No, Google’s Not a Bird: Bringing the Internet to Rural India
A recent convert to the wonders of the web is trying to persuade his neighbors in a remote village that “the whole world rests inside the mobile.”
By ELLEN BARRY
May 21 2017
TARADAND, India — Babulal Singh Neti was sitting with his uncle on a recent afternoon, trying to persuade him of the merits of the internet.
It was 105 degrees outside, and the sun was beating down on the frazzled croplands. His uncle said he had no use for the internet, since he had never learned to read; furthermore, he wanted to nap. This he made clear by periodically screwing up his face into a huge yawn.
Mr. Neti, 38, pressed on earnestly, suggesting that he could demonstrate the internet’s potential by Googling the history of the Gond tribe, to which they both belonged. Since acquiring a smartphone, Mr. Neti couldn’t stop Googling things: the gods, Hindu and tribal; the relative merits of the Yadav caste and the Gonds; the real story of how the earth was made.
Access to this knowledge so elated him that he decided to give up farming for good, taking a job with a nongovernmental organization whose goals include helping villagers produce and call up online content in their native languages. When he encountered internet skeptics, he tried to impress them by looking up something they really cared about — like Gond history.
His uncle responded with half-closed eyes, delivering a brief but comprehensive oral history of the Gond kings, with the clear implication that his nephew was a bit of a good-for-nothing. “What does it mean, Google?” his uncle said. “Is it a bird?”
And then, theatrically, he yawned.
While India produces some of the world’s best coders and computer engineers, vast multitudes of its people are like Mr. Neti’s neighbors, entering the virtual world with little sense of what lies within it, or how it could be of use to them.
The arrival of the internet in their lives is one of India’s most hopeful narratives.
In the 70 years since independence, India’s government has done very little to connect Taradand, in Madhya Pradesh State, in central India, to the outside world: The first paved road appeared in 2006. There has never been a single telephone landline. Electricity is available to only half the houses. When Mr. Neti was growing up, if someone in the village needed emergency medical care, farmers tied the patient to a wooden cot and carried him five miles through the forest to the nearest hospital, a journey of four hours.
By comparison, India’s battling telecoms have wired Taradand with breathtaking speed. Two years ago, Mr. Neti counted 1,000 mobile phones in the village, which has a population of 2,500. This tracks with India as a whole; last year it surpassed the United States to become the world’s second-largest market for mobile phones behind only China, according to Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, an industry group known as G.S.M.A.
With the cost of both smartphones and data plummeting, it is fair to assume that Taradand’s next technological leap will be onto the internet.
Those who work in development tend to speak of this moment as a civilizational breakthrough, of particular significance in a country aching to educate its children. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has made expanding internet use a central goal, shifting government services onto digital platforms. When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, toured India in 2014, he told audiences that for every 10 people who get online, “one person gets lifted out of poverty and one new job gets created.”
So it is instructive to follow Mr. Neti as he tries to drum up a little interest in Taradand. Young men use the internet here, but only young men, and almost exclusively to circulate Bollywood films. Older people view it as a conduit for pornography and other wastes of time.
Women are not allowed access even to simple mobile phones, for fear they will engage in illicit relationships; the internet is out of the question. Illiterate people — almost everyone over 40 — dismiss the internet as not intended for them.
Still, Mr. Neti persists with the zeal of the newly converted.
“You can call me the black sheep. That’s what I am,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t care. It’s the internet age. One day they’ll all come around.”