Yadgir in Karnataka has abysmal levels of literacy, housing and sanitation. But almost every adult has a cellphone. Can mobile networks connect the dots of the district’s developmental trail?
V Shoba | 02 Sep, 2015
In North-East Karnataka, the language has a gruff, gravelly texture, as though emanating from its rolling plateaus. Yet, it betrays a vulnerability that comes from a dangerously close connect with nature. Bharani male, Rohini male, Pushya male, Ardra male—named after stars, the various rains that stippled these fertile lands right on schedule are now out of commission. As you drive south of Gulbarga, land that should be clothed in a lush waist-high red gram crop this time of the year unfurls like a brown canvas of futility. Crossing over to Yadgir, a fledgling district carved out in 2010, cool green pools of paddy can deceive you into thinking that the rain gods and the Upper Krishna irrigation project have been kinder on this region. In reality, over half the arable land in the district remains rain-fed and hence drought-hit, engendering an increasingly unsustainable situation as farmers who grew oilseeds, green gram and millets switch over to paddy, cotton and sugarcane.
Yadgir is a classic paradox of modern India, where development can often be a plot without a denouement. The 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census data that was made public in July this year reveals a perplexing combination in Yadgir of abysmal literacy, high mobile phone usage and the lowest number of urban households in any district in Karnataka. A television is a luxury in these parts. So are all other accoutrements of modern life. Less than 5 per cent of people in rural Yadgir—over 80 per cent of the district’s population lives in villages—have a refrigerator. About 15 per cent own a vehicle. Toilets are about as rare as timely rain. But the mobile phone has entrenched itself deeply in the interstices of daily life in this land. It preternaturally joins human dots across space and creeps like smoke from a bidi through the porous fabric of migrant lives. An eye- popping 86.89 per cent of people in rural Yadgir own a mobile phone, second only to Bangalore where 91 per cent do.
“Are you sure? Why do we have so many mobile phones?” asks P Sunil Kumar, the Yadgir Zila Parishad CEO, surprised that Gulbarga, which has bigger towns and considerably higher literacy levels, has witnessed slightly lower mobile phone penetration, at 83.72 per cent. Rather than brood over the puzzle, Kumar prefers to talk about how mobile phones have made administration easier for him. His two smartphones trill every few minutes; obsequious assistants with files fly in and out the door; outside, people await their turn to air grievances about irregularities in NREGA work, participation in Gram Panchayats and poor infrastructure, among other things. Many of these complaints are reprisals, says Kumar. “There was only one way to find out which ones were real. I connected 117 officers working across the district through a WhatsApp group. When there is a complaint, the block development officer concerned is asked to argue his case, preferably with photographic evidence. For instance, if someone complains about lack of drinking water and the officer is able to furnish a geo- tagged picture that shows otherwise, I know that I can turn my attention to the real issues,” says Kumar, who took over as CEO six months ago and set about reassembling his officers into a team of real-time trackable agents. The district administration has since tasted success curbing absenteeism at Primary Healthcare Centres by connecting doctors through WhatsApp and asking them to share time-stamped pictures of their workplace every day. “Forty per cent of our panchayats do not have internet access. But there is a smartphone in every officer’s pocket,” Kumar says.
“Who does not have a mobile phone these days? I sell 50- 60 in a month and do top-ups worth about Rs 15,000 in a day,” says Siddharth Maddi, a 25-year-old who runs a mobile phone store in the faintly urban setting of Yadgir town. As he excuses himself to attend to a customer, a familiar ritual unfolds. Wordlessly, 70-year-old H Mallanna hands over his Micromax phone to Maddi and fishes in his kurta pocket for three Rs 10 notes. These days, the weathered farmer finds himself frequenting the mobile store for a top-up every other day. It is paddy transplanting season and Mallanna, who cultivates an eight- acre patch of land near Yadgir, needs 10 to 15 people working in the fields. Three years ago, when his son thrust a small, Rs 1,400 gadget into his hand and said it would help him procure labour, Mallanna only half-believed him. Today, the mobile phone has become his lifeline to a more predictable world where he knows the current market prices and where he can instruct workers to turn on the borewell pump from the sanctuary of his favourite tea shop. “Hurry, I have to call them now,” Mallanna tells Maddi, who knows better than to ask why he won’t top up more than Rs 30 at a time. “I cannot read and write. What if I press some button by mistake? All my balance will be drained. It has happened before,” the wiry old man says. He then produces a tiny ‘copy’ in which he has listed over a hundred mobile numbers—without any names against them—apparently in order of importance. He asks me to jot my number down at the very end.
Illiteracy is a crippling factor in Yadgir, admits district Deputy Commissioner Manoj Jain. “Teachers do not want to work here because of lack of infrastructure such as good living quarters. Private participation in education and health remains poor. Now that industries are coming up, education and skill development will be the key to inclusive growth,” he says. Through teacher training workshops, activity-based learning kits, intensive study programmes and other interventions in primary education, NGOs like the Azim Premji Foundation and Akshara Foundation are trying to address this deficit. They are marrying the playful pedagogy of Nali Kali, the state government’s landmark programme for classes one to three, with academic rigour.
At the Block Resource Centre in Yadgir town, tucked away under a neem tree in one corner of a vast empty ground, a miscellany of men and women appear to be grappling with toys—plastic beads, bright red cubes, squares with a hundred tiles—that spill out of cardboard boxes resembling picnic carriers. Only, these are math learning kits designed by Akshara Foundation, an NGO that is working with government school teachers across north Karnataka to use math as a lever to uplift underprivileged children. In Yadgir, where half of the 1.2 million-strong population is illiterate, it is difficult to change the trajectory of children who are forced to quit school to look after younger siblings or to lend a helping hand in the fields. According to a survey by Sarva Shikha Abhiyan researchers in 2013, over 6 per cent of all students enrolled in Yadgir schools dropped out in the previous academic year.
To children who are at high risk of being dragged away by the currents of poverty, a good teacher is like a port in the storm. “Every time a child drops out, for whatever reason, I feel partly responsible,” says Savita D, 32, who teaches Hindi and Math at the higher primary school in Basavantpur, about 15 km from here. This morning, Savita thought nothing of missing the festivities of Lakshmi puja in order to better understand the oft- maligned subject of arithmetic. She sits cross-legged on the dhurrie, her eyes fixed on the trainer who is furiously drawing grids on the blackboard and urging the teachers present to become beginners again. And she hopes for a few epiphanies that can alter the lives of the 47 children crammed into a small classroom back in Basavantpur. “What is 305 multiplied by 3?” asks the trainer in Kannada. “You know the answer because you mugged up multiplication tables. Now try arriving at it through the place-value grids and the abacus given to you. Return to basic truths.”
The two-day workshop is drawing to a close, but Savita will continue to have recourse to an interminable resource: a ragged smartphone that was white when she bought it five years ago with her first paycheque. “I am always on the lookout for new study material,” she says. Ahead of Independence Day, Savita downloaded Hindi speeches from history for her students to read out in class. She has trawled YouTube for videos of catchy songs and games based on math. “The internet is a powerful thing. Imagine being stranded in a remote village without any knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world,” she says, excited by the possibility of disrupting traditional knowledge hierarchies. “Perhaps, even as we talk, some teacher in Yadgir is learning a wonderful new thing that she can teach her children.”
In a place like Yadgir, a mobile phone is not just a plaything for millenials, though it is that too. After several interviews spanning a cross-section of society, a pointillist picture begins to emerge. It is a partner to farmer and shepherd, a bridge of knowledge where there was none, and a furtive window to pornography. In Shorapur taluk, where cropping patterns have changed drastically and villages are separated by vast, windswept swathes of paddy, the mobile phone is a crucial link to civilisation. (The population density in Yadgir is 223 per sq km, up from 183 in 2001, but lower than the all-India average of 382.) For logistical reasons, many families have moved out of their villages and now live in lone, small huts close to their land. “They have bought two-wheelers and mobile phones. They can no longer keep cattle because of the mosquito menace near the paddies,” says Sanganna Gowda Patil, a resident of Rajankollur, a village of about 5,000 in Shorapur with cultivated land spanning 3,000 acres. There are four private schools in the village and an English education is seen as a passage to the modern world. According to the village accountant, VA Parashuram, the birth rate has fallen considerably. “Ten years ago, there were about 40 births in a month. Now it is 20,” he says, in the overweening manner of someone in a hurry to leave the past behind.
Most households in Rajankollur have three or four mobile phones, but smartphones are rare even among the literate. Munching snacks at a tea stall on a Sunday afternoon, an ensemble of youth smirks at the idea of investing in touchscreen phones. Mobile phones, they say, are essential to earning a livelihood, especially in the service sector. They have no use for a fanciful piece of hardware. “I spend more than I can afford to on cellphone bills—up to Rs 1,000 a month. But I am a driver. I need to network with a lot of people to get work from across the state,” says P Ambaresh, 24. His friend NT Linganna, a tailor who studied at a technical training institute, says having a cellphone meant that he could go to Bangalore and work in a big departmental store. “I spend a few months here helping my family with our two-acre holding. The rest of the year, I usually go to Bangalore or Gulbarga in search of work,” he says.
Theirs is a world in motion. With one leg in the big city and the other firmly planted in the dusty chowks and the slushy paddy back home, they are dual citizens, and they refuse to pick a side. Of course, there are some who uproot themselves from the narrowly circumscribed village economy and go in search of urban pastures. In Madepalli, a small Telugu- speaking village of about 800 near Gurmatkal in north-east Yadgir, about 25 houses remain locked. Their doors are painted azure or yellow, carved horse heads framing them on either side like totems from another age. Half the households in the village have partially migrated to cities, says Padma Reddy, whose son and daughter were lucky enough to get local government jobs. “The nearest hospital is 15 km away. There is no rain or irrigation in these parts; the red gram fields are bare this year,” says her husband Basa Reddy. Some people have no choice but to flee this fate.
Mallappa, 75, remembers a cataclysmic drought 40 years ago when the government gave them foodgrain and labour. “It is no longer possible to depend on the government,” he says. With soaring aspirations, NREGA work has become an untenable proposition. Which is why his daughter and son-in-law found employment as hospital staff in Bangalore, leaving their two children behind with their grandparents. The boys, 10 and 15 years of age, are out playing, but their first cousin Sridevi, 14, says that on most evenings, they call their parents from a mobile phone with a faded number pad that is shared among members of the family.
Tinny Bollywood music blares from Kasim Sahib’s Intex phone in Khanapur, a village on the Yadgir-Shorapur state highway. Drenched in the amber light of the evening, the village seems to have fallen into a state of lethargy. There is no work but the sky holds them captive with the promise of rain. “Each time, the clouds disperse,” says Sahib, a farmer who has not managed to grow a thing on his two-acre parcel of land this year. “Music is the marham (balm) for parched earth,” he says, smiling at his own mawkishness. This village of about 3,500 people, most of them marginal farmers, has found itself out of work for a significant period of the year. In the absence of television, mobile phones have alleviated boredom but also added to the financial burden, with each family spending at least Rs 500 a month on multiple phones.
“We need to know our children are safe, and we don’t mind giving them a phone even if they are only 12 or 13,” says Paramanna T, who owns a kirana shop in the village. It is not a flimsy argument, but it comes loaded with a paradoxical attraction to and a cultural fear of technology. Paramanna has often caught young boys in the village watching the unwatchable on their tiny LCD screens. “Everything has a good side and a bad side,” he says. Others compare the mobile phone with a ‘bitter pill’ that comes with side-effects and say telecom networks are accessories to coordinated robberies and harassment of young girls.
Moral debate aside, the mobile phone, by homogenising end- users, frees them from the constraint of their socio-cultural context and expands their circle of connections. Itinerant shepherds, cow-herders and women who toil in the fields of Yadgir are now using cellphones to make several short calls a day to stay in touch and to gather information. About 20 km from Gurmatkal, I come across Beerappa, Siddappa and Manikappa, rugged men with pink shawls who are herding about 150 variegated cows, not letting them stray into neighbouring fields. They own most of the cattle, but they will take your cows out to graze for a daily fee of Rs 150. “Taking a bus from here to Gurmatkal costs Rs 30 one way. Now when we want to sell a calf, we can avoid the travel and simply make calls to dealers to get things done,” says Beerappa, swinging his steel lunch box behind him. A connected life, then, is a simpler and happier life.