Meet the social entrepreneur couple making rural West Bengal digitally inclusive

In a small village in Nadia district, on the border of West Bengal and Bangladesh, 20-year-old Rupali has played several roles in her daily life. A day university student enrolled in a postgraduate course at Kalyani University, Rupali also worked as a night laborer laying tarmac on rural roads.

When a digital literacy workshop was held near his village in early 2021, Rupali jumped at the chance to increase his digital awareness. If that meant she had to stop earning a daily wage, she didn’t think twice, because she knew getting a master’s degree didn’t guarantee her a job, but learning to use computers would lead definitely a job.

Rupali was one of the first students to Advaita Bodhi Foundation, a non-governmental organization created by wife-husband duo Sayantani Chakrabarti and Suchayan Mandal.

Advaita Bodhi works on the four pillars of digital inclusion, financial inclusion, quality education for rural communities and rural entrepreneurship.

“The fact that Rupali agreed to participate in our workshop for a month and in doing so sacrifice his daily salary was something that motivated us. It only strengthened our belief in what we planned to do,” says Sayantani.

Former editor of a well-known publishing house, Sayantani, 30 years old, and her journalist husband Suchayan, 33 years oldlived in Noida before the COVID-19 outbreak.

When the pandemic started and remote working became the norm, the duo returned to their hometown of Kalyani in West Bengal. They witnessed firsthand the harsh realities of online education at the grassroots level and the fact that despite having smartphones, people often didn’t know how to use them beyond watching videos on YouTube and WhatsApp.

One of the first Digital Workshop students, now working as a trainer with the Advaita Bodhi Foundation

“The internet is the one thing that becomes fundamental to making India a fair society. We’re at an inflection point right now, and it’s all about this digital divide and how we solve it. We wanted to lay the groundwork to bridge this digital divide somehow, and that’s how Advaita Bodhi started. Our main objective is the development of livelihoods of rural communities through a digital environment,” says Sayantani, Co-Founder and Director of Education at Advaita Bodhi Foundation.

Build the blocks for digital labs

Sayantani and Suchayan started by establishing a Jana Pragati Udyog (JPU) in a school in a local village, Chorsorati. JPUs function as a physical-digital laboratory with computers, projectors, printers and internet connectivity. This is where the couple started their first digital workshop, with Rupali as their serious student.

The workshop brought together nearly 150 young men and women, aged between 18 and 30. The couple ensured that the JPU felt like an open space where rural people of all age groups could enter without hesitation and learn digital and financial skills.

“The idea was to start with the basics. People were trained in using digital payments, internet banking, selling on e-commerce, making PAN cards, making Aadhar cards, booking train tickets, etc. . We also trained them to help others with these,” says Sayantani.

Many of the early students came from weaving families, eager to learn how to sell their weavings on e-commerce portals, Facebook and WhatsApp.

“There are two villages – Nazirpur and Nischintapur – these are the places where the special Bengal batik and so many sarees are made. Here, the weavers are only paid by the day and not by the sari. They could weave three to four saris a day, but the middlemen only pay them by the day. This means that they are paid Rs 150 to Rs 250, while middlemen earn up to Rs 2000 per sari. The weavers knew that the only way forward for them was to be digital enough to be able to sell their products directly online,” says Sayantani.

After the success of this first JPU, the news spread. The couple saw that there was a huge thirst for learning among the villagers and tribals. The duo then began mobilizing help and asked for donations of laptops and other digital equipment.

Today, Advaita Bodhi is present in two districts, with six JPUs in these two districts, and three of their first students are now working as full-time trainers in these centers, including Rupali. While Suchayan visits each of these JPUs weekly, Sayantani manages to visit them on weekends.

“Running an NGO is not easy, and we also need a stable income. So we decided that one of us would continue to work outside the organization to get a stable monthly income. My husband is now fully dedicated to the NGO, and he and six other employees earn a small salary from the NGO,” says Sayantani, who works for an edtech startup.

Advaita Bodhi works through the generosity of angel gifts. The foundation has managed to operate through monetary donations from angels and refurbished laptops and computers from organizations.

Tribal realities

During their work in Nadia district, Sayarntani and Suchayan also became interested in tribal upliftment after noticing a disturbing trend in a remote village.

The tribals in the village made country liquor from rice, grown in abundance in the region, and drank it all day. In the morning, they would pick Mahua flowers and make Mahua, which is another kind of country spirit.

“It was not on the agenda earlier. However, seeing that these tribals had nothing to do but drink country booze from morning till night, and seeing the children around ‘watching them and learning the same thing, we felt compelled to do something,” says Sayantani.

The duo quickly set up a bareback JPU center in one of the tribal village huts and trained a few volunteers from the village itself to run it.

“We provided them with a computer and some USB sticks containing educational cartoons and videos for children. The kids were addicted,” she says.

When asked if there are no public schools for children, Sayantani exclaims, “There are many schools but where are the teachers?! The classrooms have no teachers, but still, the kids are so excited to go to school. Do you know why? Because they receive a midday meal and eggs, they are particularly shocked by the eggs. If you look at it in a positive way, at least the children are fed.

Advaita Bodhi

Sayantani with the tribal children who participated in the ICT workshop

She continues that the amazing thing to note here is that many of these tribals have smartphones but don’t know how to use them to benefit from them.

“The government of West Bengal gives money for smartphones to those who have passed class 10. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and their education is the priority, then comes digital literacy,” she says. .

For Sayantani and Suchayan, there is a long way to go. Nevertheless, they are inspired by small victories. Recently, one of the foundation’s first students, a young man named Paul, who had enrolled in a bachelor’s degree course at a local college and had no technical knowledge, called Suchayan to inform him that he got a job at a Dell repair center. in Kolkata as a seller.

“When he joined the workshop, the only thing he wanted to do was learn how to use the computer. Getting a job in Kolkata was a distant dream,” Sayantani smiles.