When a Great Tradition Digitizes: Kakelao Connected in the Dawn of Digital India

ONE year ago I wrote you about Kakelao, a village at the edge of the Thar Desert of Rajasthan about to leap from the 12th to the 21st Century by “walking the last mile” to Internet connectivity and the changes it offers commerce, government, education, health, gender roles and most fundamentally the connections between the village and the world.  I can now give you glimpses of Kakelao as it crosses that threshold.

When we returned to Kakelao this year, the shrink-wrapped computer I mentioned and another were on the Net via dongles in the Panchayat (government) building, now transformed into a Service Center for the Internet, if principally still focused on e-government.  The young man on whom we were relying to get the Internet going in Kakelao had already moved on to a job in the big city of Jaipur, and his younger brother is assuming an official job as the computer administrator for the Service Center, assisted by other young apprentices including HIS younger brother.  In other words, we are witnessing a uniquely Indian rolling family apprenticeship and producer of skilled IT workers as well as services to the village.

In the corner of the little computer room, though, quietly sits a locked metal box of world historical significance.  From that BBNL box, a fat cable emerges, snaking through a window and cutting through ancient walls on its way to a new tower in the distance.     Awaken, all you who imagine and strive for better worlds, as the largest and most ambitious governmental effort to transform a people through technology in history meets some of the largest and most intractable social organizational structures on earth; awaken to Digital India — already close to reaching Kakelao with optical fiber.

9 pillars

The scale of Digital India — attempting to transform the 70% of the population of what is soon to be the world’s largest country who live in ancient villages into a knowledge economy — invites a contrasting reference to Mao Zedong’s disastrous but similarly enormous Great Leap Forward.   In a more gentle, arguably Indian way, Digital India leaves people in place, except as they may migrate only as far as neighboring villages  with better broadband connections, relying on the attractive power of the Internet to get people to pass boldly into that other world.

Our role in the past seven days in Kakelao was to help to make that power as apparent as possible to educators, government, local businesses and students, and to help Kakelao set up structures that will enable passionate pursuit of what its broadband connection will offer.  So the stage is set, and now I am privileged to offer you some stories from Kakelao at the dawn of Digital India:

The Ruler of All that I See

New political leadership has catalyzed much of the local change in Kakelao.   Like many villages, given allocation of a certain number of elected leader –“Sarpanch” — roles to women, Kakelao is truly governed by the father of the official Sarpanch.  The new Sarpanch’s father is actively engaged in achieving progress for the village in many areas, including the Internet.  We got to talk with him often about the prospects for the village, but one moment on our second day together with him deserves special mention.

A farmer, like the other village leaders or “Panchayat,” he had expressed interest in more information about crop insurance, so my partner Vinod Palathinkara and I prepared a riveting presentation on that subject.  He listened and responded patiently and responsibly, but without passion.  Suddenly, inspiration.  “Have you ever seen the beauty of Kakelao from a satellite?”  I asked, pulling out a phone I had brought for the village.

Kakelao Earth

Immediately, we felt his excitement as this leader and landowner saw his village from the air for the first time in his life, was won over to digital life through visualization.  He looked intently, then more intently….

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We showed him how to pinch and expand the view.  He put on his glasses.

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He followed the road out of the village to his land, and for the first time in his life saw his land from the air.  He spoke to the phone and it gave him answers.  I noted how much faster the phone was than the big computer next to us.  “this is faster than THIS?” he exclaimed.  “SMART PHONE!”

The Bill Gates of Kakelao

As Hal Varian said, “the smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China.”  Make the Internet available, and she or he may never let it go.  So it was with one boy whose intensity from the moment we opened our laptops set him apart even from all of the intensely interested other children.

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We learned from other teachers that he is regarded as a troublemaker, a disruptor among disruptors.  But on the math program we provided, he sailed through level after level.  And after the children were required to walk back across the village to their school, he snuck back in and began working furiously.

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I just let him go on his own for as long as we were able to keep the room, and soon other children found their way to join him.  This was the closest we came (given our deference to the local schools) to the “Hole in the Wall Project” which provides such strong evidence that Digital India will succeed with children in villages across the country.  When I tried to tell him we were being kicked out of the room (by the army itself, as it happened), his eyes were bright and pleading.  “Games, sir, games?”  In the following days’ conversations with his school principal, I and eventually the principal would repeatedly refer to this boy as “the Bill Gates of Kakelao.”  I hope it sticks.

A Facility for Women

Drawing women out and onto the Internet is by no means as easy in India as drawing children out. Only 12% of rural Internet users in India are women, according to a 2014 report.    Although women dominate most social media platforms once they are on — and nowhere more so than in India, where networks have superpowers that often elude individualistic Westerners — enabling village women to feel comfortable participating in the online world is a key challenge for Digital India.  In our Kakelao microcosm, we were very fortunate to find young women with excellent computer and teaching skills — which we tested in outreach sessions to merchants — well-spoken on the need for outreach to women and willing to offer regular afternoon teaching sessions to women, students and others using a laptop donated by Andrew Garling to the primary school.  The primary school principal, a supporter of our efforts for two years now, eagerly agreed.

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Will Digital India provide the 50 million new jobs projected?   How far can it go toward solving the huge demographic, economic and social challenges India faces?    Who knows? Perhaps, however, many of you will join me in considering it to be India’s greatest hope.

The names of individuals have been omitted to protect their privacy.