India's poor realise that without English and knowledge of technology, their children will be condemned to poverty Like most Muslim women in rural Kerala, Aisha Abdullah walks, veiled from head to ankle, several kilometres every day. Unlike most women in rural India, however, she is not fetching firewood or water but learning how to surf the internet and send e-mail. Her neighbours in Chamravattom village in this southern state - peasants, temple priests, coolies, auto-rickshaw drivers - also go to the same computer centre. Since April, when the centre opened, one member of each of the village's 850 families has been undergoing training. At the end of last month, the village staked its claim to fame as the first fully computer-literate village in India. The computer training centre is part of a hugely successful government project, 'Akshaya - Bridging the Digital Divide', to impart computer skills to every part of Kerala, even the remotest corners such as Malappuram district where Chamravattom is situated. Its success has stunned the project organisers because the area is extremely backward. In this predominantly Muslim district, most villagers are school drop outs, girls are married off at puberty and the absence of family planning has resulted in a population density six times the national average. And yet every single family is participating. 'About 70 per cent of those who come are women. The response has been beyond our expectations. If we hadn't taken computers to these people, they would never have learned how to use them or learned about the internet,' said Geeta Pious of Kerala's IT Department, which launched the project. India's poor have realised that without English and knowledge of computers, their children will be condemned to poverty in perpetuity. While putting their children in an English-medium school may be just about within reach for some, computers are an extravagant fantasy. That is why everyone has seized the chance to learn. 'I missed out on education as a child. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to learn free of cost,' said Amina Begum, a farmer's wife. At the Akshaya centre, residents of Chamravattom learn basic functional literacy using the local language - Malayalam - and how to compose text, surf the internet, send e-mail, create and edit pictures and make phone calls on the internet. Open from 8am to 11pm, which enables those who work late to drop in in the evening, the centre uses novel techniques to overcome the fear of computers. 'They have no idea how to use a mouse, so we get them playing games which involve catching fish or picking mangoes off a tree to teach them how to click in the right place,' said project co-ordinator M.S. Vinod. The business model is ingenious. The bankrupt Kerala government could not afford to set up 600 computer centres and buy 3,000 computers - the number needed to cover Malappuram alone - so it invited local people, actual or aspiring entrepreneurs, to set them up. Each centre had to be located no further than 3km from the nearest village and have five PCs, a printer, an internet connection and qualified trainers who teach people for 15 hours for 10 consecutive days. For every person they train, the entrepreneurs receive about US$2.50 out of the budget that village panchyats (councils) have for development, raised from local taxes. It costs about US$5,000 to set up each centre. After training 1,000 families for US$2.50 each, the entrepreneurs recoup half their investment and are still left with a small business. Akshaya has created an entire computerised network that the government can use later for a wide range of purposes. 'We can use the centres for teaching English, giving fishermen weather information or telling farmers about new seeds or techniques,' said Geeta Pious. The network will also help e-governance become a reality. Instead of having to walk several kilometres to distant government offices and paying bribes to officials to get their work done, villagers will be able to access official information online, whether it's a pension query, transferring title deeds, downloading a loan application form or registering a birth. E-mail and chat rooms have brought families closer together in a state where unemployment has forced one person in virtually every family to seek work abroad.