Counterview: Kharaghoda: Friday, March 10, 2017.
Even before the Gujarat government initiates its well-publicized decision to provide tablets costing Rs 1,000 to four lakh youths, an Ahmedabad-based NGO has begun a major experiment to train poor primary school children of the saltpan workaers in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) to use tablets as a learning tool with the use of wifi through mobile van.
Spread out in the vast expanse of LRK’s 5,000 sq km, around 8,000 families from the nearby villages come to the LRK post-monsoon for six months to produce salt to earn a livelihood. If earlier NGOs would run make-shift schools across the LRK, now the state government sets up temporary schools for the children of these families for six months.
Organized by Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch (AHRM), which has been working for the welfare of saltpan workers for the last over a decade, the wifi experiment is being supported by Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), which claims to have been working among 80 districts of India for overcoming the digital divide between the rich and the poor.
Talking with Counterview on the sidelines of a function in LRK, where little children were seen using tablets to learn arithmetic, English and Gujarati, DEF’s founding-director Osama Manzar said, “The current speed of wifi is 6 mbps, which we propose to increase to 20 mbps so that children are at ease to connect with the outside world with internet and improve their learning skills.”
Earlier, addressing the function, Manzar said, “Currently, we are providing wifi facilities for tablets donated to schools to the children of seven LRK schools. We plan to take it to 14 temporary schools within six months.. Our mission is to demonstrate that internet is no rocket science, it can be part a child’s play, a part everyday life for the poor.”
At the temporary school, set up in a tent next to the function site, children were seen using voice recognition to reach out to internet, as they do not know typing. Using youtube, one of the children, Anil told Counterview, “See we can learn ABCD on tablet! It’s so simple!” Added Sagar, another child, “All of us know how to use it now. It’s a great friend.”
AHRM director Harinesh Pandya said, “The internet facility will also be used for connecting saltpan workers’ children with the permanent schoolsoperating in the villages surrounding the LRK. With the help of the facility, the teachers could teach English and arithmetic on internet.” He hoped, donors would come forward to provide more wifi vans and tablets.
Added ARRM’s senior activist Pankti Jog, “Tablets connected with wifi to children is, however, not the only aim of providing internet facility in the LRK. We want to create a complete data base of around 8,500 families who come every year to produce salt in the region. They use up just 2.5% of 5,500 sq km area, yet they are harassed and sought to be displaced, as the saltpans operate in the wild ass sanctuary.”
Critical of the NGO experiment, a Gujarat government official of the Sharva Shiksha Abhiyan official, Punabhai Vakatar said, “These are all temporary measures to bring in children to the mainstream. Unfortunately, none of the several NGOs working for the welfare of the saltpan workers’ children have looked for finding a permanent solution provided by us – to make children live in residential schools set up in several of the villages surrounding LRK. It’s all free.”
Contradicting , Jog told Counterview, “What government officials do not recognize is, while children of the upper primary go agree to stay in residential schools set up by the government, the children studying in classes one to five find it difficult to part with their parents. They are therefore brought into LRK by them.”