India's digital divide, part 2

Indian women check e-mails and browse the Internet at an Akshaya (Eternal) e-learing center at Mundakulam village of Malappuram district in Kerala in August 2004.

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SCOTT JAGOW: India is building a global reputation for IT with so many tech companies outsourcing there, but the country's still pretty far behind in the computer world. For example, only one in 450 students in India has a PC. In US schools, it's one in 10. But American companies are working on the problem. They're trying to make computers affordable and useful to India's millions of rural poor. Miranda Kennedy has this report.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: Here in Mehsana village in western India, groups of women huddle around computers in a small room in a community center. Most of them are learning basic techniques and typing in their native Gujarati language. A few teenagers want my advice on how to spell the word welcome in English.

The women are members of a community union which teaches them how to market the dresses they make and the vegetables they farm. And now, thanks to a grant from Microsoft, they're learning computer skills.

Lila Solamki, an elderly woman with calloused, hardworking hands, proudly rattles off her new knowledge.

LILA SOLAMKI [translator]: I learned all the parts of a computer, like the hard drive and the floppy disk. At first I didn't understand the mouse and I couldn't make it move. I was a little afraid of it. But now I've even learned about laptop computers and that thing called the Internet.

The younger girls giggle at Lila's dialect. She only went to school up to 4th grade. She and her family barely scrabble together $200 a year from their farm. But she says the computer lessons have helped her to supplement that meager income.

SOLAMKI [translator]: The head office of our union has set up a Web site where they are selling our products, like mango chutney and lime juice. We get more money for our stuff when we sell it through the internet. I've also learned how to do accounting on spread sheets. Now I can get paid a little to keep accounts for our group.

Vikas Goswami runs Microsoft's community affairs program. She's pleased that the grant has helped some rural women get employment, but she has loftier aims for the program.

VIKAS GOSWAMI: We're looking at it as a tool not only for empowerment but also for information. Often the poverty issues in our country are not just because of lack of resources: it's a) because of access to resources, b) because you don't have adequate information to make appropriate choices.

That's slowly changing, she says, as more small towns get connected to the Internet, even if its just through one shared computer. She's seen women look up health tips online or improve their tailoring designs by working on them digitally.

Here in Mehsana, a few women have actually trained as hardware engineers. Some of them have never gone to school, but they can take apart these old, donated computers and fix a problem with the CPU or the motherboard.

In Mehsana, India, I'm Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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