Laxmi, now affectionately called Internet Didi in her village, decided the wedding would have to be called off. She met the girl's family, told them child marriage was not permissible, told them about the health problems that brides suffer and finally, with all her pleas falling on deaf ears, told them that she would use WhatsApp to contact senior police officers sitting hundreds of miles away. "Abhi pyar se samajha rahe hain nahin to WhatsApp se police ko batayenge," she told the girl's parents. That did the trick. The wedding was called off.
Journey to Ajodhya HillsLaxmi, now 25, wasn't like this until the beginning of the 2016. Although she was always curious and hardworking. She scored 85 per cent marks in Class 11 but days before she was to appear for the final exams of Class 12, her one-year-old kid fell ill. That exam she never took. Instead of a classroom, she went to the hospital with her kid and her husband. Then the care of that kid and the duties at home became her primary occupation, although her husband, obvious to and supportive of his wife's tenaciousness and her deep desire to explore and learn more, always encouraged her to study.
In July 2015, Google had launched Internet Saathi program. The big tech company, which has an obvious interest in ensuring digital literacy for more people, had decided to reach out to Indian women in villages with the hope of transforming their lives. Only one out of 10 internet users in rural India was a woman. Google wanted to change that. The company partnered with Tata Trust, which had some experience in connecting with people in villages of India. It was decided that Google would provide devices, internet connection and training for the program while Tata Trust would implement it and pay the support staff needed to run it.
"This was the first time I saw a phone with internet. Before it, all that I knew about internet was through bhaiya log (at cyber cafes in nearby town) who helped people file forms online and printed government forms at a fee," said Laxmi. "I never knew that mobile phone could have internet. I never used a touchscreen phone earlier."
Two-day training is not enough. But the idea behind the Internet Saathi training is to open a small window for people into this world of internet and then letting them explore it. Laxmi was told about the phones and their components. She was told about how to take out the battery and how to care for the phones. She learnt about how to pick the phone, how to hold it, how to swipe on its screen, how to open an app, how to download an app, how to click a photo with it, how to click a selfie, how to receive calls. It is lot to take in and most Internet Saathis forget whatever they learn in those two days. But then it is just the beginning for them.
Laxmi returned home with two devices -- one a tablet from Celkon and other a phone from Lava. Both have a data connection, with up to 2GB data available to users every month. With devices in her hand, Laxmi started exploring the world of internet.
She has even figured out a way to deal with information overload that comes with the internet. "When it gets too much, when I sleep, I put the phone on silent mode," she says.
A teacher for 1100There is a reason why Internet Saathis get two devices, and a special bicycle in which they can keep the devices while they go meet people. Google and Tata Trust want Sathis to teach other women, kids and men, about internet. Google says that so far the program is active in 60,000 Indian villages and over 2.6 million people, mostly women and kids, have benefited from it. The program currently has over 18,000 Internet Saathis like Laxmi.
"Most people like to learn, want to know more about internet," says Laxmi. But occasionally she runs into issues. "Once a man told me I was corrupting her daughter so I told him that haath se puja bhi hoti hai aur gala bhi kata jata hai. Another time a man objected to his wife learning about internet but on this occasion the woman told her husband to shut up."
Although Internet Saathi program sounds quite charming, the question remains what all villagers can do with it. Other than that rare instance when Laxmi managed to stop a child marriage with WhatsApp, on regular days what these women do with internet is more mundane, but no less astonishing. They don't use internet for Facebook or Twitter. They don't browse Flipkart and Amazon. Instead, they mostly use internet to search for finding the new design for clothes they stitch and sell. Or they discover new mehandi patterns.
Then there are kids with these women who apparently take to internet as ducks take to water. Laxmi's niece Anju Sahu, who is in Class 9, loves to see videos where she learns about history or science. She also uses Google to look for information related to what teachers teach in school. This year she is the class topper.
But more importantly, the two devices that Saathis carry tell these women, and all those around them, about a world that is otherwise far away from them. These devices show them pictures of how life is in Delhi or Kolkata. They bring news to them, the voices of their leaders and the latest fashion trends. They teach them to step out, to belong to the world and not just their homes. Laxmi herself is an example of it. Earlier, her husband, who is very supportive of her, accompanied her everywhere. In the initial days as Saathi when she went to other villages, she would ask young girls from family to come with her "for some support" because she felt uneasy going alone. But now she doesn't mind picking up her Saathi bicycle and go to nearby villages.
Sundar Pichai should fix voice searchSurely, it's not all hunky dory. Each Internet Saathi faces challenges, which are unique to her, as well as the common ones that are related to technology. For Laxmi, one of the big challenges is to take care of her son, now 5 years old and who hasn't yet completely healed from his illness, and yet find time to follow her passion and dreams as an Internet Saathi. "If only my boy gets better, I can do so much more," she says.
Then there are technology challenges. The devices that Internet Saathis use are slow. The interface is often complicated, so the women rely on speech inputs to search for something. But it doesn't always work.
This is the reason when Laxmi met Google CEO Sundar Pichai when he was here in India in January, she didn't hold back. She told him that Google should fix the voice search because half of the time it doesn't work on her tablet. Pichai apparently told her 'thy wish is my command'.
Finally, Laxmi and her gang need more devices, something that Google and Tata trust say they are working on. Two devices aren't enough. "I teach children and women and some of them can't remember anything even after 20 classes. They don't have devices on which to practice," she says. A smartphone costs Rs 3,000 at the minimum. And that is a lot and a lot of money in the village where Laxmi lives.
Yet again, it's a classic case of wishes, dreams and what is possible in a village far away in rural India. But yet again, Google and Tata Trust executives tell Laxmi and her gang of women, who can't stop gushing about WhatsApp and selfies, that they will make the wishes come true. And given their record so far with the Saathi program they might.