It has been a long time since children in remote Tareythang of Gelephu could avail the facility of ‘hole in the wall’ in the community centre.

The two computers in metal boxes with a railing and corrugated iron sheets as a roof were installed as part of the Chiphen Rigpel project in 2010 near the gewog centre.

The project aimed to provide universal access to information, communications and technology (ICT) knowledge and infrastructure in the country.

The ‘hole in the wall’ (HIWEL) or play and learn stations (PLS) were to help children acquire computer literacy without the need for a formal education system. They were left free to learn on their own.

For the children and residents of Tareythang gewog, it has been more than a year since children last visited the computers.

A local resident, Tashi Norbu, said that the stations have remained locked for a long time now. “I can’t recall the last time it was functioning.”

The community centre in-charge in Tareythang, Karma Wangzom, said the stations had battery problems and remained closed for more than a year.

Tareythang is not alone.

At the meet the press session yesterday, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said that he had never seen children play on those stations during his gewog visits. “This is one of the things that I look for during my visits,” he said.

Information and communications minister DN Dhungyel, said that the ministry carried out an assessment of the usage of the stations.

“Those PLS located near the schools and settlements have immensely benefitted the rural children,” DN Dhungyel said. “However, PLS which were located far from school has remained idle from the beginning due to less number of children and the population in the community.”

Like the stations in Tareythang, the ministry had faced challenges in maintenance and updating the machine as most of the systems have reached the end of life.

“However, the ministry is working closely with Bhutan Development Bank Ltd to develop a modality to revamp the existing PLS and it will remain as the top priority of the ministry in 12th Plan,” the minister said.

Lyonpo said that the PLS was stationed at 131 community centres with the objective to provide access to ICT infrastructure to the digitally disadvantaged students in rural parts of the country.

He said that the locations were identified by the NIIT, an India based firm on the presence of nearby schools and settlement.

“Operation and maintenance of the machine were done by the NIIT during the project period,” he said. “PLS was handed over to the BDBL as part of the community centre in the gewogs.”

He said the ministry would relocate those stations that are least used to community schools in consultation with the local administration offices.

Lyonchhen said that while in the Opposition, he had raised concerns that the stations were not benefiting children. There is a huge difference between these stations and the smartphones, he said.

“I had even blogged about it after I played the game,” he said, adding that with the proliferation of Internet, children have lost interest in playing on those stations.

He said the government does not have many options with the stations.

“These days children can play and learn on smartphones of their parents, so such stations are old technology and may not find as many takers,” he said. “I think we have made a mistake from the beginning installing these stations,” the Prime Minister said. “These stations don’t have as many games and are time-consuming to learn.”

Meanwhile, some machines are also functional but it caused a different problem in Dekiling gewog, Sarpang.

“Children are addicted to the games and they skip school to play on them,” the gewog’s mangmi Devi Bhakta Ghalley said. “So they are only opened on weekends.”