By Abdul Gani*, Baska, Assam
Nizara Talukdar, in her mid 30s, is just another village woman in Assam who has grown up in poverty. But her life's trajectory is not following a familiar path. Today she is using the internet to innovate and to bolster her income, thanks to the Internet Saathi (Internet Assistant) program being implemented in various areas of Assam. The Internet Saathis are educated village women who are provided training and given smartphones and bicycles to carry out their activities.
Talukdar is a weaver in a village in Assam's Baksa district under the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD). Over the years, she has been following traditional designs that she inherited from her mother and other elders. But she failed to draw the attention of customers. Now, with the help of the Internet Saathis she can download creative designs from the internet, which has allowed her to enhance her sales.
With the help of the Internet Saathis, women like Nizara Talukdar of Baksa district can download creative designs from the internet and enhance their sales.
"My sales have gone up and customers have appreciated my work," Talukdar told VillageSquare.in. "I raised the price by ₹400 for a traditional women's garment featuring new designs." Now she sells one mekhela chador (traditional women's attire) for ₹1200. She has increased her income by 30% to 40%.
Talukdar is not the only woman in rural Assam whose life has been positively impacted by the internet. Bhairabi Devi is delighted about the benefits she is reaping. "It's been very helpful. I never knew that I could see designs from across the globe on my palm. I can now do fusions of design. I'm also learning designs of different garments," Devi told VillageSquare.in.
The Internet Saathis came into the scene in March 2016. Armed with tablets and smartphones, these women roamed the villages on their bicycles, trying their best to influence village folk. The Internet Saathi Project—a joint initiative of Google and Tata Trust— is being implementing by Gramya Vikash Mancha (GVM) in Nalbari, Kamrup (rural), Barpeta and Baksa districts of Assam.
"It was quite difficult to start with as most of the women are from very poor families and illiterate. So, they did not have any idea about the smartphones or internet. Initially, they used to shy away from us when we approached them," Pranita Das, an Internet Saathi operating in Baksa district, told VillageSquare.in. She says she has managed to teach 12 village women how to use the internet. "I used to literally chase them with my devices in hand... I'd get them started anywhere—from grocery shops to courtyards."
I used to literally chase them with my devices in hand... I'd get them started anywhere—from grocery shops to courtyards. Pranita Das, Internet Saathi
The younger set, of course, is more receptive. Madhusmita Das, a class X student of Lakhipur village, has painted new designs after being taught by an Internet Saathi. "Madhusmita is a very young girl but she is very enthusiastic and has learnt so many things from the Internet. She has already designed and showed them to me," Pranita said.
Pranjal Chakraborty, vice-president of GVM who is leading the digital literacy project, said that their aim is to train at least 90% rural women. "It is to increase the level of awareness about the internet among the rural women. We also want to empower the women with knowledge and to enhance their level of income," Chakraborty told VillageSquare.in.
So far 160 Internet Saathis have touched the lives of more than 100,000 village women. Some of these women are also helping their husbands with their newfound access to information. "These women have learnt many things about agriculture and have taught their husbands about varieties of seeds etc. They take so much interest now and call me whenever they are in need of my service," Internet Saathi Rumi Sarma, who is studying in Gauhati University, told VillageSquare.in.
The village women and girls have even mastered the art of bridal makeup through the internet. "Earlier, the girls in the village used to go to the nearby towns for bridal makeup or they used to hire outsiders but now at least six to seven girls in my area have learnt how to do wedding make-up and make designs for bridal costumes," said Archana Deka, another Internet Saathi in Hajo block in Kamrup district.
Chakraborty said that the village women have also learnt how to use Paytm and other modes of digital transactions.
Abdul Gani is a journalist based in Guwahati.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.