Want an idea, Sirji?

January 2011
Swati Bharadwaj-Chand, TNN

Can the cycle rickshaw become a more evolved means of transport? Is an affordable digital talking, reading device for the blind possible? Can AIDS and TB be fought with a phone? Yes, thanks to some Good Samaritans who are working on such innovations with passion

A new-age cycle rickshaw that is light on both the pockets and the calf muscles of rickshaw pullers; mobile games designed to battle life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS and TB; and a low-cost computer that enables visually challenged students to read textbooks .

No, these are not innovations designed by Phunsukh Wangdu aka Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad of 3 Idiots fame. Much before Aamir Khan's Rancho made innovation a household word, these simple but powerful ideas were being quietly conceptualised and put to practice by enterprising Indians in various corners of the country.

Each one of these innovations is the brainchild of Ashoka Lemelson Fellows from India who want to effect social change through innovation under the aegis of Tech4Society.

47-year-old veterinarian-turned messiah of rickshaw pullers, Pradip Kumar Sarmah of the NOIDA-based Centre for Rural Development has innovated Deep Bahan — a lightweight cycle rickshaw priced at around Rs 10,500. The rickshaw comes gift-wrapped with a loan from Sarmah's Rickshaw Bank as well as vehicle insurance, licences and uniforms and even Hawaii chappals for the pullers. Sarmah services the rickshaw pullers with a one-window clearance as it were. A top to toe deal.

Sarmah's rickshaw is 20 per cent lighter than the traditional 100 kg one. But, sturdier. The economics of it is equally attractive. The 'pullers' get to own the vehicle in just 18 months at a nominal repayment of Rs 25 per day. Sarmah's rickshaws have already boosted the earnings of many impoverished pullers.

What motivated Sarmah to come to the rescue of these hapless people? "There are nearly eight million rickshaw pullers in India and most of them suffer from TB. Despite the long, backbreaking hours of work they barely earn enough to make ends meet. It is an unreasonable state of affairs," says Sarmah.

"In 2002, on a trip to Guwahati, I got chatting with a rickshaw puller and was appalled to find that though he had been pedalling the rickshaw for 16 years, it did not belong to him. He was paying Rs 25 a day as rental. When he went home, he would not be having more than Rs 50 to meet his expenses," says Sarmah. He proudly points out that Deep Bahan owners earn up to Rs 500 per day, after paying the daily loan instalment. Deep Bhahan has improved the lot of nearly 5,500 rickshaw pullers in 12 cities including Guwahati , Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow. The IIT Guwahati-designed and CSIR-supported Deep Bahan is now all set for a world class makeover, with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) design team working on it to make it even stronger, lighter and more user-friendly .

Simultaneously, Sarmah is carrying out a pilot project on solar battery-operated rickshaws branded as Soleckshaws. Nine such rickshaws already ply in Delhi's bustling Chandni Chowk and get their charge from solar panels installed atop the Delhi Metro railway station. If they run successfully over a period of time, more Soleckshaws will hit the road.

Delhi-based entrepreneur Dipendra Manocha (42) lost his vision to a degenerative eye disease — retinitis pigmentosa — when he was in Class VI. But he did not give up his dream to read and get an education. But no matter how hard he tried, he found it humiliating that he had to be dependent on others' goodwill to meet his basic educational needs.

"I found my dependence on other people frustrating. And I knew it was not just I, there were thousands of people like me out there who needed help. Finally it reached a point where I decided to work towards enabling visually challenged people and empowering them to be independent ," says Manocha.

Manocha's first tryst with a DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) computer, which is a talking digital book, convinced him that the blind could read. He quit his PhD in classical music in 2003 , and set up the Saksham Trust to enable the blind.

Today, Manocha's efforts promise to provide a hand-held , digital camera-sized reader-cum-media player named Buddy. Students can load into the small machine their textbooks that they want to listen to. It can also record lectures and play music. Buddy costs just Rs 4,000 against the Rs 16,000 that a regular DAISY notebook costs. Developed by a Noida-based electronics firm based on inputs from Manocha, Buddy is undergoing field-testing and is set to hit the market soon.

Manocha is also deep into making Bollywood CDs for the visually challenged. What he does is to make special edition CDs for popular movies like Taare Zameen Par, Black and Munnabhai MBBS blindfriendly by using a narrator to describe actions, feelings and facial expressions of characters.
Bangalore–based Umesh Malhotra's Hippocampus Reading Foundation focuses on underprivileged children who can't read books just because they can't afford them. And in a country like India, their numbers are vast. The foundation's speciality is a low-cost model for setting up and running libraries.

Using the Malhotra model, a library can be set up on a one-time investment of Rs 5,000, recoverable in 15 months. The average cost of access per child works out to Rs 10, and it simultaneously provides livelihood to women who operate these libraries from home. Already 65,000 children derive benefit from the Hippocampus network.

Says Malthotra, "With this model, we have moved the onus of running libraries onto the community and not the government , which, in any case, has met with failure in popularising library culture. In a country like India, developmental success is largely dependent on community involvement." Malhotra has libraries in nine villages, 130 government schools and 20 in slums in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Even as digital archives and online reading systems are increasingly fashionable in Indian cities, Malhotra believes traditional libraries run untraditionally have a great future with the masses.

Another man on the move, Gurgaonbased Hilmi Quraishi, has successfully harnessed the power of mobile phones to generate awareness about lifethreatening diseases like HIV and TB. Quraishi's ZMQ, a mobile solutions company, has developed mobile games using a popular sport like cricket to propagate messages to prevent and cure HIV/AIDS and TB. Available through cellular operators as a value added service either free of cost or for a nominal Rs 3-5 per download, the games have been developed specially for entry-level black and white as well as colour handsets.

Quraishi's Freedom HIV/AIDS programme launched three years ago has been successfully used in India and Africa to battle the disease. In India, it is within the reach of over 42 million subscribers in Africa over 2 million. Quraishi says his challenge is to translate that reach into actual numbers. The explosive growth of mobile users in the country is very likely to prove him right.

Quraishi is now working with Microsoft to develop a software to create a database of TB patients. The software will track them and monitor their DOTS dosages like a good doctor. "Currently all the TB patient records are in paper form and any calamity could destroy them forever . If that happens, we'd be back to square one. With this software, we have online records, we can monitor patients and track them to ensure they get their TB medication on time," says Quraishi. He points out the instance of Delhi, which has nearly 57,000 registered TB patients, of which around 43 ,000 have mobile phones.

Whoever knew TB could be fought with a phone? Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya, a former IIM-A research associate, has always found the market potential of rural India alluring. So, it is not so surprising that he decided to set up Ek Gaon Technologies in 2002 to develop low-cost technological solutions and provide financial services, citizen services and agricultural services to rural populations. Aditya set up Ek Gaon with an investment of Rs 10,000. His aim was to bring urban services to rural consumers.

Ek Gaon has joined hands with banks, microfinance institutions and non-banking financial institutions to provide mobile-enabled solutions for micro-finance management. It caters to over 4.5 lakh people spread across states like Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. Recently, it stepped up its activities across the border and is now available in countries like Sri Lanka as well. Says Aditya, "If India is an emerging market, then the rural markets are emerging to the forefront as well. We connect money to the consumer with the help of technology."

Ek Gaon provides financial services at 15 paise per transaction. It also offers agricultural services packages, that include weather forecasts, disease alerts, soil management, market prices information , in subscription options of Rs 240 per annum and Rs 120 per crop season through SMS alerts, and through IVRS (interactive voice response system) services for illiterate farmers.

Children, again, are the focus of Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. He works at empowering children to become innovators through its newly launched Youth Venture programme. The programme has been kicked off in Mumbai in a few municipal schools.

"Once successfully completed, it will be replicated in schools in other parts of the country. If India does not empower its children and change its youth culture, how will it make the big shift to innovation and sweeping social change?" asks Drayton, a Gandhian at heart.

He cites the example of 18-year old Mumbaibased Shankar, who dropped out of school at an early age due to straitened family circumstances. Shankar took to petty thefts to support his family. Today, Shankar's innovative cricket league venture — Khiladi — at the instance of Drayton , organises tournaments for youngsters in his community. Khiladi also invites guest speakers to talk to youth about moral values, health issues and positive decisionmaking. "In the process, Shankar has become a hero of sorts in his neighbourhood ," Drayton smiles.

Source : http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-01-04/science/28368535_1_pullers-cycle-rickshaw-innovations

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