Palnar is a remote village in Dantewada District, Chhattisgarh, which does not have a mobile network. There are CRPF troops guarding the village throughout the year as it sits precariously close to Naxal-controlled areas.
Palnar has no banks or ATMs. The nearest bank is in Dantewada, 48 km away. With such realities at hand, any logical mind would laugh away at the idea of making Palnar a digital village. But beating all logic to dust, Palnar has become one and it received the Prime Minister’s Award for its unbelievable transformation.
When the demonetisation announcement came in November 2016, Palnar was shaken. The villagers had to depend on the only two buses that operated out of the village to go to Dantewada and exchange their notes. They had to spend over Rs 50 and lose a day’s wage to do so. With the kind of banking vacuum that Palnar was in, Dantewada’s District Collector, Saurabh Kumar IAS, thought that the only sustainable solution to this problem was to go digital. But how could a village with no mobile network go digital?
Saurabh Kumar had found a jugaad. As serendipity had it, the Essar group had its optical fibre line passing through the region. This line was dug out for the private use of the company. The Collector and his team approached Essar and requested them to extend their network for Palnar. Essar decided to pitch in and extend their network for the village as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
The district administration also approached BSNL to create a free Wi-Fi hotspot in the village, where the weekly market gathering takes place. This completely changed the game – Palnar will now run on internet!
The next big task was to convince the villagers to go digital and enable them all to transact digitally. “To educate the villagers to go digital, we couldn’t simply bring trainers from outside. The villagers speak their native Gondi language and very few people speak Hindi. So we brought together a team of volunteers from within the community as the Digital Army. We trained these youngsters who did a brilliant job of making every single villager capable of transacting digitally,” says Saurabh Kumar.
Nandlal, a Digital Army volunteer, says, “I couldn’t believe in the possibility of a digital village when I first heard about the initiative. I did not know that there is something called Wi-Fi. But when we volunteers got trained, we were convinced that our village will change. We went mohalla after mohalla to spread awareness on why we should go digital and how we can do it. We held several ‘Nukkad Baithaks’ and trained every villager on what micro-ATMS are, how the villagers could use their Aadhaar card to transact, how they don’t have to use their debit card and how biometric finger print identification works. We ensured that every adult in our village, women and men, know how to transact online.”
Within just two months of the demonetisation announcement, Palnar became a digital village.
The villagers have made digital transactions worth Rs.5.5 lakhs from January till April in 2017. This amounts to more than 60% of the total transactions of the village.
The villagers use the Bhim app and Paytm. Every shop in the village accepts digital payments.
The shops also act as micro-ATMs where Aadhaar-based withdrawals and deposits happen, making the 48km bus ride to the bank in Dantewada redundant. Following the Palnar model, 10 more Gram Panchayats in the region are going digital.
Palnar still does not have a mobile network, but today every villager in Palnar has a smart phone and a sim card. And they make calls through WhatsApp! Mobile network woes are for those who live in the cities.
You can reach the District Collector of Dantewada, Saurabh Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org