An interview with Ritu Srivastava, General Manager of Research and Advocacy at the Digital Empowerment Fund, based in Delhi, India.

The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) is a non-profit based in Delhi, India that aims to empower marginalized communities through connectivity. In 2017, DEF carried out a project, Zero Connect, to deliver Internet access to a remote Indigenous community, the Agariyas, in the Little Rann of Kutch salt desert in Gujarat.

The Agariyas are a nomadic people, moving as the salt flats they farm change with the seasons. Their migratory habits have previously made them impossible to count for India’s national census. Without a census count, they were considered undocumented people and did not have access to any of the social benefits, voting rights, or welfare to which other Indians are entitled.

Their transitory habits also make it very difficult for the Agariyas to access quality schools and health care facilities. But with the help of the DEF and its WiFi-enabled van, the Agariyas are now beginning to experience the benefits of a documented, connected community. Katie Watson of ISOC spoke with Ritu Srivastava, General Manager of Research and Advocacy at DEF to learn more:

Katie Watson (KW): Can you tell me a little bit about the Agariyas community?
Ritu Srivastava (RS): The Agariyas live in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. For six months of the year, they farm the salt lake there and for the other six months, during monsoon season, they retreat to a desert area. The heat in the area is often 50 degrees Celsius, and of the 5000 sq/km they live on, about 40 percent is taken up by the salt lake. There are about 3,500 families in this area, but none of them were counted in the census as citizens. They are known as Indian Survey Number Zero, meaning they do not have any rights, including voting, that other Indians have.

One of the first priorities of ZeroConnect was to help community members take an online survey that would help us map them and show the Indian government that they are there. This will give them back their rights as citizens.

KW: Was there any way to access the Internet in the community before your project?
RS: No, there is no telecom tower or signal in this community. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has a tower in a town 40KM away, but that is the last point of access we can get.

KW: Who did DEF partner with, and how was the community involved in this project?
RS: DEF was the implementation agency and we were funded by the Internet Society and supported by a local NGO, Agariya Heetrakshak Manch. DEF built and transported the technology, then the community and Agariya Heetrakshak Manch served as mobilization agency and support for the project. They engaged the community members and worked with them to get them excited about the project.

The community involvement is really high right now because this is the first time they have had a voice. Bringing them online and helping them do the census survey was the first step and it made the community really excited to participate. Now they know what rights they are entitled to as citizens of India.

The Agariyas don’t have any kind of food security, they don’t have information services, and the school systems are not up to the mark. We trained them to use the Internet, showed them why it was important, and helped them find resources online, like Public Distribution Stops. Now they can go and apply for food, find nearby banks, or access other resources. With our customized, WiFi enabled van, we were to help them access all of the things they are entitled to as citizens.

KW: Tell me more about the vans. How did you get this idea and what are they like?
RS: We had to have a mobile van because the community is nomadic. The area is so hot and the seasons change the land so much that the people have to travel. The mobile van allows us to go where the community goes. This way it can serve them where they are, and also serve more places depending on what the community needs.

It’s a four-wheel drive van with a wireless tower on top that operates between 2.4 and 5.8 Ghz and gives 360-degree connectivity. The backhaul is 40km away, but we’re able to access it with our satellite. The van is equipped with LCD screens, tablets, a small printer, and a projector that we can use to show stories, documentaries, and movies for students. There isn’t a lot of entertainment in these areas, so sometimes it’s really exciting for the kids to see a Bollywood or Hindi movie.

The van runs not only from school to school, but also from health center to health center. This way we can have conference calls to the larger, city health centers. Health centers can consult other health centers, or people can discuss their problems with a doctor without having to travel all the way to a big health center.

KW: What have been the biggest benefits to the community?
RS: First, it is important to know that there is no physical infrastructure in the community. They have about 13 makeshift schools, called rangshalas, made from jute that essentially act like tents. The students sit on the floor with their teacher, and it can be very hot and dusty. Not many teachers want to go to a classroom like that, so it can be hard to get quality teachers. A lot of them aren’t educated either, so it’s not a good situation.

With our van, we go to all of the schools and offer distance learning materials and digital literacy training.

We also offer this digital literacy training to the adults in the community and its really helpful for them. They can check the market prices of salt, learn how to produce more salt, sell direct to market, and communicate with other buyers and sellers. Market education and food security are really important aspects of connectivity for them, and ZeroConnect’s service has helped them a lot.

But really, the most impactful part has been the mapping. By taking the survey and getting recognized in the census, the Agariyas will finally be recognized as citizens of India.

KW: What are the next steps for ZeroConnect?
RS: The project ended at the end of the year because we were only funded for one year. But we are still supporting the Agariyas community through our own funding and we’re applying to new sources of funding so that we can keep working. We’re hoping we can get some support because there is a lot more need.

We’re also working to create a more sustainable model. The mobile van is not sustainable yet because the community can’t pay for the services and the service from the tower we rely on doesn’t work all the time. It’s sad because for the community to be able to afford continuous service, they need more service so that they can have new opportunities. So, we’re trying to come up with new ways of connecting them.

Our idea now is to create ‘Internet in a Box.’ We would create solar powered boxes with antenna that the community could place throughout the community to access the service from the tower nearby. They could access it through tablets or their cell phones, which some of them have, and we would charge one, two, five rupees (about $0.01 – $0.07 USD), or whatever they could afford for the service. That way they could still get access to the Internet and the project would be a little more sustainable.

We’re pilot testing the idea now and we hope that it will work and make the project more sustainable. ◉

You can learn more about DEF, ZeroConnect, and the Little Rann of Kutch on their website: http://defindia.org/ or http://wforc.in/zeroconnect/.


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