On Nov 8, 2016, the largest denominations of currency in India, notes of 500 and 1,000 rupees, were demonetized. Overnight, in a country where over 95 percent of all transactions involve cash, people were left scrambling to deposit their useless notes and replace them with any legal tender remaining at banks. If the situation was bad in urban India, in rural India, it was devastating.
In Nandgaon, a village of only 2,000 residents tucked in the hills of Maharashtra’s Satara district, Jyoti Gadekar was rushed to a hospital for an emergency C-section. Her extended family had collected the 10,000 rupees, around 156 USD, required upfront for such a procedure and deposited it in the bank. Suddenly, it couldn’t be reached. The bank would take too long to transfer the amount and ATMs only allowed 2,000 rupees to be withdrawn per day to keep up with demand.
That’s when her family approached a woman known in the village for her resourcefulness: Manasi Kulkarni.
Nandgaon is not too different from the rest of rural India. Smartphone use has skyrocketed in the last few years, with early generation Android devices selling for as little as 2,000 rupees, around 30 USD. Internet use on smartphones is growing exponentially too, with unlimited browsing packages becoming cheaper in a highly competitive market. “Men here don’t let their wives use their phones. You’ll break it, they tell us, and what use do you have for it anyway?” Manasi says. Indeed, only 12 percent of rural India’s internet users are women.
Manasi, a 32-year-old mother of two, only started to use the internet in August last year. Manasi describes the fifteen years prior to that as being filled with fear. Manasi worked as a teacher for 2-4 year olds in the small city of Kolhapur before moving to Nandgaon after marriage. She wanted to find a way to help her community but felt afraid she would never find an outlet.
Manasi finally went online through Internet Saathi, a Google and Tata Trusts program. When the program was advertised, she hesitated to even apply, it was her teenaged kids who insisted that she must. Through this program, key women in villages across India are taught to use the internet and given access to smartphones of their own. These women assume the role of a Saathi—a companion—and teach other women in their villages to use the internet, too.
An excerpt from an article published on Smithsonian.com