Bridging the gap: Tech giants bring the internet to women in rural India

This Diwali will be a cracker of a festival for Nisha Chanderwal, a second-year BA student. “I bought a bright red kurta with gold-color zari dupatta from Snapdeal, my first online purchase,” the 19-year-old resident of Alwar’s Umren village told HT recently.

“No courier service reaches my village. So I gave my aunt’s home address in Alwar. They paid in cash…I paid her when I picked up the parcel,” she added, explaining the circuitous delivery and payment process that is common in rural India.

Nisha is elated for one more reason: She has finally got even with her 20-year-old brother, Ashok. “He has a smartphone but doesn’t even let me touch it, saying girls should not use the Internet. But now, thanks to Google’s Internet Saathi Programme (ISP), I don’t need his phone or his help,” said an elated Nisha.

Internet to women in rural India

In July 2015, technology giant Google launched ISP in partnership with Tata Trusts, one of the country’s oldest philanthropic organizations, to bring rural women online in India. Today, the initiative is life in 25,000 villages across 10 states with 1,900 this. The final mission is to reach 300,000 villages. Google is adding up to 500 additional ‘saathis’ per week. More than 100,000 women have been trained so far.

Google started this program because Internet usage by women in rural areas is low. “Only one in 10 Internet users in rural India is a woman,” Sapna Chadha, marketing head, Google India, told HT. “With ISP, we are creating an enabling environment that empowers them while also bridging the technology gender divide. We believe that easy access to information can transform lives. Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”.

Along with access to information, getting more and more women online has other benefits: “If women are a minority online, they become vulnerable to harassment and violence. Women can’t only be consumers of the Internet but must contribute their views, and make the space equitable,” said Rohini Lakshané of the Bangalore-based The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), which the Kusuma Trust funds.

Google and Tata Trusts are leveraging their core strengths for ISP. Simultaneously, Google provides the hardware (phones and tablets), training, and Internet connectivity. Tata Trusts does the identification of this and the monitoring.
“We tie up with government departments to roll out the project. For example, in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, we are working with the rural livelihood mission. The government helps us identify villages, set selection criteria and logistics such as venues,” explained Prabhat Pani, project director, Tata Trusts.

The program first chooses a few women and trains them to use a mobile phone, shoot photos and videos, and use the Internet’s basics. Then the women are sent out on bicycles with a smartphone and a tablet to teach others in their villages. The program has opened a new world for many. “Google is like a book. You can get whatever information you need. I am illiterate, but I use voice to search for information,” said Phoolwati, a 45-year-old resident of Nangli Jamawat, Umren.

Her friend Manju is now the village’s undisputed ‘selfie queen.’ “I love taking videos and photos,” she said, adding that she also searches for information on MGNREGA or education loans for her children. According to Google, the new online entrant searches for news, recipes, designs for clothes, images, and information on pilgrimages, farming and cattle-related information, and government schemes.

For Google, it makes immense sense to get more people online. “The company is targeting huge and untapped demographics who are entry-level users. In the future, they will have a huge first-mover advantage if there is scope to monetize Google’s services,” explained Lakshané.

By 2020, about 315 million rural Indians will be connected to the Internet, compared to around 120 million now. That’s about 36% of the country’s online population. By 2020, this share of rural India will jump to 48%, creating a huge opportunity for brands and marketers in places where establishing stores is a challenge,” says a study by the Boston Consulting Group, The Rising Connected Consumer in Rural India.


The first signs of this market potential were evident during the pre-Diwali online festival season sale. E-tailers posted growth in sales compared to last year thanks to growing smartphone penetration in small towns and villages, cheaper data tariffs, and free hotspots. While Google did not divulge the exact revenues that it is spending on ISP, Chadha said it had helped the company understand users’ needs in rural areas and what role the Internet can play. Along with ISP, Google is also working with the Indian government on two projects that aim to give more people access to the Internet.

First, Project Loon uses high-altitude balloons to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G speeds to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas.

Second, the company is partnering with RailTel to provide free wi-fi access in stations. “The ISP has no immediate profits for Google. The average revenue Indian per user is less than, say, a user in the US. But getting more people online helps Google because its search engine is most used,” Praneesh Prakash, policy director, CIS, told HT. “In the long run, the company will earn when people access its services and also from advertising revenue.”

Nevertheless, the ISP is addressing a major problem. “Many are afraid to go online because they don’t know how they can benefit. While the Saathi program is not a philanthropic effort, it’s good that Google is addressing this issue through its training programs,” Prakash said.

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