India Goes Online

40 kilometres and a rickety bus ride later, Bina finds herself walking down a busy street in Jabalpur City and up the narrow staircase leading up to Ruby Internet Café. With no Internet facilities in her own village she makes this trip once every two months. She saves up the Rs. 15 an hour she’ll have to shell out at the end of each session. Out of 72% of India’s rural population only 2% has access to the internet. Saroj Paraste’s video is one of 7 that was made as a part of a collaborative project with the Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit research organisation that works on policy issues related to access to internet, information on internet and freedom of expression among others. The videos were screened in Bangalore on 20th May as a part of celebrations marking CIS's 5th anniversary and were very well received. In terms of sheer numbers India has the 3rd largest number of people online. The penetration rate for internet however is only around 11%. As an organisation that depends on the world wide web to get its content out to a global audience we found ourselves asking some questions. How do people in India access the internet? Do they search things social and political, consume news or do they search for jobs and use social networking sites? What are the demographics of people using the net in India? The answers were found through the project with CIS. The videos present a study in contrasts. While some Indians walk up to 10 kilometres to access the net, others access it on 3G connection on their phones. For Community correspondents like Rohini, who need to access the internet on a regular basis, access to facilities is a challenge. Like Bina she travels from Valhe to the neighbouring town of Jejuri, where there is a cyber café. Rohini is one of the few women in Valhe who knows how to use the internet. “ I’ve never seen other women come in to the café. They are definitely interested since they see  their kids learning how to use computers. I would love it if people were interested in bringing internet technology to villages and show them everything that can be done through it.” The Government of India launched the E-Gram Yojana in 2008 to address precisely these problems of accessibility. The programme provides the local village council office with computers and internet access so that farmers, vendors, students, etc. can easily access important information, fill out forms and pay bills online. Neeru Rathod, our Community Correspondent from Gujarat finds how the scheme has fallen flat in Kasipura. The computers in the council office sit there looking redundant. They don’t work and even if they did, no one knows how to use them. Move out of the arid shrub land of Gujarat to IT city Bangalore and the access to Internet is indeed better. For some communities, the barriers to hassle free internet access are social rather than infrastructural. Community Correspondent Christy Raj, himself a transgender documents what it is like for the LGBT community of Bangalore to get into a cyber café. “I  wanted to capture what happens in a cyber café from the point of view of a transgender,” said Christy. “While filming we did face some problems. Since me and the character I followed are both transgender many refused to let us film in their cafes.” At the opposite end of the country, Community Correspondent Meribeni Kikon says that cyber cafes are the method of choice for most Nagas as internet speeds on mobile devices are debilitatingly slow. “I used to access the net and download songs through my phone when I lived in Bangalore but here it is impossible. It takes half an hour to download one song,” says one user. Still, he is happy that he can get study material and catch up with the happenings of young people like himself across the world. Achungmei Kamei’s video from Manipur reveals a similar story but adds that things are changing slowly as internet speeds on phones have started improving. The arrival of 3G net in India has meant miracles in terms of reaching the internet to large parts of the country. Avdesh Negi’s video shows how mobile phones are slowly putting cyber cafés out of business. When you can get internet on the move why bother? 59% of all internet users in India do so on mobile devices. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had estimated that 200,000,000 people will join this statistic in one year. We can only hope that the internet footprint in India grows larger. The developments are exciting as bringing the next billion online has the potential to open up the floor to the until now marginalised sections giving them a platform to contribute to a meaningful discussion rather than remain passive recipients of information.   For more read our blog on the impact of technology in rural India.    
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