Cyber Center Links Remote India to Rest of World

Pallava Bagla in India
for National Geographic News
November 12, 2002
From the center of modern New Delhi, the journey east to Anini, capital
of the Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, takes at least four
days. The forested and isolated region near the border with China is
known as a "hidden paradise" for its unspoiled beauty and panoramic
views of the Himalaya.

The most remote district headquarters in India, Anini is so far removed from the rest of the country that until recently the local inhabitants, a tribe known as Idu Mishmiâs, had to rely on Indian Air Force helicopters to airlift rice, wheat, cooking oil, and other basic needs into the area.

Anini holds the singular distinction in India of being the only district capital without an all-weather road providing basic transportation.

Now, in what is believed to be the most remote cyber café in all of India, a new state-of-the-art computer center has put Anini on the "information superhighway."

The facility is one of 487 free community information centers that the Government of India has been installing throughout northeastern India. The U.S. $75 million project, which has wide political support, is part of a plan by the Ministry of Information Technology to bridge the digital divide in isolated corners of this vast nation, which is about a third as large as the United States and has slightly more than a billion people—a population second only to China's.

People in the region hail the computer center as the first step in what they hope will be a permanent road linking them with the outside world.

"It is really difficult to understand how cut off from the mainstream the local populace is," said Wing Commander Ashish Mokashi, chief operating officer for the helicopter unit that provides service to the region from the Mohanbari Air Force base. "Young children see a helicopter and an airplane well before they get to see a bicycle or a car," he told The Indian Express.

Slow But Steady Progress

Until recently, there was no road at all leading in and out of Anini. The six Pentium computers and accessories provided for the new community information center had to be transported on elephant back, said Pramod Mahajan, federal minister for the Ministry of Technology.

"The district has no public transport system to boast about," said V. Abraham, district commissioner for the area. "Even the primitive hunter-gatherer Idu Mishmi tribals commute by helicopter on a regular basis, complete with their goats, bamboo hats, and machetes in tow."

About a year ago, the federal government's Border Roads Organization opened part of a 228-kilometer (141-mile) road that, when finished, will extend from Anini to the nearest road link, at Roeing.

Much as it's needed, the new unpaved road is only a start, said Rajesh Thacho of Anini, a member of the regional Legislative Assembly and deputy speaker of the House of Commons for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. "Most of the time this dirt track, which traverses through thick rain forests, is unserviceable since it is usually blocked by landslides," he said.

"If all goes well," said Abraham, the local commissioner, "Anini may get its first and only black-top road by the middle of 2003."

Closing the Gap

Ministry official Mahajan said the government's plan to provide India's most isolated people with global connectivity though satellite links is not an extravagant and wildly idealistic project but a crucial bridge to the future. It is important, he stressed, to close the communication divide that has separated Anini and other areas like it from the rest of India, and the world.

The newly opened computer information center in Anini is housed in a single-story tin-roofed building near the administrative office of the commissioner, which is the hub of activity in the tiny town.

Electrical power needed for the new center is not a problem thanks to a 250-kilowatt generator that operates on running water from a mountain stream, commissioned last year by the state government.

As in any transition to new technology, one of the biggest challenges is providing the level of training and technical services needed to help the residents of Anini take full advantage of the new equipment. The center is presently run by two natives of the area who are technically qualified and speak the local language.

Thacho, an elected representative of the area and an Idu Mishmi, believes the community will benefit immensely from the government's investment of several thousand dollars required to get Anini's information center up and running.

Besides providing local people with a wealth of information, he envisions a day when the district administration will be able to use the center's services to modernize and streamline its operations.

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