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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