An illiterate woman learnt to harness the power of computers and the Internet to fight injustice and promote development.
A resident of Harmada village in Kishangarh Tehsil in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, 74-year-old Nauroti was born in an extremely underprivileged family of the Dalit community. She never had the opportunity to attend school or gain any formal education. As a young woman, she worked at a road construction site, cutting stones for a living.
“We faced a famine in 1981 and times were very difficult. I was working at a road construction site at the time, along with people from five different villages. There were 700 of us in all. After a few days we found out that the women in the group were earning Rs. 4 per day while the men were earning Rs. 7. Some of us were not even receiving this basic amount; the excuse was that our work was not up to the mark,” she recalls.
A leader in the making
Nauroti sensed something wasn’t right. She spoke with the other labourers, enlisted their support, and decided to raise her voice against the wage discrepancy. A non-government organisation came forward to help her but essentially, it was Nauroti who led the campaign, mobilised the group, and took the case to the Supreme Court.
“We won the case and this gave me tremendous self-confidence. But I couldn’t help thinking that in order to achieve what we did I needed help in learning the basics of the law, going through the documents, etc., from people who were educated. Otherwise, we would have given in to the injustices being meted out to us and continued putting our thumb prints on papers we did not understand. I felt I had wasted many years of my life because of illiteracy,” she says.
The Extraordinary Will to Learn
Inspired by the victory, Nauroti decided to attend Barefoot College in Tilonia, located about 4 km from Harmada. She joined the six-month-long literacy training programme, and with her quick learning skills, was working at the college in no time at all. Her leadership qualities enabled her to gain the confidence and support of women from nearby villages, making them aware of their rights and working to improve their lot.
“I also visited several homes, talked to young girls, and made sure they were admitted to schools,” she adds. During this period, she received training in computers as well and learnt the basics of operating a PC.
By this time, Nauroti had earned immense respect in the region because of her determined fights against any kind of injustice. It was while she was working at Barefoot College that some people from her village visited and requested she participate in the panchayat elections. She agreed to do so and won!
Nauroti became the sarpanch of Harmada in 2010. During her five-year term, she dedicated herself completely to promoting development in the region. She fought against the alcohol mafia and worked tirelessly for the construction of water bodies, toilets, houses and the installation of hand pumps.
The Impact of Computer Knowledge
As sarpanch, Nauroti made excellent use of computers.
“Earlier, whenever we had to issue a notice that was to be sent to 10-15 places, we had to write the same thing over and over again. But I started typing such notices on the computer and taking out printouts. This helped us save hours of work. I can work on Word, Excel and I also know how to use the Internet,” she says proudly.
Barefoot College helped Nauroti install a computer at the panchayat office. She was so proficient by then that she even gave lessons to the government panchayat officer. She used the Internet to read up on women’s empowerment issues, find helpline information, learn about health issues, agriculture, rights of wage earners, etc. And she spread this knowledge among the villagers of Harmada panchayat.
“Impressed by my work, the panchayat secretary once asked me – ‘How did you learn to use the computer without having any kind of education?’ I just told him that while he and many others like him have the scope, opportunities and resources required to afford quality education, I had nothing but my strength and determination. I used these qualities. A computer is just a machine made by man – like trains, cars, etc. And because it is man-made, we can learn to use it if we want. That is what I had done,” says Nauroti Devi.
“After working for 20 years, my health started deteriorating. So I stopped working in the field, gained further training in computers, and started training other women and children in the village. I have trained 700 people in all and many children come to me from nearby villages. I teach them for a nominal fee of Rs. 150-200,” she adds.
Nauroti Devi’s students are already becoming success stories in their own right. Two of them are teachers now, and many are employed in different positions in the village government. After the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Amendment Bill of 2015 fixed the minimum educational qualifications for contesting in sarpanch elections to Class 8 (and Zila Parishad and Panchayat Samiti polls to Class 10), Nauroti Devi could not contest the sarpanch elections anymore.
“I was able to achieve what I did during my tenure, with the help of the local citizens. People started trusting me when they saw that I was working so hard for them, making them aware, and addressing their problems,” says Nauroti, who has no regrets.
An Inspiration to Many
As an active member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) since 1981, Nauroti has also participated in the Right to Information campaign in Rajasthan.
“Computers are just one part of Nauroti’s life,” says Nikhil Dey, a social activist associated with MKSS in Tilonia. “The fact that she is such an extraordinary person is what helped her leverage the power of computers in her village. Her primary mindset throughout the process of learning and teaching so many people was simple – ‘I don’t fear this machine, so why should you?’ Even when the computer operators, who were hired by the government, came to her panchayat, she guided them on what to do and explained patiently why it was important…She understood information far better and more politically than the rest of us do.”
Age hasn’t had a detrimental effect on Nauroti’s own passion for learning or enthusiasm for teaching others.
“I feel very proud when the children I teach achieve success. I have trained my four grandchildren in computers and have enrolled them for formal computer training too. Computer literacy has had a huge impact on my life. I always knew that with knowledge I would be able to show the world what I could do,” she concludes.