Monday, January 16, 2006

Tetherless communication

This is what our research group at the University of Waterloo is working on, under the supervision of Prof. Srinivasan Keshav. The goal of tetherless communication for rural areas is to provide low cost per bit communication, even to areas that do not have Internet connectivity. Dial-up is slow and flaky, VSAT terminals are expensive, and wireless meshes require power supply at mesh towers plus continous monitoring and failure rectification. We propose to use mechanical backhauls like buses and vans to carry data to and fro, between disconnected rural areas and cities with Internet connectivity.

Buses and vans regularly run to bring retail supplies to villages, and to provide a basic transport infrastructure. We plan to mount on these buses a soekeris box, which is nothing but a small linux computer with a hard disk, fitted with a WiFi access point. Whenever the bus stops next to a village Internet kiosk, the computers in the kiosk will connect with the soekeris box and upload or download data. The bus will eventually move to a city and offload all its data into the Internet through gateways in a manner similar to how the data upload and download works in villages.

So far, we have implemented a Java based software framework called Opportunistic Connection Management Protocol (OCMP) which supports such a kind of disconnected operation. We are closely working with eGovServices towards understanding the appropriate scenarios for deployment of OCMP. We have also proposed extensions to the framework to take care of location management in the case of disconnections, and handle security using Identity Based Cryptography. We are also trying to integrate OCMP with DTN to take care of multiple levels of disconnections.

OCMP is further suitable for multi-NIC communication, like utilizing the cellular network and WiFi collectively. This is likely to find use in signalling routing or status updates or important feedback information on the cellular channel which is fairly ubiquitous in coverage even in the rural areas, and to use the WiFi based mechanical backhaul for large data transfer in a delay tolerant manner.

All of us are quite exicted about this project. Amazingly, the eGovServices folks do transactions in village Internet koisks on electricity bills, mutual funds, infrastructure bonds, birth and death certificates, and other applications. And so far they have successfully handled transactions of over 8 crores since they came into operation!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Big Bang: Globalization plus Social Entrepreneurism

I recently read a paper that strongly criticised the WTO, and it prompted me to write this article. The biggest argument seems to be that most of the poor in the world depend on natural resources for their livelihood, and free trade as promoted by WTO, either destroys these natural resources, or it opens them up for exploitation by the richer nations. The same old story - the richer become richer, and the poor become poorer. This goes into things like fisheries where rich countries can subsidize their production and cheaply dump it into poor countries, driving the local fishermen out of business. Or, opening up the local waters to big fishing boats depletes the resources available to the local people. The same holds true for forest products and agriculture as well. Another fear is that opening up the markets to foreign industrial players will reduce the amount of regulation that local governments can exercise towards environmental concerns like freshwater water depletion, greenhouse emissions, soil desertification, energy generation, and garbage disposal. Many developing country governments have also been unsuccessful in protecting their intellectual property for things like herbal medicines and originally developed seeds that are being patented by multinational companies. Recognizing the foreign IPR for such products makes it illegal for local farmers and traditional healers to practice their age-old professions, leading to what is known as biopiracy. Even though this kind of free trade can be useful for some other sectors because it opens up foreign markets for developing countries as well, but anti-WTO activists argue that the poor countries are not being offered enough, and that these are just methods used by developed countries to delay the flattening of the world so that they are not overtaken by India and China.

All of that is true, but then again, there are huge benefits to globalization as well. Look at how IT outsourcing and BPO improved the middle class incomes. All of this triggered off a cycle for bigger and better economic growth, because additional disposable income supports other industries like cars, tourism, eateries, clothing, consumer electronics, entertainment, and much more. This is not only good for the local industries, but also the countries that have been outsourcing their jobs to India and China and cribbing about them, actually now get to benefit from more exports to India and China. The foundations of globalization are based on the theory of comparative advantage where countries or corporations or individuals should focus on doing what they are best at, and then trade the goods and services accordingly among themselves. A bigger and freer market also allows competition among these corporations from different countries because with free trade everybody can compete with everybody else for the global market, which in turn provides a continous incentive for the corporations to keep improving their services.

But then what is the answer to reconcile both these two opposing factors? The answers are simple.

Instead of opening up the ocean waters, why not first make the global corporations invest in efficient and state-of-the-art processing plants for fish products? Verghese Kurien brought prosperity to the milkmen around Anand in Gujarat by starting the white revolution. The same revolution can be started for fish products as well. It is easy to rant about the fact that fishermen around the coastal areas are very poor, but the real thing is to do something to bring prosperity to them. Set up cold storage chambers. Open up canning plants. Improve access to the global market. Bring about coordination and standardization among the different fishermen in what they catch and how they catch. Economic growth is like a spiral. Once the income levels begin to improve, the same fishermen will buy bigger boats, catch more fish, earn more money, and buy another bigger boat. The first step is the hardest to help create the spiral in the first place, and this is where social entrepreneurism and globalization come into the picture.

The same spiral is necessary for argicultural and forest products as well. Processing plants and granaries need to be brought closer to the farmers, and this does not mean physically opening up new plants closer to the villages, but a closer proximity can also be achieved by improving the transport and communication infrastructure. Rather than have the farmers pile up sacks after sacks on bullock carts and spend days together to take these and sell their produce in the cities, the setting up of local collection hubs similar to the ITC model can greatly benefit the farmers. Not only that, micro-credit can help farmers buy mechanization tools to reduce their drudgery in harvesting and post-harvest processing. Setting up the same thing on a cooperative basis with collective ownership can further ammortize the costs. And access to world markets can bring in more income. This is where social entrepreneurism and globalization are really needed.

And why let foreign multinational corporations do any biopiracy in the first place, when we already have the know how with us, as well as all the talent to produce and propagate our innovations and heritage to the rest of the world. We missed out on baasmati rice big time, but we should not allow that to happen again. Associations like Srishti are trying to do this by promoting local innovations and encouraging profitable organizations to be created out of these innovations. But social entrepreneurism and globalization can take it to the next level by making it easier for smaller organizations to scale up their production and give them faster and seamless access to more markets across the world. A global supply chain network that can work for a multitude of different kinds of goods is what is needed today.

Apart from all this, rural manufacturing needs to grow. The reasons are threefold. Firstly, as the living standards of the people improve, they move up to the next strata of society and their demands increase, which requires a corresponding increase in production and infrastructure. Secondly, automation reduces the number of people required to do any given job, and the surplus labour needs to find other alternative employment opportunities. Thirdly, to take advantage of the globalization and access to markets already in place today, IT services and BPO are not the only options, but many more niche manufacturing markets that are being catered by China presently, have lots more room and demand to expand. Apart from the infrastructure necessary to be put into place to encourage rural manufacturing, education is essential to fulfil the demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour. This will be the subject of my next article on how social entrepreneurism can promote manufacturing industries and other sectors to help in solving the problems of rural India.

Thomas Friedman also states the same thing in his book, "The World is Flat". He talks about the unflat world largely comprised of the poor and rural population who have remained untouched by globalization. Globalization and free trade have benefitted the middle and upper classes no doubt, but so far it has harmed the poor only because the poor were never brought into the loop. And this is where the reach of the spiral of growth needs to expanded. Once good technology, standardization, and access to world markets are brought to the rural people, and they are integrated into the mainstream of globalization, who is afraid about competition from free trade then? But the prerequisites need to be fulfilled first of bringing the rural population up to the mark. Otherwise fears of the tyranny of free trade will surely come true.

And last but not the least, what is the role of the government in all this? The government has its tasks lined out well and nicely. Firsly, to set up systems to ensure that public spending is uniformly available to develop the infrastructure necessary for growth of both rural as well urban India. As Amartya Sen says, we cannot afford to have an India which is half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa. This is what the role of a socialist democratic government is supposed to be. Secondly, to ensure that positive social change goes unopposed, and short-sighted and selfish sections of the society like terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and gender inequalists are not allowed to voice and exercise their stupid opinions. And thirdly, to empower to the people to make sure that the government does its job.

In short, globalization is good because it encourages competition and provides access to a larger market, but certain pre-requisites and safeguards are required so as not to initiate the opposite affect that can stiffle local production. Social entrepreneuism is not just the answer to bridge the gaps and create safeguards by making the society capable of coping with the hazards of globalization, but also to actually make use of the benefits brought forth by globalization. This big bang will only be the beginning of the vast universe of possibilities that can open up for the developing world then.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Games and education

"Motivation and Learning" by Henry Jenkins is an excellent paper on the role that games can play in education. It is all about involving the learner more closely with the subject, through (a) creating a flow that can result in better concentration in the activity and lead to a mastery of the skills, (b) bringing about curiousty, fantasy, and challenge which increase the level of interest, (c) making the fun hard and engaging, and (d) helping to create an identity to which the learner can commit to. Civilization III can help in history lessons, Carmen Sandiego can improve geography and awareness, and Revolution can help learn about how trade and business works. Games could be designed to teach children top-down the fundamentals of democracy as well, and encourage them to participate in the political process when they grow up. The author cites a number of reasons why learning through playing can be good:

1. Games lower a threat of failure, and encourage exploration and experimentation through scientific thinking.
2. Games foster a sense of engagement through immersion.
3. Games can schedule difficulty levels customized to each and every player differently, so as not to overwhelm anybody and gradually increase the challenge levels.
4. Games link learning to goals and roles.
5. Games create a social context that connects learners to others who share their interests.
6. Games can be represented in multiple ways like text, graphics, photographs, etc, thus increasing the reach and visilibity to a bigger audience.

Could the same ideas be used to make education more interesting in the rural context? Or, even in the suburban context for that matter? Back home, so many kids from the middle and lower-middle classes in the cities attend school regularly, but do not even know how to read the english alphabet correctly, or even understand the spoken language for that matter. The reason is that they never need to practice or use the language after they leave school. Engaging them in innovative games can certainly jumpstart the process. The tools are already available. Speech recognition and hand writing recognition technologies are getting better day by day. The 100$ laptop from Media Labs MIT, the Rs. 10,000 PC from Intel, under 40 $ cellphones from Motorola, all can be suitable platforms for implementing these games. And Internet kiosks can be excellent venues to hold multi-player games among the village children.

Matthew Kam, Divya Ramachandran, and John Canny from the TIER group at UC Berkeley are trying to do exactly this to promote education in the rural areas of the developing world.

Barefoot College

Amrita told me about this. Under the leadership of Bunker Roy, a small group of students started Barefoot College in 1972 in Tilonia, Rajasthan. They train poor and jobless college dropouts who have returned to their villages after trying to make it big in the cities, to be barefoot doctors, engineers, and architects. The idea is that no formal college degree is better than a hands-on experience. The campus now spreads over 80,000 square feet area and consists of residences, a library, meeting halls, an open air theatre, a ten-bed referral base hospital, pathological laboratory, teacher's training unit, water testing laboratory, a Post Office, a public call booth, an Internet dhaba (cafe), a screen printing press, and a 700,000 litre rainwater harvesting tank. The College is also completely solar-electrified. It serves a population of over 125,000 people both in immediate as well as distant areas. A good overview is given on the Schwab Foundation website, and this is the link to the Barefoot College website.

And here is a wonderful story on Barefoot Solar Engineers where women have been trained to set up solar panels in villages with erratic power supply. It is an amazing read.

Setting up wind turbine farms

It takes 1 crore to set up a 250 kW wind turbine, and banks subsidize this by 70%. It seems 30-35 lacks would be just about enough! The MP Windfarms Association is leveraging this by inviting investments from private investors, and using it to set up wind turbine farms in a profitable manner by selling the energy to state grids. I would call this social entrepreneurism.

To quote from the article:

1. As wind energy comes under non-conventional energy it gets a tax break of 80 per cent as depreciation during the first year.
2. Banks provide 70 per cent of the project cost as loans at 9 per cent interest for installation of wind energy. The minimum cost of installation works out to Rs 1 crore for a 250 kw wind turbine. Thus, an individual will have to bring in Rs 30-35 lakh upfront, while the balance can be funded through bank loans.
3. The energy produced can be sold to state electricity boards. In the first year of operations, almost half the amount that individuals invest – close to Rs 14 lakh – can be earned as revenues. The proceeds can be used to pay off part of the loan as well.
4. Cost of operation, maintenance and insurance works out to Rs 40,000-50,000 a year. Wind turbine manufacturers give a one-year warranty on an installed turbine.

Elections in Bihar

Quoting the author, Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswamy:

"India will be a sham democracy if the very foundation of a democratic polity, namely free and fair elections, are missing from the scene."

And the Bihar assembly elections were a first step in the direction of free and fair elections. The first thing the Election Commission did was to make electronic versions of the electoral rolls. This helped them eliminate duplicates entries. Next they generated lists of households with more than 10-15 members, an unsually high number, and verified these to eliminate the names of dead or migrated members. And the use of Election Photo Id Cards (EPICs) was made compulsory. These together helped eliminate more than 18 lack invalid voters, and added 4 lack valid voters. Armed forces were also stationed to prevent poll booth highjacking, and the polling stations were categorized into safe or sensitive stations as well. Extending the poll to 7 days instead of 4 was also helpful in eliminating pollbooth highacking.

However, there is much more to be done still. The Lok Sabha polling was up to 58%, but the Bihar polling was hardly 46%. One reason for this is suggested to be the absense of any ceilings on party expenditure: thus, money power and muscle power eventually decide who is allowed to vote, and for whom, thus determining the outcome of the elections. But in my opinion, the bigger problem is that the people themselves are irresponsible and do not care too much about who gets in power. The strong stand taken by the Supreme court on poll-related litigation, and the emergence of civil society groups and a proactive media are hoped to solve these issues.


The Ecohouse proves that remodeling a standard house into being green is within the reach of any average urban neighborhood. It uses things like rainwater catchment for water efficiency, sewage recyclying to regenerate portable water, passive cooling by orienting the house correctly to the sun and the winds, green roofs and facades to absorb radiation, natural ventilation, and renewable energy by heating water through passive thermosiphon systems which do not require electrical water pumps.

Fuel efficient stoves

The Aprovecho Research Center supports research and implementation of fuel efficient, low emission, cooking and heating stoves, that can not only reduce the indoor and outdoor pollution effects, but also cut down on the amount of fuel needed. Cooking demonstrations in North Darfur have educated women on reducing the amount of wood to half!

Other areas of focus include forestry with selective thinning of trees rather than clear cutting, ecological restoration of areas impacted by logging, watershed maintenance, and other collateral activity like seed collection and vine plantings. They also promote organic gardening, which includes home grown food, composting, inter-planting, and wild edible foraging.

WorldChanging also reported on the work at MIT on healthy fuel, that does lesser respiratory damage to the people using it. This includes fuel produced from bagas, which is the waste left after extracting sugar from sugarcane. And how cowdung fires in India can be made to release less smoke by bundling together with wheat straw.

Ship breaking industry

This is an entirely new industry blossoming around the coasts of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey. Huge ships at the end of their lifecycle are sold for their steel and other recyclable material, and poor workers armed with crowbars and hammers take the ships apart piece by piece. The recycling industry surely has tremendous potential when done in an organized manner, especially when coupled with recylcing cars, trucks, two wheelers, and other home consumer items. Keshav's suggestion on recycling cellphones is even more applicable here, where recyclying companies will actually pay you to take away your broken down car and the break it apart!

The downside is that such recycling tends to release toxic substances into the environment, which can even harm the workers. Somebody needs to fix this, and then somebody needs to come up with better ways of utilizing recycled parts to build other relevant stuff. Once this is done, a whole industry can be supported in this way.

[Jan 02]Protests have been lauched against the dumping of a French ship in Alang, Gujarat, because Indian workers are not completely protected from the hazards of working with the toxic materials.

[Jan 12]GreenPeace activists actually managed to get into the ship off the coast of Egypt to protest against this.

[Jan 12] Egypt has now stopped the ship from crossing into the Suez canal until approproate proofs are not furnished that the Clemenceau is actually free of hazardous material and not in violation of the Basel Convention which prevents trade in hazardous materials.

[Jan 16] Egypt granted passage to the toxic ship, but the Indian supreme court has denied access to the ship into Indian waters until the situation is not verified by the customs.

[Fed 16]France finally recalled the ship, after the Indian Supreme Court refused admission of the ship into Indian waters without additional information. Certainly a big victory for environmental activists. Interesting, even Dhaka banned a Fench liner from entering the Bangadesh ship breaking yards.

Public distribution system

Stricken with corruption, this is the last system anybody could have dreamt of that might still be working. Kerosene is the primary cooking fuel for most of the rural population, and a large part of the urban population as well. Although there have been cases of diverting kerosene to adulterate diesel, but the fact is that the distribution system has reaches far into the Indian population. 95% of the rural population claim that they buy subsidised kerosene from the PDS, and 89% of the urban population claims the same as well. What lessons can be learnt from this, that might be applicable to other systems as well? Retail of medicines? Subsidised hands and clothes washing soaps? Books? ...

There is a downside as well, that kerosene is environmentally not friendly, and the subsidies are very expensive for the government. But can alternative fuels like LPG be distributed through the same PDS as well? Can dual pricing help in alleviating losses of the government? I think the answer to both questions lies in the supply-demand dynamics. Kerosene was priced low because the supply was sufficient to meet the demands, but it is not so with LPG. And whether dual pricing will work, or lead to more corruption of the system is anybody's guess.

e-Gov projects

Companies like Oracle and Intel surely have profit making incentives behind the e-governance projects, but if sustained properly, then these projects are the way to go for social entrepreneurism with the large number of new options that open up when appropriate communication and IT infrstructure is put in place. We have already seen how this can revolutionize education and farming, but it is not just limited to that. Retail, insurance, media, and other higher order sectors have a lot to benefit too.

Zero infant mortality rate

US based Indian doctors, Dr Cherukuri Subba Rao and Dr Amit Chakrabarty, from The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPIO), have managed to reduce the infant mortality rates in the Sambhalpur village of Orissa to zero. AAPIO provided funds and direction, but the clinic was operated by the locals themselves. This is an excellent example of enabling change. I really wish similar efforts would be made in other sectors of education, communication, energy generation, and manufacturing.

The Pravasi Bhartiya Divas, and call to the NRIs to connect to their villages, should be taken seriously because there is lots that can be done.

Time to wake up

According to the WorldWatch Institute, the tremendous growth rate of India and China cannot be sustained by the planet. This goes into many things, like the need for energy for rapid urbanization, food for the growing population, and policies to handle environmental changes.

Energy is apparently the one single bottleneck that can throttle growth and be a cause of violent political upheavals in the future. 2006 is the year that marks a transition in the world population from mostly rural to mostly urban, and this is largely the result of growth in the developing countries. With increased urbanization however, comes the need for more energy to drive manufacturing, housing, transport, communication, and all other industries. Alternative forms of energy become not just relevant, but imperative. Fortunately, many great leaders realise this, and a number of efforts are underway, like Brazilian cars running on ethanol, 2.8 billion $ California solar initiative, Barefoot solar engineers in India, investments to set up new power plants, lower costs to set up wind energy farms, deals for setting up nuclear power plants and import of nuclear fuel, Sweden's aim to break oil dependancy by 2020, and the development of alternative forms of energy like ocean power. Everybody, and India and China most importantly, need to invest in research to make green-energy cheaper. Andrew Leonard is of the (optimistic) view that the need for cleaner energy in China will actually accelerate the growth of green-energy. This is why investment groups like the FE Clean Energy are funding renewable energy projects, and GE has changed its mission statement to "green is green".

However, things are not so rosy. India and China have mainly had coal based energy generation, which makes them immediate targets of Kyoto and other climate change protest organizations. The argument is that when USA, France, England, and other countries were allowed to use fossil fuels carelessly when they were developing, then why should India and China be prevented from doing so now? The only answer lies in cooperatively developing other sources of energy, otherwhile the doomsday is not far when geopolitics and oil crisis will escalate to an extent even beyond the present Iraq (and Iran) conflicts.

And finally to quote Thomas Friedman on sustainable energy:

"Enough of this Bush-Cheney nonsense that conservation, energy efficiency and environmentalism are some hobby we can't afford. I can't think of anything more cowardly or un-American. Real patriots, real advocates of spreading democracy around the world, live green. Green is the new red, white and blue."

Friday, January 06, 2006

Emerging agricultural missions

This is a great speech delivered by President Kalam in June, 2005 at the convocation ceremony of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University at Coimbatore. He talks about a number of things. Scientific magnanimity that will inculcate team spirit and motivation among the researchers. His efforts at the gardens of Rashtrapati Bhawan to symbolize the importance of value addition for farmers, possibilities of economic expansion, and coexistence of diverse people. The importance of agriculture for our country, and the need for better soil upgradation, seed quality, irrigation, weather prediction, processing, and waste management. The role of information technology and communication for agricultural growth and economic sustainance. How collaboration among researchers and Universities can accelerate progress. The ways in which communication, transport, healthcare, and education centers should function together for greater economic growth sought by social entrepreneurs towards rural upliftment. And the challenges lying ahead for India in order to double its agricultural production by 2020 and start the second green revolution that will unify soil-to-seed, seed-to-grain, grain-to-food, and food-to-market processes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Rural employment

The government indeed has good intentions in creating jobs for rural India, but they never said how: the money is there, but what kind of jobs are they talking about to pay the people? Probably they are mean employment for the Bharat Nirman and related programs, but those are just infrastructure development projects and cannot sustain the large under-employed rural population. What we really is a better manufacturing sector. Globalization surely creates jobs through outsourcing and foreign investments, but for India, these jobs have been mostly restricted to the skilled and educated workforce. IT just employs 700,000 people at the moment, which is not even 1% of the Indian population. Add the meagre manufacturing sector, and even then you do not get anything more than 3%. Over 400 million people of India are under-employed, and the only way to get around this is by creating a larger manufacturing base. And most importantly, this manufacturing cannot be mediocre in any way. Look at how the Kanpur textile industry died out when the MNCs came in, and today we import almost 600 million $ of textiles from China. China indeed caught on to the offshore manufacturing bandwagon a long time back. Everywhere you go in the world, and even in India, toys are labeled as Made in China, decoration pieces are labelled as Made in China, clothes, and even the Diwali lights are labeled as Made in China. We really need to find more such niche markets and innovate for low cost manufacturing plants using the latest cutting edge technologies. The SSIs that died out when the offshoring wave hit the world have to be revived. When Liggat Papad can be such a success story, we surely have the potential to do great things if we do them properly.

The rural population has so far been untouched by globalization, but it should not remain as such. We have a tremendous manpower and huge labour market - we should turn that into an asset, rather than a liability. Only when we are able to integrate more and more of India into the economic cycle, it is only then that the poor can spiral ahead into higher income brackets and improve their standards of living. Infrastructure development is just a catalyst to growth, but the real growth lies in the development of other sectors. And once this growth begins, it will not just benefit the rural population, but the entire country because that is how economics works.

The following reports also raise similar questions about the rural employment guarantee scheme:
- Atanu Dey

The other side of the story: rural health care

Saransh from Orkut pointed me to this article.

P. Sainath is also the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. In this article, he argues about the poor state of rural healthcare, and the fact that nobody is doing anything about it.

He starts with how the media is more concerned about Amitabh Bachhan's intestine operation, and not bothered about bringing the conditions of people in the village into sight. Well, I would say that the media is doing exactly what helps it to gain monetary benefits. It is the people who have to come forth, demand their rights, constitute a new media, and use that new media to redefine the entire system. This is exactly what the vision behind the global brain is all about.

He reinforces the fact that medical health care is one of the most important causes of rural debt, and this is because everything is privatised and people have to bear their entire expenses themselves. India has one of the lowest public sector investments in healthcare, and things like health insurance are singularly absent. Whereas private hospitals get considerable subsidies, but hardly 0.9% of the annual GDP is invested in better public healthcare facilities. I think the situation is changing slowly with the new Congress government which has pledged large sums of money to improve the infrastructure and healthcare systems, and provide employment. But will this be enough, or a better alternative is to instead bring medical facilities to the poor through private mobile ambulances, or is it to force the private hospitals to set up similar centers in the villages as well?

The situation definitely needs urgent attention, and hopefully things will improve with all the investment promises made, and other external effort like the grand challenges funded by the Gates Foundation.

The Nature of Education

I think that henceforth whenever I bring up anything about President Kalam, I will have to prefix it with "I love President Kalam". I think he is one of the most visionary leaders India has had, and I hope that his ideas will be able to change things. During the Children Science Congress, a part of the Indian Science Congress at Hyderabad, he addressed 750 children and emphasized on the need to be open to new knowledge, to encourage and praise hardwork, to be righteous and grow up with the good and moral values, to have the courage to think differently and explore and solve problems, and most importantly, he gave them a homework to read five books.

Empires of the Minds by Denis Waitley is how to galvanize your career by constantly adapting in today's dynamic world of rapid changes, how to recognize your passion, how to build teams, and how to develop healthy personal relationships. An essential guide to survival.

Journey into Light by G. Venkataraman, andThe Best of Indian Physics by B. Siddharth, are about C. V. Raman's life story, and the achievements of Indian physicists respectively. Essential to make you proud of your heritage and get motivation.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku, are about how the universe evolved, and what lies ahead. An essential guide to display the power of imagination, creative thinking, and the perseverance for a search of explanations despite any kind of disabilities.

I could not have come up with a better list that is not only exciting to read, but valuable as well, and helps inculcate the importance of science, technology, and values among the children.

What was missing though is what I had emphasized in an earlier article on additional roles of the people. It is not only important to have the desire and capability to do new and good things for our fellowmen, but to also realize our political responsibilities which can help in creating the right environment to nurture and sustain those of us who are doing new and good things. I was apalled to hear that the Maoists in Nepal and Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh vehemently opposed micro-financing because it empowered the women. Satyendra Dubey was murdered because he dared to make public the wrong-doings of the beaureocracy and political system. Honest IAS officers were transfered into positions of demerit just because they did not bend towards the corrupt demands of politicians. There are countless such incidents, all of which point towards the fact that our governance system is not functioning properly. The world has chosen democracy as being the right way to go and I will not challenge that belief here, but democracy must function correctly for it to live up to the vision. And this can only be done if you and I realize our responsibilities towards the nation.

Our responsibility does not just include casting votes, but casting votes rationally. Not just paying taxes, but ensuring that the tax money is utilized properly. Not just giving charity, but being secular and tolerant of others at heart. Not just educating ourselves and our families, but educating the unaware ones on what is right and what is wrong. Not just going to work and coming back home, but noticing the problems that people face and think of solutions. And it is amazing how education sits as the single lone pillar on whose basis all these responsibilities can be built upon. Children should be taught these responsibilities right from school.

Rather than have them write essays on My best friend, 90% of which begin with "I have many friends, but my best friend is...", they should be made to write essays on My neighborhood and The aeroplane and The Universe and How my mother cleans the aquarium... The list is endless, but the crux is to develop creative thinking, knowledge acquisition, and acute observation abilities.

Rather than have them rote the 12 duties of the prime-minister of India for the Civics exam, they should be asked to bring back a write up of the problems on sanitation, drainage, and environment near their homes, and what steps are being taken to solve these problems. They should be taught from day one that they have to raise issues if they want those issues to be solved. If tools like Viplav gain popularity, they should be taught to start using these tools right from when they are kids.

For the SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) period, rather than move chairs from one classroom to another, they should be taken on field trips into slums and villages where they can observe the living conditions of the people there, and contrast that situation with their own lifestyle. Different schools can very well schedule visits once a month at different days, and lo and behold, you have a new school for the village!

Not just that, new curriculums should be devised that teach children about the day to day functioning of the country. I never learnt anything in school on why people pay taxes, and that is the fundamental reason why so many people try to evade taxation by illegal means because they do not understand the social importance and the long term benefits that taxation can have for them. Human thinking is very short term, whereas it should be long term instead. Nobody taught me why the democratic system was designed the way it is and what it is supposed to ensure, and that is why so many people do not cast their votes at all. Nobody taught me about the need for renewable energy, even though I was told everything about what the photovoltaic effect is, and that is why nobody thinks twice before buying large cars and swinging them around in the neighborhood when they could have bicycled or just walked instead. Nobody told me about the problems in weather prediction, but instead I was taught about monsoons and El Nino as if everything was supposed to work like clockwork. Nobody taught me anything about how drought can (and does) spoil fields after fields and trigger famines, but I was told all about the process of rice cultivation, which is why very few people do not waste their food and most people do not care.

Most of all of the above that I personally learnt was through my parents, from the television, and books that our school librarian suggested to me to read. But is it not time to change? Is it so hard to realize that our education system is stagnating? Introduction of new subjects in computer science and teaching Java instead of C++ is not the only way to symbolize that the system is adapting to the world. In this age of increasing globalization where you cannot just worry about yourself, kids should be shown the big picture first, and how all the different things fit in together that can make the world a better place. A top-down system of education should be designed instead of the bottom-up system that is prevalent today, especially when it comes to science, history, geography, civics, and politics, because all these subjects are based on logical reasoning and have a pattern behind the individual pieces that constitute them. You cannot teach A, B, C... to nursery children and assume that they will figure out how A-P-P-L-E is spelt. You actually start from the big picture first, that is, show them what an apple is, and then breakdown the spelling into alhpabets. It is the same top-down approach that is needed for all the subjects as well. I really wish somebody could rewrite all the textbooks to convey knowledge in the right way. Another more interactive way could be to design innovative games that help children understand better the way the world works. Probably then the children will be able to make even better sense of the books suggested by President Kalam.

Revamping the education system will surely make students aware of their responsibilities towards the nation and give them a better perspective of why to how to select their goals in life. Better facilities will make them more capable of inventing new things and solving old problems in new ways. However, another important role of education is that it enables students to dream and helps them move up the social ladder. This will be one of the subjects of my next article.

Perpetual motion machines

The sun won't stop shining, the wind won't stop blowing, the rivers will not stop flowing, the Earth will not stop rotating, the oceans will not stop boiling, well, at least not too soon. But we will surely run out of oil very soon.

The demand for energy is increasing with the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies, and this energy is not just needed for running cars, but for running factories, offices, and homes for a growing population as well. I love President Kalam who has commisioned the set up of a 5 MW solar plant at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the largest in the whole of Asia, and is calling out to researchers to develop better solar and other forms of renewable energy. And then there is President Bush who has instead cut off research funding of the NSF by 100 million $ because he feels that the world (or, is world = USA) will have enough oil once the middle east is brought under control. It is amazing how differently people in different parts of the world think!

Anyhow, the bottomline is that renewable energy with standalone small power plants can be the answer to the problem of energy in rural areas. Power brings in automation, which improves quality and scale of production, and gives more time to the people to invest in other activities.

Some interesting green-energy projects going on in the UK:
- Solar powered CIS tower in Manchester who have set up solar panels all along on the walls of the 25 floored building.
- Balcal biofuels who use waste wood and shavings from furniture construction to do biogas energy generation.
- WaveHub that will harness ocean energy.
- Kentish Flats offshore that will establish a wind turbine farm.
- London Mosque that will support over 40,000 worshippers during the 2012 Olympics, and will be completely green with water recylying and solar/wind/tidal power.

And another interesting project to harness the temperature gradient in the ocean waters to generate energy through the reverse refrigeration cycle.

The year of the digital citizen

Media, people, and government. Who is who? The lines are diminishing and all of them are merging into one with the decentralization of media and better Internet/communication tools in the hands of the people. This is exactly what all the democracies of the world need: true transparency. I was amazed at the tech-savviness of some of the politicians who have already started using blogs, wikis, and videos to connect better with the people, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Tools like Viplav, Voxiva, and the Global Brain are needed to complete the loop from the people to the politicians, and from the people to the people, and that will strengthen the notions of a real democracy. It is not just India that needs this, but USA needs it even more desperately if it is avoid another term of disaster!

Grand challenges in global health

Bill Gates announced this initiative in January 2003 and invited proposals from the leading researchers of the world to identify the most important problems that need to solved for global health. They narrowed down to 14 grand challenges:

1. Create Effective Single-Dose Vaccines
2. Prepare Vaccines that Do Not Reqire Refrigeration
3. Develop Needle-Free Vaccine Delivery Systems
4. Devise Testing Systems for New Vaccines
5. Design Antigens for Protective Immunity
6. Learn About Immunological Responses
7. Develop Genetic Strategy to Control Insects
8. Develop Chemical Strategy to Control Insects
9. Create a Nutrient-Rich Staple Plant Species
10. Find Drugs and Delivery Systems to Limit Drug Resistance
11. Create Therapies that Can Cure Latent Infection
12. Create Immunological Methods to Cure Latent Infection
13. Develop Technologies to Assess Population Health
14. Develop Versatile Diagnostic Tools

If you notice, all of them are trying to create practical systems for administering drugs and detecting problems that are especially suited for the social settings in rural populations. Here, sanitation is poor, economic status is not condusive to continual care, education is absent, communication/power/transport infrastructure is bad, and hunger is predominant. Over 400 million $ have been given out in grants by the Bill/Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations so far.

A recent breakthrough has been achieved for a diarrhoea vaccine for the Rota virus, which accounts for a third of the 500,000 deaths due to diarrhoea. Tests show great hope, and this could be a first step towards meeting the grand challenges in global health.