I am a city-dweller, as urban as one can get, having spent most of my life in Mumbai. My exposure to village life has been limited to a few days. But of late, I have spent quite some time thinking through what can be done to improve life in Indias villages. The immediate reason for this was a presentation I had to make to the Madhya Pradesh government on eGovernance. And that set me thinking about the state of Rural India.
Once a year, I travel for 2-3 days across Rajasthan, visiting various temples. Most of these temples are in villages, scattered across the state. In fact, seeing these temples built many centuries ago(and the new ones being built), I could not help thinking that if only we had spent a fraction of the money that we spend on religion on education, healthcare and other areas, the villages would have made much more progress!
On my last trip to Rajasthan, I also visited the village where my father was born and spent much of his early life. The road from the highway into the village is still dusty. There is now a school in the village finally. It was built from contributions made by the locals who have since emigrated to the cities and done well for themselves. There are some homes which have been tastefully constructed but lie empty their owners, of course, live in far-away cities. But for the most part, it is like time has stood still in this part of the world.
In Madhya Pradesh (MP), I also spent half a day visiting various villages around Bhopal. The abiding memory I have is that of a classroom of 24 children (ages 8-9), half of them sitting on 3 computers in groups of four, and learning. This is part of MPs Headstart programme, where over 2,700 schools in villages have been equipped with computers to assist in educating students. The focus is on the hardspots of learning.
Seeing the kids there operating the keyboard and mouse with ease, I realised that they (and I) could have been in a school in Mumbai or anywhere else for them, the digital divide had been bridged through these computers. Children everywhere have the same levels of curiosity. They can learn at the same quick pace of their city brethren. For these children, the computer is an ally, a friend, a window to a new world.
And then the reality sinks in. This effort is but a drop in the ocean. There are 50,000 villages just in MP. There are over 600,000 villages in India. We are touching but a handful of people. It will take many many years to the current pace of roll-out to reach out all the children. And by then, India would have lost yet another generation.
Tomorrow: IT for the Masses