ASIA

Digital daan is becoming the new way to give

In March Dr Ela Dedhia, a social worker and professor of Textiles & Fashion Technology in Mumbai, was preparing for exams but then the lockdown hit, and it became clear that some of her students didn’t have a laptop or a phone good enough for online classes. “If this was the situation with my own students, I wondered how many others were struggling with this,” says Dedhia. She came up with the idea of device donations – people could donate an old phone, tablet or laptop and she could coordinate with a student who needed it. “I started sending messages on my groups, and initially there was just silence. But I kept reposting and finally started getting responses from people,” she adds. Since then, Dedhia has facilitated the donations of over 200 devices to students in Mumbai. They, in turn, recommended friends and neighbours who also had no way to access online education.
Much has been said about the revolutionising power of online education, but the digital divide has never been starker, says Sandeep Rai, chief of city operations at Teach for India. But now both non-profits like Rai’s and individuals like Dedhia are stepping up to bridge it with digital donations. “Of the 32,000 kids in low-income communities we serve, a survey showed that 60-65% of our students do have access, but that still leaves 8-10,000 students without a device. Those who do have one are often sharing it with a parent who works,” says Rai. They have been seeking devices as well as funds so they can buy tablets for their students. “We’ve been able to get 1,000 devices so far and that’s allowed us to get instruction for class 9 and 10 going. Now we’re trying to make that happen for 5th to 8th graders.”
One of the more ambitious drives is Digital Empowerment Foundation’s new initiative Digital Daan. Osama Manzar, founder and director of DEF, says they set out to solve the problem of a lack of “meaningful digital connectivity” in India. “Having a smartphone doesn’t mean I can go for an online class or afford a broadband connection. Plus, in a patriarchal country, the drop-out rate and exclusion of girls is going to be much higher. We need to look at digital infrastructure for the digitally excluded,” says Manzar.
So, they have a three-year plan of collecting, refurbishing and donating 1 million devices. They have set up a website, Digital Daan, and are not only collecting functional laptops and phones, but also printers and cameras. They’re also planning on using their infrastructure of digital resource centres in 130 districts and 23 states as points of procurement and distribution. “Even though we set the website up just three days ago, many people have donated devices like laptops and phones and we’ve already got confirmation of 20,000 desktops from a corporate,” says Manzar.
They’re also collecting funds, since transporting the device and refurbishing it isn’t cheap.
Advertising professional Abhishank Babbar was disturbed by the news of a father dying by suicide because he couldn’t buy a smartphone for his child. He says, “Many of us sit and debate whether we should buy a Rs 40,000 phone or a 50k one. What about everyone else?” He posted about this on social media, and someone pointed him in the direction of Digital Daan. He is now about to donate a phone and plans to get another one repaired and then donate it.
Minal Salva, who donated a laptop to Dedhia, says, “We got the laptop a few years ago, but haven’t used it much. We’re a little old also and never quite got the hang of it. It makes me feel good to give it away to someone in need.” Similarly, Hemant Adarkar, an IT professional, donated money to Digital Daan. “I wanted them to be able to choose a phone that would work best. I hope it’s a surprise for someone’s birthday,” he says.
Another organisation seeking device donations is Bengaluru-based Ambedkar Community Computing Center (AC3), a computing education center in Gurappana Palya, a slum area in Bengaluru South. The organisation provides free and open-source software to students and teaches them computer skills. Balaji Kutty, a volunteer, says the centre has been “up and down” during the pandemic. It had been shut during the lockdown, after which the kids in the area got together and re-opened the centre on their own, with more children than ever showing up. “Unfortunately, the BBMP asked us to close down again,” he says. AC3 has been supported by Software Freedom Law Center for many years. Their legal director, Prasanth Sugathan says, “They need devices so that they can continue learning from their homes. Even old systems that are a few years old would work.”
Rai from Teach for India says it is important to recognise the role technology plays in education, and will continue to play going forward. “When the lockdown started, high-income schools quickly set up online classes and students had migrated to Zoom. Meanwhile, our students and teachers were busy trying to organise food and ration for our kids who weren’t able to eat,” he says.

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