Feature story

Deleting the divide

An estimated 30 million women across India have been enabled and energised by Internet Saathi, a trailblazing digital literacy effort spread over 20 states

The year 2018 proved to be a watershed in Pinki Kumari’s life. For a rural woman almost resigned to the reality that her place in the world was limited to her kitchen, Ms Kumari found her horizons opening up. She learned about digital devices, became comfortable with the internet and even began training newbies.

The catalyst for Ms Kumari’s change of course in life was Internet Saathi, a path-breaking digital literacy programme that was launched in 2015 through a collaboration between the Tata Trusts and Google India. “What I have discovered through the Saathi [or partner] programme has helped me transform my life,” says Ms Kumari, who is based in Jind in Haryana. “I feel proud that I was able to step out of my comfort zone.”

For Ms Kumari and an estimated 30 million women like her, Internet Saathi has been a stepping stone, and then some, into the digital world. And, as an auxiliary, the programme has done its bit in bridging the online gender divide in rural India.

“In 2015, only one out of every 10 internet users in rural India was a woman,” says Raman Kalyanakrishnan, head of strategy at the Trusts. “We felt that knowledge of the digital medium and the ability to use the internet would be a key skill for rural communities.”

Internet Saathi began as a pilot in five states: Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand and Tripura. Based on the train-the-trainer model, it aimed to create a cadre of digitally-literate women from rural communities who could, in turn, pass on their knowledge to others, thereby building a network through which digital literacy could be brought to the doorsteps of rural folks.

Some 1,000 saathis — women aged between 18 and 35 who had completed their schooling and were part of an ongoing community initiative — were trained during the initial phase. They were taught how to use a smartphone or a tablet, browse for relevant information on the net, and be aware of issues such as online security. The saathis also received soft skills training and were guided on how to educate others in their communities.

On completing their training programme, the saathis received three internet-enabled devices. Each of them was tasked with training around 600 women in two-to-four villages, including their own. The programme achieved its target of reaching 5,000 villages in quick time.

That was then. Internet Saathi has since those embryonic days gone on to complete two more phases and now has in its fold in excess of 83,000 saathis and nearly 300,000 villages in 20 states across the country. That’s just under half the number of villages in India, another indicator of the spread and effectiveness of an initiative that has broken new ground in multiple ways.

Changing lives

The full impact of Internet Saathi came alive when independent surveys revealed how the training actually changed lives. The first survey, conducted a year into the project, showed one in three targeted women having access to a smartphone and the socioeconomic impact this triggered in rural communities.

Internet saathi Usha (right) from Adampur village in Rajasthan's Dholpur district, with programme beneficiary Raja Beti

About 40% of women in the programme said that the internet had enabled them to find new skills that helped them earn a subsidiary income; 50% had learned new methods online on how to save money; and 40% were accessing the net at least once a week, six months after completing the programme.

“We saw interesting progression in the way women used the internet and we tailored our content accordingly, determining which modules needed to be well-defined and which could be left flexible,” explains Mr Raman. “The women were even checking what the weather forecast was or what information was available about a particular crop. These were interesting and encouraging insights for us.”

An attendant benefit was the rising stature within their communities of the saathis. “People began respecting me a bit more after I did the programme,” adds Ms Kumari. “They would take my advice more seriously and help me when I needed it.”

Rohini Patil, an Internet saathi from Adulpeth village in Maharashtra's Satara district, displays her branded line of honey
Rohini Patil, an Internet saathi from Adulpeth village in Maharashtra's Satara district, displays her branded line of honey

Golden gain

Everything that I am today is because of me becoming an Internet Saathi,” says Rohini Patil proudly. The 31-year-old from Adulpeth in Maharashtra has her own branded line of honey and retails around 700kg of the golden liquid in a year. As a successful businessperson, Ms Patil has come a long way.

“I was a housewife and was involved only with the matters of my house and family,” she says. “That was before I joined the programme in 2016 and learned how to use a smartphone and the internet.”

Ms Patil credits the programme with a transformation that is both personal and professional. “I have understood how to run a business and I have gained immense knowledge. And I am so much more confident.”

Ms Patil has also gone through Google’s Accelerator Program, which taught her a lot about improving her business and she is now pursuing a diploma in beekeeping from a local college. The additional knowhow, she reckons, will help her grasp a future in which she sees herself setting up a new office and hiring more women.

The honey business aside, Ms Patil is kept busy in other ways as well. “People come to me seeking business-related advice. And I’ve been invited to colleges and functions to speak about my journey as an entrepreneur and as an Internet Saathi. My biggest achievement, though, is the knowledge that I now have.”

Shivkumari Khushwaha, a saathi from Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, has a similar story to tell. “I had a smartphone and people would come to me to learn how to use the net,” she says. “I assisted people in getting jobs at anganwadis [childcare centres] and that led to me gaining respect in the community.”

Bolstered by the positives, the Trusts decided to improve and expand the programme, to take it from digital literacy to digital livelihoods. That explains the setting up in 2017 of the Foundation for Rural Entrepreneurship Development during what was the second phase of Internet Saathi.

The objective was to set up a digital hub of earning opportunities that would support rural women setting off down the entrepreneurial path. The idea has matured to the extent that the saathis now function as digital service providers for financial products and services, digital education solutions and business-related upskilling.

There has been a cascading effect as well. Over the years, the saathis have started playing a vital role in community welfare while associating themselves with various local social development initiatives. They have helped increase awareness about health and nutrition, especially for pregnant and lactating women, contributed to water, sanitation and hygiene solutions, and brought menstrual hygiene issues to the foreground. Also, in these pandemic times, more than 60,000 saathis across 15 states have educated villagers on Covid-19 safety protocols.

Down with gender barriers

From a social perspective, too, the programme has delivered change. Traditional gender barriers have been lowered and the saathis are now able to reach and teach more people. The upshot is that rural communities in the programme’s coverage areas have a better understanding of how to utilise the net to gain knowledge and to scout for opportunities.

Ragini Kumari (right), also an Internet saathi, teaches the Madhubani style of painting to women in her village in Darbhanga district in Bihar

Well past the critical mass point, Internet Saathi has been powered by its own momentum even after the successful completion of the partnership between the Trusts and Google India in December 2019. This unique coming together has been an eye-opener for the Trusts team involved in the programme. “It taught us how to focus on scale and this complemented our knowledge of rural communities,” says Mr Raman.

The more fundamental learning, according to Mr Raman, is how access to the net can have a significant multiplier effect on the standard of life in rural communities. Whether in the form of enhanced incomes, improved awareness of healthcare, a better understanding of educational opportunities for children or employing more productive agricultural techniques, the net can be a force for change. Internet Saathi has shown how.