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India bridging 'digital divide': Microsoft is teaching rural Indian women and other villagers the ins and outs of computers to help them join the technology revolution
[April 24, 2006]

India bridging 'digital divide': Microsoft is teaching rural Indian women and other villagers the ins and outs of computers to help them join the technology revolution

(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 24--GANESHPURA, India -- Sharda Parmar has no telephone, and neither do her neighbors. Local news often comes from a knock at the door. She first heard of a computer a year ago but did not know what it was--maybe a fancy TV.

Now, Parmar can use a spreadsheet. She rattles off computer lingo, acronyms like RAM and CPU. And she can take apart a computer hard drive and put it back together again. Parmar, 35, a homemaker and mother of two, even figures she might be able to help fix the pile of 43 broken computers sitting in the corner of this computer training center in Ganeshpura, a village of 1,500 people.

"Before this, I had never touched a screwdriver in my life," Parmar said. "Now I can use one. I can take apart a computer. I know which slots are for display cards, which are for memory cards. I even learned to take out the power cord, which is a dangerous thing."

India is at the forefront of information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country. Young, educated Indians are quickly turning into one of the country's major exports. Multinational corporations send data processing to Indian branches; call centers here sort out problems with credit cards, half a world away.

But only the urban elite typically have had access to computer training. About 70 percent of Indians--more than 700 million people--still live in villages, many of which only recently got telephones and electricity, if at all. Computers are a luxury. Even projects to bring computers to local government offices have faltered--the computers often sit in corners, expensive paperweights gathering dust.

Urban-rural division

India is one of many countries struggling to bridge the "digital divide," which separates the computer fluent from the illiterate. Only here, the divide is much wider than in many other countries; it is a gap between gleaming suburban glass buildings with wireless Internet and powerless villages. Programs such as the one that trained Parmar aim to make computers relevant to villagers.

Take Leela Solanki, 43, a Ganeshpura farmer who attended school only until the 4th grade. Since studying computers, she has learned how to fill Internet orders for mango pickles. She uses a spreadsheet to figure out her farming budget. Solanki said she caught the local milk cooperative trying to cheat her on fat content when she sold milk from her buffalo. Now, she understands how the milk workers can manipulate numbers with a keystroke.

"They do some sort of tricks," Solanki said.

The digital divide is nothing new here; in many ways, India is the ideal lab in which to test new solutions. There's plenty of knowledge, and there are plenty of villages to run experiments. Entrepreneurs are opening computer kiosks with inexpensive technology that eliminates the need for phone lines. Mobile Internet kiosks have been mounted on bicycles.

Online government data

Several state governments now put information such as birth and property records online.

Many aid groups, universities and even American companies are trying to bring computers here--because of goodwill or good business sense.

Solanki and Parmar have been trained with the help of Microsoft, which launched a computer-training program in the nation in August 2004. It aims to teach more than 22,000 villagers how to use computers, from children in New Delhi slums to fishermen on the southeast coast of India. The emphasis is on the practical--the fishermen now use computers to check schools of fish, wave height and weather reports.

In the western state of Gujarat, where Solanki and Parmar live, Microsoft is training women through the Self Employed Women's Association, a kind of trade union for rural Indian women. In two years, 4,000 women are supposed to learn to use computers at 50 centers in Gujarat.

But visiting just a couple of these centers shows just what the country is up against. One center in Kharaghoda features the only satellite dish in town. The first telephone line arrived only 2 1/2 years ago.

"And every day, that line was dead," joked Tejal Patel, who is in charge of Microsoft's training in Kharaghoda.

There is progress. Now, there are at least five phone lines. A computer in the corner of the training center eventually will be used for telemedicine.

In a training room, women learn to type and save documents by copying the warranty for an Internet cable. This is the closest the women have come to the Internet.

Just keeping the computers, all donated, up and running is a challenge. Rushi Laheri, one of two engineers who takes care of the Gujarat computers for the women's association, has spent eight hours driving to fix a computer, only to find out that someone forgot to plug in a keyboard. One woman called him complaining that the computer asked her to press "any key" to continue. She could not find the "any key."

Women become local experts

This is one reason that women such as Parmar have been trained in recent months to fix computers. They will become their village hardware experts.

The 43 computers in the corner of the training center in Ganeshpura are in various states of disrepair. In the next few weeks, a workshop will be held to repair them. The women who repair the most computers will take the most home to their village centers.

For Parmar, who until recently thought a mouse was only a small animal, the workshop won't come soon enough.

"We don't have any screwdrivers here now," she said. "If we had one, I'd open up a hard drive right now."

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