Rudimentary access on mobile phones and slow connections notwithstanding, for users in low-income settlements the internet is fast becoming the repository of all information and the perfect tool in the quest for knowledge. It is also being used as a trusty online bank where valuable data can be stored

There are hardly any moments in Sharan S’s working day when he is not consulting the internet: if he’s not busy checking various government websites for details on specific schemes, he could be on the municipal corporation’s site looking up the latest announcements, or the Election Commission’s site checking out revised electoral rolls.

Sharan’s job as an administration executive at the corporator’s office located at Mahatma Phule Nagar in Pune’s Bhosari area requires him to be hands-on with information about a myriad things all the time. And what better repository to keep abreast of all the information than the internet!

“Since this is the corporator’s office, all kinds of people—from students to servants—turn up here seeking information. I tell them whatever they wish to know; for instance, details about a government scheme for a particular caste, or the fineprint of a central government legislation. I look up all this information on the internet, immediately,” says 32-year-old Sharan, seated in front of the computer in the corporator’s office.

“Often, people here come asking about recruitment drives being conducted by the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC). I follow the PCMC website regularly to keep abreast with circulars and recruitment announcements and results,” he says, turning to a young man who has come to the office to collect his Aadhaar card. Sharad checks the lot of Aadhaar cards on the table and hands him his card. He says since houses in the basti are difficult to locate, the cards are delivered at the corporator’s office.

The rush of people coming to the office is less since it is a weekday afternoon. This allows Sharanto  retrace the moments when he realised the ‘true power’ of the internet-as-repository.

“Once, when I was pursuing my graduation in Solapur, I needed to collect some information on Shivaji. I was a regular at the local cyber café then, but would mostly watch blue films (colloquial term for pornography). This time, I decided I would look for information on Shivaji and was amazed at the range of things I got in just one page. I would have had to consult many books to collate all that information, and here it was, all in one page!”

Anil J from Ambedkar Nagar in the city’s KondhwaBudruk area echoes the same sentiment. “Knowledge is just a click or a touch away now, thanks to the internet. Earlier, people used to go to the library and consult books. Now, the internet has all the information, no matter what the topic of interest,” says the foot soldier of Raj Thackeray’s political party Maharashtra NavnirmanSena.

Men also seem to be encouraging their daughters to take the online route while looking for information (sons are conversant with the internet at a very early age). Rutu J, a class 6 student residing in a settlement near Sakal Nagar in Aundh says her father lets her consult the internet on his phone when she does not find information in textbooks. “He said the internet has information about anybody and anything, and I often use the internet to clarify doubts,” she notes. Her friend and neighbour Swati J—a student of class 9—also says her father, an electrician, has told her to use his mobile phone to look for information on anything related to her studies.

What makes the internet the perfect tool in the quest for knowledge for these respondents is the ease of access. Sharan puts this succinctly when he says, recalling his student days, “The internet is better than schools and classrooms when it comes to learning something. It provides a relaxed atmosphere you can’t find elsewhere.”

Gaps and bugs

The internet is not merely a handy tool for students, it is also the teacher’s knowledge bank, as Sharan’s experience suggests.

Before joining the corporator’s office in 2009, Sharad used to work as a teacher at a school in Pune. This was after he completed his graduation in Hindi and his BEd degree. “At that time, I would go to the cyber café in Vallabhnagar (in the neighbourhood) every evening to look for answers to questions that students had asked during the day. I was also preparing for the Maharashtra Public Services exam then, and the internet was a big help,” he says.

Language is a big barrier. Content on most sites and pages is available only in English, which is an issue for most people in low-income settlements, except for the young kids who attend English-medium schools now. Sharad recalls how he had to struggle through the initial years of using the internet. “I had studied English in school, but that was just for marks. When I started using the internet daily to look for answers to student’s questions, I would often take the help of another teacher in the school who was conversant with English,” he says.

Over the years, although he has become familiar with the language, he prefers to use Google Translate to convert web pages into Marathi wherever the option exists.

The other problem associated with information on the internet—credibility of content, or lack of it — is not something respondents seem bothered about. This has damning consequences, especially for issues on which opinion is highly polarised. For instance, when one looks for information on ‘Shivaji’, one is unlikely to come across information on his supposed dalit roots; right-wing groups in the state take great pride in him as a ‘Maratha warrior’, and most of the web pages that come up after a search on ‘Shivaji’ have to do with his valour as a Maratha king. This could result in skewed, inaccurate information becoming part of one’s general knowledge—a problematic prospect especially in the low-income settlements, where young students are first-generation users of the internet and access it without any guidance on how to check for credibility.

For this same group though, the internet helps overcome crucial knowledge gaps, especially on issues that kids are too embarrassed to raise with their parents or relatives. Sanju, a resident of Phule Nagar in Bhosari, for instance, checked out what female condoms were and how they worked online, as he did not have anyone whom he could ask. Appa, a resident of the same settlement, found the details of pregnancy, complete with diagrams, on the internet when he was a college student.

This access to ‘anything’ seems to cause immense anxiety to some who see the internet as a bad influence on children. Appa is one such person. “Children these days are getting exposed to all kinds of things on the internet and it is affecting their mental balance,” says the 25-year old. “They should know what they ought to at their age. For this, the internet must have a mechanism where only those above a particular age are allowed on a particular site. Access must be graded according to need.”

He rues the fact that people these days often look for ‘masala’ rather than knowledge on the internet. “Nobody searches about Abdul Kalam these days; about how from his humble roots he rose to become India’s President. No one searches for Sachin and his record-breaking spell of sixes either. People are happy to look for images of heroines, or information on (underworld don) Dawood Ibrahim,” he says.

Custom content

Some are making maximum use of the internet’s openness—after having spent some years in cyberspace and becoming familiar with its ways and means, they now increasingly use the internet as a storehouse for important documents.

AakashJagtap, who resides in the settlement near Sakal Nagar in Aundh, says he ensures all his important documents are scanned and uploaded in his mailbox. “This ensures that I have a proper record of all documents. It also allows me to send online whatever document is required at any point in time,” says the class 12 student, who works part-time at the water supply department.

Sanju too uses his mailbox to store important documents like the caste certificate. “Uploading the document ensures that it is safe, and I have proof even if I lose the physical copy,” says the Autocad designer. He also uploads photographs on the internet, but only as private albums on Facebook. “I am familiar with DTP software and know that it is very easy to morph pictures. That is the reason I do not make my albums public,” he says.

Like many others, Sanju, 27, who comes from a village near Solapur,shies away from financial transactions online as he is scared his bank account may be hacked. Sharad says he indulges in e-commerce only when it is an ‘emergency’, and then too, he uses his friend’s card to make payments. “Many websites keep asking for the bank account number and details of the bank passbook, so I am suspicious. When I have to perform an e-commerce transaction, I check if the company I am making the payment to is genuine before entering into the transaction. Online transactions are just not safe,” he says.

Despite such concerns, the internet is largely a trustworthy companion. Anil J, who shares this concern about online payments, routinely uses online maps to identify the exact location of plots of land. “When someone tells me a plot is available for sale, I ask for the survey number and other details, and check the exact location on the online map. I also check out the development plan of the area, which gives me an idea about the future prospects of the piece of land. Imagine doing all this without actually visiting the plot!” says Anil, who dabbles in real estate deals once in a while.

The internet, for all these respondents, is a repository alright, but it must be navigated keeping in mind the various (assumed) pitfalls and gaps. The notion of what is safe and what isn’t in the online world is in a state of flux, and everyone seems to be customising his or her activities on the internet keeping this in mind. December 2014