India searches for techno nirvana
By Raja Murthy
“What an idea. What a mad, crazy, wonderful idea.”
– Alice Kingsley, Alice in Wonderland
It’s a riddle straight out of the Mad Hatter’s e-mail inbox: how does India manage to send a vehicle to the moon while having more illiterate people than any other country. India’s technocrats are now being challenged to pull out of their hats simple innovations to help tackle illiteracy and other big problems facing the country.
“The Grand Challenges for Technologists in India” project, from Technology Review India, asks technocrats to find innovative ideas to deal with, for instance, the shortage of over 200,000 schools in the country – one of the top-priority challenges listed by 40 leading Indian scientists.
Their 10 great tasks, each with dimensions to make Hercules flinch – from healthcare, energy, security and water management to education and civic administration – have to navigate through a labyrinth of deeper problems. For instance, thousands of existing schools function without sufficient staff and basic facilities.
As an example to shame all Indians, The Sunday Statesman published on August 15, India’s Independence Day, a front-page photograph of a classroom at the Adarsho Free Primary School in Asansol, one of eastern India’s largest cities.
The class was being held under a crumbling roof with large holes offering little shelter in the rain. The teacher held an umbrella while standing next to a derelict blackboard against a dirty wall with red bricks exposed; walls were missing, chairs and desks were invisible. And students? The six- to seven-year olds were facing their teacher squatting on their haunches, in a puddle of rainwater, and holding their schoolbooks above their heads as shields against the rain.
A large copy of the photograph should be displayed in parliament to remind lawmakers that vast resources and high technology are of little use without common sense and integrity to use them well.
For instance, why a country struggling to educate children should spend more than US$7 billion to host the corruption-ridden Commonwealth Games in New Delhi this October (see Crooks hijack Delhi Games, August 7, 2010) seems a riddle even the Mad Hatter would classify as insane.
Technology Review India (TRI), the regional edition of the 111-year old global Technology Review magazine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has chosen to focus on saner technological projects than moon-missions to accomplish the core goal of the project – “How do we build a sustainable civilization?”
Answers involve India’s propensity for massive contradictions. “We have communication satellites, satellite launch vehicles, missions to the moon and Mars, powerful parallel computers,” says Narayan Suresh, Technology Review India Group editor, “but the paradox of India has been that the country also has the largest number of illiterates in the world, houses one-fourth of the world’s diabetes patients, wastes over 40% of fruit and vegetables grown, has the highest road accident rate with the smallest vehicle numbers, abysmally poor water and sanitary conditions, and so on.”
Have technologists failed the nation, Suresh asks, or is it failure of the country’s planners to offer suitable challenges to the tech community, to get the best out of them? Or is it a mix of both?
By December 2010, Technology Review India hopes to find innovative answers, and use private and governmental sponsorship to turn winning solutions into practical applications
The “Great Challenges” project brings technologists with all other stakeholders in nation-building onto a common platform, says project director Srinivas Chandan. “There is a latent enthusiasm in young people to innovate. They needed a challenge and the response so far is encouraging,” Chandan told Asia Times Online.
Sticking to common sense, the “Grand Challenges” project focuses on simple, affordable, practical solutions, not complex rocket technology. For instance, Rikin Gandhi, one of the contenders for the Global Technology Review 35 award, developed a system of educating farmers in India through locally produced video, with agricultural know-how generated from farmers themselves and shared among other farmers. 
Ranveer Chandra, 34, the other Indian contender for the global award, developed a technology for delivering high-speed wireless Internet connections over long distances, rather than the currently possible few meters of wireless connectivity
With Global Positioning System, Chandra found a way to use the “white space”, or spare bandwidth in radio spectrum between long distance frequencies that TV stations use. Spectrum regulators from India, China, Singapore and Brazil have inspected his long distance Wi-Fi Internet prototype at his base, the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, USA.
Innovators need not necessarily be technologists; innovators are a tribe essentially using guerrilla-like resourcefulness in producing ideas – working with what is already there, instead of searching for what is not there.
Chandan mentioned the instance of MeterDown, an iPhone application that Sidhartha Banerjee developed to help taxi passengers get a correct revised fare while on the move, saving them from doctored taxi meters.
Another application, MeterJam, used the Internet to mobilize a boycott of taxis on August 12 in Mumbai, to protest against the severe local headache of taxi drivers refusing to ply on shorter distances. “But these applications were developed by advertising professionals,” says Chandan, “while India’s famed software community numbering over two million is too busy solving the problems of people outside the country.”
Such individual innovation efforts, helped with support systems like the eight-year old Indian Innovators Association, appears to be evolutionary heir to the generation of institutional technological investors, such as the renowned Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). These temples of excellence in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kanpur and 11 other centers attract some of the country’s finest high-school talent.
Professor C Amarnath, one of the experts on the TRI panel, is a governing board member of the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE), a techno-business incubator hosted by the IIT, Mumbai. “The SINE is among the examples of the wave of innovation and technology talent in the country,” Amarnath told Asia Times Online.
The Indian government has promoted research and development to unprecedented levels in recent years. Science and technology deputy minister Prithviraj Chavan told parliament recently that 3,600 independent research and development projects were sanctioned annually in the first two years of India’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12).
The priority areas the Indian government marked for research are similar to the Technology Review India challenges, reading like a blueprint of India’s “to-do” list for the decade. Top government scientists were among those who helped create the TRI shortlist, like Professor Samir Brahmachari, director-general of the New Delhi-based Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSRI), an autonomous organization under the Ministry of Science and Technology and one of India’s leading and oldest research facilities.
Brahmachari offered TRI the challenge of finding a solution to preserve basic vaccines without refrigeration in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, where temperatures hover about 50 degree Celsius in summer. This would save the lives of thousands of babies; vaccination levels in the Thar region are about 50%, compared with the national average of 75%.
India and the rest of the world have little to lose and everything to gain if innovations enable overcoming even a small extent of human suffering – on the principle that it is better to at least try lighting a candle instead of spending a lifetime cursing the darkness.
Note 1. TRI India held the first national “Technology Review 35” project for innovators aged below 35. Out of 20 winners, two – Rikin Gandhi and Ranveer Chandra – made the shortlist of Global TR35 award. The worldwide winner will be declared on September 1, from Cambridge, the Massachusetts headquarters of Technology Review.