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Dalit entrepreneurs help bridge digital divide during pandemic

September 22, 2020

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Dalit entrepreneurs help bridge digital divide during pandemic

Delhi: A Delhi-based organisation is equipping the members of the Scheduled Castes with digital literacy to help them thrive in the gloomy economic scenario.

Ashok Bharti, chairperson of the Dalit-Adivasi collective National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), told 101Reporters they have enabled about 290 small-time entrepreneurs from socially disadvantaged groups gain employment in the past few months. He added that though India is struggling through a pandemic, these entrepreneurs have cumulatively earned over Rs 5 crore in the first five months of the lockdown period.

Bharti underlined that the aim of their programme, being run in collaboration with Tata Consultancy Services, is to bridge the digital divide between the rural and urban India.“The task was to impart functional literacy of computers among the educated youth [belonging to socially disadvantaged groups], who could then be incentivised into teaching,” he said.

Meera Ahirwar, 25, a resident of Gor Gai village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, was given training in digital skills. In return, she has to impart the skills to the students of her village government school. She’d be given a stipend for this.

With a postgraduate degree in Geography and a bachelor’s degree in Education, she would find it difficult to secure a job as she belonged to the Dalit community. She would even have to face casteist taunts en route to the local school she taught at.

She quickly learned to execute various digital tasks like online banking, utility bill payment and extending benefits of various government schemes through the internet. This enabled her to set up her own kiosk in 2019. Now, she helps people make transactions, apply for scholarships and other schemes.

During the pandemic, when banking facilities were hampered because of the lockdown, Ahirwar’s kiosk attracted people from even far off villages. “Migrant workers who were stuck in different parts of the country during the lockdown were able to transfer money to their family members in the villages through e-payment,” she told 101Reporters. She said she also helped people procure e-passes, which were necessary for inter-city or interstate movement during the lockdown.

Even the upper-caste villagers who used to mock her and not avail of her kiosk would now seek her help as all the other internet access points near the village were closed owing to the lockdown.

“Initially, they would make sure that they would maintain as much distance as possible while interacting with us in our shop, but gradually the distance blurred,” underlined Ahirwar.

The increased transactions during the lockdown period bumped up earning of many entrepreneurs, and it has helped them expand their business.

Lifeline for villages

Ujwal Mondal, 31, a resident of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, earned Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh each month from his three shops in Hingalganj block during the lockdown. He recently received a tender from the state government to register the people eligible for Samajik Suraksha Yojna, a scheme that provides provident fund to the workers in the unorganised sector.

Ujwal Mondal at his digital kiosk in North 24 Parganas district. Credits: Inder Bisht.

“I have to go to each house in the village and find out the people who are eligible for the scheme. After that I register their names online by filling a form,” stated Mondal, adding that about 75 people visit his kiosks every day.

Mondal mentioned that people visit him to make changes in their Aadhaar cards and seek help in obtaining different certificates like for caste or marriage. Previously, people would have to get it through the village authorities but now they download the forms, get them filled, sign and upload them.

There are 21 such entrepreneurs from the three clusters in North 24 Paraganas district. One of the cluster leaders Subarna Mondal mentioned that though their business was affected at the start of the lockdown, it picked up within 15-20 days when people realised the potential of online transactions.

“People who had never done an online transaction in their lives came looking for us to withdraw cash from their accounts,” she added.

In addition, Mondal said the entrepreneurs also helped fill up forms of the people who were entitled to cash support under various central and state government assistance programs. When the money for Ujjwala Yojna, PM Kisan Yojana and several other state government schemes, including financial assistance for the Amphan Cyclone, came into the account of the beneficiaries, they came to our kiosks to withdraw the money, she added.

Interventions such as the digital literacy drive have come as a relief not only for the ones receiving the training but also for the society they live in, connecting many with the world wide web.