Bridging the digital divide

Sudha Menon

Pradeep Lokhande is a boy from the back of the beyond who entered the big bad world of city life, educated himself and, today, runs his own business as an expert marketing FMCG for several multinationals in rural Maharashtra.

But the 40-plus Lokhande hasn't forgotten those initial traumatic years in the city when he felt like an alien who had blundered into the city and was treated similarly by peers. He had not seen, leave alone used a telephone till a good year-and-a-half after arriving in the city!

This has made him very conscious of the great divide between the urban rich and the rural poor which he is determined to bridge, in whatever manner he can. ``I am a great believer in the dictum that one has to give back to society a bit of what you got out of it,'' says Lokhande.

Lokhande is the brain behind Rural Relations which began as a consultancy for multinationals wanting to make inroads into rural India. He is known among friends as a walking-talking encyclopaedia on rural India. Not surprising considering that his database on rural India includes 30,000 villages.

As the rest of the world talks of e-commerce, portals and cyber money, Lokhande worries that the rapid strides in information technology will widen the gap between India's privileged urban population and her forgotten rural populace. ``The digital divide will put rural India and her populace so far behind, they can never hope to catch up with their urban brethren,'' warns Lokhande.

Which is why Lokhande and his team have planned `Project Computer Literacy'. If implemented, this ambitious project will initially introduce at least one computer to each village of Maharashtra. ``It sounds bizarre that I want to take a computer to a village that does not have drinking water or even approach roads but that is exactly my point. It will probably take years or decades for the powers-that-be to realise that technological strides has not percolated down to villages like these and by then it might be too late,'' he says.

Lokhande is taking small steps towards his goal. No computer jargon to be pushed at villagers. Instead, he has targeted secondary school students in villages. He reasons that students are natural opinion and decision makers in the rural setup as they are perceived to know more.

Lokhande's plan is simple -- convince people, especially corporate houses, about the need for computers in rural India and persuade them to donate their outdated computers to village schools. ``Technology in computers is changing at breakneck speed with the result that people have to continously go in for newer models and find very few takers for their older computers. I know of several corporates who junk their older PCs,'' says Lokhande.

Says Lokhande of what he plans for the children: ``I want them to actually touch the key board and the CPU and I want them to realise the things it can do with a few instructions. The whole idea is to familiarise them with this thing that has taken complete control of our lives. Once they actually operate it, they are never going to be scared of computers and technology,'' he reasons.

Lokhande seems to have hit the nail on the head. At the New English School at Mandardev, a tiny hamlet in Maharashtra's Satara District, secondary school students are now the proud owners of a 286 computer. Many of these kids walk kilometres everyday to school and the computer is a great incentive to getting there daily. They get to use the computer every day and it is quite routine to hear them talk about CPUs, keyboards and monitors!

Lokhande does not believe that all these kids will end up as software millionaires. But he is sure that they will have better control of their lives if they know how to use a computer. For instance, he says Governments and district administrations can computerise information related to weather, crops, land holdings, health and disaster management, etc. ``When the backbone of our economy is agriculture, the least we can do is to empower the people who man this segment of the economy,'' says Lokhande.

While the plan itself seems simple enough, Lokhande has not received the response he hoped for, from the corporate sector. ``Everyone is waiting for somebody else to do it first and then join the bandwagon.''

Help has come, however, from individuals and in encouraging numbers. A senior executive with an international financial management major has donated 10 PCs to Lokhande's mission. In Pune, the head of a department in the university has donated two PCs and a number of mediapersons who accompanied Lokhande on his visit to the schools, have pledged to donate their used computers.

Offers for help have also come from NRIs -- two have e-mailed Lokhande, offering help with the project and Lokhande has now approached the Government's IT Ministry to learn the regulations governing the import of used and redundant computers into India. ``In the last three years, the US has junked five crore computers and I want to find out if there is any way these computers can be brought into the country and given to our students.''

Lokhande's office has also received a letter from the Rajasthan Government expressing interest in implementing the project in the State. In addition, IT companies in the education segment are now offering their packages to Lokhande to be installed free of cost in a dozen schools.

Lokhande is convinced the trickle will soon turn into a stream and then a deluge. He says those wanting to make a difference in the lives of kids in rural belts can contribute in other ways -- spend a weekend extending their expertise in any field -- career guidance, teaching basic stuff on using the computer or even talk to the kids on how the Internet has changed the way we live and do business.

Patrons to the project have a degree of comfort level about donating computers to schools since he encourages the kids to write and thank them. ``I make sure that the kids get to use the computer and that it is not kept as a showpiece in the school. It does not matter if the kids damage the computer while using it, what is important is to let them handle it and get to know it,'' says Lokhande.

So, the next time you are left holding a redundant computer, think of yourself as a non-resident villager with something to give back to the place you grew up in. Head for the school in the village nearest to your city and install your computer there. Who knows, one of those kids might just grow up to be India's answer to Bill Gates!
Source : The Business Line. May 8, 2000