Jairam Ganjhu, a 12-year-old tribal student of the sixth standard from a remote village in Odisha, had only heard about a computer, never seen. His poor parents had not even heard of it. Jairam heard about the computer for the first time in the school and came to know that his counterparts in towns were studying on the same. He, therefore, aspired to have access to a computer one day. This is the story of hundreds of thousands of kids living in remote villages, who aspire to learn computers, but do not have access to technology. Also, the increased penetration and use of mobile phones in rural areas has left an aspirational impact on the youth to go digital for multiple reasons—advanced educational information/opportunities and/or for getting jobs or developing entrepreneurial spirit.
Digital has emerged as a powerful catalyst for effecting change, faster communication, networking and making people live in a boundary-less world. Rural areas do not have complete access to technology yet. Inaccessibility to digital education means little access to information and, thus, opportunities. While Jairam got lucky eventually when a company decided to fund a digital education initiative in his school, there are many who still don’t have access to technology-based education.
CSR programmes implemented by organisations like Digital Empowerment Foundation and Pratham Education Foundation with support from corporates have been successful in fulfilling the aspirations of many students from remote areas.
In a country like India, which lacks infrastructure support for basic education in itself, digital literacy is a daunting task. Corporates, governments and NGOs have been devising strategies to bring technology to the doorstep of the rural population. Technology makes learning more hands-on and applicable, thus increasing retention and curiosity among students. CSR programmes on holistic educational support (inclusive of digital literacy) for the overall development of the rural community have shown positive results in rural areas where affordability for basic education itself is a challenge. This encourages them to take up higher education.
The government is coming up with strategies to provide digital learning to the rural youth. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Saksharta Abhiyan, a component of Digital India, aims to ensure digital literacy of 40% of the rural households by sheltering one member from each household under this scheme. The scheme envisions to cater to 6 crore rural folks by March 2019.
Corporates can play a tactical role in bridging the gaps in the current education projects that involve mere infrastructure support and complement it with the introduction of technology. These projects, in fact, have helped in the awareness and self-empowerment of the rural communities by designing modules ranging from basic to advanced IT skills. Telecom and IT companies sectors have an advantage in terms of supporting digital literacy programmes, due to their technical expertise in solving last-mile connectivity challenges.
As part of their CSR mandate, companies can strengthen the digital education programme by setting up smart classes or giving infrastructural support to schools in rural areas. They should also join hands with the government and NGOs in their efforts to make the village/panchayat level functionaries, farmers, youth and women digitally literate. In addition, corporates can spare their employees who can volunteer to teach computer education and internet services to empower these groups. Corporate-funded technology-driven projects must also include awareness programmes that drive behavioural changes and aim to bring down negative rural dynamics to a minimal.
Corporates should either set up new or revive the non-functional village-level information centres or kiosks where people can have access to information, besides getting documents/certificates issued from the government.
While corporate funds are being invested in a plethora of activities, the spend on improving the education system for the rural community must be necessary and continuous. Rural education system can be strengthened with strategic investment by corporates that complement the existing government schemes. Efforts directed to provide accessible educational opportunities will strengthen the capacities of the rural youth, resulting in the formation of a useful human resource pool. This will not only help in the growth of rural areas through increased employment opportunities, but will also aid the country in its development process.
By- Abhishek Tripathi & Anindita Biswas. Abhishek Tripathi is director and Anindita Biswas is manager, CSR Advisory, PwC India