Sunday, December 2

Wednesday, November 21

Monday, November 12

Video Watch - Sehat Clinic

~ Santosh

Acumen Fund fellow, Nadaa Taiyab, created this video about her investee, Medicine Shoppe. She spent about a year in Bombay where she set up 8 Sehat Clinics - health clinics and pharmacies in low-income urban areas.

This is a great example of an effective business model serving the base of the pyramid.

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~ Santosh

Hole in the Wall Education Ltd. (HiWEL) has joined hands with SOS Children's Village, the world's largest orphan and abandoned children charity, to provide Wikipedia for the Learning Stations in India and African countries.

More news at

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Monday, October 22

Road Trip

~ Santosh

Click here for some pics from my weekend bike trip to Shimla..

now and again i long
to ride away
where not a soul has gone
but someplace none felt alone

now and again i long
to sneak away
from the crowd to wilds
seeking solace far and away

now and again i wonder
why i run away
is it for blissful solitude
or awful loneliness from which to hide away?

now and again i long
to ride away..

.. Read more on this post...

Tuesday, October 16

Walking down the streets of broken dreams

~ Santosh

Click here for some pics from the City walk that Rashi, Raina and I took with Salaam Baalak Trust last weekend -

Here's my lame attempt at penning my thoughts after the walk -

As I walk down the roadway
Hopes pass by
I ask if
No one can or no one may?
And I ask how
Can I just walkaway?

As I walk down the roadway
I wonder how
In a skimpy pathway
One lives with a castle in the sky
And I ponder how
With a mountain in their view
One is cast away in the fateful plains

As I walk down the roadway
Hopes pass by
But I convince myself again
With a ceremonial pray
There must be a rainbow
A few miles away

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Tuesday, October 9

Reality Byte #1

If anyone ever asked me about how deep rooted the caste division is in our society, I’d say not much. From what I see and have seen, I’ve never really experienced or seen any discrimination because of one’s caste. I realize that of course it does exist. You hear about it in the news, read about it in the paper, and of course hear stories from others. Despite all this, for some reason I figured they were these one-off incidences. A little na├»ve I guess but my experiences made me think along those lines.

So I was quite taken aback when I heard a story from a fellow colleague about something he encountered. He had gone to some village in Rajasthan to shoot a video. The people there were divided between two caste lines: Rajputs and ST/SC. When he went to the primary government school there he noticed that the plates (used for lunch) in the school were etched with either ‘Rajput’ or ‘ST/SC’. This helped distinguish the plates the Rajput children would eat out of and the plates ST/SC children would eat out of. Even though all the children went to the same school, it was absolutely unacceptable that the Rajput kids eat off the same plate that the day before an ST/SC kid could’ve eaten out of! I was quite astonished to hear this.

This was a story of just one school in one village. Multiply that by the number of schools and villages in the country and you realize the number of children being taught about their superiority or inferiority over another. It is a feeling, a concept, a value ingrained in them from the day they are born. How then do you tell them when say they’re 20 that everything they’ve been taught along caste lines is wrong? How then do you get a common man to fight against an injustice they have pretty much been ingrained to accept?

~ Raina Read more on this post...

Wednesday, September 26

Happy B'day!

Here's Team HiWEL (Abhishek, Rashi and Santosh) Wishing Jhansi-ki-Rani a very Happy Birthday!

~ HiWEL Team
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Thursday, September 20

The other side of Bureaucracy

~ Abhishek

Most NGOs or organizations that work with government leave no opportunity to curse Babus in government for all their problems. We are no exception either. However this incident got me thinking about the kind of problems babus face in their routine work

We went to meet a state principal secretary for IT. He had given us a time for 2 pm. We reached the city by 12 pm and after lunch called his office to confirm the meeting. the meeting was on. We reached his office at 1:45 to find to our dismay that secy was not available in his office.

Further enquiry revealed that at 1:15, secy got a call that there has been a cloudburst in one of the villages some 500 km away. He was ordered to leave in 10 minutes and he left at 1:30 by a helicopter.

We could have easily cursed him. after all, that meant we wasted one whole day traveling 14 hours to this city to meet him.

Then I thought about him..................

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Monday, September 17

What is common between HiWEL and Nuclear Deal?

~ Abhishek

Shiv Shankar Menon !!! Yes, Him.

He was interested in knowing about experiment and how it has fared in Africa and gave us a time of 10 minutes. I came to know of it two days before the day of presentation.

The run up : it was busy time for us and frankly i didnt spend enough time to prepare. so i started with an existing presentation and added some slides on africa and deleted a good portion of the rest slides. N asked for the slides to have a look. i sent the slides quite late to him ( later I came to know that he had asked L to prepare the second set without telling me. surely, he did not have enough confidence in me !!!) we discussed my slides.

Lucky me: N wanted me to delete Shivpuri video ( appended to this post) but I stuck to it. we bargained( ok you sophisticated ones, we NEGOTIATED :)) and he got me to delete another video in lieu of keeping shivpuri one. this video turned out to be the winner in the presentation. have a look... you will realize it captures the essence of HiWEL so beautifully. to be fair to N, he did grant this one to me after the presentation.

The action: We waited 20 minutes before a helper ushered to his guest room where we waited another 10 minutes. His office was plush and huge. SSM himself was in a very modest attire. we shaked hands and got on with presentation after Raji had introduced me and told him about the experiment with HiWEL team from ISB. like a bajaj scooter, I always have a starting trouble.

Fortunately it wasnt so chronic that day. after 15seconds or so, i got into my groove. next 10 minutes were mostly monologue while he keenly saw and listened ( at least thats what i thought :) ). I timed the thing well. As soon as Raji said we ought to finish, i presented the last slide. SSM liked the presentation and said as much.

Epilogue: after i came out , it hit me. I trembled for few seconds ( not really :) ) but yes, I got some goose bumps thinking about what would have happened if i had goofedup. I had gone in quite casually and I guess that proved to be a boon in disguise. we left in raji's car and he dropped us at dhaula kuan after giving me and N some instructions for next steps.

We are hoping that this meeting will pave the way for our international expansion.

P.S: I was impressed with raji's modesty. he drives a entry level mid size car. astonishing in this age of show-off, isn't it?

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Thursday, September 13

Wednesday, September 12

Random Thoughts

~ Rashi

It is my 100th day at HiWEL and also the 100TH day in the social sector.100 days of learning, questioning, introspection, hope, frustration and belief…….

And that one question which has cropped up time and again……………

While most fresh young government employees- Teachers or IAS officers enter the system with the intention of putting in their best and making a positive difference ,is there something in our system and society at large that converts them into counter productive members? Why is it that the same people perform absolutely differently in the private sector? Should we blame them or does the responsibility lie equally with the system? As was said my Newton centuries ago – every equal and opposite reaction is a result of some action……..

We have heard many anecdotes of cases where the teachers simply sit around and don’t bother to teach or teachers beating the children or teachers teaching by rote learning. We have met many government officials who claim to be the harbinger of social change and yet don’t blink an eyelid without some “favor”……

And this chain of thoughts makes me question the various aspects of the system-

Are we attracting the best people?
Best talent is attracted to professions that have high brand value, that provide continuous opportunity to increase self worth and fulfill personal needs. All this is available in abondance to a government officers ……then what went wrong.
A government school teacher is still the most educated person in the village, it is still considered a noble profession, and they are paid well…..There seems to be no erosion in the status …..then what went wrong.

Are they prepared well for the challenges in the social sector?
Teachers might have the requisite subject knowledge but do they understand the pedagogic issues? Do they understand the background of most kids in the slums and are the they sensitive and motivated enough to deal with the challenges?

Are they mostly pawns on a chessboard or do they have the autonomy to take decisions? And also if they are given the autonomy can they make informed decisions?

Is there any reward for risk if they perform well and conversely deterrent for non-performance? Is there a transparent and credible system to assess their performance? Can this be the reason for the inertia?

Is their a mechanism to energize them from time to time? Don’t they get immune to misery and just turn a blind eye to it?

I can go on and on rambling ….. I don’t know who is at fault but I guess somehow somewhere to create accountability one needs to create conducive conditions.

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Government Encounter - Day 2

~ Raina

A couple of weeks ago, Abhishek had a meeting with the head of the Department of Edcuation of state X (sorry not allowed to disclose). Anyways, lets call him Mr. X. So Mr. X requested Abhishek to find some innovative ways to improve adult literacy in his state using IT. Lucky for Mr. X, we had just the thing for him. :)

So I called Mr. X's secretary for a meeting and he siad that he'd meet us at 10. I told him that our flight was at 12:30, so 10 would be cutting it too close. If he could meet us at 9, that weould be great. The secretary confirmed with Mr. X, and told us that 9 would be fine. So the next day we should up at 9. How surprising, but Mr. X didn't show up till 10! But after our 6 hour wait the day before, this 1 hour didn't seem so bad. Anyways, so we started to tell him about our proposal.
All of a sudden he picked up his phone and made a call. So we stopped. When he was done, we started off again. Then again he picked up his phone and made a call. Again we waited till he was done and then we started agian. Then some one walked into his office and Mr. X gave that person his attention. This kept happening. Every time we started to tell him about the program that HE had requested to improve Adult Literacy, he would either get interuppted or pick up the phone. Even when we were giving him a demo of the product he kept doing that. People and phone calls kept interupping our meeting, but it didn't matter to Mr. X.

We were there for good 45 minutes and he probably gave us 5 minutes in total. At a stretch he probably gave us 20 seconds max!

I was so furious! If he didn't care to listen then why did he ask us to find out about it. This was definitely not a man who REALLY cared to improve adult literacy in his state. These are the kinds of people in power in our government.

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Government Encounter - Day 1

~ Raina

Not sure if I can ramble enough about the government here. I just don't get them. So here's my latest encounter with them over 2 days... Here's Day 1...

Abhishek and I went to meet to some person in the government to get a proposal signed so we could put our wonderful 'Hole-In-The-Walls' in more schools. The guy, let's call him Mr. R, told us that he had a meeting all morning but he said that we should come by 11 and he'll call us in the meeting and get the paper signed. So we showed up promptly at 11. The meeting was in session so we sat outside in the waiting area. We waited and waited and waited. The clock ticked to 11:30 then 12:00 then 12:30 then 1:00. No one could tell us when the meeting
would end and we weren't allowed to go in. Abhishek and I were getting quite hungry by then. Then FINALLY at 2:00 the meeting doors opened and Mr. R stepped out. We walked out with him and he called his driver. He turned to us and told us to go with the driver. The driver would take us to his office and he would come in another car. So we went with the driver.

We reached Mr. R's office in 15 minutes. Mr. R didn't get there yet so again we were seated in his office and asked to wait. So this was around 2:20. Soon enough it became 3:00, then 3:30 and we were still waiting. Where was he? So finally I called Mr. R. He didn't pick up. 5 minutes later, I got a message from him saying that he's in some meeting. I messaged back asking when he'd be done and what we should do. No reply. It became 4:00... 4:30. By this time, Abhishek and I were STARVING. The office was in a residential area so there were no restaurants and we didn't want to go too far because we didnt' want to miss the guy. So at 4:30 I lost patience and called Mr. R again. He picked up (thankfully). So I asked him where he was and he said that the meeting just got over and that he is leaving right now. I couldn't hold back my tounge and told him very firmly that we had been waiting for him since 11. And why did he send us to his office if he had another meeting? He could have told us. I made it quite clear that I was very unhappy. I was getting quite heated. All of a sudeen Abhishek runs to me and tells me to quite down. :) So I quite down and hang up.

FINALLY at 5 Mr. R shows up. 6... SIX hours later! Then Mr. R takes us to his boss who needs to sign the paper and his boss goes 'Tell me about Hole-In-The-Wall'!!! Why wasn't he briefed?! They had asked us to come and the boss doesn't even know for what!!! I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to say. I didn't even want to be there. Somehow the conversation veered towards private schools versus government school. Listening to this guy (Mr. R's boss) I became even more dumbfounded. This guy didn't know some of the basic realities about the
educational arena in India. He made claims that most people in this area SHOULD know are not true. But no - he didnt' know. I guess why should he? He ONLY allocates money to improve government schools... he doesn't need to know the realities!!! And we wonder why the government schools in our country are in such poor state.

Finally our meeting ended. After getting back to my room, I was very disappointed. Can a government really function like this? It has no respect for an individuals time. They run on their own time. They don't even bother to do the needful before meeting someone. It didn't matter that we were sitting there for 6 hours, hungry, to get one stupid signature.

I really wondered how change can be brought around with so much inefficiency in the system? Even if someone wants to change something, can they? It would take him a lifetime to get anything done in this system.

Sadly, this was just Day 1. Day 2 encounter coming right up...

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Thursday, September 6

The Un(fore)seen Team Dynamics

~ Santosh

I'm certain that we all came across the Tuckman's 4 cardinal and inevitable stages of team development - Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. As you reminisce your ISB core-term groups, you may want to take a glimpse of just a few (of many such) not-so-nasty mails, which we at HiWEL exchange on a routine basis, at

Want to take a quick stab at which stage we seem to have stuck at? Well, whoever quoted that "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; and working together is a success" probably did not foresee such high performing team dynamics!
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Tuesday, August 28


~ Raina

On my morning commutes from Defence Colony to Okhla I pass a mini-slum. The slum is along a small stretch of the main road. I can see the people in the slum getting ready every morning. They’re on the sidewalk brushing their teeth or taking a bath. The women are over a fire cooking something. The whole process of us waking up and getting ready – something we do behind close doors, the slum dwellers do in public with hundreds of cars and eyeballs passing by. Getting ready in public has become a part of their daily routine and something they seem quite comfortable with.

There’s something else I saw the other day: children squatting on the sidewalk shitting (excuse the not-so-pleasant terminology or description). There were three kids just sitting arms length from each other just doing their business. On the sidewalk you could see other people’s “doing” from earlier that day or maybe previous days. The sidewalk was dotted by it. It was almost grid like. The children are sitting there attending nature’s call with a bottle of water right next to them to wash, oblivious to the hundreds of car passing by. There was someone else’s pile of shit next to them but they didn’t seem to care. This is their bathroom. From what I could see, the sidewalk was almost full. It made me wonder where the kid’s next bathroom will be when the sidewalk would be too full to use. It made me wonder if anyone ever cleans it.

In my mind I remember thinking, “Eww!. How can they not care that so many people are passing by? How can they just do it out in the open like that?” Haha…

It’s funny how we get used to some things and some environments. Places that are completely unacceptable for us to even walk through are living grounds for others. The worst is how we drive past these places and don’t even for a second think about what we’re witnessing. It has become such a part of our lives to see the slum dwellers live their lives in the open. We have so openly and quietly accepted it.

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Monday, August 27

In the Holy name of Market Research!

~ Santosh Srinivas

Click below to listen to my lame attempt at Podcast (don't laugh :) )

Someone once quipped "Market Research (MR) can establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that the egg is a sad and sorry product and that it obviously will not continue to sell; as after all, eggs won't stand up by themselves, roll too easily, are too easily broken, require special packaging, look alike, are difficult to open and won't stack on the shelf". But the stereotyped MBA school of thought cannot emphasize enough the ceremonial need for MR as a precursor to any prudent marketing decision. Though I am notoriously known to be highly opinionated and pugnacious on any subject matter, I would like to tread on the safe mid-way at this juncture and not subscribe to either extreme views. Well, the reason, in the name of MR I got to travel to the exotic North East - a straight out unblemished paradise of India. Though the dual purpose of Swati's and my trip to Arunachal Pradesh was to first-hand document customer pain-points and to conduct the quarterly monitoring and evaluation of schools where our LS have been deployed, the trip turned out in many ways to be an eye-opener, both personally and professionally.

Personally, though I was gushing to drive through the breathtaking and harmonious hills of Arunacahal Pradesh, the routine enduring 10-14 hour drive along the steep hair-pin curves took its toll after couple of days. Treading through aromatic greens of the tea plantation, savoring hot masala chai and boiled eggs at a height of 14000 feet, meditating in the tranquility of Tawang monastery, pleasant moments with the bustling army jawans at the Jaswant Ghar, and of course admiring the adorable tribal women - was certainly enthralling.

On the other hand - overlong wait in Assam border for military escort to go across the insecure Bodo terrorist dominion and the later convoy trip cutting through the dense jungles with burnt vehicles and blown-away bridges along the way, losing our way back from Palezi due to low-visibility and subsequent harassment and humiliating interrogation by a drunk army major and his brotherhood for the apparent reason that I could not prove my identity and purpose of the visit, and hours of helpless entrapment due to car breakdown amidst no-man's land with no connectivity whatsoever - unveiled the clouded wilderness of North-East.

On the professional front, it was a hodgepodge of Good-Bad-Ugly experiences -
The Good

  • At most of the schools, we got to meet all the stakeholders of LS - district education officials, teachers, students and community members
  • Stakeholders were so enthused about the benefits of the LS for themselves that they made written recommendations and requests to government for sanctioning additional LS
  • At one of the schools, the headmaster though had zilch knowledge of PC, had championed the cause and had set clear directions on how to best utilize the system
The Bad

  • Tacit mandate from the government to select a few schools even when they did not fit the LS site selection criteria
  • Seldom utilized LS due to variety of reasons - technical breakdown, power supply shortage, lack of teacher with basic computer literacy and extreme weather conditions
  • No basic troubleshooting guide and technical support contact details with the customer
  • Abysmal HiWEL brand awareness
The Ugly

  • Instances of misuse of LS for pornography content
  • Cases of pirated software installations
  • Services offered by HiWEL - Community mobilization, and Monitoring and Evaluation - were not timely and of much value
Overall, the multi-fold insights from the trip, have so far helped us in making a few marketing decisions,. But as we draw conclusions from the trip, I accede with David Ogilvy who said "I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination".

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Check out some pictures from some of the places we've been so far...
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Rural Kiosks

~ Raina

Intel has committed to rolling out 1 lakh kiosks across India in the next couple of years. Microsoft has committed to 50,000 of them across the country. These kiosks will provide a number of services including:

  • Government services such as access to land records and birth & death certificates
  • Health Services such as referrals to hospitals
  • Agricultural Services such as online consultation
  • Communication Services such as email and chat
  • Commercial Services such as digital photography and matrimonial services
  • Entertainment Services such as music and movies
  • Desktop Publishing
  • Education content such as language literacy

There is a lot of hype around these rural kiosks. But, you have to wonder… is the hype really valid?

What is the point of these kiosks? Essentially it is to help bridge the digital divide. This will help decrease the asymmetry of information between the poor and the rich. A farmer can find out if he’s getting a fair price for this produce or a young job seeking youth can research various options when trying to figure out what to do. This information helps generate higher incomes, which I think we all can agree is a good thing.

Most of these kiosks run on a franchise model. So a local person would run these kiosks and pay a royalty to the parent company. In return the parent company would provide the necessary hardware, software, and support. Currently there are about 15,000 kiosks throughout India.

Right now, there are a handful of companies that are into this space. The problem is that all of these companies do everything themselves. So that means they develop the hardware as well as the software that goes on there kiosks. If they provide job placement services, then they also set up the back end operations to support that. There is just no specialization hence no one becomes really good at anything.

These companies have to put resources into developing the hardware and software, conducting market research to figure out what exactly the needs are, finding a local entrepreneur to run these kiosks, etc. Trust me this is not a cheap proposition; especially if you want good, capable people to do the work.

These inefficiencies increase cost. And the revenue from these kiosks is currently quite low. Though, 82% of the kiosks report profits, most of them make less than Rs. 2000 per month. This goes to show that though some the services are being used by the population, the services provided need to be more relevant. More research needs to go into what the needs are and how technology can really help these people move up the economic ladder.

Luckily, it seems as though the trend in this space is moving towards the positive end. Microsoft has already started developing an OS for these rural kiosks and is working with individual software vendors to come up with software and content to put on the rural kiosks. So some specialization is starting I guess. But that is just the beginning; the problems are many. Lack of infrastructure such as frequent power outages and no internet connectivity are rampant in rural areas. If a person can’t read, then what will a kiosk do for them? A lot of the current content is in Hindi or English, which can be quite irrelevant in many parts of the country.

The time right now is not to just delve into the problems but to figure out the solutions. We at HiWEL are trying to do just that.

Details to follow...

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Wednesday, July 18


The four of us met with Ashok Khosla, founder of TaraHaat. It's essentially an Internet portal supporting a network of franchised village Internet centers in rural India. It delivers a wide range of social and economic information, as well as educational and other services, earning revenues through fee for service, membership fees, and commissions.

Mr. Khosla invited us to his home to have the meeting. I instantly liked him when I saw him. He was an elderly gentleman. As soon as I met him I got the feeling that he wasn't meeting us as 'competitors' but as partners in change. Hence, he wouldn't hold back information because we may steal his ideas. At our end, since we were quite new in this area, we were there to learn from him and pick his brain about the things he had learned over the years in this space. Also, we also wanted to see if there is anyway we can partner with TaraHaat in the future as our business plan evolves.

The meeting was extremely fruitful. We went into the meeting thinking we'd be out in half an hour. Instead we walked out almost two hours later. Mr. Khosla was very frank about the organization's strengths and weaknesses. He answered our questions and gave us his insights. And he told us some interesting stories.

For example, he told us about this old woman who once came to a TaraHaat center with a Puja thali and flowers. She got on to a computer and soon enough opened a site that showed information and pictures of Badrinath. The old lady did her Puja and then left. This wasn't the first time the old lady had come to the TaraHaat center and done this. The previous week she had visited Kedarnath. She knew she would never be able to go to these holy places so she would come to the Tarahaat center and "visit" them and do her Puja.

The story just showed me that it is hard to assume what access to computer and the internet means to each individual. The internet allowed the old woman to "visit" the places she always wished to go to but just couldn't. Until now.

We finally left the meeting with a lot of information and a lot of things to think about.

And oh, TaraHaat is a publicly traded company for those of you who would consider betting your money on it's success. =)

~ Raina Read more on this post...

The Vicious Cycle

I wish we could start with a clean slate. Or if not that I wish we could get everyone to listen and agree to consciously and whole-heartedly make a change. Going and seeing government schools in villages presents a heartbreaking scenario. If students want to learn, the teachers have no enthusiasm. If teachers want to teach, then the government doesn't provide them the necessary means to impart a valuable education. If the government finally decides to do something, its almost something too late. The attitudes have set it and its hard to change them. It's a vicious cycle. All the pieces need to fit together and just perfectly. Unfortunately, THAT is not about to happen.

Many times I wonder what it would take to inspire everyone to want to make a difference. What would it take to make enough of us passionate enough to say...
...Now is the time to make sure that no person in this world will ever go hungry again.
...Now is the time to make sure that every person has a minimum level of education.
...Now is the time to provide everyone with the health facilities they deserve."

My mind goes blank at that thought. I don't know what it would take. Such basic human rights. Yet so unattainable. Many of us spend on ridiculous things when we only have to turn our heads towards the window to see a hungry naked child or a guy with no arms. Is spending frivolously okay then? Why shouldn't I enjoy what I earn? I have worked hard to be where I am today. Do I not have the right to indulge myself in world's little pleasures?

But at what cost? My one pair of jeans could probably feed 10 hungry stomachs. But my jeans are more important to me. How are we so disconnected? When did we become like this?

You're poor hence you live in a poor neighborhood. That means you go to a underfunded school. Which means that you are not given the necessary attention and resources needed to become enough of a productive individual to move up the 'chain'. So you stay where you are and the trend continues with your children. And this of course by no means exists only in India. It's everywhere.

So where does that leave us now? Do we leave the vicious cycle alone or do we make as many dents in it as we can or do we break it?

The obvious answer is the last one: that we need to break the cycle. But the next question is: HOW?

~ Raina Read more on this post...

Monday, July 16

Punjab! Balle! Balle!

Rashi and I came back from Punjab a few days ago. So what did we do?
...We went to the 4-5 government schools in Fatehgarh District where we have our Learning Stations
...We took 2 photographers so we can make a DVD showing the impact of the computers on the children and the community
...We stayed out in the sun all day from 7 AM to 7 PM...
...We stayed in a room that cost us Rs. 250 per night...
...We ate some delicious dhaba food...had lassi...
...We went to the famous Fatehgarh Sahib Gurdwara
...We went house to house to speak to parents about their views about computers

In short, we had a blast!

I was quite impressed with Punjab. Compared to some of the other states I've been to, the villages or 'pinds' are quite rich. There didn't seem to be extreme poverty anywhere. Everyone seemed fed. I saw houses in the villages that are hard to come by even in South Delhi.

Another thing about Punjab that impressed me was the money the government is trying to pump into the schools. They are trying to get a computer lab in all government school in the future. Now how long that will take depends. But all the government high schools already have them.

There were other initiatives the government had rolled out. But unfortunately its one of those tihngs - the intentions are good but the money is really just being wasted. Inefficiency at your best. I've already written a blog previously about a government encounter I had and the disbelief with which I had left. Well Punjab did the same thing to me. But won't get into the details of it. What's the point.

As good as the trip was I also left with a very sick feeling. Punjab is one of India's richest states. And even after spending a sizable amount of money on education, we came across uncountable number of children who were in 6th grade and couldn't even write their name in any language be it Punjabi, Hindi, or English. It leaves you with a feeling of despair and helplessness.

And then I was disappointed in the impact we were having so far. The positives of having the computers were definitely there. But I wasn't quite happy with the degree of impact. Going to Punjab was a fruitful experience. I found out more about our inefficiencies and where we are lacking. Now that we're back in our cubicles, it's time to make the necessary changes.

~ Raina

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Wednesday, July 4

What ICT Revolution?

Did you know...

...that in 2003 the government came up with plans to provide knowledge connectivity to all the 6 lakh villages by August 15, 2007! The project was called Mission 2007...(ya that didn’t happen but I guess it’s the thought that counts!)

...(on a happier note) as a rule of thumb, 1 job is created for every 100 mobile phones. That translates to over 3 lakh jobs being created in this country so far.

Its little tit bits like these that made the book Digital India by DK Ghosh interesting to read. It's a great starter book for anyone who wants to get their feet wet about the ICT space in India. In addition to random facts, the book goes into detail about ICT projects and other innovations that have happened in India that are helping to connect the rural population. Some of these projects include n-Logue that is creating power back up systems to overcome the erratic and sometimes non-existent power supply in rural India. Or there is GRASSO that is helping improve the distribution network for agri-products. Or there is e-Panchayat that is attempting to connect all the Gram Panchayats. The list is never ending. It's heartening to see soo many people from the government to IIT professors to just about anybody wanting to find ways to help the poor, especialy in the rural areas, connect to the larger world through the help of telecommunications. They are working to bring low-cost solutions and coming up with other innovative products that overcome some of the challenges that the rural environment gives birth to.

At the flip side, after digging a bit deeper it’s also disheartening. So many initiatives. Some cater to 100 villages. Others to 5000 villages. Seems like a big number but when you consider that there's over 600,000 villages in India, that 5000 is not even 1% of the villages covered. After reading this book and others, I'm not sure that if you added up all the villages affected by these innovations, that it would add up to even 10,000 villages. That's 1.67%.

I’m not sure if we need to even do a competitor analysis while coming up with a business model for HiWEL. There is clearly so much room; the more the better. This not a race to make the maximum profit; it is a race to make a difference, together, if possible.

Looking at the job creation aspect of these innovations (which also includes microfinance btw), I’m not sure if more than 35,000 jobs have been created; even if you take into account the indirect jobs that have been created. Yes, income levels of I guess these 35,000 people have gone up and so have the productivity levels. That’s great. But it’s not enough to create a revolution or do what the IT industry did for India.

It only goes to show that there’s only so much we as individuals can do. The biggest difference and change can come from large scale initiatives which only the government is capable of doing. I am by no means trying to imply that us as individuals should not do anything because the magnitude of change may not be there. Even 1 person touched is better than 0. That's why we (me, Rashi, Santosh, and Abhishek) are here. To make a difference for even that one person.

As the Helen Keller quote goes:
"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do."

~ Raina

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Saturday, June 30

Friends, Romans & Sponsors

Oftentimes a drift from tactical to strategic management is, though stirring, more difficile than forseeable. Yeah, I'm sure there are ingenious likes of Johann Sebastian Bach's in the management circle who would be austere in saying "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself." But it needs not much evidence to say for certain that most other mere mortal souls like me wished that strategic thinking process was a science. I think most of us, when faced with such decisions, often succumb to bondage of self-incurred tutelage.

One such instant which required a strand of strategic thinking process was here this week when Digital Empowerment Foundation, a Delhi based non-profit organization operating in the ICT space, approached us for sponsoring their Manthan Award 2007 initiative. This apparently notabe award is aimed to recognize e-Content practitioners for development at the grassroots level. With 14 award categories, 250 nominations last year and a projected 500+ nominations this time around, Manthan certainly seems to have come afar since its humble takeoff 3 years back.

It is interesting to trace the HiWEL- Manthan tryst over the years. In the very first year, we as an award nominee, did not end up winning one in any of the categories. It is kind of ironical that in the same year, we ended up winning the esteemed Dewang Mehta Award instituted by the NASSCOM foundation. Last year, we as a pioneer in the Minimally Invasive Education space, were approached by DEF to sponsor one of the award categories. This year, DEF recognises HiWEL as one of the leaders in the Computer Aided Learning space and wants to take the partnership to a strategic level in the areas of common interest.

Well, when the sponsorship is looked into in isolation, it surely seems to have a potential to contribute to HiWEL's branding in variety of ways - by creating brand exposure and from developing brand associations with UNDP and AIF. But, looking at the participant mix which has barely any skew on our customer base, i.e. state and corporate, the cost benefit analysis would indicate that any monetary sponsorship would not add much value. However, at times, given that we stand for innovation and leadership values in digital empowerment space, it becomes imperative that we be a torch bearer to other emerging players who rarely receive any recognition or support in their journey.

As of now, we are contemplating on having a HiWEL member on the jury board and therewith sponsor the entire jury process. We are looking into areas where we could involve HiWEL staff throughout the entire award process. I think the event would provide a platform to both mobilize HiWEL organization internally and demonstrate our technology to other players in the field. But the affiliation effect is yet to be carefully penned down.

Apparently, this is one occasion where I get a chance to use the frameworks -brand identity, brand relationship spectrum and brand architecture - that I professedly crammed in the Branding class. How I wish I was wide-eyed in the 8am sessions and, with all due respects to fellow section mates, not listened up to those gibberish, ad infinitum CPs. Some of the CPs (Courtesy: Major) still reverberate in my mind and hardly make any imperceptible sense :)

... Santosh

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Wednesday, June 27

Is this how the government really works?

On Monday Abhishek and I went along with N and L to meet some government official at the Ministry of IT. I was quite kicked and excited! I had heard multiple (mostly not very positive) anecdotes on how it can be do deal with the government. So here I was all ready to see it in action!

Over the last 8 years or so we had set up a number of our learning centers at 6 locations throughout Delhi. Unfortunately, only 1 exists today. The other 5 had lost their funding and hence were shut down. The one that was still standing was on the verge of being closed because the payment on that was overdue. The 'buyer' was (of course) the government. The Ministry of IT had initiated the meeting because they were considering reviving the 5 learning centers that were shut down. At our end, we had an additional agenda of collecting the late payment that was overdue.

So we drove to the Central Secretariat where the Ministry of IT resides. While Abhishek and N parked the car, L and I went to the reception to get passes made. There were 4 women there, 2 of which had their heads down and were sleeping! After getting the passes we wandered through the building onto the 9th floor to meet the official. The official met us 10 minutes late but he acknowledged that he was late and apologized. I was quite surprised considering that many people never bother apologizing for making others wait. So I instantly liked him.

Anyhow, the official's conversations were mostly with N. The rest of us just took a back seat and observed and chipped in once in a while when necessary. The official was quite bright. He definitely seemed like a guy who cared to make a difference. I was sitting there with a very positive attitude of him and the government in general.

We started talking about our learning centers but soon the conversation wondered off to another project the Ministry of IT was close to implementing. It had to do with setting up 50 computer centers across Delhi. These computer centers would cater to the youth in marginalized communities. The goal was to engage the youth into doing something more productive in order to deter them from entering into a life of crimes. So the computer centers would impart some sort of vocational training. So N and the official dug into this idea deeper. N tells the official that other states, including Rajasthan, have implemented similar ideas but were not successful. The official was a little taken aback by that and asked N to please explain why they were not successful. So N continued to tell his views and what he knew about this.

The whole time in the back of mind I'm thinking, is this government official serious? Did him and his staff seriously plan the launch of 50 centers without any market research? We should not have had to tell them of other states or organizations that have implemented this idea. We should not have had to tell them about the (wrong and naive) assumptions they were making about their idea. We should not have had to tell them them whether this idea has been successfully (or not successfully) implemented anywhere. They should have done thorough research and helped alleviate our concerns that we raised with the idea. How can they put so much money into implementing something they don't even have a business plan for? Forget the money, they don't even know if the program will have the intended impact it was designed to have?

Now we know where a decent amount of our tax rupees goes - in poorly planned but well-intentioned projects.

And oh, about reviving the learning centers and paying our dues - that's something the official said he'd follow up with us in 2-3 days (max).

~ Raina Read more on this post...

Tuesday, June 26

Government is so different !!!

So it was me among four of us who traveled first. It was kind of quaint coz all along I was hoping to stay put in Delhi initially while others traveled. It just so happened that N asked specifically me to accompany him to Jaipur for the JMC project. And i guess the dual purpose was to introduce me to JMC- CEO for the Jaipur project. Jaipur project is going to be the most critical project if we want to survive this year without further losses. I got my visiting card an evening before. It was happening too fast for me.

After a 6 hour journey, we arrived at Bodh ( an education NGO). Shri Yogendraji who runs Bodh is an amazing personality and thorough gentleman. In last 35 years, Bodh has done a solid grassroot level work in Rajasthan under the leadership of Yogendraji. They run many Bodh schools in slums of Jaipur. I was really impressed with how they produced the numbers off the top of their heads. The discussions were good and we got some crucial discussion going about the engagement with Bodh for the Jaipur project.

The meeting with JMC CEO and before that with an RAS officer proved that this project is a high profile project for Raj government. We not only got our first payment but were assured of personal supervision by CEO which was absolutely amazing.

I attended my first meeting with government officials. Some experiences-

  • The boss says – XYZ ji, khade ho jayiye, naam bataiye aur introduction dijiye ! ( as if XYZ was a 4 year old !!!)
  • The accountant barges in and says that bank account can not be opened due to unprecedented nature of this transaction. After half an hour of heated discussion, we cannot reach any agreement and leave office not knowing when and whether we will get our account and after that our payment. Downstairs we enter the bank to ask for the bank account opening formalities. We are taken by surprise when bank manager tells us that bank account already exists and shows the signature of all the people that we were fighting with to get the bank account opened. Apparently everyone forgot after signing the papers or worse still they didn’t know what they were signing on in the first place ( I feel like talking to the accountant again about the rules etc but I guess I know better that that !!)
  • Noticed that RCEE ( apex org for elementary education in Raj) had 10 project director since 1998. 10 transfers in 7 years!!!!
  • In most of the meetings, despite having been introduced as the project lead for HiWEL, I did not get much attention. Clearly, there is an image that goes with a project lead and 30 year olds definitely don’t fit that. L What is the solution? A beard? Change of attire? J

I returned to Jaipur after 20 hours of nonstop travel and meetings.

We have loads of work to do within next 15 days. The construction of PLCs, installation, site search, MoUs with Bodh etc are some of the things that will need to happen simultaneously.

~ Abhishek Gupta

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A tale of -28 degrees, Kids and HiWEL learning stations

Kashmir for an official trip?

Well, it’s been difficult to explain to friends that I am visiting Srinagar on a business tour. But the fact is that Rajouri, Poonch, Kupwara, Drass, Leh, Kargil are some of the 28 places in J&K where HiWEL stations have been installed. Astonishing, isn’t it? But that’s what we do. Reaching the kids in the remotest places and letting them have a go at computers. And do these kids grab this opportunity? You bet. The excitement and the enthusiasm in kids who queue up at learning station make all the efforts and cost worth it.

Back to my Srinagar visit, we have met SPD-Sarv Shikha Abhiyaan.

J&K government has suo motto proposed to double HiWEL presence in J&K so there is nothing much to do except for routine follow up for our bills. We have really high expectations from J&K next year. Some PLCs need minor repairs and one of the centres in kupwara had its shelter damaged due to heavy snowfall. I have noted all of it.

While enjoying kababs in a shikara at Dal Lake, I and N had free flowing discussion on HiWEL and the key thrust areas if we wanted to scale up from present levels. We need to concentrate on reducing our costs, outsource more. There is no Business development happening. We need to get it going very quickly. African countries, Eastern European countries are big potential customers and I have a feeling that we just have to approach them and business would be all ours. BD is the name of the game as of now.

~ Abhishek Gupta

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Wednesday, June 13

City of blinding lights

It's now been almost a fortnight since we hit the capital city at the zenith of broiling heat and blinding sunlight. Abhishek and I have found apartments in Sarita Vihar, which professedly is near-at-hand to our Okhla office, while Raina has managed to find a PG in the ritzy Defense Colony. Rashi however drives down and somehow muddles through her way from North campus to our office in the south-east. Given how bemused and vulnerable she is, I must say it's nothing short of a stunner that she manages, time and again, to outlast the horrific drive on the Delhi roads. Sometimes I wonder whether her family is making desperate attempts to get rid of her. 25+ years of bearing with a mortal like her must understandably have been onerous indeed!

Though, on a drawn-to-scale Eicher map, Sarita Vihar occurs to be in the vicinity of Okhla, there is apparently a godforsaken railway track parting the two neighborhoods, which as luck would have it, remains closed for eternity. So this abridged passage of about a mile is now an enduring ride of about forty-five minutes along the annoying stretch of 10 Kms. It's only a nightmare come true for a cruise biker like me to race past in this hot spell; As they say - while some choose to drive like a wind, only a few choose to drive with the Loo. Well I guess for a guy who can susbsist without an Air-Cooler/AC at home in these dog-days, this traverse is just another banal challenge.

More on office and worklife in the next blog.

.... Santosh Read more on this post...

Sunday, February 18

Irrational fantasm?

"....This is irrational.....I don't get why you want to take this up...This project is defunct...". Well, thank God, at times many of these seemingly worthwhile dissuasions fortunately fall on deaf ears.

Anyway, this was not the first time we have had to stomach such cynical view points. When some of us decided to plunge into the development sector post MBA, some pooh-poohed this as a mere hieghtened and nonsensical exercise to grab undue attention; a few wellwishers thought we were on an off-base and iffy mind trip; but a handful, who had some sense of appreciation, constantly fuelled our dream in many ways.

It seems that when passion meets focus, there is no dearth of opportunities. Today destiny has carved a path which we always wanted to tread on. We are not sure of the destination; but we do know that we have enough to soak up from the twists and turns along this journey. We may be insanely optimistic of making a difference in the lives of many. But, as someone said, nothing defines humans better than their zeal to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs.

Well, for now only time shall speak if this career choice of ours is irrational fatasm.

.. Santosh Read more on this post...