May 28, 2000
Connecting Rural India to the World
By CELIA W. DUGGER
MBALAM, India -- In this village at the southern tip of India, the
century-old temple has two doors.
Through one lies tradition. People
from the lowest castes and menstruating women cannot pass its threshold. Inside, the devout perform daily
pujas, offering prayers. Through the
second door lies the Information
Age, and anyone may enter.
In a rare social experiment, the
village elders have allowed one side
of the temple to house two solar-powered computers that give this
poor village a wealth of data, from
the price of rice to the day's most
"If I can get a job through this, I'll
be happy," said V. Aruna, 14, who
pestered her father, a farmer, until
he agreed that she could come here
each day to peck at a computer keyboard, where she learned Word and
PowerPoint. "I want to work instead
of sitting in the house."
At a time of growing unease about
the global gap between technology
knows and know-nots, India is fast
becoming a laboratory for small experiments like the one at the temple
that aim to link isolated rural pockets to the borderless world of knowledge. Local governments and nonprofit groups are testing new approaches to provide villages where
barely anyone can afford a telephone
with computer centers that are accessible to all.
To be sure, these experiments are
still small and there are many obstacles. The vast majority of Web sites
are in English, a language that more
than 95 percent of Indians do not
speak. Routine power failures and
overloaded telephone lines make
connecting to the Internet a frustrating proposition. And there are serious questions about whether countries like India, weighed down by
high rates of illiteracy and illness,
should spend heavily to provide villages that desperately need schools
and health clinics with what most
would consider a luxury.
But others say a well-placed computer, like a communal well or an
irrigation pump, may become another tool for development.
Information from the computers
in this area, where people live in
thatched mud huts, has saved the life
of a milk cow named Jayalakshmi,
prevented the blindness of an old
woman named M. Minakshi and routinely warned fishermen of stormy
weather that can claim lives.
While Internet cafes have sprung
up quickly in even small Indian cities, it is in rural areas, where most
people live, that computers must
spread if developing nations like India are to close the yawning technology gap with rich countries.
North America, with less than 5
percent of the world's population,
has more than half of its Internet
users. South Asia -- home to more
than a fifth of humanity -- has less
than 1 percent, according to the 1999
Human Development Report sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.
Celia W. Dugger/ The New York Times
India is a laboratory for linking isolated rural pockets to the world of knowledge. Children used computers in the fishing village of Veerampattinam, where American weather forecasts are credited with saving lives.
But how to make computers available to villagers has led to divergent
approaches. Two of the most intriguing efforts are in the former French
colony of Pondicherry and in the
central state of Madhya Pradesh.
The Pondicherry project was created by the Madras-based M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, a
nonprofit organization that uses science and technology to tackle poverty, with a $120,000 grant from the
Canadian government. The foundation provides villages with free technology and information in exchange
for the villages' promise to house the
computers and staff their operation.
The spread of this approach to
more of India's 600,000 villages
would ultimately require government money and manpower, with
support from nongovernmental organizations and philanthropies.
In contrast, the Madhya Pradesh
approach is more entrepreneurial
and market-driven. Villages have
bought computers with money from
their own budgets, then franchised
their operation to a local person who
charges fees of 10 to 35 cents for
government records and other services available at the click of a mouse.
The operators, who receive no salary, keep most of the money but give a
portion back to the village and state
The story of the cow and the computer is a parable showing that
sometimes the simplest information
is the most valuable.
Some months back, Subrayan Panjaili, a round-faced woman who cannot read or write, sat in the courtyard of her small home in the village
of Kizhur, in Pondicherry, with the
family's only milk cow, Jayalakshmi. For five days and nights,
the cow moaned while in labor.
Something had gone wrong and she
was unable to deliver her calf. Mrs.
Panjaili grew ever more fearful that
the cow would die.
"This is the only good income we
have," she said, explaining that the
four gallons of milk the cow produced each day paid the bills.
Word of Mrs. Panjaili's woebegone
cow soon spread to Govindaswami, a
public-spirited farmer who uses one
name. The village's computer, obtained through the Swaminathan
Foundation, is in the anteroom of his
home. The computer is operated full
time and for no pay by his 23-year-old, college-educated daughter, Azhalarasi, who used it to call up a list
of area veterinarians.
One doctor arrived that night and,
by the light of a bare electric bulb,
stuck his arm into Jayalakshmi,
pulled out the calf's spindly leg and
tied a rope to it, then dragged the calf
into the world.
The Swaminathan Foundation has
sought to give the four villages in its
network other practical, highly local
information, which is distributed
through the village computer network in the local language, Tamil.
Generally, that kind of information is
not on the World Wide Web.
They distribute the dates that roving medical camps will be set up in
various villages. M. Minakshi, 70,
who said she felt as if a sari had been
draped over her right eye, went to
one and discovered that she needed
Each day, the project's staff also
download a map from a United
States Navy Web site that shows the
wave heights and wind directions in
the Bay of Bengal.
On a recent afternoon in the fishing village of Veerampattinam, loudspeakers fixed to tall poles along the
broad beach blared out that daily
weather report. Bare-chested fishermen in loincloths who were mending
nets, repairing homemade wooden
boats or just snoozing in the sultry
heat perked up to listen.
The four villages taking part in the
project are linked to the foundation's
hub through an ingenious wireless
system. It was dreamed up by V.
Balaji, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, who
oversees the project for the foundation.
While the foundation's model is
relatively costly and may prove difficult to replicate on a large scale, the
government of Pondicherry nonetheless plans to expand the project to 50
One immediate obstacle, as Mr.
Balaji notes, is that local bureaucrats have often been reluctant to
give up their monopoly on information, which can be a source of power
used to extract bribes.
"We're hoping the bureaucrats
will become public servants," said
M. S. Swaminathan, the internationally known geneticist who leads the
One such public-minded civil servant is Amit Agarwal, the creator of
the model computer project in the
state of Madhya Pradesh. It is Mr.
Agarwal who has taken power out of
the hands of bureaucrats and given it
to village entrepreneurs.
Mr. Agarwal, 29, the chief executive of the Dhar district council, said
he believed that while low-level bureaucrats might be tempted to demand bribes, an entrepreneur being
paid to provide the records retrieved
on a computer would be more inclined to work hard.
He has set up a model project in
his district, one of India's poorest,
where young men have a franchise
from the state to distribute daily
crop prices and commonly needed
state records for a small fee.
Mr. Agarwal predicts that revenue-generating computer projects
like his will spread more quickly
than those that depend on scarce
state funds. "This is the paternalistic
welfare model that the country has
been slowly discarding over the past
decade as not having worked," Mr.
Since the project was set up in
January, 22 villages have each
bought a computer, a modem, a
printer and a battery for $1,500 with
their own money and agreed to provide a small booth to house the setup.
In each case, the state then picked
a young person from the village with
at least a 10th-grade education to
operate the computer and gave him
a franchise to sell information from
the state's computer network.
For 25 to 35 cents, villagers buy
printouts of documents that they
might have spent days trying to get
from local bureaucrats: land
records, caste certificates and proof
of income, among others.
For another 25 cents, any citizen
can send a complaint to the state by
e-mail -- my pension didn't arrive,
my child's teacher didn't show up,
my village hand pump doesn't work
-- and the state guarantees a reply
within a week.
And for 10 cents, a farmer can get
a printout listing the prices of any
agricultural commodity sold at surrounding markets.
At Bagdi village, wizened, sun-beaten farmers filed in to collect the
day's price lists for wheat, garlic and
whatever other crops they had to
sell. They all said their knowledge of
the rates improved their negotiating
leverage with middlemen.
"If the price he offers suits me, I'll
sell it to him," said Satya Narayan
Khati, who grows wheat on his three
acres. "Otherwise, I'll take it to market myself."
In Bagdi, the computer booth is
operated by Deepak Patel, 20, a
gaunt, lanky son of a farmer. Mr.
Patel still helps milk the cows and
bring in the harvest, but he prefers
his computers. After just a few
months, he is already making a good
living from the long hours he spends
When people come in to e-mail a
complaint to the state, Mr. Patel
writes out their grievances for them,
since most residents of the district
In his booth, as in every computer
center visited in Madhya Pradesh
and Pondicherry, children crowd in,
clamoring for a chance to play on
this machine that their elders call a
"It's better than farming," Mr.
Patel said. "Through this you feel
connected to the rest of the world."