“Let’s do something about it!” There’s no waiting around for someone else to fix things for these guys, they’re taking matters in their own hands — from skiing to raise money for the leprosy-afflicted to rewriting an unbiased history of India and Pakistan; recycling tyres and pushing solar energy to solutions for the hearing impaired and making earthquake relief count. Motherland picks out a bunch of promising superheroes from across the country, determined to light up the world we live in.
THE HISTORY PROJECT
In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, Ingsoc — the totalitarian party that rules Britain with an iron fist — has a slogan that goes “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” That pithy little refrain encapsulates a truth that politicians and those in power have always grasped instinctively — the idea that history isn’t something set in stone, but rather a narrative that you can control. Take for example, Winston Churchill, who once said “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Or just take a look at our own subcontinent, where both India and Pakistan have elaborately put together official histories that function more as a mythology for the newly formed nation states than as the record of any objective truth.
History is intimately bound up in the process of nation-building, and the founding fathers of both countries put a lot of effort into ensuring that their versions of history reflected each nation’s founding myths. It doesn’t matter that these historical narratives are hotly contested in both academic and non-academic circles (you might remember the recent ongoing tussle between ‘secular’ and ‘Hindutva’ historians in India). They’re still taught to us as the gospel truth in school, with textbooks that treat the established narrative — with its cherry-picked facts, nationalist interpretations and inbuilt biases — as authoritative and definitive. Generations of school kids are taught to unthinkingly accept these black-and-white portrayals of the past, when the truth often lies somewhere in the grey. And that’s where The History Project comes in.
The idea for the initiative came about in 2005, when a group of young Indians and Pakistanis met at a conflict resolution camp organised by international NGO Seeds for Peace in Maine, USA. During their interactions over the next three weeks, the two groups often discussed, and occasionally clashed over, their contrasting versions of their shared history. It was here that co-founder Qasim Aslam got firsthand experience of how the bias in textbook history systematically damages the peacebuilding process.
“Then in 2011, my co-founder Ayaaz [Ahmad] and I were having one of those nights where you’re just disgruntled at how everything is messed up,” says Qasim. “We were sitting down and discussing this and we said ‘Hey, let’s do something about it.’”
That discussion eventually resulted in a textbook titled The History Project (www. thehistory-project.org). Put together by editors and volunteers from both India and Pakistan, it juxtaposes the two sides of the story — taken from official high school textbooks from both countries — and points out both contradictions and points of convergence.
“We put the onus on the reader to see that if history is a set of facts, then why are there two versions of the facts?” says Qasim. “This is the idea that went viral. To not offer your own analysis, but just offer both textbook versions that very clearly show how the departments and ministries responsible for curating history are systematically shaping it and how that narrative is being formed.”
“Our aim is to show these kids multiple perspectives,” says Sanaya Patel, an Indian law student who is working as an author for the initiative. “To get children to question what they’re learning and whether there’s another side to it.”
Launched in Mumbai in 2013, the textbook was presented to school students during workshops in both India and Pakistan to a great response. “The kids loved it,” says Qasim. “They loved the book, and at the end they were asking all sorts of questions about Jinnah, or the Partition, or the formation of Pakistan. One kid pulled me aside and asked if there was a God.”
Buoyed by this early success, the History Project is now looking to scale up and expand their operations. They’ve got a second textbook due early this year, which explores how history textbooks look at six important historical figures from both sides of the border — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Iqbal Masih, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. They’ve also been working hard on a curriculum for a short, activity-based supplementary course that they plan to take to at least a hundred schools in both countries over the next year. A group of 40 historians, academics, and teachers have put together the curriculum, aimed at teaching the kids to critically analyse history and look at how it actively shapes their identity. Future plans include exporting this model to other countries riven by conflict such as Israel-Palestine and Sri Lanka.
“Once this model has evolved over the next 12-18 months, we hope to start adding more geographies and also introduce more courses,” says Qasim. “We want to become an educational entity that teaches this essential lesson not just through history, but also through the language of drama, the arts or debate. The possibilities are endless.”
DEEYA SUZANNAH BAJAJ
GANGA VATIKA GIRLS’ HOME
Deeya Suzannah Bajaj is a bit of a free spirit, driven by the adrenaline of adventure sports. “I think I was five years old when I was kayaking across a river or something. And now I actually teach white water kayaking at Cornell University (New York), where I’m currently studying.”
She also skis, sometimes in the Western Hemisphere, which is where she decided to amp up the challenge five years ago when she was 17, by using the cross-country expedition she was on in Greenland to do something substantial for girls in India. For 19 days, she skied for eight hours a day in -45˚C to raise awareness about a cause that had grown close to her heart.
She had been introduced by her parents to a children’s home in Haridwar run by Divya Prem Seva mission, catering to children whose parents suffered from leprosy. “In India, unfortunately, most people still believe leprosy is contagious, because of which these families live in secluded colonies with pathetic conditions,” says Deeya. “It’s horrible, the way their children are treated. They aren’t allowed to go to the same schools as other kids, hang around in the same places, things like that.”
The existing children’s home in Haridwar was meant only for boys, since the management was not keen on taking responsibility for girls. “This completely threw me off,” she says. “I was wondering why this should be a problem. Why should we not get girls here too?”
With a little help from her parents, she was able to convince the home to set up another wing there for girls, but their condition was that she raise the money. Thus the expedition to Greenland took on greater significance. “I requested people to pledge money for every kilometre I covered. Through this exercise, we ended up collecting enough money to start this wing called the Ganga Vatika Girl’s Home.” They had 12 girls to begin with, but Deeya doesn’t want to stop there. “Whenever I come back, I go meet them, and figure out more ways to help them. It’s always such a pleasant experience; they’re like sisters to me now.”
Outdoor activities, she feels, are sadly still associated typically with boys in India. “For me, it was always important for girls to be given equal opportunities and treated at par with boys.” That insistence on equality is something that pushed her to set up the Ganga Vatika Girl’s Home. “When I heard about this home and especially the fact that they weren’t allowing girls because of this responsibility, it really got me frustrated.”
She’s now also kickstarted the construction of a bigger space, where they’re hoping to get close to 50 girls by the summer this year. “We have also started winter workshop camps with Khemka Foundation and Global Education and Leadership Foundation, where they are taught things such as soccer, singing, or dancing in a structured way. They are also being put through women empowerment, emotional expression and leadership development sessions.”
KYRA’S BOOK BANK
Kyra Roy’s entire book collection was slowly being handed over to her younger cousin Amyra. That was the plan anyway. Until one day Kyra walked up to her mother with a slight change. “Why don’t we give these books to someone who can’t afford them on their own?” And just like that, Kyra’s Book Bank was born, donating books to schools and institutions that needed them. She was eight at the time.
Her mother suspects that it’s a decision that may have been coloured somewhat by an argument Kyra had with Amyra, but the seed had been planted; she had absorbed a sense of social responsibility, and she wanted to share her vast collection of books with kids who couldn’t afford them. Her first project was with a school for hearing-impaired and mentally challenged children in Igatpuri, a town in Maharashtra. She tells us about the adventure, speaking with a sense of confidence and coherence that belies her 10 years of life experience: “My grandmother helped me gather books from friends and other people who wanted to give them away.” The school had a big library, but it could only accommodate a few students at a time because they barely had any books.
“So,” Kyra goes on, “when Nani asked them if they wanted any, they said yes, and I collected around 400 books to fill up the entire library, and also new colouring books and materials. My Nani’s friend also gave us a lot of pens because they own a pen factory.”
Kyra’s Book Bank collects used books from across the country and beyond, along with new stationery sets. Kyra herself has a large heart, parting with her own books, letting go of any attachments for the larger good. Forget her age, it’s a rare trait to have for anyone. “Once I have read a book, I already have it inside me,” she says, rather poignantly. “It’s already a part of me. So, if I’m not going to read it again, I like to give it to others to read.”
There’s a Facebook page set up by her mother to help spread the word. “I couldn’t make one myself because I am not old enough to own an account. My mother left her phone number there so that anyone interested in sending across books could contact us. My friends and teachers at school also gave away a lot of books that were lying at their homes.” Two drop-off points were made — one at her mother’s office in the heart of the city, another at her grandmother’s home in the suburbs.
“My cousin also teaches at a school in Jogeshwari with Teach for India, and I spoke to him about collecting some books for them. This was our second project. He told me they wanted reference books and stationery. But we were not interested in collecting used stationery. So, he made us a list of things. When we put that list out, someone from Delhi got in touch and offered money. But I am too young to handle money, so we told her we can’t accept that. Then she ordered us really fancy things — English-to-Hindi dictionaries, atlases from Flipkart — which got shipped to us. He eventually dressed as Santa and gave away these things to the children at the school.”
Kyra has met and spoken to a host of people who’ve helped her spread this love for reading. Eventually, word reached other parts of the country as well and people volunteered to collect books in their respective areas and send them across. “We even got a package of books from London!” she adds, excitedly. Once multiple batches of books are received, Kyra sorts them out class-wise, and separates leisure reading from academic course work. She herself helms the initiative, and Kyra’s Book Bank distributes books and stationery as and when it reaches them, while also catering to any specific requests made by schools that need help with resources. To contribute and get updates, visit www.facebook.com/KyrasBookBank
A FANTASTIC INITIATIVE
It could come at you in any form. There’s conscientious introspection, and then there’s the epiphany. Last year, the earthquake that devastated Nepal had a profound impact on Urgyen Joshi, 19. “My mother was 20 km away from the epicenter, trekking with a group of travellers. She was in the thick of things, and I was affected by her experience of being there in the middle of everything. I was frantically trying to get them out of there, arrange helicopters and everything,” explains Urgyen.
When she finally returned and the family started to recover from the shock, they felt compelled to help in whatever way they could. That urgency gave birth to A Fantastic Initiative (www.afantasticinitiative.org), now run by a six-member team. “My mother had spoken to a couple of her colleagues there,” says Urgyen, “And they figured that big organisations were unable to do much on-ground. They spend a lot of money on overheads, but the ratio of productivity drops as the organisation becomes bigger. We focused on providing immediate relief, while also looking at long-term planning.”
The core team, with some external support, was able to make a substantial difference. Their immediate efforts included getting transport to the medical and aid team, surveying the place and helping with relief work in whatever manner they could. Providing food supply was also essential. “There is this really remote village in Nepal that is completely inaccessible by road, and even helicopters couldn’t get there. My mother had gone trekking to this village some time ago, and she knew some locals there,” he says. “We managed to get around two tonnes of food and medicines delivered there.”
Beyond what they collected from friends and family, as well as the money they themselves donated, they were supported by the World Food Program, which helped out by providing helicopters. A year after the earthquake, A Fantastic Initiative is looking at the long-term plan of action, which includes setting up schools and community centres.
“We are starting with one, because most of the money we’d raised and put together went into immediate relief. We wanted to build the school using earthbag technology, a sustainable way of construction, which is earthquake-resistant and uses local materials. But as the government isn’t familiar with this technology, they refused to give us the necessary approvals.” For now, they’re concentrating on building a regular school, and intend to also design curricula and teacher-training programmes.
GIRL CODING CAMPS
Back in high school, Aashna Shroff was one of only two girls studying computer science. Today, she’s a Stanford sophomore in computer science with a minor in economics, and the founder of Girl Coding Camps (GCC) — an initiative out of Hyderabad that seeks to fight gender disparity in the world of coding. “When airbags were invented, there were reportedly more deaths in cars than before. It was discovered later thatairbags were invented for a man’s body, and as a result, women were dying. Had a woman been on board while designing airbag prototypes, this wouldn’t have happened. Having a diverse team is beneficial to the product; it is better economics,” Shroff says.
GCC came out of Shroff’s Stanford experience. The initiative, now a year old, has hosted multiple workshops in five schools across Hyderabad, culminating in a “hackathon”, where participants from different schools could participate. A team of Stanford students helped her organise these camps, the first of which was held in her alma mater, CHIREC International School. “There aren’t as many girls in coding in the US either, so there were a lot of initiatives on campus to ensure that girls took it up. I wanted to bring that back to India, and encourage young girls to not shy away from the subject.”
Keeping that in mind, GCC lays emphasis on introducing their participants to women in technology. “We asked them to name famous men in the world of tech and they had Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates, Satya Nadella. When we asked them to name women, they couldn’t come up with one. One of our goals is to show them what role women have played in technology, women whose names have been left out or neglected. We would begin our workshops with presentations about them, and keep bringing them up later as well.”
The workshops introduced 10th graders to web development, mobile app development, and hands-on thinking in the field of information technology, teaching them how to build and develop their own websites and apps. “Some of them made their websites ‘cool’, while others made them interactive. For mobile app development, we used a software called the MIT App Inventor, which makes it easy to develop your own Android apps. I think the underlying themes of these workshops were that we made them interactive and fun,” Shroff says, recalling how many of the participants were amazed at the fact that they could develop their websites and apps right there at the workshop, instead of working on them for weeks and months on end as they had previously assumed.
Over the next year, Shroff wants to reach out to government schools that don’t normally have access to computer science training. Further, she wants to set up GCC clubs in the schools where they held workshops so that can keep up with their training. “What I love about computer science is that it helps you solve problems. When you are learning how to code, you are also developing a way of thinking, something I don’t want young girls to be discouraged from,” Shroff says, with the larger vision of bringing more diversity into coding for future generations.
Varun Satyam has big plans — he’s on to something that, he feels, could potentially alter how education is approached in the country. Indians have been stereotyped internationally for being diligent and hardworking, but that often masks the ingrained flaws our education system — an indispensable part of any functioning society, more so in the developing world — suffers from. The 21-year-old from Kochi, in his final year of engineering, thinks that Punrut could be the answer.
He had always wanted to contribute to the education sector, having identified its impracticality and the many shortcomings in the way it works. “The education sector is very detached from the real world. What we learn is not directly applied to the market.” Punrut is a ‘knowledge network’, one that bridges the gap between faculty and students. “It will be instrumental in connecting a person in any location to anyone across the world,” he says. “For instance, if a student fancies a mentor in a prestigious institute in a different country, they could connect through this platform,” he says, adding, “the idea is to digitise the whole education base. While most educational institutions are short on resources, infrastructure, and skilled teachers, Punrut will turn the whole system into one big database where a skilled and sought-after mentor can be accessed by students from across the world.”
He’s developed Punrut in association with the Kochi Startup Village, which has provided the required infrastructure. The product is already 60% ready, and should be rolled out by the first week of March, starting in India before expanding globally. However, we should rewind just a bit.
Punrut in reverse spells Turn Up, which is the name of the venture that Varun founded, which originally began as a service for design of websites as well as mobile and web applications. “When I started TurnUp 10 months ago,” says Varun, “we were dealing with only services in terms of designing websites and mobile or web applications. Even though TurnUp initially started as an initiative to build products that could be helpful to society, I had very little idea about the industry — my view was limited because of my ongoing course.” It was a place to start, a place to gain valuable experience; and, eventually, Varun, searching for a solution to the problems with the education sector, began work on Punrut, along with five of his team members at Turn Up.
Besides connecting faculty and students, Punrut will also help students to better assess themselves. “Students begin realising their career paths only when they sit down to prepare their resumes. There is no real focus on gaging skills and qualities. This platform will include important elements such as leader boards, where everyone will be able to compete with everyone else on the basis of their profile strength and markings.” These attributes will be evaluated on the basis of personal growth, achieving milestones that each student will set for herself, and the level of student-mentor interaction. “Right now, someone pursuing her career in theatre cannot be compared to someone working with a corporate organisation. But through this platform, we aim to put everyone on the same footing, where the final scoreboard will give out markings on the basis of a fixed matrix.”
Another advantage is that every student’s strengths and weaknesses will be available publicly, enabling the faculty to know exactly what the student lacks and what she can excel at, as opposed to the present scenario where a faculty member is only aware of a handful of students they deal closely with. Further, Varun adds: “If a student has a good profile but is sitting in some remote corner where recruiters cannot reach her, she can be spotted and picked up through the platform.” The jury is out, naturally, until Punrut is available publicly, but any attempts to shake up the system need to be appreciated.
When Tejas R, 23 now, visited the Home of Faith orphanage in Bangalore a few years ago, he saw a group of kids playing football with a volleyball, all of them barefoot. The smaller kids were getting repeatedly injured, a few others were sitting on the side looking at the game longingly. Tejas, a competitive-level football player for years himself, captaining the Bangalore and Karnataka junior teams, had some money saved through his freestyle football performances, with which he decided to buy the kids some footballs and jerseys.
“Getting proper shoes for them was very difficult, so I asked around for support. I didn’t get any,” he says. Tejas then took to Facebook, posting on a public group for second-hand materials called Second to None, asking for old football shoes, even if they were worn out, accompanied by a photo of the kids he was collecting these for. Within a week, he managed to get 45 pairs of shoes. This was in 2013, the early days of Sparky Football, a nonprofit football academy that Tejas started in Bangalore to train underprivileged children.
He has 18 kids under his wing today, from the Home of Faith orphanage, between the ages of five and 18. They train at a ground near the orphanage, at the outskirts of the city. (Though it’s a ground only now; originally it was just a piece of barren land, which the kids themselves worked on to make it suitable for football.) The academy isn’t just limited to the mechanics of the game; instead, he wants to help these kids reach their full potential as individuals and assist their personal growth.
He has achieved a (pleasantly) surprising degree of appreciation and success for his coaching ability. Tejas has been accredited by Coaches Across Continents, affiliated with the United Nations, where he applied for a fellowship. They run the Hat-Trick Initiative, a socially relevant programme that, he tells us, is centred around children’s rights, HIV protection, gender equality. He was part of the scholarship programme from Asia in 2015, called the Community Impact Coach, where he travels and trains other coaches. Tejas had known at a remarkably young age — 19 — that he wanted to coach football.
He was studying electrical engineering when, in 2012, he failed a year and got a year off to study. With the extra time on his hands, Tejas travelled across the city, noticing how football was perceived as this sport with no real future; it was a recreational activity more than anything else. He knew then that he wanted to make a difference. “Learning is a never-ending process; your age doesn’t define you.” The coaching culture in the city, even across the country, was flawed in its approach, Tejas felt — “They don’t try to build on the ‘community’ aspect of football,” — which led him to develop a small curriculum of his own, focussing not only on skill or technique but also intangible aspects of sporting culture: sportsmanship, personal growth, development — a “holistic” way. He went to several academies, but no one paid much attention to the elements he wanted to focus on. “I realized that to make a difference, you have to show them something.”
We should point out that Tejas is also an excellent freestyle footballer. It’s an element of the game built entirely around unique creative self-expression, requiring flair, tight close control, advanced skills, and no small degree of imagination — you know, tricks like endlessly juggling the ball around, doing little flips, balancing it on the back of your neck and contorting yourself as the moment dictates: the ‘Samba’ way, if you will. He was working the graveyard shift at a call centre during his time off, while mornings were dedicated to freestyle football. Eventually, he went back to the academies he had approached earlier, this time with a short video clip of his freestyle chops that had received some attention on YouTube (another little victory for the internet?). “They’d forgotten about me, I think, so when I went back, they were like, ‘Wow, you have very good technical skills.’” He managed to land a coaching job, but it didn’t quite pan out the way he’d have liked. The coaches were set in their ways, refusing to acknowledge that there could be another way, not bothering with the curriculum Tejas had devised. So he quit.
Then came a series of football workshops that he conducted, who’s the modules included everything from tying your shoelaces to scoring a goal, as well as incorporating socially relevant elements such as gender equality, environmental concerns, health awareness, and the importance of female role models. Soon after, he set up Sparky Football (www.facebook.com/tejasfootball), which was eventually registered in 2013.
He never did return to complete his engineering course, instead choosing to study psychology, journalism, and literature. Tejas spends considerable time researching the situation in India, travelling across the country, training kids and coaches. He has no plans of expansion at Sparky Football, insisting that he’d rather keep the number limited and manageable, so that he can dedicate his time to the kids he has under his wing instead of branching out. The kids inspire him — he talks to them, spends time with them, interviews them to put out their stories for people to read. “For these kids, it means something in their life. They tell me how it’s given them freedom, given them opportunities. They’re ready to dedicate their life to it. They’re soldiers. The kind of sportsmanship, the critical life experiences… they have the gratitude, they never take anything for granted,” he says.
JAL JYOTI FOUNDATION
Let there be light, thought four 19-year-olds studying at St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai, sparking off the Jal Jyoti Foundation in October 2012. Moved by a collective urge to light up the dim dwellings of the city’s crowded, neglected slums, they got together to figure out how they could help. “It started when I was teaching in the slums in Navy Nagar as a volunteer,” founder Sanjna Malpani, 22, tells us. “I realized the houses were built so close to each other that there was no light inside, even during the day. So a friend and I started looking for solutions and came up with ‘bottled bulbs’!” All it takes is a transparent plastic 1.25 litre bottle; a mineral water/soft drink bottle does fine.
They had initially considered solar panelling, but financial constraints meant it wasn’t feasible. They soon discovered the concept of “bottled light”. It’s something that only works during the day, but they were keen on at least getting the process started. The plastic bottle is filled with water, and 10 ml bleach is added to avoid fungal growth. A strong industrial sealant is used to fix it to the fibre glass roof that most slums have in place, positioned with half the bottle exposed to the sun and the other half popping into the house. Sanjna, along with Ashna Roy, Radhika Lokur, and Tasneem Kakal eventually started setting up bottled light solutions for slum areas under the Jal Jyoti banner.
Slum areas generally don’t have an inlet for natural light as there are no windows because they’re closely clustered. “So, if it’s a single storey establishment and you drill a hole in the roof, a beam of light comes in, illuminating only a specific spot. But if you put a bottle full of water there, the sunlight refracts to disperse the light evenly, equivalent to a 55W bulb.” It’s funny, but none of them were fully sold on the idea until they lit the first house and realised it actually works. They got help from a team from Switzerland called Liter of Light, a widespread global movement, which was on its way to Bangladesh at the time. The Jal Jyoti team asked if they would go through India. They agreed, came to Mumbai and helped the team with basic know-how and techniques. Liter of Light’s previous experiences included setting up bottled light in Cambodia and Colombia, but, while the situation in India is no doubt radically different, the four knew they could make it work given their understanding of the ground reality, and how the slums would react to and handle it.
Jal Jyoti’s four-member team is currently on enforced hiatus, as they’re all in different countries finishing up university, with no one being able to actively run the organisation in the last four months. Even so, they managed to install a total of 160 bottles last year, and the members are constantly on the lookout for solutions and sustainable technology to further help the cause.
Once they return to India, they plan to figure out solutions for the night as well, and on a much higher scale. They’ve also been toying with concepts such as gravity lighting and other affordable lighting solutions that, Sanjna tells us, should enter the Indian market soon.
Pearl Majithia is a one-woman army, working towards improving the conditions of people living below the poverty line through her Mumbai-based NGO, Santosh. There’s just one unusual thing: she actually trusts government procedures, believing it essential to go through official channels and manage government documentation to really bring about a substantial change.
The idea for starting the NGO struck Pearl, 19, some three years ago, and Santosh has been officially active for the past year-and-a half. “I have always been interested in politics. I am studying law right now, and during the course I began to understand that citizens can bring about change thorough governmental processes. Initially, I had an amateur mentality about protests or marches. But now I believe government machinery works in a much better way,” says Pearl.
To deepen her own understanding of things, she also recently pursued a course with another NGO, to learn all about RTIs. “They taught us everything from filing an RTI to understanding how/why it is effective. A lot of these small things taught me that if at all there needs to be a change, one should resort to mechanisms that involve the government, rather than oppose it,” she says.
This ideology gave birth to Santosh, an organisation that aims to make paperwork easy for people below the poverty line. From Aadhar cards to voter IDs and other official documents, Pearl realised that a majority of our people are unable to procure these documents primarily because of illiteracy and unawareness. “There is also a lot of bureaucracy involved. Getting a simple document can take months. It basically requires the knowledge of all the things one would need. And that is something that, at this age, I could do on my own without monetary investment.”
She works with people living in Dharavi, as well as a few people living in the slums of Andheri West. “These procedures also get delayed because the people involved seek bribes at every step, which is something we are looking to check and eliminate.”
At Santosh, Pearl is the one running around, collecting documents, filing paperwork. “There are a lot of things I am occupied with. The problem with having a team is that I’ll have to do a lot of coordination. For instance, we would have to work in a goal-oriented manner, have regular meetings, figure out a common time to meet… Right now, I am looking to do this at my own pace without worrying about others. I mean, I’d love to expand, but not right now,” she says cheerfully.
Santosh is also keen on embarking on further projects that support the empowerment of women. “For younger girls, we want to offer free education. For example, prepare a module on sex education or something on their rights. Then we approach NGOs that are already teaching kids, and request them to maybe let me conduct a weekend seminar, because I don’t have enough money to get a place of my own and hire people yet. So I prepare these modules and visit other places instead. We also want to provide aid for women living in old-age homes. My grandmother left some money to charity, so my parents and I are thinking of utilising those funds for this. But this is all in the pipeline right now.”
While the world frets — or should fret — over exhausting our reservoirs of non-renewable energy, there are young minds searching for alternative solutions. An obvious one is solar energy. Dev Arora, a 25-year-old engineer who studied at NIT Kurukshetra, realised the potential of the form, and founded 8Minutes in March last year — a platform that establishes an ecosystem promoting solar energy, connecting customers with installers and solar advocates so they can make the transition.
“After I quit my previous job, I wanted to do something that would solve at least one of the many problems that exist in our world today. I believe all of our work should be designed to bring about some form of change. The biggest problem to my mind was climate change, and I wanted to find the root cause and do something about it. I noticed that the way people consume energy affects the whole economy and the country, and I wanted to make that sustainable,” says Arora.
“How it works is that if someone signs up with us as a solar advocate, they go out and give a warm introduction to potential customers and prime them about 8minutes, what we do, and about solar energy in general. For every customer they convert, they get a hefty referral fee. For instance, the referral fee for a single unit like someone’s home is around Rs 20,000, and for referring an organisation, this can go up to Rs 1 lakh. We are looking to create solar entrepreneurs who will possibly leave their day jobs and work with us to convert more customers for us, a crucial part of the plan.”
The other aspect they focus on is financing. For instance, an individual interested in setting up a solar panel would need to shell out up to Rs 10-15 lakh on just the setup. It’s an amount that people might not be keen on spending for going green. “So, what we have done,” explains Dev, “is incentivised this process for people, where we tell them that we will install solar panels free of cost. They don’t have to pay for the hardware, for maintenance, or for installation. All they pay for is the power generated from this. Essentially, if one is paying Rs 10 per unit for electricity in Delhi, we will ask you to pay Rs 7 per unit, which is a direct 30% saving, no investment, and you go green,” says Arora.
The organisation has tied-up with investors who provide finances and get high monthly returns. They do a formal financial due-diligence before they offer to set up free solar installations and they make sure the customers are credit-worthy, because the contract that they sign with a household setup, for instance, is a 20-year-long commitment. It’s still a new initiative, just over 10 months old, that Dev started with a partner, and they have so far converted 11 customers, gathering a total capacity of 1.5 megawatts. This count includes homes, education institutions, and industries.
Arora envisions a future where 8Minutes can help make solar energy the primary form of energy for homes and businesses out there. “The platform we are building is going to allow us to scale much faster than you’d hope. India has the potential of going 40% on renewable energy by 2030, and we hope to capture a significant chunk of that market. We are actually the first company in India that focusses on homes. For residential work, we are currently limited to Delhi and Gurgaon, but in terms of commercial business, we are operating across India.”
Aashish Beergi’s quest to bring about social change began early. A school project on waste management sparked off a chain of events leading to a full-blown company called Green Planet Waste Management, which Aashish set up. It’s now one of the bigger organisations working toward waste management in the country, he claims. Two years out of college, and all of 24 years, Aashish has already cofounded the MASH Project, an initiative that aims to become a go-to platform for information as well as collaborations for all social entrepreneurs.
“The idea came to me during a UNESCO youth forum in Paris that I was a part of two years ago, which brought together young people from across the world who were passionate about initiating change and already involved in some work towards that. A lot of my friends also wanted to volunteer but ended up facing logistical issues. I had already formed these plans to build a platform where people could be anywhere in the world and yet volunteer their time and skills for some cause. Then, at the UNESCO forum, one particular delegate programme called Youth Mobile focussed on how social media was extensively used across the world to mobilise people over important issues, and everything came together. The Egypt Revolution and the Citizen movement had just happened.”
He got together with MASH Project co-founder Kartik Jain, an old school friend of his, to work on an app that would give people information on the UN Millennium Development goals and also provide them opportunities to work or volunteer. They started MASH (Mobile Application for Sustainable Habitat) for this very purpose, but soon they were clear they also wanted to propel technology toward creating social impact. “The UN Million Development goals and Sustainable development goals incited a lot of conversation around that time, but as young volunteers, we had no clue how to work on them, and we decided to build an app that would do just that.”
However, the app soon took a different direction, and MASH became a platform focussed on promoting technology to help in social entrepreneurship. “MASH has three basic purposes. The first is aggregation: we build communities around specific interests — say, getting a community for social entrepreneurs that can then seek out the tech community on MASH. For instance, if someone wants to build an app for women’s safety, we connect them to our community of tech experts, and we monitor the progress. If deadlines are not met, we move to other parties. There are a lot of tech organisations and freelancers who are ready to put in time and effort.”
MASH is currently also involved in offline engagements, including workshops. Two of their recurring events are Mash Ups and Mash Mixers. Mash Mixers are social events for like-minded people to come together and share ideas. These are open to the public, held at co-working spaces in Delhi and Bangalore. Aashish is quick to clarify that these events are held abroad as well, and each one features a specific theme. “This month’s event is on Start-Up India, a networking event for people to get started and build a community. Mash-Up, on the other hand, has a start-up weekend format, where you work on your idea over the weekend, get mentored, and then get judged at the end of the event.”
His organisation is one of only 15, around the world, to be a part of UNESCO’s youth initiative Youth Mobile, and they aim to become official Indian partners for the programme next year, focussing on conducting special workshops in coding and programming for beginners who want to work on sustainable development. “The numbers vary, and it is difficult to measure the impact that MASH has, but internally and externally, we have seen people benefit from its existence, whether it is reaping the benefits of working in the social sector and getting into Ivy League universities, or starting your own organization that is commonplace in every MASH mixer that we hold.”
During our short phone conversation, we overhear Arsh Dilbagi’s father prompting him, with an understandable sense of pride, to tell us how much he scored in his board exams. (He got 95.2%, in case you’re wondering. And a perfect score in computer science.) Arsh, who’s 17 and graduated from high school only last year, seems, by all accounts, to be a bit of a savant — he’s designing robots now (!), with Arido Labs, a subsidiary of the start-up company Arido, specialising in technology pertaining to robotics. Our topic of discussion, though, is centred around TALK, an assistive device — an Alternative Communication Device (AAC) — that helps people with speech impairments and developmental disabilities speak. With TALK, Arsh was one of 15 finalists at the Google Science Fair in 2014.
It works entirely through one’s breath; the person using it is required to exhale into the device twice, which is then processed through the MEMS microphone in front of the mouth or under the nose. Its size is comparable to a smartphone, Arsh tells us, and the breaths are processed and represented as Morse code. The code is subsequently synthesised using nine different voices available on the TALK, with not only male and female voices but also varying accents and age groups. It’s currently a prototype and in beta-testing, and the company plans to license it to manufacturers. It’s already been tested by 35 users, and Arsh has also worked with neurologists and ENT specialists in this phase. While its launch date is uncertain as yet, subject to a range of variables including testing, licensing, and manufacturing, Arsh says it might hit the Indian market by 2017.
He’s from Panipat, but moves around a lot and, he tells us, has applied to schools in the U.S. for further education. He started working on TALK in the summer of 2012, developing it independently until early 2015, when he joined Aribo Labs. The initial spark, he recalls, was ignited upon a visit to his doctor’s clinic. “I was sitting in the clinic, and there was a person there sitting in a wheelchair and crying. I asked the doctor about him, and it turns out he had a brain stem stroke. I knew about Stephen Hawking; I knew solutions existed. That’s when the entire thought chain began.” The original plan didn’t involve using the breath as the medium; that’s something that came later.
Besides TALK, Arsh is working on a couple of other start-ups as well. Along with the team at Aribo Labs, he has also developed a robot dog that has the potential to self-learn, which sounds as intimidating as it does exciting. “It’s a robotic dog with an AI neural network,” he explains. “Normally, you tell a machine how to walk. What we’ve developed is, it learns on its own. So if you cut out one of its motors, it adapts… it’ll teach itself how to walk with three legs. It’s very unique. The personal robot market is very saturated; they’re either like toys or high-tech expensive showpieces. There’s no robot yet that’s touched that sweet spot.”
Arsh is on it though; he tells us how they’re working on a human robot with the ability to self-learn — a self-aware human machine — and how they’ve already developed the neural network for it. How long will it take? Not very. “Within the next decade.”
Even our beloved ministers, conveniently hard of hearing at the best of times, couldn’t ignore the alarm bells raised by the elevated pollution levels in New Delhi. Along with the winter, the accompanying smog, respiratory issues, and frantic plans for New Year’s Eve came the new odd-even rule, imposed as a 15-day trial by Delhi’s Chief Minister for the first fortnight of 2016. Widespread hysteria and panic was the default mode of the city’s residents preceding the directive, and feverish last-minute enquiries about each other’s number plates became the order of the day.
Not Akshat Mittal, though. The 13-year old student was busy devising and setting up a carpooling website, www.odd-even.com. He formulated the idea, designed the website, and launched it, all by himself, and in only three weeks, and the site went live on 20 December, last year.
“You type in relevant details such as your name, age, whether your car has an odd number plate or an even one, your pick-point up, destination, and the time you want to leave. Once all this is provided, you click on the ‘search’ button, and a list of people with similar preferences will show up on the screen. You can pick whoever you like and coordinate with them directly,” explains Mittal. Since the website became active, he claims “around 30,000 are using it.” The main objective, he adds, is to encourage people to carpool, even if the government decides not to extend the rule beyond 15 January.
He has also taken due safety precautions, traditionally a major concern in the capital: “I have given other options to take care of the security aspect. For example, you can add your gender and choose to travel with people in a particular age bracket. Also, there is an option to put in your Aadhar card and company details. There is another filter that slots people according to their companies. For instance, if I am working at Wipro, [using that filter] only other employees of Wipro will show up.”
Mittal’s endeavours could potentially assist in reducing pollution levels in the city. Another big problem here, he feels, is poverty. “I still don’t have a solution for that, but I’m thinking about it.”
Sixteen-year-old Anubhav Wadhwa is already an entrepreneur. Last year in December, he launched Tyrelessly—a company that collects used tyres from people’s doorsteps, using the web platform to introduce them to the recycling chain.
The idea took shape in his mind when he saw how burnt tyres were contributing to pollution on his way home from school one day. “I would come across heaps of discarded tyres on my way to school but after I saw those being burnt, I decided to do something to stop it,” he said.
Then came the hard task of calling for community participation and encouraging people to donate their used tyres for safe disposal. Anubhav created a web platform where people can request that their old tyres be collected.
Tyrelessly sends a truck to people’s doorstep to collect old tyres. Through pyrolysis, a process involving the extraction of valuable byproducts, the tyres get a new lease of life.
The young boy believes that his initiative can open up path-breaking avenues. “Around 450 litres of fuel, 150 litres of petroleum gas, 250 kg of carbon and 75 kg of steel can be obtained by recycling 1,000 kg of tyres.” Wadhwa said.
Wadhwa’s novel initiative holds promise for the residents of Delhi who are battling severe air pollution. “Over the years, the number of registered vehicles has increased rapidly and more tyres are being treated with lack of caution. More than 95% of used tyres in our country are discarded in non-sustainable ways which impose environmental problems on both the current and future generations.” he said. Tyrelessly is the third venture started by him, who aspires to be an environmental engineer. His earlier ventures included a software development company, Tech Apto, and Trends On Internet, a data analysis company.
The new venture for collecting and recycling tyres is funded by Anubhav’s savings from his earlier ventures and other freelance work done in the same field. The boy vowed to recycle discarded tyres after he saw the damage to the environment. “We are focusing on spreading awareness on tyre burning among the people. I believe that students and local communities should come forward and involve themselves to make this a success. We need to realise the dangers of burning old tyres,” he added.
Tyrelessly has been launched in Delhi-NCR region and will be launched in other parts of India in the future. Anubhav believes that technology should be simplified and put to use to save our environment. “I thought of using technology to make it an easy process for people to discard their used tyres safely,” he said.
While Tyrelessly operates for free as of now, the company expects to generate revenue through advertising in the future on their website to keep up the initiative. “But the tyre pickups will always remain free,” he asserts.