Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), aims to digitally enable marginalized communities from all the 272 backward districts of India and empower them with digital tools and technology to improve their lives
DEF is acknowledged as a leading practitioner in community intervention through Information Communication and Technology tools (ICT). The thought of starting something on those lines goes back to 2002, when the digital ecosystem was a sharp contrast to what it is now. Internet was there, but not widely used and social media was unheard of. And not much was being done about it. However some far-sighted people like Osama Manzar and Shaifali Chikermane thought differently.
In 2002, Osama Manzar was running a software company of 120 people providing content management system solutions to newspaper and publishing organisation.
To put it in his words, “As a journalist and then in late nineties as a new media person being at the helm of Internet division of the Hindustan times, I wrote my first book called Internet Economy of India and that prompted me to think of digital divide and the other population digitally disconnected and how they could be a great force of reckoning if they are included in the mainstream. That led me to conceive DEF and its formation.”
Osama Manzar along with his wife Shefali Chikermane felt that digital empowerment for the marginalized communities were as important as food, clothing and shelter when they founded DEF in 2002 in Delhi. The couple felt that people from backward districts and information-dark regions need digital exposure. They began a digital dissemination centre there, which we know as Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs).
The crux of CIRC is to make the less privileged digitally literate through computers, cameras, printers, projectors, scanners, internet, Wi-Fi and broadband. CIRC also offers information services related to government schemes. Through CIRCs, people gain knowledge of digital literacy, ICT and employable skills, English language, entertainment, health, agriculture, entrepreneurship, RTI (right to information), e-Governance and digital services.
The community provides space for CIRC and selects one person as CIRCs coordinator, who then decides the price to be fixed for each service. That’s how CIRC becomes a sustainable model after about three years.
CIRCs are established with funds and grants from national and international donor organizations, corporate groups and government departments.
Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh became the starting point of CIRC’s journey. “Chanderi is a weaver cluster, comprising 3,500 weavers who were earning very little as they had to go through middlemen to sell their sarees. The lives of weavers can be improved if they have access to information and are empowered with digital tools,” said Ravi Guria, Dy. Programme Director- Media and Communication, DEF.
The DEF team has built awareness among weavers through door-to-door campaigns. Before CIRC happened, weavers had to go 20km for taking photocopies or getting a lamination.
The younger generation had begun to move out of Chanderi, in search in greener pastures. Digital intervention has made them re-think their decision. “The Chanderi project began in 2009. Weavers slowly shed their inhibitions and began to use the computer, learnt to Google search and gained information. Doesn’t matter that it was all virtual, still they managed to get some degree of exposure to the outside world,” explained Kriti Singh, senior communication and media officer, DEF.
CIRCs immediate outcome is that the migration of the weaver community began to decline. The talent deficit was gradually being bridged, giving the dying craft a facelift. Weavers began to sustain themselves by directly selling their woven creations to the domestic and even international market. They have spread their wings by compiling their creations on an e-commerce platform, complete with technical details on the yarn and catalogues. “Prior to the digital intervention, each sari took a month to complete. By digitizing the design, the process of weaving a sari takes less time,” added Singh.
With time, CIRC emerged as DEF’s flagship programme. Chanderi has been a scalable, replicable model for several weaver clusters in Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Telengana, Karnataka and Barmer in Rajasthan. Warli artisans in Maharashtra have also come under the gamut of CIRC. “We select nationalized places which are also aspirational in nature. We engage with communities and then work around deliverables,” pointed out Guria.
Wherever CIRC has been present it has covered six tenets. The six-fold path includes Access and Infrastructure, essential to make them digitally literate. Governance and Entitlements makes them aware of their rights and give them a voice. Education and Empowerment is inclusive of better health, education, skill and livelihood opportunities. Markets and Social Enterprise is digitally empowering micro-enterprises and communities. Knowledge Hub and Database is the creation of a knowledge network of digital practitioners and database. Advocacy and Research, which offers access for all to the Internet as a basic human right and more extensive use of ICT and digital tools for development. Values and principles deal with basic values that have governed us and will continue to govern us.
“In places like Haryana, we have a hub-and-spoke model, which connects to nine locations. Consequently, the hub connects us to all nine locations. This helps in the case of health services,” highlighted Nahid Jubair, project manager
Apart from health services, DEF has arrived at governance and citizen services through partnerships. A case in point is the SoochnaSeva in association with European Union. “We engage with the grassroots communities in Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and make them aware of the government schemes and services related to health, education, social and financial inclusion, livelihood and employment, information and entitlement needs,” added Guria. In the process of making people aware of their rights, Soochna Seva has kindled an entrepreneurial spirit among the people. The outcome is Soochnapreneur, a rural entrepreneurship-based initiative in collaboration with Qualcomm. The initiative aims to empower youth and orient them towards entrepreneurship. Many rural women have become part of this endeavour. The Smartphone helps them with professional requirements like market linkage and MeraApp, a multilingual app, facilitates the process.
Over time, DEF has built a network to fulfill its vision of digital literacy. The organization joined hands with Google and Tata Trust to introduce women to digital tools and the content, information and opportunities the Internet holds. The collaborative effort is known as Internet Saathi.
DEF is the implementing partner in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where it has mobilized women volunteers or Internet Saathis and equipped them with ICT tools and knowledge to remote communities to the mainstream world, thus bringing them out of information darkness.
DEF has mapped its presence in over 500 locations across 126 districts of 23 states and Union Territories. Over 1,20,86,210 are digitally empowered, 40,00,000 women are digitally enabled, 5,00,000+ have availed various digital services and 50,000+ artisans digitally enabled. Besides that, 10 government schools have been transformed into model digital schools.
As DEF evolves, partnerships have enriched its digital vision. DEF’s ultimate aim is to make the last mile citizen a digital user. Here’s wishing them the very best.
By Kavitha Srinivasa