Making change, making change-makers

Lesson timeAn e-sevak explains a video that elucidates how to make use of online facilities, to villagers in Palghar. E-sevaks choose evenings for their initiative to register maximum attendance from villagers, who are daily wage workers.Prashant Nakwe

Lesson timeAn e-sevak explains a video that elucidates how to make use of online facilities, to villagers in Palghar. E-sevaks choose evenings for their initiative to register maximum attendance from villagers, who are daily wage workers.Prashant Nakwe  

A group of Adivasis, mostly women, some with babies in their arms, sit in a small, dark room, looking at a big white screen mounted on a wall. The screen is lit by a projector. A young man, a teenager really, clicks a key on a laptop and a video begins playing. The letters on screen are in English, which most of the people in the room cannot read.

The young man — his name is Ketan — relays the contents of the video to the audience in Marathi. The video is about how to pay electricity bills online. “Click on ,” Mr. Ketan says.

“You can do this if you use the internet,” he says, a little later. And then, still later, “A debit card is the same as an ATM card.” The video plays twice, but the audience still looks bemused.

Another young man, Jayesh More, takes over, and he projects more confidence, more authority, but he’s roughly the same age as Ketan. “People here are afraid,” he tells the audience.

“Take the first step forward. Ask whatever you want, we are here to help you.” Silence.

He tries humour: “Why travel to the taluka to pay your bill, spend money on travel and food? Each of you consumes at least two vada pavs on every trip, right?” This elicits a giggle; a few women begin asking questions.

As the session ends, there is noticeably more lightness and camaraderie. Samiksha Gharat, whose family grows paddy in the village, says it will take her a while to figure out how to pay bills online. “My eight-year-old son knows how to check Google,” she adds.

Ramesh Ghangde, a 60-year-old farmer who was glued to the presentation, is more confident.

“I’ve used their help to get myself an Aadhaar card. I will definitely take their help again,” he says.

But perhaps the most interesting transformation in the room is that of the ‘senior’ presenter, though it wasn’t as quick. Mr. Jayesh is just 19, a Class XII Arts student at the Sonopant Dandekar College in Palghar.

He looked reticent, lacked confidence and feared the spotlight. But that is not how he is known in his village, Khadkoli. “They used to call me a ‘ mastikhor ’ [prankster]. Now, they look at me with respect. I never imagined I’d come this far,” he says.

Mr. Jayesh and his friends are ‘e-sevaks’, who are leading an information revolution in 19 villages of Palghar, part of a two-year-old initiative, led by the NGO PUKAR. Designed to increase financial inclusion, the campaign has now expanded to create awareness about the importance of e-governance.

Along the way, the NGO has also empowered its foot soldiers, the e-sevaks, to participate in decision-making at the local level.

Unleashing potential

For the e-sevaks, it’s been as much a discovery of their hidden strengths as of external influence.

“I was never too interested in studies, but always had a social conscience,” says Uttarsha Patil, 22, who is in her final year of Software Engineering at a Vasai institute. “Those of us who were doing the door-to-door campaigns have gained enough confidence to speak at gram sabhas, or directly to the sarpanch.”

Shweta Gaikwad, 19, who is in her first year of an accounting course at a Virar college, has found her voice in a conservative society.

“Out here, it’s an unspoken rule: women have to be home by 7 p.m. At times, our meetings end at 9 p.m.; I’m the only girl in the neighbourhood to stay out so late. When my neighbours ask me where I’ve been, I just shrug it off. It’s their job to ask.”

Nakul Patil, 29, travels over 110 km each way to the Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai, where he works as a technician. But more than his day job, it is his work as an e-sevak that has given him satisfaction. “People would ask us, ‘Why are you doing all this?’ Those were days when even for a photocopy, they had to travel to another village. Now, they approach us on their own. The feedback they give us is, ‘Every other NGO simply puts up posters. You are the only ones who do door-to-door awareness.’”

Training for the e-sevaks’ — PUKAR now has 36 of them — involved familiarising them with the use of computers, understanding nearly 50 government schemes, teaching them about research ethics, instruments and communication, and activity-based workshops on issues like caste, gender and the environment. PUKAR trained them for three months at the Sonopant Dandekar College, which made its computer laboratory available to them.

“The e-sevak model is also about personality development,” says Shrutika Shitole, programme facilitator at PUKAR. “They gain internet knowledge, learn how to see problems and handle political issues. As e-sevaks, they have to thoroughly understand government modules.”

Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmukh, director of PUKAR, says the programme has created a leadership base there. An important part of creating leaders, she says, involves practising soft skills.

“I have always emphasised to them that just because they have the power, it does not mean they can be disrespectful. These are [dealing with people who are] underprivileged, and don’t have information.”

To contest polls

Perhaps the most heartening development for PUKAR is that the e-sevaks will stand for the next Gram Panchayat elections, due in December this year in three villages, and in 2021 in some others.

“We’re hoping at least 10 of the 36 will be elected. They are best placed to lead, as they understand the issues villagers face, and people know what they can do,” says Ms. Shitole.

All these years, the sarpanch would be elected by default in a reserved seat, and his deputy would wield the power but this time, she says, those equations will be shaken. Dr. Patil-Deshmukh agrees that this is a logical step: “That’s the only way they [the e-sevaks] will change governance; in fact, it’s a very powerful way to bring about change.”

I used their help to get an Aadhaar card. I will definitely take their help again

Ramesh Ghangde


We’re hoping at least 10 of the 36 e-sevaks will be elected. They are best placed to lead

Anita Patil-Deshmukh

Director of NGO PUKAR

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