India’s digital divide

Miranda Kennedy Jun 26, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: Today the world’s largest wealth management company announced it’s investing $40 million in India. Officials with UBS AG say the country’s tech-savvy population is a big draw for research and development. But while Indians may know a lot about technology, they don’t use much of it. Last year only around 4 million Indians bought a personal computer. That’s out of a population that tops a billion. Companies from Intel to Motorola are working to change that, especially among the millions of poor there. Miranda Kennedy prepared this report on how technology is spreading to some unlikely computer users.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: A crude motor pumps salt water out of the cracked earth here in the barren desert of western India. The only living souls, other than flamingos and wild donkeys, are the salt miners.

Admal Danji stands next to his salt pump in ragged clothes. He’s spent every waking moment of the last eight months between the pump, his burlap shack and a glittering pit of saltwater a couple miles away. His legs are stick thin and white from working in the brine.

KENNEDY: Your hands are completely crusted, so calloused. It’s like an elephant’s skin.

ADMAL DANJI [interpreter]: It’s a painful job. My hands, my legs, everything gets pain, even the body pain is there by the end of the day. And this is a 24 hours work so we can’t have a rest properly.

Admal is only 25 but already he’s been mining salt for 15 years. He never went to school. Every October, he leases a piece of desert from a middleman. And every May, he gives that trader all the salt he’s mined from the ground. He never makes any profit, because he can’t track what happens next. The middleman gives him enough cash to buy food and moonshine. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Twenty miles across the desert, a group of villagers is clustered around half a dozen computers in a concrete community center. This village is called Kharagodha, which means “salty donkey.” All the villagers are salt miners, or they’re married to one. But now they’re learning a new skill.

CHANDUBAI URUCHA [interpreter]: When they first started bringing computers to this center, I had never even seen a keyboard! I am a grown man but I did not know what a computer file was.

Chandubai Urucha, a stocky 34-year-old, started helping his dad in the salt mines when he was a kid, like Admal did. But later, Chandubai got a job with the local salt miners’ union. That union recently won a grant from Microsoft to run computer classes here. They also set up a digital testing lab to monitor the quality of the salt. These days, Chandubai is putting his new computer skills to use, working on a database of the salt miners’ profits.

CHANDUBAI [interpreter]: I use the computer database to keep track of the quality of the salt. We know the market price so we can help the miners to get a fair price for their product. Best of all, we can cut out the middleman.

Ravi Venkatesan, Microsoft’s chairman in India, says this is a great example of how I.T. can be relevant to the lives of the rural poor.

RAVI VENKATESAN: Information access is not a luxury. It’s even more of a necessity when you live at the bottom of the pyramid. OK? It’s not about I.T., it’s about information access. The “T” is just the enabler. That’s the key thing for our country. The digital divide is huge, and it’s particularly manifest in rural India.

Of course, creating new uses for I.T. products and software will serve Microsoft’s interest in the long term. But in Kharagodha, you’re talking the very long term. This village doesn’t even have a single phone connection, let alone Internet. But Chandubai doesn’t mind. He’s still excited about the possibilities of the unconnected PC.

CHANDUBAI [interpreter]: When I first saw a computer, I did not believe in it. It was like believing in magic, because how can a box do the same thing a man can do? But now, it’s fair to say that I’m a computer expert. I even know how to back up the database on a CD.

Now that he’s mastered the technology, Chandubai wants to expand his database. He hopes by next season Admal will be able to join the union and escape his indentured servitude out in the salty desert.

In Kharagodha, India, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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