any changes in government schemes availed, increase in general awareness and the villagers’ willingness to take some time out from their daily grind and learn computers.
- How’s the progress been?
I will say it has had it’s lows and some miniscule highs. But a lot of lows for sure. I started by visiting the Panchayat buildings of Panchayats that BAIF is active in ( It is working in six panchayats in Shahpur block). The first panchayat I visited – Deshawadi didn’t have any electricity. So no go. The next – Sheetaljiri didn’t have any computer. The computer was lying at some computer repair shop in Shahpur since a long time. The third- Rampurmal also didn’t have a computer. The computer was supposedly lying in a broken state at a Panch’s house. The fourth had a computer and an internet connectivity through connection with Jio 4G on the phone. I must say I was relieved and surprised after all the previous experiences. Even though this panchayat was the farthest off from Shahpur without any bus connectivity, I was just happy that there was some possibility of starting the project. So, then I moved to the next step and talked to the Sarpanch about my project and how I would need the Panchayat house and it’s computer for it. The Sarpanch was a genial lady who agreed. Then I talked to the villagers in the Gram Sabha held on Republic Day-26th January and told them about my project. The response was enthusiastic. I got as many as 12 names for the course. And that’s a lot.
Then when I started going to take classes, no one turned up. I was able to take a solitary class out of the seven scheduled. That too because I saw the three people who eventually attended that class loitering around Panchayat house and convinced them to attend. Not a very encouraging response. I also took a couple of awareness sessions to talk with the villagers about the importance of computer education.
One fine day, I got a call around noon from a youth of this village. I was at my place in Shahpur. He complained that a few of them had been coming to the Panchayat house since two days but I had not showed up. I was taken by surprise, both pleasantly and unpleasantly. Pleasantly because this was the first time the village youth had actually come for a (albeit non scheduled) class on their own. Unpleasantly because I wasn’t there and no class was scheduled for the day! How did that come about? A couple of days prior to the above mentioned day, I had called the CRP(community resource person) who works with BAIF to schedule a class the next day. But I had told him explicitly that I had no other mode of transport and he would have to pick me up halfway. The next day, I couldn’t contact him. His phone was switched off. And he didn’t call to ask me about when I am coming etc either.That means the class was off since I had no means to reach. But he didn’t communicate with me or the village youth. The village youth believed the class is rescheduled on their own accord.
To sum up, the travel arrangements to Khokra were not working out, the communication was erratic because of network issues and there was a definite gap in understanding between me and the village youth.
I was feeling hopeless about the direction of the project. Then I decided to follow my mentor’s advice that I should try to take more villages under my project, with connectivity by bus or near enough that I could go on scooty. To be on the safe side, in case the project completely fails in one. I toured three more panchayats – Rathamaati, Baanspur and Silpatti. In Silpatti, things worked out quickly and I held my first class yesterday. I must say it felt good, just to have the first class on the day that the first class was scheduled! After the Khokra fiasco, it was a good start. I feel hopeful. And that’s what my title is all about.
- What’s the next step?
Making this project a success in atleast one village. Right now I think that might be Silpatti.
When working in the development sector, one has to keep trying and not let failures bog one down. I keep telling myself not to give up. That I am learning so much even in my struggle. And I also try to not waste too much time on an initiative that looks doomed like all the Panchayats I checked out initially.It would have taken a long time to get electricity to the panchayat house or get the computers up and running where they were not there. “Fail fast” is a mantra I have taken to heart. I have limited time in this fellowship-13 months to make a small difference to the lives of people I work for. And more importantly, to document the lacunae in the current scenario and the solution that works and the many that don’t.
Further reading: Part 2