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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 May, 2003, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
India's digital divide
Software programmers at work at Planet Asia, an Indian software company, in Bangalore, India
Critics say India's IT revolution is only skin deep
One of the nations most closely associated with the onward march of information technology is India, but the BBC's Jill McGivering reports that the IT revolution is only changing some lives in the world's largest democracy.

India's dazzling performance in IT has been hailed as a great hope for the country's future development.

The industry is one of India's fastest-growing sectors, its software analysts have become a prestigious export in themselves and India is a centre for overseas data processing from accounts to customer calls.

However, just a small proportion of educated people have access to IT - but the vast majority of Indians, about 70% of the population, still live in villages and the challenge is to make sure they don't get left behind.

Great adventure

The whole class of a village school has travelled to this city stadium by bus for a great adventure - the chance to see for the first time something most of us already take for granted - a computer.

The boys were jumping up and down and shrieking with excitement, despite the blazing sunshine. Their clothing was worn, many were barefoot.

Despite the urban wealth of hi-tech cities like Bangalore, three quarters of the population still live in villages and deeply entrenched poverty makes the daily struggle to survive a more immediate priority than computer literacy
"Did they know what a computer was, what it did?" I asked.

They tried to remember what they'd heard. "It's like a TV," said one.

A door to the stadium opened and the children poured inside, jostling and shouting down the stone passageways. The scene indoors was spectacular.

The arena had been converted to a training ground with hundreds of computers set out in rows. When their turn came, the boys scrambled to take their places at the keyboards, two to a screen.

First touch

Student volunteers walked up and down helping out as the children struggled with their first touch of a mouse, clicking their way around the screen. We watched the boys whisper and giggle as they explored.

Afterwards, it was clear they'd been impressed. They were great, the boys told me. They'd checked the cricket scores, looked at a local map and read about Mahatma Gandhi.

They couldn't wait to use one again. But as they filed off to catch the bus back to the village, there was no sense of when that next time might be.

India's success in IT is one of its great hopes for the future. The country is enormously proud of its booming hi-tech industries and its new generation of IT experts.

In Bangalore, a city transformed by computer cash, we visited the campus of one of the most successful and high profile software companies.

Gleaming buildings, designer cafes

It felt like stepping out of India into Silicon Valley - gleaming multi-storey buildings, designer cafes serving pizza and French fries, a fitness centre claiming to be the biggest in Asia, all set in landscaped gardens with gently playing fountains.

Silicon Valley, Bangalore
Very few Indians have access to Bangalore's gleaming 'Silicone Valley'
We were introduced to a smartly suited employee hurrying by. He was born into a small Indian village, he told us - but came across computers at secondary school. Now he travels the world. It's the rags to riches story every Indian wants to hear.

But the brave new world of opportunity hasn't embraced everyone. We stopped to speak to the young women using twig brooms to sweep the paths.

They were shy and awkward, recruited from villages close to the gleaming campus and speaking only a local dialect. One, still a teenager, said no, she'd never touched a computer.

She wasn't really sure what they did, she said. But she had seen them, when she peeped from the garden paths into the rooms on the other side of the huge glass windows.

Storm warnings on the internet

Bridging this gap between villagers outside and computers inside is one of India's greatest challenges.

The bussing of barefoot schoolboys is just one idea. Non-governmental groups are also launching village-based projects designed to show off the everyday usefulness of computers.

The real challenge - of bridging the digital divide - still lies ahead
We visited one project in a fishing village in Pondicherry. A computer link up had been set up close to the village temple.

Every morning, a trained volunteer went along to access the latest weather report, tailored to match the village's own stretch of coast.

The volunteer then broadcast the report to the village over a loudspeaker system. Everyone seemed delighted.

In the old days, they said, the only weather reports came by crackly radio and storms had usually been and gone by the time they heard about them.

Then, about six fishermen were lost at sea every year, they said, when storms blew up without warning. Since the computer arrived, no one had drowned.

'Artificial success'

Many of these projects are hand-picked, set up by charities or foundations funded by well-meaning businessmen.

The results can be impressive - but critics call it a highly artificial success.

These are short term experiments, they say. They describe it as a drop in the ocean in a country where, despite the urban wealth of hi-tech cities like Bangalore, three quarters of the population still live in villages and deeply entrenched poverty makes the daily struggle to survive a more immediate priority than computer literacy.

As soon as these high-profile projects end, they point out, the computers disappear and villagers lose the benefits.

Public systems in India can be notoriously slow and unwieldy. Some attribute the roaring success of computer entrepreneurs to the very fact they're not dependent on broader infrastructure.

Unlike manufacturers, they can do business internationally without being slowed down by the extra costs of poor roads, slow customs procedures or red tape.

But when it comes to bringing computers to the masses, it's hard to make progress without government systems. There's limited use for example in giving free computers to village schools if there's no electricity. Internet programmes aren't much use without phone connections.

Everyone here is caught up in the drama of the IT revolution. But the real challenge - of bridging the digital divide - still lies ahead.

So that all the barefoot schoolchildren of today have the chance to access computers - and aren't left peering in through the windows as they sweep the paths.

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15 Jul 02  |  Science/Nature
India's language barrier to computing
24 Dec 01  |  Science/Nature
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24 Sep 01  |  Science/Nature
Learning in India's Silicon Valley
23 Apr 02  |  South Asia

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