In a Remote Mountain Village in Tamil Nadu, Doctors are Just a Click Away

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No one could afford to fall sick in Kathirimalai until last year. The mountain-top village deep inside the Chennampatti forest reserve in Erode district has no roads, electricity is a rare sight, and donkeys are still the chief means of transport. Treatment at the healthcare centre nearly 40 km away was simply a luxury.

Krishnanunni H. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

Things changed nine months ago when District Collector H Krishnanunni and his team thought of a plan. The district administration launched Punnagai (Tamil for smile), an ambitious plan that sought to use high-speed, 5GHz WiFi internet to link Kathirimalai with the outside world.With a doctor just a click away on the computer screen at the local school, where the facility has been set up, now it’s all smiles for Kathimaralai and its 156 residents. “There is a conversation (with doctors), and based on the symptoms we narrate, they recommend medicines, which are made available by the local officers or we get them when we go to the town,” said one resident, Chinnagiriyan.“A doctor’s touch may be the only thing missing,” he laughs.Krishnanunni said the WiFi project is an example of “how the world changes when the internet is made accessible to a village detached from civilisation”.

The District Collector is among the 19 winners of The Indian Express Excellence in Governance Awards for 2020 and 2021. The biennial awards celebrate the finest work done by District Magistrates, women and men considered the foot-soldiers of governance as they script change that touches the lives of countless people across the country.

The first obstacle in launching the telemedicine project was building a communication network in an area that had no phones or roads. That’s when Krishnanunni and team jumped on the idea of WiFi.

Soon, a team from the Centre for Social Computing (C4S) reached Kathirimalai and began installing a tower, and the required hardware, with help from the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) along with NABARD. The technical assistance for the internet came from Anthiyur town, the nearest metropolitan roughly 40 km from the forest.

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