India launches an $18 billion plan to spread the information revolution to its provinces, the problems it faces are a holdover from the past — electricity shortages, badly planned, jam-packed cities, and monkeys.
The clash between the old world and the new is sharply in focus in the crowded 3,000-year-old holy city of Varanasi, where many devout Hindus come to die in the belief that doing so will give them salvation. Varanasi is also home to hundreds of macaque monkeys that live in its temples and are fed and venerated by devotees.
But the monkeys also feast on the fiber-optic cables that are strung along the banks of the Ganges river.
“We cannot move the temples from here. We cannot modify anything here, everything is built up. The monkeys, they destroy all the wires and eat all the wires,” said communications engineer AP Srivastava.
Srivastava, who oversees the expansion of new connections in the local district, said his team had to replace the riverside cables when the monkeys chewed them up less than two months after they were installed.
He said his team is now looking for alternatives, but there are few to be found. The city of over 2 million people is impossibly crowded and laying underground cable is out of the question. Chasing away or trapping the monkeys will outrage residents and temple-goers.
Varanasi is part of the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist leader who came to power last May.
A shortage of electricity is further complicating efforts to set up stable Wi-Fi in public places — daily power cuts can last for hours during the sweltering summer in Varanasi and across much of India.
Modi’s government has pledged to lay 700,000 kms (434,960 miles) of broadband cable to connect India’s 250,000 village clusters within three years, build 100 new “Smart Cities” by 2020 and shift more public services like education and health to electronic platforms to improve access and accountability.
Varanasi was the first of an eventual 2,500 locations singled out for street-level Wi-Fi.