Friday, August 20, 2004

wifi-wallahs

Schoolkids in India are learning to use computers thanks to the wifi-enabled computer-toting bicycle rickshaws of the Infothela program.

With only 12 computers and four Internet connections per 1,000 people, India has one of the world's lowest Internet usage rates and much of rural India remains oblivious to the sweep of technology. But the villages involved in Infothela all lie within a 50-mile wireless corridor created by the Institute of Technology and linked by high-rise Wi-Fi antennae and amplifiers along the highway.

The disparity between India's cities and villages is astounding. The gulf between them is so great (much, much greater than it is in the US) that it can be quite difficult for a rural student to change their lot in life - fewer educational resources, economic disparities, and even the caste system all contribute to maintaining this divide. Infothela is an ingenious way to provide people with more opportunities without the need for costly infrastructure - it's an elegant hack.

(There's a whole separate issue about whether increased personal mobility is ultimately good for the country as a whole - young people are leaving the villages in droves, heading to the cities to seek their fortunes, and the effects this has on family, village, and larger societal structures is at the present time somewhat deleterious. But India has an astounding flexibility - they weathered the significant social changes imposed by the Mughals and the Brits, and I suspect they will survive the technological revolution with something of their innate cultural essence intact.)

The article focuses on the negative in a way that makes it sound like all Indian villages are illiterate and out of touch with the modern world, which is misleading. In many places the Indian government (which can be quite progressive at times, if an idea can survive running the bureaucratic gauntlet) has instituted programs that attempt to equalize the playing field (such as a quota system that aims to open the educational system to disadvantaged students), and as a result some areas of India (particularly in the south) have a higher literacy rate than much of the US.

3 Comments:

Blogger krishna said...

"With only 12 computers and four Internet connections per 1,000 people, India has one of the world's lowest Internet usage rates .."

The number of internet connections is not an accurate criterion as most people in India access net from Internet cafes. Like the STD/ISD booths, the internet cafes are an ingenious way to improve accessibility to services that are otherwise not affordable to a majority of India's citizens. Before the telecom revolution came along, it was difficult to communicate from most places. Even in the late Eighties, the telephone infrastructure was so poor that communication between places just 100 K.m s apart was a nightmare. Things changed very fast in the last two decades and now people in rural areas have access even to cell phones. The internet revolution is on now and it would be a matter of time that people every where become technology savvy as even Government systems like land records, registration of documents, registration of birth and death etc. are getting computerized.

"Infothela is an ingenious way to provide people with more opportunities without the need for costly infrastructure."
I have mixed feelings on the type of experiments mentioned in the CNN article. They generate a feel good factor and but can they be sustained? It would have been better if IIT, Kanpur adopted some village schools and provided them with computers and a tutor ( It's being done in many places in the South) . They could easily tap their successful alumni.

"here's a whole separate issue about whether increased personal mobility is ultimately good for..."
Unfortunately, our education system is not geared towards the needs of an average student. An average rural student dreams of only a Government job. Education makes him unfit or disinclined to till the land. The urban areas are already reeling under the impact of migration as their infrastructure is inadequate. By 2020, our population would touch 134 crores or 1340 million. Over 237 million of these would be in the school going age of 5-14 and 846 million would be in the working age of 15-59.
( Six out of 10 Indians will be below 35). "Catching people young" by improving access to modern education and technology would have tremendous economic and social gains for the country. However, if Government and private sector together do not create jobs for the teeming, ambitious millions, we would have an anarchy on our hands.

"The article focuses on the negative in a way that makes it sound like all Indian villages are illiterate and out of touch with the modern world, which is misleading."
Most impressions on India are hackneyed and not totally correct.
For example, there is an impression that India is very spiritual. Of course, our people have learnt to swim against odds and we do not get easily depressed. But, if one of the parameters of spirituality is being detached and not bound firmly to temporal bonds, then, we are the most non-spiritual people in the whole world. We attach too much importance to bonds arising out of family, clan, caste, religion, language etc.
 

Blogger Foobario said...

>I have mixed feelings on the type of experiments mentioned in the CNN article ... It would have been better if IIT, Kanpur adopted some village schools and provided them with computers and a tutor

True, but it would probably be difficult to find tutors who would be willing to go to Bihar, for instance. (Actually now that I think about it, it would probably be just as difficult to find someone brave enough or foolish enough to pedal a valuable high-tech rickshaw through Bihar.) It's like there's some minimal infrastructure threshold required for the school adoption idea, but below that threshold I suspect it will probably be hacks or gimmicks for awhile.
 

Blogger anna said...

I enjoyed your information on internet connections. I have a internet connections blog if you want to check it out.
  Post a Comment
return to front page