Monday, March 27, 2006

Mirzapur's carpet weavers

Many of the famed carpet weavers from Mirzapur are today found on the sidewalk selling potatoes and onions, or pulling rickshaws. Things are not going at all well with the carpet industry. The international market is flooded by cheap Chinese and Iranian products which receive tremendous government support, but the Indian government has not been so helpful. Furthermore, petty strifes between administrative officals over warehouse availability for storing the carpets, has left the carpet manufacturers with inadequate infrastructure to stock up and market their goods because carpets are a bulky item requiring much more groundlevel support than other arts and crafts products.

And whatever happened to the whole notion of fair trade out here? Unfortunately, the manufacturers themselves resort to anti-fair-trade practices by using child labour, or underpaid workers from the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. Really, the government should notice their plight and help NGOs in the surrounding areas supporting rural and traditional handicrafts to take the unemployed carpet weavers under their clout. Otherwise, this will not only spell doom for these artisans, but also spell the death of the local carpet industry.

A follow-up article was published on the large scale use of child-labour in these parts. It does not make a pleasing read at all. Children hardly 13 years of age are sold by their poor parents, and made to work in inhuman conditions to manufacture these carpets. Raids have been made in the past, and the children have been returned to their homes. However, as it turns out, the children are resold to dalaals who send them elsewhere for other kinds of work. An integrated approach is needed, where not just raids are conducted, but educational programs are put in place for the children, and incentive structures are established to encourage the parents to send their kids to school.

Birthing suit could save lives

Researchers have developed a reusable suit that can be strapped on using velcro, and forces blood from the legs to vital organs during haemorrhages. Tests indicate that women who used the suit lost half as much as blood as others. Haemorrhaging causes a third of the 500,000 deaths a year during birth, and such a birthing suit could save many of these lives. The best part is that it is reusable, and can be administered by anybody without much training.

Disaster relief communication kits

RedHerring reports about an organization called NetHope, that has developed a net relief kit for establishing fast communication links in disaster struck areas. It is powered by a car battery and can connect to the Internet through satellite, for both voice as well as data delivery. When extended through WiFi mesh links, this becomes an ideal system to rapidly cover large areas with connectivity.

Online donations

One-stop online donation websites are clearly the right way to go forward. Social entrepreneurs, NGOs, and other organizations can submit proposals to get listed on donation websites, and if selected, then this provides more exposure to these organizations. Philanthrophists and small-time donors now only need to visit such donation websites, and can browse through multiple social development organizations working in different areas. Other websites like GiveIndia have taken this a step further, and list only those NGOs who submit their financial statements regularly to GiveIndia. This brings in a lot of accountability in the functioning of the NGOs, and also ensures donors that their contributions will be used rationally and usefully.

SEZ plans: Boon or bane

The government is to consider 100 SEZ plans in the areas of automobile manufacturing, textiles, garments, pharmaceuticals, and other industries. These will generate over 5 lakh jobs, and will bring in investments of over 1,00,000 crores in the next three years. This sounds absolutely great.

The article also says that the areas to be built-up have already been identified, and together stretch over 210 million square feet. This however brings to mind the rural areas that will have to be displaced in order to have this scheme go through. But we all know that right from the Rourkela Steel Plant, Nalco, Hirakud, Indravati or Rengali dam project, the people who had lost their homes to the projects are yet to be settled. Protests were made in Orissa against steel plants, but many tribal protestors unfortunately lost their lives when the police turned violent.

The answer is hard to find unless other systems like the judiciary function properly, and ensure that the funds meant for rehabilitation are utilized properly. Other than this, there are always environmental hazards to take care of. Recently, a coke bottling plant was accused of consuming too much water, to the extent that neighboring farms started drying out because of lack of irrigation. Governance is a highly organic system. No one policy decision can be considered in isolation, but it's affects on other things must be taken into account as well.

Raghav radio station

A young man from a village in Bihar strung together an antenna with a couple of transistor sets, and started a radio station that broadcasts popular songs, and even AIDS and polio messages. Farmers listen to it while in the fields, their families listen to it, and it is more popular than the FM channels in that part. There are issues with licensing though, and it is likely that the radio station might have to be shut down. But anyhow, this is a very appreciable effort by somebody who does not even know how to read and write properly, but yet has benefitted the community greatly. If broadcast media can be made available to people so easily and cheaply even in the remotest parts of the world, then what are we waiting for! The applications to disaster warnings, healthcare alarms, and news and awareness are just phenomenal and cannot be denied. This is the least that can be done to bridge the digital divide, and help citizen journalism by making the voices of people heard all across the local villages. Commercial radio stations will surely not give slots for news on microfinance self help groups, or whether a new well was dug in a village, or about efforts for watershed development, but such radio stations definitely can, when coupled with a good recording and distribution network handled by the people themselves.

Unfortunately, the station was closed down because it is illegal to operate community radio stations in India. Hopefully new laws will be passed soon, because the community radio initiative is very popular in other democratic countries across the world. Also have a look at another blog posting I did.

Arid Area Greenhouse

Prof. Girija Sharan from IIM-A has developed a method to set up greenhouses in arid and drought prone areas, where water supply is very sparse. This also won him the Global Development Marketplace Award insitituted by the World Bank. A pilot greenhouse is up and running in the Kutch area, and the technology is all set for commercialization. The full is available as well: Greenhouse Cultivation in a Hot Arid Area. I have concern with the energy requriements for running the pumps that drive the heat-exchanger, but these can possibly be overcome in other ways if the costs justify the end results.

Motorola to offer services via post-offices

Similar to the idea publicized in an article by BBC on rural connectivity, Motorola plans to sell air-time through postmen carrying cellphones and bring out something like a PCO-on-wheels. The postal service is certainly is certainly a sector with a tremendous outreach, and it will be pitiable if we are not able to harness it for such purposes.

Deutsche MF focuses on rural India

The world has certainly begun to catch on with there being a lot of fortune at the bottom of the pyramid! Deutche Mutual Fund plans to fund companies that are focused on rural India. This is something that even I was trying to say with an earlier article on socialist companies for a socialist democracy, that corporate houses should really look into MFs having equity stake with organizations like Aavishkaar. This will be useful for hedging risks in an increasingly global economy, and extending their returns to beyond just the middle and higher class income groups.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Kalam suggests study on judicial delays

The voice of our favorite President Kalam; a step certainly in the right direction, and pushed by the highest official of the country, but only just the beginning. We already know how slow and inefficient the judicial system really is, with delays and adjournments being a regular feature, non-computerization causing scalability problems, and stupid rules that are unable to handle blatant corruption. The solution is not simple. A quick search brought up an excellent study from 2005 (** already done **) by the Centre for Media Studies from Delhi.

Some quick points from the report:

- Value of corruption is estimated at Rs. 2630 crores per annum
- Delhi has the highest 2.31 judges per lakh of population. Bihar has 1.21, and Uttar Pradesh has 0.78.
- 2.6 crore cases are pending in Indian courts, given that the population of India is only 1 crore, and almost 50% of the population is below 25 years of age and hence likely to form a minuscle share of the pending court cases.
- More than half the respondents have to visit the courts at least 4 times. 36% of these people have to visit again because of postponement of their hearings, while 21% have to come back simply because the judges did not show up.

Things look bad, but small steps are being taken, but but probably too slowly. Fast track courts have been set up, registrars are appointed to look into complaints about judges and other staff, and government grievance websites are available; but then again we all know the latest on the Jessica Lal murder where all the accused were set free, and the Zahira Sheikh hostile witness incident. Even if sufficient judges are employed, even if the system is computerised, even if the grievance websites work, something is still wrong that the Jessica Lal and Zahira Sheikh cases still occur.

If President Kalam must do a study, then the study should focus at higher levels of the working of the system. Things cannot work well in a country where the judiary is unable to ensure lawful behavior on the part of its citizens, and prefers to blindfold itself from the world. All talk of social entrepreneurism, success in IT, Bharat Nirman, etc, etc, etc, is all waste otherwise. Corruption should not be taken for granted just because it is there. We must learn from efforts like those of Bob Geldof and Transparency International to tackle corruption and ensure that the benefits reach the beneficiaries. But that alone is not going to help until we ourselves unite and vow to stand up against what is unlawful and unjust. Rang de Basanti!

Microfinance creating roads to energy

The Lamelson Foundation proposes, identifies, and funds social entrepreneural programs. They work with many other organizations we have talked about earlier, like Aavishkaar, n-Logue, and Ashoka; and have been supporting programs on marketing low-cost irrigation equipment, asthma inhallers, micro power-plants, and micro-finance intiatives, among many others.

This particular project talks about setting up a sustainable biogas based power plant, where all the local entrepreneurs will be funded through micro-credit. Such proposals go on to highlight how small initiaties can come together, and work in coordination with each other to create a much stronger force.

Computer access for the blind

Although this software was developed exclusively from the point of view of enabling the blind to work in call-centres, but it is an important step towards IT access for the physically disabled. Coupled with other initiatives like the Hindi chatbot developed by students at Chandigarh, such technologies can go a long way towards bringing the handicapped into the digital world and bridging the divide for them.

A similar tool is Talkr, that converts text-based blogs to mp3 files that are suitable for pod-casting.

Indians find information too costly

A shocking article on the state of information access. To quote: "When Rakesh Shukla, a poor farmer from the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, asked local authorities for information on paddy field purchases in his area, he was handed a bill for 182,000 rupees ($4,100)."

Obviously, the farmer cannot pay this amount, and so the government "funds" the information access, where you can read "funds" as "CORRUPTION". This is simply apalling. The article talks about a "cash-strapped government" and "changing the law": what utter crap! The whole dysfunctional system needs to be changed.

Bill Gates mocks MIT 100$ laptop

Many of you must have read this news where ol' Billy Gates seriously *mocked* the MIT 100$ laptop project (better known as one-laptop-per-child, or OLPC project). His main criticism was about the absence of a hard disk, the small screen size, low focus on connectivity, and operator support to help the users. Of course, much of this is also politically motivated because the OLPC does not run Windows! I have written about this previously as well, and my criticisms are largely about the high cost involved in providing a computer to each child, as compared to a shared infrastructure supported by the rural kiosk model.

Excerpts from the mail by Edmund Resor on TIER came as quite an eye-opener on the other things that the OLPC project is trying to do.


There is an excellent introduction and overview in the Feb. 16th lecture by the president, Walter Bender, to MIT Students. The podcast is on .

Some answers to Mr. Gates reported criticisms.

1. Lack of a disk drive: OLPC is also developing a $100 server to which the laptops will have wireless access. With 50 gigabyte drives, these servers will act as e-mail servers, personal data stores, and school libraries.

2. Tiny little screen: the small screens, low price, and 0.6 watt power requirement allow this laptop to function as an e-book reader in low-income countries where the copyrights for text books are owned by the government and freely distributed.

3. The cost of connectivity: OLPC is looking for other groups such as TIERS to succeed with connectivity solutions. The $100 server above is designed to use night time and idle time data capacity, such as the standby bits on GSM networks, to provide good enough connectivity for data updates, chat, e-mail, and night time VoIP. Government regulators can establish special rates for educational institutions. The regulator in Bangladesh had to outlaw free night time calls introduced by two GSM operators because parents complained that their teenagers were distracted from their work. Already, unlimited EDGE access from GrameenPhone costs $13.33 per month today. OLPC is requiring participating governments, who regulate wireless operators, to take responsibility for the provision of connectivity to the schools. Since each government must put up irrevocable letters of credit for $100 million for the first 1 million laptops, each government has a strong incentive to solve the connectivity problem.

4. Cost and availability of applications: Governments are also required to localize and develop applications, along with the open source community. Demonstration boards will be available soon providing 12 months to develop and localize applications before the first production computers are shipped. The use of open source Linux from Red Hat (The OS might have been open Windows 3.1.) will stimulate the development and localization of many applications.

5. Support: Support is also part of the contract signed with the participating governments and their ministries of education. In addition, the support for open source Linux is well established and will increase as school kids take it apart, break it, and then fix these laptops.


All these justifications are good and go on to show that things are quite well structured. But I would still remain skeptical about the One-Laptop-Per-Child idea, just because it is about providing one laptop for each child.

Anyhow, here is an excellent article on what computers can do for the poor. It talks about how automation, communication, and media can keep a check on corruption; computer skills can help in creating employment opportunities; communication can revolutionize access to important and timely information; and how the population at the bottom of the pyramid can generate funds to make the IT projects self-sustainable in rural areas.

Content development to bridge the digital divide

This is a position paper by the African Internet Service Provider's Association, and is very similar to the kind of things I would like to do towards my PhD thesis.

Providing access infrastructure like satellite, wireless, or other means is only one part of the solution to bridging the digital divide. The other important things are identification of content to transmit over the access infrastructure, and ability to understand the content.

This paper largely talks about the need to produce relevant content, and then distribute it. Things like good irrigation techniques, or sanitation habits, or best farming practices, or school education, or e-governance, and many other things. They encourage organizations to produce this content, and fund it through advertisements. A system to put in requests for content can lead to more focused content development. All of these are great ideas. Saurabh from Udai also recently pointed me to the Digital Studyhall project, that was initiated by researchers from Princeton and UWash to leverage the postal network for creating a system to disseminate content burnt on DVDs. This content is mainly educational, filmed in schools in the nearby urban areas and then supplied to the surrounding rural areas.

I am personally of the view that all of these are excellent ways to proceed, but content creation should be gradually pushed out to the people themselves. This will turn out into a form of citizen journalism that will not only provide local content, but also encourage people participation in politics and welfare through sousveillance and empowerment. Even healthcare related projects can benefit greatly by disseminating timely information on these channels. And think of not just rural and developing parts of the world, but also urban cities where sewer systems do not work properly, or roads do not get repaired. What if we can build a video-wiki where people can supply video clips filmed from their cellphones, and a content developer can string them together. If we do so, how can we ensure authenticity of content. How can we plug news and status reports to build something like a balanced scorecard for governance. How can we let people follow the timelines of related newsreports. How can we let the citizen reporters connect better with each other. It is a basic instinct of people to get noticed, and we should use that to form a reward system to encourage people to participate. Financial returns should also be possible with advertising revenues.

But things do not stop even when content is available. What if the local people speak a different language, or literacy skills are not high enough to understand the text. Automatic machine translation and text-to-speech systems can only help to a certain extent. Volunteers will be needed to do the rest, and these volunteers can be one of the people themselves.

Many of these ideas are very raw, and if you have anything to suggest then please do write to me.

Super-resistant TB

Sonesh pointed out this news on the TIER mailing list.

Many cases are being reported all across the world that are resistant to the first and second lines of TB treatment. This is extremely worrisome because researchers do not have any further drugs in the pipeline. The reason that is being cited is that people do not complete their full course of medication. What could be a solution to this?

Edmund Resor, also on the TIER list, suggests that having a medical records system will be ideal for this, similar to the one for HIV/AIDS in Africa. This is an excellent idea, but problems remain with encouraging people to complete their medication or seek medical advice as soon as symptoms begin to appear. Entities like the Self Help Groups (SHGs) for watershed development and microfinance could prove ideal out here, because such contagious diseases are harmful for the entire community. Cultural quirks still remain however, where patients are supposed to be quarantined, and thus might even lose their jobs, which in the case of a single-money earner in the family can put everybody at both health as well as financial risk. There is no one answer to this problem, but it is tied down with awareness, education, and to realize responsibilities. However, one thing is very clear that the people have to help themselves. Organizations and charity groups can only facilitate the process by putting systems into place, but the systems have to be run by the people themselves.

Another thing of concern is that medical research, like any other research, follows fad trends. AIDS and HIV vaccines are the hot topics of today, and receive a lot of funding. Thus, other diseases like TB do not get the attention they deserve.

Battery Brigades

There are over 1.6 billion people in the world who do not have access to electricity, and have to rely upon kerosene lamps to get lighting. This not only adversely affects productivity by cutting down on the number of working hours, but it is also environmentally unfriendly. In a few places, villagers have been getting around the problem by acquiring used car batteries, and then lugging them to-and-from cities for recharging. However, common methods for recharging reduce the battery life and are wasteful.

Prof. Vijay Modi's team from Columbia University has developed a lunch-box sized battery unit which can attach to a fluorescent lantern and supply light for 4 hours. The unit is portable and can be carried to a especially designed diesel generator driven recharging unit, one in each village. The recharger reduces cost by recharging many batteries at once. The best part with the proposal however is the suggestion that this recharging unit should be placed in schools, so that children can come back and forth with their battery packs for recharging. This will give an incentive to the families to send their children to school!
Dr. Modi has also written a report on the electrification of villages in India.