Technology to build knowledge and capacities beyond COVID

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the world to a standstill. Government, civil society and volunteers are rallying to ensure that social and economic inequalities do not dictate how this crisis draws lines between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Nonetheless, the crisis seems to have deepened the existing divide. Where we stand today, finding a way to address this divide is crucial if we want to see a better world on the other side of this pandemic. While ensuring that all vulnerable groups receive at least the basic essentials to ride this out, it is also time to start thinking about what we can do now to make the communities much more resilient and prepared to fight any other crisis in future.

With thousands of people walking back home, there is going to be a need to both employ them and ensure that natural resources such as water are both augmented and used optimally. To do both, building knowledge and capacities at scale becomes critical. How do we do this when social distancing is the norm and the experts and learners are not able to come together in usual training settings? Can technology provide us a unique opportunity here?

Digital India - a reality now?

As of 2019, the number of active internet users in rural India was estimated at 290 million. Further, the Central Government’s BharatNet program has created infrastructure to provide broadband connectivity to 1,38,000 GPs (55% coverage) and aims to cover all 2,50,000 GPs by 2020. Indians log 50 million minutes of video calling a day only on Whatsapp. During the COVID crisis and the national lockdown that followed, mobile phone and internet calls have been the only way for people to know that their friends and families are keeping safe. With more than 84 percent of the country covered with 4G LTE connection (ranking 11th in the world), India is going digital at a very fast pace.

The first use of this infrastructure has been by agencies who are trying to reach and provide relief to the remotest of villages to cope with the pandemic. They have been able to conduct training sessions, collect data through surveys, share digital content, and receive information on lack of resources to allocate relief accordingly. For example, UNICEF in collaboration with the Government of Maharashtra and ECHO India virtually trained 31,900 Swachha grahis, 21000 PRI functionaries and 1.5 lacs MPW, ASHA, ANM and AWW. This is one in 6 online trainings and awareness building activities that have been initiated - across urban and rural India.

We are seeing a transformation in digital learning and what was unimaginable only five years ago, has become a reality today. But beyond COVID-19 relief, can this momentum and trust in digital be sustained for longer term impacts and building resilience of vulnerable groups?

Virtual learning beyond COVID

Training field trainers online using video conferencing tools as a part of a government program on landscape management in Meghalaya (Image: Uzra Sultana) We are finding the answer to this question as well during the lockdown. A government program on landscape management in Meghalaya adopted the idea of training virtually almost a year ago so as to evolve the capacity building plan of the program to match the evolution in technology. So with the preparations of the last few months, Meghalaya has been able to begin the digital training of master trainers from different districts and blocks so that they can further train village-level volunteers and build their capacities to plan and manage local natural resources effectively. Even in Maharashtra, expert organizations on water are training CRPs on components of Jal Jeevan Mission, so that they are prepared to start on the program components as soon as it takes off in the districts.

Foundation of Ecological Security (FES), an NGO that works on "commons” management has also been able to scale up its efforts to four states by training field trainers online using video conferencing tools on topics like utilizing MGNREGS to plan common-pool resources in villages, monitoring water levels etc. These field trainers work with local institutions and strengthen governance systems, which assumes even more importance now than ever before.

We spoke to several field trainers who are receiving knowledge through these online sessions. All of them shared that they are happy for the uninterrupted learning even during the lockdown and as NREGA activities are picking up, they are able to use their new knowledge to help plan better. They have also been able to share video and other digital content with GP functionaries, who are finding it helpful to execute their responsibilities under the program. “The sessions are focussed on relevant topics, well planned, start and finish on time, and give us opportunities to ask questions and talk to the trainers. I do miss the face-to-face interaction we had with trainers in classroom sessions earlier but I find no difference in our learning”, says Meetha Lal from Pali district of Rajasthan.

The women field trainers seem more glad for the virtual training technology as they are now able to attend all sessions while also carrying out their responsibilities at home. Sunita Bunker and Tejkanwar, FES field trainers from Chittorgarh say, “We had to carry our small children with us to towns when we went for day-long sessions and the men at home did not take it kindly when we were not available all day long to serve them food and take care of other needs. It used to be mentally stressful for us. Now, we plan our day in advance when we get notified of the training schedule, finish household chores, take care of the children and then, peacefully sit to learn. It is very easy to follow what trainers teach us. We also feel very comfortable to ask questions and get our doubts clarified in a virtual session.”

The two big programs on water this year - Atal Bhujal Yojana and Jal Jeevan Mission - strongly emphasize women participation. It, in fact, is one of the key indicators of program success. Just like Sunita and Tejkanwar, there are thousands of women who want to get trained and participate in programs. The experience of FES shows that virtual training is opening a new range of possibilities for women CRPs and it could break barriers and generate meaningful participation in these large national programs if they adopt digital training tools.

Jal Shakti Abhiyan is another major campaign on water being executed through MGNREGA. Will it be more effective if planners at GPs are trained on hydrogeological understanding of watersheds so that the efforts result in much better outcomes?

Thinking local and acting locally

As the media keeps sharing pictures of workers fleeing cities, we have built an image of what a migrant worker looks like. But our limited exposure is blocking our thinking from acknowledging the diversity in skills, interests, aptitude, and aspirations that lies within the members of this group. The Central Government has already announced that skilled labourers in construction and real-estate jobs could be employed in its flagship missions like Jal Jeevan, which will need a lot of manpower to create infrastructure for drinking water. That is definitely one good avenue to provide local jobs to skilled labourers.

But the potential of a digital infrastructure for training people returning home and employing them locally goes well beyond water - beyond construction workers, who form the majority of those who are returning. There are many other people who have worked in cities to support travel, tourism, hotels, and restaurants. Would some of them be interested in becoming entrepreneurs in their own villages and enabled to promote rural tourism? Or would some who have worked on supply chains for urban customers want to start adding value to their own farm produce and make some profit from the occupation? Can some with basic computer literacy training build their career as banking correspondents creating value for their communities through financial inclusion - a systemic issue that has clearly been highlighted during this pandemic? And will this transformation take a lot of effort in our world where knowledge can be availed at fingertips?

The time has come to utilize the widespread internet and smartphone availability in the country to build resilience of communities by training them to strive for better livelihood opportunities where they want to. After all, in an ideal world, migration is a choice for fulfilling aspirations, not the only option for survival. Lessons from the water sector’s work using technology for training will pave the way for learning and replicating by other sectors making us truly vocal for the local!