Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Last day in India

Today, 31 January 2010, is the last full day in India for this trip. We have had an absolutely fabulous trip, we have made friends for life and we are going to go back as soon as we can. Thanks to all our friends in India!

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Filed under: India, Travel

Governance or water?

Today I had some very inspiring and challenging discussions with Amitangshu and Sushmita about development aid and different approaches. Amitangshu works with Arghyam in the grants team and Sushmita works with forestry governance in South India.

India is like a person who received had a bad stab wound which is bleeding (abject poverty) and a dangerous infection (corruption and partially functioning democracy) as a result. How do you treat the patient?

We discussed this back and fourth and our joint suggestion was that you have to staunch the bleeding with band-aid, i.e. fix poverty, here and now, as anything else will kill the patient and apply antibiotics, i.e. support good governance and fight corruption, in the long run. There are measures you can take in decreasing poverty which have very quick results, whereas introducing good governance, i.e. a functional democracy at the local level and fighting corruption is a more long-term effort, like taking antibiotics. And taking antibiotics is pretty pointless if you are going to die of blood loss in the meantime.

I used providing sustainable clean water supply, as an example of good tools against poverty. Many water projects can be achieved with projects that are quick to implement, but with good long term results. Sushmita and Amitangshu argued quite strongly that this is not enough though.

In India local government supplies water systems to villages, in an effort to decrease poverty. The programmes are highly centralised and things like pump design are decided in New Delhi. The pumps used are the of the piston pump type, which are very reliable, but when they break down they need a skilled technician and special tools to repair. The result is that many of the pumps in rural India are broken and it takes a long time to get a repair. But even if the pump is functional the capacity of the system is often not enough for the village and there are better alternatives that fit the local context. But the centrally controlled bureaucracy does not allow deviation from what Delhi has decided. So there you are with in-appropriate technology for the context, which you can’t afford to replace and which break and you can’t repair it.

The result is that the villagers don’t turn to the local government for support to fix their water problems, but to an NGO. The NGO is often funded through other means, like international development aid, and is free to implement a solution that fits the context. If you are lucky the NGO is also not corrupt, which means that it is cheaper for everyone getting the work done. This is good to steam the flow of blood, i.e. implement water solutions which help fixing poverty, but it has a negative effect on the local government, as the work of the NGO essentially displaces the work of local government and as a result weakening the structure and effectiveness of local government, or doesn’t give the people the incentive to force the reform of an ineffective and corrupt local government system.

The result of our discussion was that we need both band-aid and antibiotics to solve the problem.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy

India Water Portal review

I had promised to review the India Water Portal and discuss what I found together with the team before I left India. I was a bit scared that I would run out of time, but I managed to get some time in on Monday to actually dive into the content on the site and understand what they have there. Maybe my ideas and feedback will help a little in improving this great resource.

The India Water Portal is probably the only one of its kind at the moment. It is a fabulous effort and it is surprising that there are not more like it. I mean, it isn’t like Bangladesh or Brazil couldn’t do with something like it, right?

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Wrapping up with VJNNS and travel

Picture from VJNNS training facilities

Today we wrapped up with VJNNS and agreed on how Akvo.org and VJNNS can work together. Karthik and his family has been incredibly friendly and helpful to us and I am really happy to have met them all.

The travel back to Bengaluru went without a hitch this time, which was rather nice. Hyderabad is really quite a nice airport if you ever get stuck there, like a smaller version of Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, but nicer.

Filed under: India, Travel

VJNNS gravity fed water system at Narsipatnam

Where the women collect water before they get a VJNNS gravity fed water system.

Today we went to see three villages in the hills close to Narsipatnam together with the Argyham partner VJNNS. The purpose was to see villages which have the gravity fed water systems which the engineers at VJNNS have perfected, and also see the difference between villages which have had the systems installed for a number of years and those that have not.

The visit was incredibly inspiring and nearly overwhelming in the warmth of the reception. I will be posting some videos of this later and more photographs.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, Hydrology, India, WASH technology

Travel to Visakhapatnam

Travel day. This turned out to be quite the adventure. We were flying: Bengaluru -> Hyderabad -> Visakhapatnam. But our flight to Hyderabad was delayed by 4 hours, which meant we would miss the connection. A very nice young man who was also in the same bind found out we could book a flight on another airline to just make the connection, because the flight to Visakhapatnam was also delayed, and would not start earlier. So we cancelled the first flight and booked the second flight, on which we got the last two tickets ($ ouch). The connection in the end was delayed enough that we could have just stuck with the first flight, but we couldn’t have known that. Oh well.

The team from VJNNS, who we are visiting, was kept abreast of events and valiantly waited for us to show up. The drive to Narsipatnam ended up being in the dark but uneventful. Anitha at Arghyam brilliantly supported us whilst we tried to get the tickets sorted out, despite it being a public holiday, Republic day.

Filed under: Travel

Quick chat with Niteen about Water Information System

Niteen Shastri, manager of technology, Arghyam

Today I had a short but very effective talk to Niteen Shastri, who is the manager of technology at Arghyam. He has been working on a design and the idea of a Water Information System for India, which I talked to Sunita Nadhamuni about last year. There is much data about water which isn’t tracked or shared properly in India, and this team has taken on the task to try to define how can one track water data and make it really useful at the gram panchayat level (local elected government, 5-10 rural villages).

The rest of the day has essentially been a day of preparations for the rest of the week. Among other things there is a review of the India Water Portal which I have promised to do for Friday, which I spent much of the day doing. We have also been packing for the travel tomorrow.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Comics as manuals

Anil is the cartoonist for the socio-political cartoons in the Bangalore Mirror. Anil is an architect and has combined his love for drawing with his education in architecture to make cartoon instruction manuals for the Nepal government. The manuals describe how to build a school. Not just how to slap up any old shed, but doing it properly.

This is a very intriguing thing and I have talked to Anil about doing this for some other things which we have been thinking about with Akvo.org. I love meeting new people like Anil, as suddenly you have a new possibilities to do things which just didn’t exist before you had met them.

A picture from the school building manual comic book which Anil have created.

Filed under: Culture, Development aid, India

An unlikely meeting

“Great dinner surprise with @bjelkeman , @leuteren , @ahminotep and lot of new ideas”

Today was mainly travel back from Ahmedabad to Bengaluru.

But something really interesting happened at a nice dinner which Anke and I were invited to at Vijay. When we get there there we were introduced to Parolkar who I hadn’t met before (nothing strange there) but he turns out to be someone I “know” from Twitter, just from the day before.

Parolkar has moved in as a neighbour to Vijay recently and they had only talked briefly to each other about what they do. Parolkar had heard that Vijay was working with the India Water Portal and he mentioned to Vijay about Akvo.org as he had been looking at what we had been doing, because of our brief tweet contact the day previously. So Vijay invited him for dinner too. We had a lot of stuff to talk about in common, Vijay, Parolkar and I. Maybe it wasn’t such an unlikely meeting after all…

Filed under: India, ITC technology

The paradox that is India

A bird, its image captured at the dawn of the morning in Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary

On the Friday we took some time out and went to Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary, where we saw hundreds if not thousands of flamingos and other birds. A very beautiful trip, despite having to get up at 4.30 in the morning.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control of his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubtd and your self melting away. – Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi

We also went to Gandhi’s ashram (a hermitage) which was a beautiful and contemplative place. Here Anke bought a book at the museum store. The book was wrapped in what initially looked like newspaper. But when I looked more carefully it was the legal documentation of an IPO (initial public stock offering) / a sale of shares in the Red Herring Fund in India. (The Red Herring Fund would be a cutting edge technology fund.) I was quite taken by this. Here we have museum of one of the most revered spiritual leaders in modern history wrapping books in the offcasts of rampant capitalism, or recycling failed commercial venture’s remains.

Sharada Prasad, who was with us, said: “This is the paradox [of India]”, and it truly is.

Filed under: Culture, Travel