Wired Villages

A plan to bring the Net to rural India

The Dhar district of central Madhya Pradesh state is a microcosm of India's deep poverty. More than half of Dhar's population of 1.7 million are illiterate Bhil tribal farmers who live in thatched-roof huts and subsist on an average of $270 a year. It hasn't rained in Dhar in three years.

Nevertheless, thanks to a government-backed program called Gyandoot, or "ambassador of knowledge," Dhar is at the center of a grassroots technology revolution that could spread around the world. Since January, 2000, Gyandoot has installed 39 computer kiosks at different locations around Dhar that have electronically connected some 1 million villagers to the wider world. For the equivalent of 1 cents, kiosk staff tap farmers into a server at the Dhar chief administrator's office that allows them to check current prices for produce. For a few cents more, villagers can obtain land records, driver's licenses, and even school exam results online. Or they can look up disease-prevention tips for livestock. The local kiosk operators create new businesses, too. They buy the PCs through local bank loans, then use the computers to offer other services, such as selling PC lessons to local children. Dhar's total investment in the network: $73,000.

The payoff in poverty reduction could be dramatic. Consider the impact on Bahadur Singh Katare. Before Gyandoot arrived, he traveled 10 miles each week during harvest seasons to Dhar's main market to sell his soybeans for $16.60 per 100 kilograms, sharing a cut with a middleman. Now Katare, 23, first travels five miles to the kiosk in the village of Tirla to check prices nationwide. Last year, he found his soybeans would fetch $20.80 in Indore. He hired a truck and took 2,500 kilos to Indore, an hour away, and boosted his net income 18%. "There are lots of people like me," says Katare, beaming.

Indeed there are. A villager in Gunawad auctioned his cow over Gyandoot for a profit. Pensioners who hadn't received their $3.12 monthly payment for four months sent an e-mail complaint, and the problem was rectified by the state three days later. Small enterprises that normally endure endless red tape to get a bank loan now get them in a month because documents are processed online. Others get quick access to land records necessary to get loans, collect an inheritance, or sell property. Indian villagers who cannot tap digital technology must travel hundreds of miles to state capitals.

Gyandoot isn't trouble-free. Power and phone connections are unreliable. So Dhar is experimenting with solar panels and local wireless networks in some areas. Local officials are eager to improve service because they now are peppered with e-complaints. "People have become more vocal in their demands," says Dhar district administrator Sanjay Dube, who also runs Gyandoot. "Since they are paying for services, they expect us to respond." For the long-neglected rural poor of India--and the world--technology may help pave the road out of poverty.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Dhar, India

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