Aspirations, Access Agency: Women transforming lives with technology, a book by the Reliance Foundation and Observer Research Foundation, tells the stories of Indian women leaders from across the nation who have emerged as agents of technological change and socio-economic inclusion and are using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help their communities build pathways to better futures. Written by Antara Sengupta, this excerpt shares the story of Anjali Vajre, Pathardi, Palghar district, Maharashtra.Anjali Vajre, 29, an e-Dost (digital friend), spends each day trying to gradually mitigate the challenge that has prevented progress in her village. Lugging her pink backpack filled with numerous documents and her biometric device, she rides through the bumpy, narrow lanes of her village on a scooty (as motor scooters are often called in India), dodging the roosters, their chicks, and unsupervised livestock. A few months ago, she would walk the two kilometres between her house and the community support centre. At the centre, scores of villagers wait for Anjali tai (elder sister in Marathi), as she is fondly called, to help with their banking and utility services needs, one digital solution at a time. She is indeed the dost (friend) that villagers have come to trust to address their financial woes.The internet connectivity issue is unique to this region of Maharashtra as the hills make it difficult for telecom operators to mount towers. The nearest mobile tower is 12 kilometres from Pathardi in Jawhar town, and there are only a few spots in Pathardi where the villagers get some network to make phone calls.There is limited digital literacy within the community, but this is also because it seemed irrelevant in the absence of regular internet facilities. To perform basic financial transactions and pay utility bills, villagers had to travel to Jawhar in a jeep filled beyond capacity. This journey would take an entire day, and they would have to spend at least INR 50 while also missing their work and losing wages for that day. The primary means of livelihood in the village is agriculture and most work on someone elses land as daily labourers.Anjalis aspiration to help her community, especially other women, stems from her childhood experiences. She studied at the local zila parishad school until Class 7 and then a girls ashramshala to complete Class 10. But as an extremely curious and observant child, Anjali noticed that women would not participate in the village affairs and had no way of expressing themselves in times of need. At 18, she got married and moved to Aina village (7 kms from Pathardi) with her husband. However, five years later, in 2017, her husband suddenly fell ill and passed away within three days of being hospitalised. Anjali was now solely responsible for raising her toddler, Harish, without any means of livelihood. Although her husbands family asked her to stay with them, Anjali and her son soon returned to her parents house in Pathardi.This was a big societal and economic shock to her parents, who were struggling to sustain themselves. To help, Anjali decided to attend a community meeting by BAIF Development Research Foundation (BAIF) and become a community resource person (CRP) for the organisation. It was after this that she bought her first smartphone. As a CRP, Anjali would often convene meetings on community-building and strengthening self-help groups (SHGs) where she would request women to join, but did not have much success. It seemed like they never had the time to attend meetings. The men would also hesitate and would not want the woman of the house to participate in such meetings, she recalls. This always bothered Anjali, who realised that women need to be empowered so that they do not have to seek permissions from men to work for their own causes.While being a CRP allowed Anjali to help the community in many developmental and social issues (such as bringing women together, identifying SHGs needs, and connecting them with government schemes), it did not help her earn a livelihood as the salary was nominal. Fortunately, at this juncture, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) and BAIF collaborated to bring a SIM card-based cellular router to Pathardi to provide strong internet connectivity at the support centre and for the community to grow their internet network based on their needs and requirements. Anjali was chosen as the first banking correspondent, or e-Dost, as she was already an active CRP and was well known in the community. e-Dosts provide services in lieu of a small fee, providing a livelihood option to the worker. Anjali was given with a tablet and trained by IIT-Bombay for months on various digital aspects, including paying bills, operating biometric devices, registering people for Aadhaar cards, and performing banking transactions. Anjali says the training helped her immensely. The most difficult of it was to learn the banking services as it involves transacting with other peoples money and I would be nervous at first.As an e-Dost, she charges a nominal commission for each transaction (INR 5 for every INR 100), depending on the value of the transaction. She now even helps people register for e-Shram cards, which is a central government scheme that ensures portability of social security and welfare benefits to migrant and construction workers for registered users.According to a May 2022 study by Neilsen, rural India has only 32 percent active internet users, as against 67 percent in the urban areas. Within that, only about 34 percent women have access to internet in rural India. Consequently, a greater number of urban residents avail of online banking and digital payments than those in rural areas. While access to the internet is a primary issue, a June 2021 report stated that a lack of digital literacy in rural areas is also a cause for the urban-rural divide in internet use.For Anjali, the beginning as an e-Dost was not without difficulties. For instance, many people in her community did not have mobiles and therefore could not register for online banking services. To overcome this barrier, Anjali would often input her own mobile number to access the services. But many people remained skeptical and would ask for receipts. With time, however, she was able to gain their trust by showing them the messages she received on her phone. When I had too many cash withdrawals, I would be scared to walk back from Pathardi to Ramkhind as I would carry more than INR 50,000 in cash, recalls Anjali. Ramkhind is on the way to her home in Pathardi and surrounded by forests for the most part. Notably, this saved the village folk from travelling 12 kms to the city of Jawhar to withdraw cash or avail other banking related services.Anjalis role as an e-Dost became most essential during the COVID-19 pandemic when movement was restricted, and people could not go to the banks. With help from BAIF (the NGO), she got an e-pass so she could travel to Jawhar to assist people. During the pandemic, many people needed emergency cash for medical reasons, and I felt glad that I could help, she recalls.Anjali now earns about INR 4,000 per month, and feels empowered as she is able to help her parents and send her son Harish to school. She has also bought a scooty with her earnings and with some help from her parents to enable her to visit the bank in Jawhar and withdraw money for people as and when required.While she gained digital literacy through various facilitating agencies, Anjalis curiosity has helped her learn and teach more. She has learnt about various government schemes available to the different categories of people, such as the widow pension scheme and e-Shram. She teaches people in the community the basics of using smartphones. She now also buys clothes and household goods online, and even teaches other women in Pathardi to use apps to shop online. Earlier, as a CRP, Anjali would often talk to women about agriculture, what vegetables to grow, and how to form SHGs, but most were not interested in this information. Since becoming an e-Dost, she has started discussing the various aspects of her tasks, including various government schemes, how to make financial transactions, how to save money, and everything else that one can do with access to the internet. The women are now far more interested, encouraged, and willing to participate in community meetings.Notably, she also trains women to become e-Dosts across India. So far, she has trained 73 e-Dosts across India, 15 of whom work in and around Jawhar and have impacted about 3,000 people. These 15 women have now formed an SHG and have created a fund out of their savings. If any one of them requires money, they can take a loan from this fund. This makes Anjali very happy as she truly believes that women should be empowered to become independent and earn for themselves.Anjali has received recognition from the government for her work (the district collector had visited to observe and appreciate her work in December 2019).Now, she wishes for strong internet connectivity throughout her village and not just near the tower. It would make our lives much easier if we could perform the banking services even from our homes, she says. Meanwhile, through the power of technology, and as a true e-Dost to all, she plans to continue educating and training many women like her who could help make these services accessible to many more people across the district.To read the inspiring stories of these women revolutionising ICT use across the length and breadth of India, click here.