Saturday, November 15, 2008


Yes, we can!

After the American elections a lot has been said, discussed and written with respect to India. A lot of people have lamented the state of affairs in India and wishfully wondered when will we have our own Obama - the one who will provide us hope and a message for change.

My reply to all such people is to read today’s newspapers: “INDIA TOUCHES THE MOON”. The 35-kg Moon Impact Probe touched the lunar surface at 8.31 pm on 14 November 2008. A true gift to the children of the world with Children’s Day being celebrated in India.
For the uninitiated, this is truly an inspirational and momentous moment for mankind. India did it right the first time – not a mean feat even by the best standards. This is from a nation categorized as ‘developing’ with the highest number of malnourished children in the world; a nation that was deprived of technology as some countries felt the world was being threatened due to our atomic testing. This is from a nation of immeasurable diversity – diversity that, some feel, poses a threat to the nation’s growth, and these people would rather every Indian follow a single religion and way of life. With all its encumbrances, the nation has been able to send Chandrayaan-1 through an astronomical distance of over 3 lac km. A number of people have been involved through its various stages – scientists, engineers, technicians, teachers, motivators, programmers, operators, invisible people plus one ex-President – people who lost sleep due to nervousness, people who lent support to the sleepless to forge on! Together, they could!

We are a nation so steeped in history... A lot of the young I have interacted with say they feel proud of the achievements in history. On the other hand, they are cynical about the present and are unwilling to lend a hand to creating their own history. A lot of them simple state they are proud without knowing exactly what gives them this lofty feeling – perhaps, the ‘proud’ feeling is handed down as cultural heritage. Well to all of them out there, let this be a day when the world says if anything is possible in the world, it is here in India! This is an event that makes every Indian proud.

Chandrayaan is not just about a probe landing on the moon - it is about hope, ability to surmount challenges and change for the better. We have our own Obamas here within us and for once, we don’t need to stand on the sidelines cheering for somebody else but our own.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The solar powered rickshaw

A lot of people criticise the cycle rickshaw as an inhuman colonial legacy. Delhi authorities banned them from Chandni Chowk in 2006, saying that they clogged the streets. Others feel that the cycle rickshaw provides cheap, eco-friendly transport for hundreds of millions of Indians every day.

My friend Rozita sent me an article on “The Soleckshaw” which was an eye-opener. I often wonder that in a country where science and technology date back to the ancient times (archaeological evidence from Mehrgarh (7000 BCE) shows construction of mud brick houses and granaries, Farming, metal working, flint knapping, tanning, bead production, and dentistry while the more advanced Indus Valley civilization yields evidence of hydrography, metrology and sewage collection and disposal ) we still seem to be lost and grope for solutions which stare us in our face.

On the one hand we delve into history to thump our chests for our past (and lost) greatness and on other, we ignore devices and everyday ways of living that have stood the test of time. We want to import new systems from other countries just because they look grand or have succeeded there. Little do we understand our own country and its diversity.

Well this Soleckshaw is the humble rickshaw we see everyday just about everywhere in India. The prototype seats three persons and has electric lights, a maximum speed of 12½ mph, and extra frills like an FM radio and four separate mobile phone chargers(!!) It can also drive uphill. It is designed to ease the physical burden on the rickshaw-puller, of whom there are an estimated eight million, and who are mostly migrants from the poorest states.

The Government, which is backing the project, hopes that it will help to reduce air pollution and wean the country off fossil fuels. It will serve as the natural migration route from the manual rickshaws (autoricks work on fossil fuels, therefore are undesirable). If successful, it will be used during the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi

The Soleckshaw was developed by the state-run Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in conjunction with Crompton Greaves, an Indian company that designed its electric engine. To introduce it nationwide, they are now working with the Centre for Rural Development (CRD), a non-governmental organisation that has been assisting cycle rickshaw pullers for years.

The most important thing is that it will reduce the drudgery for India’s rickshaw drivers and give them some dignity as well as reduce effects of global warming by reducing greenhouse gases.

The Soleckshaw costs Rs 22,000 compared to Rs 8,500 for a traditional one. That should come down to 20,000 rupees once mass production of 200-300 a month begins in two to three months time, officials say. CRD also plans to guarantee loans for the Soleckshaw drivers so they can purchase their own vehicles and then pay back the loan in daily installments of Rs 30-40. At the moment, most of them pay a daily hire fee of Rs 30-40, sometimes for several years, but never get to own their own rickshaw.

The project’s backers also hope to raise money from carbon credits and advertising on the back of the Soleckshaws.

It is still unclear who will pay for the charging stations — the four test vehicles require 28 small solar panels to charge their batteries and five spares overnight. Nor has it been decided whether drivers will pay for the electricity. This, I guess, is a small issue which I suppose will get sorted out as numbers increase.
So let us salute this desi improvisation and the desi people who thought out of the box and beyond the conventional wisdom of importing videshi technology working somewhere on this planet, spending millions only to find that it was a misfit in Indian conditions.