Thursday, March 9, 2017

Laxmi Rani of the world wide web

Laxmi Rani and Pichai

A few months ago in December Laxmi Rani came to know about a marriage in her village. But instead of making her happy, the way announcements of marriages tend to do, this one made her angry. The bride was a 15-year-old girl. In days long gone, Laxmi might have grumbled at home, railing against the fate of that poor girl. But this time it was different. Several months ago, before summer of 2016, she learnt that there existed a world outside her house, her village, even beyond the nearby towns. She learnt about the internet.

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 Hills

Laxmi, 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.
But the life in Patahensal, a small village around 80 kilometres away from Puralia in West Bengal, cannot be lived with wishes and dreams. The real world, or at least the world in these parts of India, doesn't work like that. Doing something requires more, something more tangible. This is where Google and Tata Trust entered Laxmi's life.

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.

In the early 2016, the Internet Saathi program reached Purulia district. Laxmi got to know about it, applied to become an Internet Saathi and after an interview, was selected for it

In the early 2016, the Internet Saathi program reached Purulia district. Laxmi got to know about it, applied to become an Internet Saathi and after an interview, was selected for it. Along with other Internet Sathis, she went to a nearby place called Ajodhya Hills where all were trained for two days in the use of internet-enabled devices.

"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.

Now she is quite adapt at it, especially for someone who saw her first touchscreen phone less than a year ago. She can download apps, browse Bangla newspapers, has figured out translations, is fond of reading whatever she can read (in Bangla, of course), has seen the images of PM Narendra Modi and Bengal CM Mamta Banerjee, uses WhatsApp to talk to Neha Barjatya, a senior Google executive part of Internet Saathi program, and is part of WhatsApp group of Internet Saathis in India.
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 1100

This is the tree under which Laxmi and her students meet because the phone signals are best here.

There 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.
Laxmi has introduced 1100 people to the internet. Each Saathi is responsible for 3 or 4 villages around her own village and she goes to these villages at least once or twice every week. At the each visit she tries to introduce internet to whoever seems keen.
"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.

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

One of Laxmi's students stitches blouses that she would earlier sell for Rs 100. Now she uses Laxmi's phone or tablet to find new designs and charges Rs 250 to Rs 280 for each blouse. And they sell because the design is newer, more attractive. According to Google, this is one of the most popular uses of the devices they have distributed in Indian villages.

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 search

Surely, 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.

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently visited India Laxmi met him and asked that Google fixed voice search.

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'.

Then there is the connectivity challenge. There is a tree near Laxmi's village, around 200 metres outside another village. This is the tree that gives signals, metaphorically speaking. It is also the tree under which Laxmi often meets her students because this is one spot where "internet works best". Laxmi discovered it by chance following some goats grazing lazily. She was checking out various spots in her village hoping to get working internet when she found this tree. "I told Pichai Ji that we need better connectivity," she says.

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.

Laxmi has two devices so in her village people can use them. But in other villages that she covers, if people have to look for something on internet they have to wait for her visit. "Women and children often write down their questions, their plans on what they will search for when I visit them and show them to me when go there," she says.

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.

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