Facilities provided for digitisation of the panchayat under the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayat Sashaktikaran Abhiyan (RGPSA) has made it possible for the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), an NGO, to empower the residents of Chandauli village in Alwar district of Rajasthan with computer skills, despite an abysmal 30-40 per cent literacy level. Basic computer skills imparted through door to door visits, were used as an inducement to enrol the population in an interactive school in the DEF’s digital vans. Thus, an entire village of 8000 people belonging to the minority Meo Muslim community has been gradually moving towards functional literacy. Computers, used with video, projectors and internet, has enabled DEF enlighten people on health, nutrition and hygiene, and succeed in turning the village into the country’s first minority Cybergram. However, DEF has had to be careful to keep local sensitivities in mind at every level while doing so. The DEF has been working towards digitisation in Chandauli through a Rs 65 lakh public-private partnership project. It received Rs 25 lakh from the Ministry of Minority Affairs of the Government of India, with the rest being contributed by the Foundation.
Chandauli is an agricultural Meo Muslim village comprising 1300 households with a very low literacy level. Only 10-15 per cent of the total population of 8000 persons has completed school. The majority of the 40 per cent literate population comprises school dropouts who have not progressed beyond primary level education. Female literacy is abysmal. Yet, the Foundation has managed to digitise the village under its Minority CyberGram Project.
DEF’s M Shahid Siddiqui reveals that they initially went door to door to familiarise households with the use of computers. Familiarisation with the keys made families realise that computers were no big deal, and in a month’s time, the people had learnt how to move the mouse, and the controls. Subsequent to that, enrolment for education posed no problem.
DEF holds classes in a digital van in Chandauli. The classes are interactive, and for members of the panchayat, DEF has been helping them learn how to write and send applications across to the respective government departments through the internet. DEF has been using the interactive mode in its digital van to enrol and educate students. Low literacy levels have their own advantages and disadvantages. While the illiterates are eager and willing to master the computer, the lack of knowledge of the alphabet makes the task of teaching doubly difficult. Siddiqui reveals that they have been imparting computer skills to two members from every household. At the moment, nearly the entire village is capable of downloading application forms by visiting government websites.
In teaching and training the people, DEF organised separate adult literacy classes for men and women. Since Muslim women generally observe purdah, DEF did not have to work hard to end open defecation. Access to toilets meant that women did not have to leave the home for their ablutions. The village already has 70 per cent toilet coverage, and households are keen to set up toilets in every home. But hand-washing after every visit to the toilet needed to be reiterated and computers have come in handy to teach hygiene and public health using videos and projectors. The computers have also been used to fight malnutrition and skin diseases—both of which afflict people here in large numbers.
Although land records, which happen to be a major bone of contention among villagers and are a major source of corruption, are actually maintained at the district level, digital empowerment enables villagers verify records by accessing government websites to their satisfaction.
People can also check on government schemes, and their suitability in keeping with the category they belong to. In case a complaint is to be made, the average Chandauli villager no longer falls back on handwritten notes; instead, e-mails are used. This, in turn, makes the panchayat more efficient. The panchayat authorities, on their part, are happy with the digitisation, since the development has enabled them maintain their own webpage, where they can publicise their achievements to the world at large.
Of course, everything is at a preliminary state, as Siddiqui concedes. But it is heartening to realise that Chandauli is gradually moving toward total computer literacy, wherein they can take the initiative to make complaints to the highest authorities about problems faced in health care, infrastructure or groundwater levels.
Recently, Chandauli played host to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and impressed him with its connectivity to the World Wide Web. Chandauli today figures on Facebook as well as Twitter, which is indeed a laudable achievement for this dusty little village in the hinterland, whose population was totally illiterate only a short while ago.