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Rural India's rough road to computer literacy

Forget creating clever Internet portals. The first problem involves finding reliable sources of electricity. Photos: Truck batteries and PCs in rural India

MUMBAI, India--Bringing the benefits of computer technology to rural villages in India will require a substantial amount of work--and a lot of extra car batteries, said professor Jitendra Shah.

Shah--who works in the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, an organization that develops supercomputers here--has launched a computer program designed to alleviate the grinding poverty found throughout the country.

In a pilot installation in a village near Mumbai, students use PCs, donated by Via Technologies, to perform geometry homework, while local women track their savings in a micropayment program. Later this month, college teachers from around India will take a three-week training course that will allow them to replicate the program in other regions.


To save power, the PCs run on car and truck batteries. Unfortunately, the batteries regularly need recharging and the public electrical power system can't always handle the demand. Three weeks ago, the village transformer blew because too many people tapped into it illegally, a chronic problem here. The government refused to rebuild the transformer until the villagers promised to punish anyone who stole power. The day after it was rebuilt, the transformer blew again.

"We've got power this morning, but I don't know for how long," Shah said. One possible source of relief: a future project that would replace most of the PCs with solar-powered thin cells.

Shah is on the front lines of a movement to help bridge the digital divide. The number of PCs installed worldwide is expected to grow from about 670 million today to around 1 billion by 2010. Most of those new machines will be installed in emerging nations.

Other projects in India include an automatic teller machine that can also serve as an Internet kiosk. It costs about 50,000 rupees, or $1,100. One of India's largest banks is deploying it in rural communities, said P.D. Sohale, directorate of information technology for the state of Maharashtra.

Intel, meanwhile, is developing a PC that can run on car batteries and comes with a special case that keeps out dust, according to Intel India President Ketan Sampat. The company is also developing a program in Kerala that will put PCs in the hands of local entrepreneurs, who will then sell to villagers.

The difficulty of life in these rural regions is hard to overestimate. Located east of metropolis, the village is in the path of New Bombay, a massive construction project designed for Mumbai's growing population of 17 million.

Because of the construction, farming in the village has disappeared and with it most of the employment. The project also bisected the road to the school, so it has become impractical for most children here to attend on a regular basis, Shah said. Many villagers received land in compensation for the building project but then sold it to speculators without a clear understanding of the market value or extent of their holdings.

The villagers are also supposed to get preference in hiring for some jobs, "but employers reject them because they have no experience in computers," he said.

The first step in the project involved translating programs into Indian regional languages. Most people in rural communities are not fluent in English or Hindi and very few applications have ever been translated into Gujarati or Marathi, Shah explained. A set of libraries also had to be created to get Indian characters to pop up on screen.

"These people understand the value of computer education," he said. "When I came up with something in Marathi, they picked it up in a half an hour."

All of the software is based on Linux. "The one software application I thoroughly love comes with the MS logo," Shah said. "But this country can't afford it. Every step forward for this country can't come at the cost of a dollar."

Internet connectivity and hardware has to be cheap as well. Right now, there is no Internet connection, but cellular service, which costs about $4 a month, could help solve that problem.

The PCs run on a discontinued processor from Via and a relatively small amount of memory. (Although the first are donated, the program is designed to become self-sufficient.) The goal right now is to design a box that will cost 10,000 rupees, or close to $200 with a monitor.

"Even at 15,000 rupees with an LCD monitor, such a system would sell like hotcakes," Shah said.

Donated monitors, unfortunately, are impractical because of governmental regulations prohibiting donated hardware from being used for commercial purposes.