Digital Solutions for Offline North East India

Abstract


Very well said by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam :
The best brains of the nation may be found on the last benches of the classroom.

Here if we assume the classroom to be the country, the seven sisters and one brother of the north east are, no doubt, the last benchers. They have higher literacy rate as compared to the rest of india. But, fact of the time is that it is digitally dumb. It feels bad to use the term, for any part of India, but truth is always bitter. We are heading to a digital world… But as soon as we turn to north east region of the country, we find ourselves in the 70s era without internet and connectivity. Although slow but steady, India is on its way to a Digital revolution, where online learning, app based learning and social media based learning is the future. But Information and Communication Technology sector is almost absent in the north eastern region. All the reasons behind this setback are interconnected. Literacy is the strength of the region. Poor infrastructure is the weakness of the region (due to its geographical location). We have to find a midway to the Digital destination. Best part is we have understood the problem. And I believe understanding the problem, solves the problem. Digital India drive is very optimistic for making the region digitally sound, but ground work from ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’ has been unrushed and slow. So, now let’s check what can be done accepting all these shortcomings ? My paper would highlight these shortcomings, and try to find out ways to fulfil them. My paper would focus on the midway solutions and would come up with the best opportunities and skill development for the educated youth. IGNOU can be a case study as it can help the educated region get digital education as well. Digital highway is under construction… and the work continues to be in progress.

Introduction

Being offline is an embarrassment in the 21st century. If you don’t have access to internet, you are the odd one out. If you lack the best of apps in your mobile phone you feel embarrassed in your group of friends and colleagues. Similarly, if you don’t know how to use the latest technology, even your kids can make you feel awkward in front of many. These are individual experiences. Now think of this happening with more than 4.5 crore citizens of our country.


I am referring to the seven sisters and one brother i.e. the northeastern states of our country. Captivating cultural beauty combined with the rich cultural heritage but lack its pace in the Digital race.

  • It’s usually stereotyped of being most underdeveloped.
  • It holds the disgrace of not being a part of the country.
  • It holds the status of guest for the rest of India.
  • It has a blot of being a tribal region.
  • It is a brand but only for falling in the category of the most literate states which lacks Digital solutions.

All this is heard and seen for years now. But north east states of India are definitely not unblessed. Now let’s see this from a completely different perspective. 

Beauty and Brain are often a criteria for selecting Beauty Queens or Handsome Hunks in a beauty pageant. In case of India, North East stands unbeaten on the beauty and brain yardstick. But when it comes to the litmus test, it fails to prove its significance.

The question arises ‘Why?’
The answer is – the region has all expertise in the field of education and it acquires a reasonable place in the list of the most educated regions of the country. But the current education scenario in north eastern states is not at par with the rest of India.

We in central parts of India proudly claim that we are in an era of social media, internet based teaching, online classes, even robots and apps taking the front seat in the learning purview. But unfortunately, when it comes to students of north east, they feel backward.

In 2010, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said that “In 5 years from now best education would come from the web”. And see, how true it is today. But, don’t know how much time it would take for the north east to make it true.

He also said once – Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning. So, in this sense, North East is the right example for our most unhappy region as far as Digital excellence is concerned. Irony is, Education is not an issue for the north east, it’s the digitisation and modern learning techniques that are difficult to reach there. As all experts have to start as a beginner only, to earn the expertise in the digital arena, north east can start its journey now.

Our current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many of his previous counterparts have always dreamt of Digital India since the concept came into existence. Its not unknown that for complete digitisation, we need all corners of the country driven by Digital Learning.

And for Digital Learning, digital techniques are a must. We have incredible potential of Digital Technology in the 21st century, only need is to channelise it to the direction where it is needed the most and how to make the best out of it.

We often come across instances of students of north east migrating to other parts of the country for higher education. Lack of employment and no scope of higher education has driven the youth out of the states eyeing for better facilities and opportunities.

Its for sure, that if these students get the best of technologies in their own region, they would never migrate. Rather, with the blend of latest technologies and young minds, they can do wonders. And these wonders can solve the age old issue of connecting the north east with the rest of the world. Via this paper, I would try to provide them with the light on the path and they would achieve their goals.

Is North East Digitally dumb ?

Before solving a problem, we need to understand the problem. In this case – We must ask the question – Is north east really Digitally dumb ? Unfortunately Yes.

Digital Divide is a term in use for quite some time now. From an International perspective, India is filling this digital divide at a respectable pace. But from an Indian perspective, i.e. internally, there is a long way to cover. There is one major part of the country, which is still struggling to be a winner in the digital divide race.

Northeast ranks among the top in literacy rates.

Tripura tops the list of most literate states in the country with 94.65% literacy rate. Among northeastern states, Mizoram stands second with 91.6%, Nagaland 80.1%, Manipur 79.8%, Meghalaya 75.5%, Assam 73.2% and Arunachal Pradesh comes the last with 67% literacy rate. Only brother Sikkim has 82.2% literacy rate.

Then,
1. What is stopping them to become digitally sound ?
2. Where it lacks to attain the Digital excellence parameters ?
3. What is obstructing them to achieve lifelong goals ?
4. What can help them to fight with the situation ?

Being a winner in literacy rate is not enough for the futuristic approach we claim. We need skills to counter the competitive approach worldwide. This will be determined by the ability of the people to create, share and use knowledge effectively. It’s a kind of race of efficiency and competence.

The race where students aim at developing apps and making robots as needed for the futuristic education society. They desire for mobile phones and tablets to independently work of their choice. They also aspire to get education while being at ease with the help of latest online options. Educational apps and their user experience design allures them to be a part of this race.

North east students are struggling between migration and safety issues. The difference of haves and have nots in the region is not decreasing at a constant pace. That’s why, the aim is left untouched.

Actually everything is interconnected. An area, where such a good number of people can read, write and understand, the staggering unemployment rate is worrisome. Why the most literate people have the least employment opportunities ? Main reason for unemployment is lack of skills in the youth. Another reason being lack of forward looking opportunities in the region.

All these create a trench of hope and belief in our upcoming generations. Infrastructural loopholes are another drawback for the region. Here, development of infrastructure ranks below the national average. That means, government still deprive the region of the importance and dedication it deserves from them.

Moreover, geographical location of the north eastern states is also of utmost interest. The region is blessed with the richest natural resources in the country. But, it lacks the best connectivity resources.

Geographically, two third of the area in North east comprises of hilly terrain interspersed with valleys and plains. These hilly terrains are antagonist to the development of the region. For any kind of connectivity we need signals, may be via internet or via satellites. But signals are all the time interrupted because of the geographical barriers of the region.

The worst part is the physical and geographical barriers, that are the main cause of concern for the region. This is something no one can change. No body can help the region get rid of this liability. Dilemma is, what is the Unique Selling Point (USP) of the region is also the major disadvantage for the region.

So, the question is – How far is the desired destination?
The answer is just one step. Get Internet in the north east and you achieve your goals.

Objectives 

1. Information and Communication Technology is no more a stranger for the north east. But, how to make them best friends ?

2. Internet is like ‘Aladin ka chirag’ for north east states. Who should rub it to access the miraculous jinny ?

3. Feasibility of internet and the geographical location of the north eastern states is the basic issue to be addressed. How to go about it ?

4. Connectivity between the states and people interventions along with government initiatives are the key to achieve digital solutions for otherwise offline north east. Would it be made possible ever?

5. There would be no difference between teachers and students once the area is fully accessible via internet. Teachers and students would go hand in hand to be the ICT experts ?

6. If we increase Open and Distance Learning options for the region, would it be of any help ?

7. Bringing ICT to the region is not enough. How to ensure effective use of the latest technologies ?

8. Current education system needs to be perfect in terms of technical education. We know the destination is far ahead but is it achievable ?

Internet and the North East 

The Confrence aims at – How far is the Digital Revolution, in terms of education for the north eastern states ?

The answer to this lies in – How far it is in achieving internet connectivity for the reason ?

Before discussing further, we must understand the basics. Today Internet is the key for all educational practices one can think of. And smartphones are the next teachers. Our mobile phones provide us the platform to learn the most and the best.

It’s just that you need to connect it to the internet and then have plenty of apps from all formats of education. No more school going and attending classes. Even homework is given online. Moreover, teachers prefer to teach via technical support (ipads, computers, projectors, etc).

Students feel it to be more of their 21st generation types and relate to the teacher who uses the technology. Off course, to use the technology teacher needs to be up to date with the latest happening in the technology sector. That clearly means, even the teacher need to study for teaching their students.

Also, there need to be institutions with full fledged technical support.

Now, when it comes to north east india, both teachers and students are deprived of this facility. This deprivation is not because they can’t afford computers and laptops, rather main reason behind this hardship is non-availability of the fundamental need for online education. That is Internet.

No doubt, the emphasis on connectivity of north east region by road, river, rail, air has been well received over the years but implementation has been slow and challenging. In case of Internet connectivity the situation is more or less the same. Specially, with its unique geography and location, the north east india never got its share of digital connectivity support ?

There is no problem with the government’s intentions. The government is keen to expand digital connectivity in the landlocked Northeast region. The Digital India campaign of the government is trying its best to bridge the gap. Even the states are committed to perform their part with full dedication.

Still, current scenario is very challenging. Before discussing the ‘to do list’ for bringing internet in the area, we must know how much is in its kitty. At present, the Northeast region gets internet connectivity through Mumbai and Chennai. As one can clearly make out, the long distance and difficult terrain creates many problems.

This was one area where north east has to work really hard to cope up with the struggle. Although, north east has not given up. They are trying to get internet in the area by hook or by crook. They have eyed on Bangladesh, their neighbour to help them excel digitally by providing internet access. This dream could be made possible recently.

India’s third International Internet Gateway (IIG), after Mumbai and Chennai, is set up in Agartala, the capital of Tripura. This was made possible via Bangladesh and has accelerated internet connectivity in the mountainous northeastern region. From Tripura, even Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, Aizwal, the capital of Mizoram and Guwahati, the largest city of Assam are also being benefitted as necessary technical linkages have been done.

Guess what ? Internet connectivity in the seven north eastern states, has become faster and internet users have benefited to a large extent. India spent Rs 19.14 crore to create the infrastructure for the third IIG in Agartala. It has been made possible via the 10 gigabit bandwidth which we got from Bangladesh.

India has to give around Rs 8 crore per year as rental to the Bangladesh suppliers. The money is worth every penny as it is doing what was desired since ages. If the demand increases, BSNL will avail up to 40 gigabit bandwidth using the same infrastructure.

Now, with the help of this internet connectivity education sector can boom its potential. From form filling to online assignments or using apps, everything would be done at just a few clicks. But wait, for all this to happen conditions apply. India is suppling 100 megawatt of electricity in return for 10 gigabits per second internet bandwidth.

Other conditions include, India-Bangladesh harmony to Internet connectivity obstacles, everything needs to be paid attention to. This is not one time investment. One has to keep eyes open and minds ready to face the challenges of the technological boom.

Right now, the most crucial role is of the telecom players. They need to cover all inhabited villages and national highways with seamless connectivity. Government has its own issues with the technological giants but they have to overlook the same. Internet connectivity is the primary issue, secondary will be devices connectivity.

‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy’… Still a long way to go 

India will grow when all its regions grow together. I see no reason why the northeast can’t be developed. – Narendra Modi

Off course, many of us would agree to this. But with a few issues discussed already, now the picture is clear.

“Look East” was introduced in the early 1990s when the Congress party’s PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister. It was endorsed by former prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. But, when Modi government came in power, they changed the name to ‘Act east’.

These policies have focussed on friendly relations with the neighbouring countries. Economic co-operation and strategic issues have been the primary concerns of all the governments till now. These are international and national agenda, and the youth of the country is interested in it but at a later stage.

Not going into much detail, let’s focus mainly on the education sector. After some analysis, one would realise that there is not much difference in ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policies. When we talk about education sector, policies with both the names accept that there must be adequate investment in terms of education, trade and commerce, physical infrastructure etc. Much of this investment has been done also.

More and more universities and colleges have been opened. More and more enrolments in these school colleges would also make you feel relieved. Much effort has been done in the field of skill development. But, technological advancements escaped from focus.

None of the two policies could work on the technical and digital education in the area till now. No Doubt, the region is full of potential and possibilities. So it is important for everyone to discover the Northeast through a digital highway and digital literacy. What can be done in this area ?

The government and private sector have to shake hands for the upliftment of the region. They have to work on a public-private partnership mode to realise the digital literacy campaign. Via this paper I urge information technology players to join north east to utilise the potential of the region and help it prosper.

Water would spill over everything in our minds while reading this paper, if we don’t act immediately. Main issue is why we always blame the government for the miserable condition of digital access of the north east india.

It is also the responsibility of we the people, who may or may not be of the north east, from the north east and for the north east. But, if we want our brothers and sisters of north east india to excel digitally, we also have to add our share of concern.

There is a long way to go ahead. We have to walk slowly, so that we can walk for a longer distance. With time, pace would change but the destination has to be reached with the winning fervour. What needs to be done is a question of concern. But, don’t worry… this needs to be worked on and some solutions would be suggested later in the paper.

Midway Digital Solutions to the Digital Destination

It’s easy to discuss problems, but it’s difficult to find solutions. This research paper has discussed the problems in detail with all the references. Now is the time to switch gear and turn minds to the solution angle of the research story.

Internet is the key to digital learning in the area, so we need to find solutions to bring internet to the offline north east india. Only internet can help you get social media access, with which, one can be a part of the so called hi-tech society. One can also access distance education via digital platforms like online learning courses, exams, form filling, assignments etc.

Via internet access we would not only have app users from north east but also app developers. The students can easily access their study material via internet based websites and learn them on their computers/ipads/smartphones.

Right now, the students or the locals have best of mobile phones, but can’t use many of its features because of lack of basic needs to do that. I believe internet access would solve the digital aspirations of the region to a great extent.

The hurdle in making this dream come true is the geographical disturbances that is standing tall. So, we need to look for such options of internet which are barriers free. I am suggesting 3 all time best solutions. These solutions are under process for the time being, but the D-day is not too far for sure.

1. Satellite internet from Elon Musk kitty

Satellite internet, i.e. internet connection without any interference. This is the next dream project of Elon Musk, whom we all know for his odd creations from Tesla to SpaceX. The young face of today’s times, who has decided to shock the world every now and then has very good proposal for the north east problem alike. It is internet via space.

This man has a vision of making this world free from digital divide. Latest in the series is a bet on Satellite internet. He is planning to put more than 4,425 satellites in orbit, in order to blanket the Earth with internet access. This would provide high-speed, global internet coverage.

How this would happen ? Its technical but easy to understand. Say, we want to avail internet for north east from Mumbai. Internet data packets would no longer have to go through dozens of routers and terrestrial networks. Instead, the packets would go to space, bouncing from satellite to satellite until they reach the one nearest their destination, then return to an antenna on earth.

This has the potential to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people. The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, government and professional users worldwide. This would provide a space-based alternative to cable, fibre-optics and the other terrestrial internet access currently available.

The project would bring high-speed internet to all corners of the globe, vastly undercutting existing services in coverage and cost. This would be the Internet that would fly high in space and has no chance to touch the ground. This would help geographically disturbed regions like north east to get the desired internet access without any hassles.

2. Facebook and the internet drones

Another most talked about project is the internet beaming venture of Facebook via drones. Yes, you read it right. After 2G, 3G, 4G, wi-fi, its time for millimetre-wave-radio (MMW). This is the technology Facebook is using to transmit data to its internet bearing drone Called Aquila.

Aquila can beam internet to the far flung populated areas. It can help you to come online for 90 days at a time. This is flying in the sky, so no chance of interference because of the geographical disturbances. Aquila can beam broadband through the stratosphere. This layer is comfortable for any drone to sustain its height and speed.

The drone, was built in 14 months and was able to fly in the air for 90 days at a time. Lacking wheels, or even the ability to climb from ground level without aid, it would be launched with the help of helium balloons, which will rise it to its preferred height.

This drone technology will allow internet access to the remote areas of the globe. High-altitude drones, could serve a huge number of people who live in medium-sized cities or on the outskirts of urban areas. They fly closer to the ground than satellites, meaning their signals are stronger and more useful to larger populations. And they fly above regulated airspace, making them easier to deploy.

Facebook aim behind this project is to make affordable access to basic internet services available to every person in the world. Facebook is working to get people online everywhere using drones that beam internet down to users. These drones could eventually provide connectivity for months at a time.

Facebook aims at a fleet of Aquila flying together at 60,000 feet. They would be communicating each other and staying aloft for months at a time. This is something very new to the technological world. It has never been done before, but would be done very often in future.

3. Project loon : Google’s broadband-emitting balloons

Internet in the sky… this is the theme behind Google’s Project Loon. This project is actually under X, the research division of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. It aims at providing internet access to the rural and remote areas. The places where terrestrial internet techniques fail, should not lag behind in the 21st century. So, Project loon is their to be the backbone of internet services in the most remote areas.

Most interesting part of the project is the use of high altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of 18 km to 25 km. This particular layer of stratosphere is advantageous because of its relatively low wind speed and minimum turbulence.

This would help in creating aerial wireless network with up to 4G-Long term evolution speed. The balloons fly high in the sky, after identifying the wind layer with the desired speed and direction. The signals travel from balloon to balloon then to a ground-based station connected to an Internet service provider(ISP), then onto the global Internet.

Google found this idea of providing internet to the large population who otherwise don’t have access to internet ,crazy or loony. Hence the project was named – Project loon. As the name is crazy, so is the idea and so is the execution summary of the project.


The project is in pipeline for quite some time now, After passing many technical hurdles, the balloons are now floating over the planet for miles. Balloons are now staying in the sky for 6 months in one go. This is actually a good time for internet in the sky project.

Some of these balloons were tested in the past and have crashed badly. But, the might to continue testing the project has been very high. It’s not easy but practice can make anything perfect. Every failed flight gives another bright idea which leads a step ahead towards success.

These projects are in process of research and development. All companies are working day and night to make these dream come true. On paper, they do wonders, but their success rate in reality is always under question. One major drawback is its speed, which might be not uninterrupted. This might also aim at small population area as there would be least disturbance. For large populations, we need to make the projects more strong and viable.

Challenges

Every good news comes with responsibilities. The good news of possibility of internet access in the north east comes with the responsibility of preparing itself for the same. North east is unaware of the upheavals that would be cause of concern in near future.

With the best of the technologies establishing themselves and trying to make it big in the world arena, a small proportion of it must be taken for the north east. This can be done only by government initiatives. No doubt, there are challenges ahead, but where there is a will, there is a way.

Off course, everything comes in a package. The challenges ahead should also be discussed and noticed.

1. Most basic challenge is that people/teachers of the north east need to be prepared to take up internet access and manage it.
2. Next big issue would be to utilise the benefits of internet – the much awaited treasure which was earned by lot of difficulty.
3. The people of the are must have basic knowledge of the use and misuse of the facility coming to them.
4. Any geographical hurdle, need to be taken care of much before things go out of control.
5. Skill development exercises must begin much before time for the upcoming users of internet.
6. General public must be made aware of what to do and what not to do with the internet access.
7. Government has to welcome internet in the area with a bang, but never let it ruin the whole effort.
8. Every institution, college, school, university must be prepared beforetime for the internet access techniwue.
9. At least, bookish knowledge about the various projects and their do’s and don’ts must be imparted to the students and teachers as well.
10. Students should be told how to use the internet with the help of already existing infrastructure and technology.

Although, these preparations would be at a very primary stage. Because, just like if you want to be a cricketer, you have to wear your gloves and pads, take the bat, the ball and jump down to the field to play the game, similarly, one has to own an internet access to learn the basics of using it and finally excelling it.

Connectivity issues should still be worked on, so that no one is left behind in the race. We also need to push more tech companies to enter the north east arena and help them gain on the wider spectrum. Receiving internet from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and areas around, would also help in connecting the unconnected.

– The Case Study

Open and distance learning (ODL) has a long history in many countries of serving the needs of those who lack access to education because of geographic or time constraints. In case of India, one name that has captured the education scenario is Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

With a regional centre across India, IGNOU has a commitment to the youth of the country. It is working hard to keep its words, but sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to. IGNOU exists in North east for quite some time now and has fulfilled its vision and mission promises by heart.

IGNOU has tried its best to bring courses in the area for skill development of the youth. They have tried to make the youth self-sufficient to fight with the students of other regions. IGNOU in its endeavour to bring quality education to the north east has expanded its initiatives in the region. It has established IGNOU Institute for Vocational Education and Training (IIVET). This would equip people with skills and knowledge to expand their life choices.

But with the changing times, these vocational courses and their relevance has been wiped off. Things need to change at the right time with the right pace. Being an academic institution, it has to be more relevant, dynamic and pro-active in the fast changing scenario. Only this can help in survival and growth of the area in future.

North east is trying hard to make its mark in the education map of the country. It would not be right to say that everything is under control in the area. They have not been successful in addressing the demands for education. Reasons being lack of infrastructure, economic destabilisation, lack of support from the centre and off course the regions geographical limitations.

With the solutions discussed in this paper, I am confident about the digital development of the region. Only thing to take care of is to make every body associated with the teaching profession learn, and grasp the new world technologies. They need to accept the change with open arms. Digitisation has been the source of motivation for the people of north east. Internet might take time to reach the region, but one thing is for sure, the time has come now.

Conclusion

Meet the world… with a bang. That’s the message for the people of the north east. They don’t need any reservation. They don’t need any sympathy… they just need your love and support. They move out of their beautiful world to prove themselves. They must and they do fight for their bright future.

We often ask government what it has done for the north east brothers and sisters. The government is doing their part, may be the process is slow according to some of us. Something is better than nothing. But now time has come when north east can’t wait anymore for its transformation.

The process of transformation has to begin now and here. Most enlightening transformation of the time is – Internet via skyway. What a thought and what a solution for an otherwise tough question. This is made possible by continuous efforts of the big technological companies of their times. From Facebook drones to Elon musk’s satellite internet to Googles’s broadband emitting balloons… everything is set to take off for a long drive in the sky.

These ideas are floating for last so many years and testing is going on at an altogether different level. The insightful efforts of the brilliant brains known to me, have given a ray of hope for the north east. We need to keep this ray of hope shining forever.

I would request the governing authorities of the government and the Universities to sit and find solutions for preparing the region for the best to come. It’s always said, that you need to save yourself to experience the best time of your life. It should not be like, you are so much pissed off with your life, that when the best time comes, you are finished to experience it to the fullest.

Best here is the aerial internet connectivity which would solve the problem of the region being cut off, forever.