An internet saathi, or companion (left), with her ‘students’ in a Gujarat village

Innovation has the power to harness new technologies to create novel and better solutions for developmental challenges. That’s the big reason why it is an important pillar in the design and implementation strategy adopted by Tata Trusts for its social uplift projects.

Take the example of capacity-building in the Indian government’s Swachh Bharat Mission. Tata Trusts used virtual classroom technology to connect to people in remote rural areas, using multiple ‘classrooms’ linked to a single studio. The Trusts achieved great scale in a short time, disseminating information to large numbers of people on toilet construction, behaviour change, the benefits of hygiene and more.

One of the programmes having at its core the use of technology is the ‘Internet Saathi Initiative’, developed in partnership with Google India. Internet saathis (or companions) are rural women trained on smartphones and tablets to act as digital guides for rural communities. The first phase of the initiative covered 4,579 villages in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Maharashtra and Tripura, with over 1.4 million people being trained. In phase two, now underway, about 15 million people in 100,000 villages are expected to benefit.

Google India provides the hand-held device and conducts the training; Tata Trusts brings in its vast community and on-ground connections to select the saathis and manage the programme. “The first phase was focused on training rural women on the use of smartphones and the internet,” says Prabhat Pani, head, partnerships and technology at Tata Trusts. Rural women use the net just as people everywhere: to know about and better understand the world around them. The target for coverage now is 100,000 trainers and 300,000 villages by March 2019.

Data to the fore

Data-driven governance is another technology driven project. Here, Tata Trusts works to provide the government with village-level data on people, education, sanitation, health, utilities, etc. The intent is to enable micro-planning that is aligned to the specific needs of the community.

Another large and innovative initiative is Maharashtra’s Village Transformation Project, which combines the strengths of the state government, corporate donors and philanthropic foundations in India. “The idea is to transform 1,000 most-needy villages on all social dimensions,” says Mr Pani. About 4 billion has been pledged already and Tata Trusts is a key participant here.

Social innovation can be a powerful medium of change, and the Trusts are enabling this through the Foundation for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship. Says Manoj Kumar, head, entrepreneurship and innovations at Tata Trusts: “We are creating a social innovation ecosystem. We want to pick social entrepreneurs with ideas and assist them in business management, finance, design, marketing and strategy.”

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A virtuous cycle

A group of women from Kodinar village in Junagadh district of Gujarat learn what the internet is all about. These women are part of the ‘Internet Saathi Initiative’, a collaboration between Tata Trusts and Google India to seed awareness of the internet and its many uses among rural communities, particularly women. The saathis (or companions) in the programme, all of them women, are ‘trained to train’ and they have specially designed bicycles to spread what they have learned. The first phase of the initiative has covered 4,579 villages in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Maharashtra and Tripura, with some 1,000 cycles being deployed and more than 1.4 million people being trained. In the ongoing phase two, about 15 million people in 100,000 villages are expected to benefit from this trailblazing project.

Data for delivery

This young girl from a village in Chandrapur district in the rural heartland of Maharashtra is a beneficiary of the ‘Data-driven Governance’ programme that seeks to fight the scourge of malnutrition through digitisation, analysis and the integration of different social uplift schemes. Launched in April 2015 as a partnership model involving Tata Trusts and the Maharashtra government, the project functions as a support system to the state administration by drawing on data mining to design decision-making tools and optimise governance structures. The Tata Trusts’ intent here is to play a pivotal role in enhancing the information capabilities of local administrations by creating a ‘culture of data’ and accountable governance. Among the components of the project are targeted interventions, the integration of development initiatives and last-mile linkages.