Arti's father Raj Kumar died when she was three years old. Her father's sudden demise burdened her mother, a teacher, financially. With great difficulty, Arti managed to complete class 10th. Then she was forced to work in a 'bindi' making factory to supplement the family income.
In 2006, during a mobilisation programme for rescuing child labourers, Arti was counseled to join a training programme by CAP Foundation. She was given the CRS course along with the Microsoft Unlimited Potential (MSUP) module under the Unlimited Potential Community Technology Skills Program, nicknamed Project Jyoti in India.
'Launched in 2004, Project Jyoti aims to help realise digital inclusion by providing basic IT skills training to people of all ages which can be a source of livelihood and information,' says Dr Vivek Goswami, Lead CSR, Microsoft India.
For Arti, the project gave her a golden chance to gain IT skills and thereby realise her potential. 'MSUP modules changed my perception about computers. I used to think learning computers was tough and meant only for highly educated people,' says Arti. Following the training, she was selected by ICICI Prudential as a customer care executive with a salary of INR 7000 along with incentives. Slowly she rose to become one of their star performers. And now she has started her own agency and has also employed two other people.
The pivot of Project Jyoti is a Community Technology Learning Centre (CTLC) where people of all ages and abilities can come and learn about computers, use Internet, explore career opportunities, or further their education. A typical CTLC will have around 5-15 PCs depending on the size of the community, an IT instructor and a CTLC manager. So far around 1000 CTLCs have been established across 20 states and Union Territories and around 1,60,000 persons trained in IT skills.
'Microsoft has so far partnered with around 13 NGO's across country for running the programme. The support comes in three ways: cash grants, software donations, and providing IT training curriculum. And the benficiaries include marginalised women, unemployed youth from urban slums, farmers, fishermen, village community, rural self-help groups, and rural entrepreneurs,' says Anshuman Varma, Community Affairs Coordinator, Microsoft India.
'Most of the people who come to our centres don't have any prior exposure to a PC. So just getting them to use it is one major obstacle. There are eight different modules under the course. The intention is not to make programmers out of them, but to give them some amount of IT expertise that they need in a regular job,' he adds. Apart from IT skills, training is also given on life skills, spoken English, and domain specific skills for sectors like BPO, retail and hospitality, etc.
Some partners also impart vocational training. Uttar Pradesh based NGO 'Datamation Foundation' has developed IT based modules for stitching, candle making, bag weaving, etc. In a unique experiment, they are also helping 'chikankari' workers use computers for creating better embroidery designs, through a new software called CHIC.
An important impact of these centres has been access to information for the community, be it fishermen, farmers, etc. Some centres run by the M Swaminathan Foundation in Tamil Nadu offer contextualised information to the community on pest control, fertilisers, market price of produce or fishes, information on weather, etc.
But running such a massive programme involving the community is not an easy task. The challenges are manifold. 'We keep running into new challenges almost everyday. But as long as you have good partners you are equipped to overcome any challenges,' says Varma.
A major challenge faced in rural areas is of resource generation and sustainability. To counter this, Microsoft has evolved a policy of partnering only those NGOs which are self-sustainable. Another stumbling block is literacy as basic literacy is a minimum requirement for IT skills. Convincing people regarding the benefits of IT skills so that they come forward for training is also difficult.
Till date Microsoft has invested INR 47 crore in Project Jyoti, with the latest release of an additional funding of INR 7.63 crore to three partner NGOs
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