In a remote village in rural Uttar Pradesh, Harischandra Babu is a walking digital money service.
Using his laptop he is able to help villagers open bank accounts, teaching them how to make online transactions.
He has used his laptop to live stream voting during elections in the world’s largest democracy. He also helps school children learn using Computer Aided Learning (CAL), a form of educational software.
Harischandra is one of 133 digital entrepreneurs across India to have benefitted from a program created to empower the country’s poorest and most isolated citizens.
Less than half of all children in India’s villages attend school. Around one third of village adults are illiterate. And social discrimination against the traditionally-marginalised people of Dalit background results in limited opportunity for them to develop their skills.
However, a growing number of villagers are able to cross the digital divide and start small businesses with the help of BridgeIT.
Bridging the divide
Tata Consultancy Services’ BridgeIT program aims to give young people in rural communities the skills they need to become entrepreneurs, while also improving the education of children in these areas and closing the literacy gap between India’s rural and urban adult populations.
It is a collaboration between TCS and the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations (NACDAOR), an NGO based in Delhi which works with Dalit communities, and Pratham Infotech Foundation, a charity that produces educational resources, such as CAL software.
“This program has helped the students build their knowledge and life skills,” says Harischandra.
“While I have been able to build an identity for myself as a successful entrepreneur and team leader, honing my IT skills.”
BridgeIT is the brainchild of TCS General Manager Joseph Sunil Nallapalli, Lead for CSR and Affirmative Action Programs. It is his firm belief that technology can help people from marginalized communities in rural areas to improve their lives, and generate endless possibilities through entrepreneurship.
“India cannot move forward as a country unless companies understand their role in being a ‘Good Neighbour’ and support communities with their unique skills and business acumen,” says Joseph.
“A rural entrepreneur from a socially and economically disadvantaged community leveraging digital technology is a powerful change agent and the sky is literally the limit in the application of this model to rural Indian communities.”
BridgeIT identifies school leavers and young adults from marginalised communities who have basic IT skills.
It then provides training and a laptop so that these young people can bring digital skills and services into their rural communities. The digital entrepreneurs are trained to teach schoolchildren using the CAL software developed by Pratham Infotech Foundation.
The presence of computers in the classrooms has helped improve attendance – up by 52% in many schools.
Children want to participate, and parents see the value of learning computer skills, says TCS Corporate Social Responsibility senior manager, Lead-Entrepreneurship, Komal Parmar Rana.
“Many of these children are seeing a laptop for the first time,” she says.
“The software has a lot of games and quizzes, which help the children learn much more quickly than by looking at blackboard. They are learning by doing, instead of listening.”
Besides educating children, BridgeIT entrepreneurs are also taught to teach illiterate adults in the village how to read and write using TCS’ Computer Based Functional Literacy programme.
Uma Devi, a 20-year-old from the village of Bharatpura in central India, is a good example of how BridgeIT works. After being given a laptop and coaching, she is now teaching basic computer skills to schoolchildren during the day, and computer-based functional literacy to adults in the evenings.
She also uses her laptop to earn money by providing services such as booking railway tickets and completing online forms for villagers.
Other digital services offered by BridgeIT’s 133 entrepreneurs across rural India include: updating identity cards; bill payments; and computer servicing and repairs.
Encouraging young people like Uma to become not only teachers but entrepreneurs in their communities is a key element of BridgeIT. It ensures that over time young people can earn a living for themselves and become self-sufficient.
It also empowers people who have previously suffered discrimination, and is one of the reasons for BridgeIT’s success.
BridgeIT has grown rapidly since it first began as a pilot project in the Jhansi district of Uttar Pradesh in 2014. By the end of its first year, 31 digital entrepreneurs had taught 4,817 children and 505 illiterate adults. By 2017, 133 entrepreneurs, 22,835 schoolchildren and 3,355 adults had benefitted from the programme.
“BridgeIT creates an impact through empowerment by enabling communities and people to take the lead in their own lives and improve their well-being,” says Dr. Joy Deshmukh-Ranadive, Global Head, TCS CSR.
It is especially empowering for those women taking part in the scheme, who have been able to dismantle social limitations in their villages and have become change agents.
Women like Nadini Rana.
“Being part of BridgeIT is like a dream,” she says.
“For the first time in life, I felt I can do something. This project has helped me develop my own identity. I am a teacher who teaches through laptops and not through books. Villagers are very happy as their children are getting computer education, which is ‘next to impossible’ here. People of my locality who never cared about me earlier have started to respect me. My village people say that may every household have a daughter like Nandini. I feel blessed when I hear this.”
From its humble beginnings four years ago in Uttar Pradesh, BridgeIT has expanded to help people like Nadini in 155 villages spread across six Indian states. And it continues to grow, as more and more once-marginalised people become empowered through digital technology.