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State of Internet: A Delhi village’s failed tryst with digital economy

Delhi government’s curious attempt to create digital economy in this small, sleepy Najafgarh village with poor internet connectivity has come a cropper

delhi Updated: Jul 10, 2017 12:42 IST
Manoj Sharma
65-year-old Rajkor runs a shop in Surakhpur village. The swipe machine has hardly been used to accept payments because there is poor internet connectivity in the village.
65-year-old Rajkor runs a shop in Surakhpur village. The swipe machine has hardly been used to accept payments because there is poor internet connectivity in the village. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Rajkor, 65, runs a small grocery shop from the living room of her house at Surakhpur village in Najafgarh. The glass counter is crammed with toffee boxes, while strings of tea packets, shampoo and gutkha sachets hang on the walls. She is sitting on a charpoy with children in the shop.

Rajkor’s is one of the two shops that accept card payments. As we propose to buy cold drinks and pay with a credit card, she pulls out a neatly packed swipe machine from the drawer.

“I do not know how to use it, so I will call my husband,” she says and rushes inside the house. Soon her husband, Surat Singh Solanki, comes to the room but he too expresses his inability to use the machine. “The village has poor internet connectivity and the machine does not work most of the time,” he says.

Ironically, on February 7, Surakhpur was declared Delhi’s first fully digital payment enabled village by the government. The Delhi government organised an Aadhar camp, invited over 20 banks to the village to open Aadhar-seeded bank accounts, videos were played on a large LED screen at the chaupal to educate villagers about e-wallets, mobile banking, BHIM App and many bank-specific applications. Two grocers in the village, including Surat Singh, received the swipe machine and the training to handle it.

The deserted and dilapidating DTC bus stand. Villagers say DTC buses stopped coming a few years ago. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Singh, however, does not remember when he last used the machine. “Most villagers buy bread, butter and soaps from me and like to pay in cash,” says Surat Singh sitting at the counter.

Four months on, the government’s attempt to implement digital economy has come a cropper in the village which has poor internet connectivity, low smart phone penetration and lacks basic amenities such as transport and water.

Poor internet connectivity in the absence of a mobile tower is a common refrain in this ‘fully digital payment enabled village’.

Pranjal Solanki, 14, says that his family bought a laptop last year but had to gift it to a cousin in a neighbouring village. “The dongle would not receive any signal. We realised that buying it was a mistake,” he says. No wonder then many in the village ask why the issue of internet connectivity was not addressed before their village was chosen for the digital initiative.

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Nagender Solanki, a student, says that villagers have been switching from one cell phone operator to another for better connectivity, but to no avail. “Forget netbanking, it is difficult to use internet in the village even for emails,” he says.

One of the stated objectives of promoting digital economy in this village of 113 households was to empower women, but there are many women such as Pushpa Solanki, who do not have a bank account yet. “My husband has an account and the new debit card arrived today. But it is of no use. The village does not have a bank or ATM,” she rues.

Amit Solanki, 37, says what the village needs first and foremost is potable water. He takes us on a guided tour of the village showing us tanks placed outside every household. Every house also has an underground water tank. “Three families have to share one Delhi Jal Board tanker for a week. So people have no choice but to store water. It is a desperate situation when the tankers do not arrive,” he says.

Poor internet connectivity in the absence of a mobile tower is parts of the common refrain in this ‘fully digital payment enabled village’. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Not just water, the village lacks a transport service, primary health care centre and secondary school. As one enters the village, one sees an abandoned, rusting DTC bus stand. A few stray dogs have taken shelter under it in the scorching summer. The villagers say DTC buses stopped coming a few years ago. “You have to have your own vehicle to reach the village,” says Amit.

Many villagers say when a host of government and bank officials descended on the village every so often in January, they thought their village was in for a big transformation. After all, the village had never witnessed such governmental interest, buzz and excitement.

“But it is all quiet now and nothing has changed,” says Amit. “A lot of people readily agreed to become part of the government’s initiative because they thought digital economy was only the beginning, the village would be transformed into a modern village with all facilities,” says a villager, who played a key role in mobilising support for the government’s digital initiative.

On her part, Anjali Sehrawat, sub divisional magistrate of Najafgarh, who spearheaded the initiative, says the government is trying to sort out the problem of internet connectivity. “We have written to cellular phone companies to install towers. Our objective was to enable every household in the village to make cashless transactions. Every household now has an Aadhar-seeded bank account linked to their mobile phones,” she says. “But yes, digital transactions have been way below our expectations.”

Jagbir Singh, a villager, says many residents now wonder why the village was chosen in the first place for the cashless initiative. “This is a small village of few needs with little buying and selling within the village, which has only two grocery shops,” he says. “Anyway, we have got loads of free fame if nothing else,” he laughs, and rides away on his bike.