This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on August 24, 2016.
On an area spread across 500 sq. m at a stone’s throw from Auroville in Puducherry lives a nomadic tribe. This place does not have a name or address, but its Google geographical location (http://bit.ly/2aPR281) indicates it to be in Thiruchitramblam.
Let’s call this habitation AuroNomad for the sake of simplicity. It may not be fair to call this cluster of hutments a colony; there are only 21 huts in the area. Almost all of them are made of wood, bamboo or thatch and are covered with a thick layer of plastic. Torn clothes and sheets hang over a small opening in the mud or thatch structure. The kitchens have open earthen stoves, exposed to dust, and the utensils hang on sticks inserted into the ground or are stored on machan-like structures. As expected, bathing, cleaning and dining happen in the open. Next to the hut and kitchen are the manufacturing or processing units.
For example, one family has a unit full of drinking water bottles. Here, the family fills used bottles with phenyl and sell it in the market. Their phenyl mixing jar, always left uncovered, is located close to the kitchen and requires manual mixing and stirring. Another family reuses discarded water bottles to sell starch. A third family makes hand-woven pouches out of discarded clothes. These pouches are then sold to tourists in Puducherry. Some families deal with clothes in a different way. They dress up in fancy costumes, even decorate their cows, throw a musical instrument around its neck and then go out to sing and beg in the town. They are professional beggars, and that’s all they have done for years.
None of the 21 households have access to water, electricity, toilet or sanitation facilities. Every day, residents travel to nearby areas to fetch water in jars of varying sizes. Since there is no electricity, the families cannot work after sunset, so they try to finish as much work as possible during the day.
The total population of AuroNomad is 83, which includes 20 school-going children and five dropouts. Almost every member of the household (usually four per family) is involved in the family business; together, they earn an average monthly income of not more than Rs.2,000-3,000. This is just enough to meet the basic needs of the family such as foodgrains and fuel.
When I asked Selvam, 20, why he doesn’t wear gloves while mixing and bottling phenyl, he said, “If I buy gloves, my wife, child and I will have to give up a couple of meals.” Selvam is a young father.
In government lists and citizen databases, these people perhaps do not even exist. Many of them have lived in the same locality for more than 10 years, but don’t have an electoral identity card.
At Digital Empowerment Foundation, we have visited many villages across the country, but have never stepped into the lives of nomadic groups or beggars in an effort to improve their livelihood through digital tools and access to the Internet.
Thanks to Sivakumar Paramasivam, our digital trainer and coordinator at the Puducherry digital resource centre, we got a chance to interact with the community of AuroNomad sometime ago. They expressed a desire to be trained in digital tools and we decided that our local staff will carry their laptops to AuroNomad and train the community members every weekend.
It is truly overwhelming to see how AuroNomad children run towards Sivakumar as soon as he gets off his bike to help him carry the laptop bags. They spread plastic sheets on the ground and place plastic jars as makeshift tables on which they set up the laptops. Every laptop is shared by a group of four to five children who place the mouse on their thighs to navigate through applications.
The entire group dynamism is self-created. Some adults have joined the classes too—initially, they used to watch from a distance.
In the middle of all the excitement, 11-year-old Velammal is most in demand. Every group wants her to sit with them. She is apparently the fastest learner among them. In the very first session, she had figured out how to hold the mouse and what to press on the keyboard to draw symmetrical figures on Microsoft Paint. As I advanced a few steps towards her, she immediately said, without any prompting: “My name is Velammal. I am 11 years old and I study in Class VI.” The spark in her eyes told me, “I am what I am doing and I know what to say and in what language.” Her confidence took my breath away.
In those two hours every weekend, AuroNomad comes together. Not all of them learn computers, but they all contribute, some by watching, some by laying plastic carpets and providing jars as laptop tables, some by holding back those toddlers who are too small and crying for attention, and some by simply feeling proud of their children who are learning to work on a new tool.
For now, there is nothing concrete that the AuroNomad community has gotten out of basic computer literacy. However, this community, which hardly has any means and source of basic infrastructure available to them, firmly believes that learning computers and getting online is the future they must be a part of.