billion people live in India -- one of every six on the planet.
Half of them are illiterate. Only one in four has access to
adequate sanitation. Some 350 million Indians live on less than
a dollar a day. Yet India is also home to some of the world's
most advanced high-technology firms, and New Delhi is Silicon
Several years ago, a computer scientist, Dr. Sugata Mitra, had
an idea. What would happen if he could provide poor children
with free, unlimited access to computers and the Internet? Mitra
launched what came to be known as the hole in the wall experiment.
FRONTLINE/World producer Rory O'Connor first encountered
Dr. Mitra and his experiment while directing a film on global
Dr. Mitra heads research and development at NIIT, a leading
computer software and training company in New Delhi. Just outside
his office is a wall that separates his air-conditioned 21st-century
office from a slum. Mitra decided to place a high-speed computer
in the wall, connect it to the Internet, and watch who, if anyone,
might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately
attracted to the strange new machine. "When they said, 'Can
we touch it?'" Mitra recalls, "I said, 'It's on your side of
the wall.' The rules say whatever is on their side, they can
touch, so they touched it."
Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click.
By the end of the day they were browsing. "Given access and
opportunity," observes O'Connor, "the children quickly taught
themselves the rudiments of computer literacy."
One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz
and a celebrity in India. "Mainly I go to the Disney site,"
Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly
visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His
teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: "He
has become quite bold and expressive. I've got great hopes for
When Dr. Mitra asks Rajinder to define the Internet, the doe-eyed
boy replies immediately, "That with which you can do anything."
After the success of the first hole in the wall, Mitra replicated
his unique experiment in other settings, each time with the
same result. Within hours and without instruction, children
began browsing the Web.
When O'Connor returned to India this year, he documented Mitra's
campaign to set up more computer kiosks in poor communities.
This time, Mitra and his colleagues made a special effort to
recruit girls -- a revolutionary concept in a society in which
only one in three females can read.
Again, Mitra was delighted with the results. Given permission,
girls rushed to the computers. "I feel great!" exclaims Anjana,
an enthusiastic girl who lives in Madangir, a low-income district
of New Delhi. At home, her family is a bit mystified. Anjana's
sister-in-law is a stay-at-home housewife who has never seen
a computer. But she is thrilled that Anjana has the opportunity
to master a technology that seems to offer so much promise.
"It increases her knowledge," she says, "and it will be a big
help when she looks for a job."
Dr. Mitra likes the way in which Indian children reinvent computer
terms and icons in their own language. "They don't call a cursor
a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle.
And they don't call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because
they've never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru,
which is Shiva's drum, and it does look a bit like that."
In his personal crusade to overcome the digital divide in India
-- the gap between information "haves" and "have-nots" -- Mitra
takes his hole in the wall experiment to a fishing village in
the rural state of Maharashtra. Once more, schoolchildren flock
to his computer kiosks. Mitra is convinced that computers can
bring prosperity to poor, rural areas and provide local jobs.
cyberspace is considered a place," Mitra tells FRONTLINE/World,
"then there are people who are already in it, and people who
are not in it ... I think the hole in the wall gives us a method
to create a door, if you like, through which large numbers of
children can rush into this new arena. When that happens, it
will have changed our society forever."