Business Today

Glimmers of hope

BT showcases five experiments that were flagged off in the past decade and have the potential to improve the quality of life of the masses — if they can scale up nationwide.

     Print Edition: December 27, 2009

The recipe is straightforward: Education, housing, electricity (or other energy solutions), water and health—all in affordable and roughly equal proportions — on a base of technology, innovation and plenty of empowerment. The end result? A population that's literate, healthy, reasonably content — and in a position to contribute to the country's economic growth (along with their own prosperity). The formula for such progress is not rocket science.

Rather, execution has proved to be, over the decades, a complex challenge. Over the past few years, however, a clutch of state governments, non-government organisations (NGOs), companies looking to tap new markets and path-breaking entrepreneurs has been working on projects aimed at improving the quality of life of the underprivileged. Some are forprofit (with the hope that these masses will one day generate incomes, and eventually some of it would be disposable), others not quite. As BT finds out, many of these experiments are working like a charm in a localised manner.

For the hundreds of millions in the country to benefit, however, what's needed are many, many more such experiments; and the ability to scale them up and make them viable. The good news: A start has been made. Read on:


The World Is Their Classroom
It started as an exercise in 38 schools in 2003 in the Chennai Corporation, went up to 264 schools by 2007, before scaling up to all the 38,486 schools in Tamil Nadu. Today, this model of activity-based learning (ABL) that seeks to address gaps in primary education covers all the governmentaided schools in Tamil Nadu.

Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh have started pilot projects. A few other states have similar plans. Neighbours like Sri Lanka and China are showing keen interest after a recent World Bank report and UNICEF vouched for it.

Developed under the aegis of M.P. Vijayakumar, then Chennai Corporation Commissioner who later became Director, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Tamil Nadu, ABL adopts a combination of two sets of systems: The Rishi Valley school systems (advocated by thinker J. Krishnamoorthy, who stressed that an environment that makes the child a complete human being should be created) and Montessori systems. The uniqueness of this model: It makes learning fun, meaningful and child-centred. The results are showing in improved academic performance and attendance.

For instance, in 2002, before implementation of ABL, the rate of primary and upper primary school completion in Tamil Nadu was 64 and 68 per cent, respectively. By 2008, after ABL implementation, it increased to 93.94 per cent and 92.7 per cent. Similarly, repetition rates as high as 24 per cent and 19 per cent for primary and upper primary in 2002, dropped to 4.84 per cent and 5.41 per cent in 2008. The drop-out rates (transitioning from primary to upper primary and onto higher classes) dropped from 12 and 13 percentage points for primary and upper primary, respectively, in 2002 to 1.23 and 1.9 per cent.

Clearly, ABL has all the right ingredients—quality, focus and scalability. Things can only get better and bigger from here, as long as people like Vijayakumar are around. "If we don't do it when we have some influence, who will," he shrugs.

— Nitya Varadarajan


Let There Be Light
Almost half of the country's households have no connection, or an unreliable one, to a grid for electricity. That's a grim statistic but, for Ashis Kumar Sahu, Chief Operating Officer, SELCO Solar Pvt Ltd, therein lies a huge opportunity. SELCO Solar has been providing "sustainable energy solutions and services to underserved households and businesses" since 1995.

That sustainable energy solution is in the form of solar-based LED (short for light emitting diode) lighting, which converts sunlight into electricity. SELCO also facilitates third-party finances, installs, services and designs solutions based on the customer's needs. "We have so far served over 1,00,000 households in the last 14 years and plan to double that number in the next 4-5 years," says Sahu. His target market: Typically, households that earn Rs 2,000-4,000 a month or, in the case of farmers, those with annual cash flows of Rs 40,000 per annum.

Solar-based LED lighting may just be the next big thing because of the gradual reduction in the cost per unit—from Rs 20 per unit five years ago to Rs 16-17 per unit currently— although it is still more expensive than conventional sources of electric power. But then, for the government to take electricity grid connections to the country's remotest corners will be a very long-term exercise—and a more expensive one, too. With the help of a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Sahu reckons that a Rs 4 per unit of grid power connection actually works out to around Rs 9-10 per unit (after factoring in costs like transmission and distribution losses and cost to the environment).

In future, the extent of decline in solarbased lighting prices will be linked to the way volumes pick up and on the number of players entering the field. If solar-based LED power is expensive today, it's because of all that goes into it—a panel, a battery plus installation charges which, depending on the model and the solution requirement (single light or home lighting), vary between Rs 2,000 and Rs 6,000.

Yet, that's not deterring more players from entering this segment of energy. Karnataka alone today has 15-16 players, says Sahu. That's because the high cost notwithstanding, millions of Indians have little choice: It's either a kerosenelighting solution or solar power. Yet, cost reduction measures coupled with innovative financing options and perhaps even interest subsidies or waiving off the requirement for payment of margin money while taking a loan for poor households and farmers on such lighting products are the need of the day.

— E. Kumar Sharma

Water, Water Everywhere
It can go down as one of the wonders of Independent India. The 1 lakh check dams that the Gujarat government, local people and NGOs have built in the past decade as part of a statewide campaign launched by the then Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel in 1999, and then taken to a missionary level by his successor, Narendra Modi, has created something that gives hope to the entire country. (Check dams are barriers built on shallow rivers, or even streams, for the purpose of water harvesting). The message: If Gujarat can bring up the oncedepleting water table in the state, the rest of India, which is struggling to cope with a water crisis—created by overuse of water and the lack of water table recharge measures—can also do it.

An ongoing study being conducted by the Central Ground Water Board in Gujarat has found that the water table in the state, which was depleting at a frightening pace till about seven years ago, is now going up, with the decade-long check dam drive being one of the main contributory factors. Another factor that has led to a rise in the ground water table is the fillip given by the Modi government to drip irrigation. Modi's mantra has been: "If you want to save future generations then recharge groundwater instead of mercilessly exploiting it." People are listening, especially farmers.

The Gujarat government has followed a multifaceted strategy to conserve rain water through check dams. At one level, the state rural development department makes small check dams in partnership with the water user groups in villages that have been formed for the purpose. This way, nearly 30,000 check dams have been built since 2000. But a bigger initiative is of the state irrigation department through the Sardar Patel Water Recharge programme under which nearly 70,000 check dams have been built since then. Under this programme, 80 per cent of the cost of building the dam is borne by the department while the rest comes from the people, often in the form of free labour.

The recharge of the ground water table because of check dams has helped increase Gujarat's crop production (along with successive good monsoons and water from the Narmada dam). Says Mathur Savani, who runs Saurashtra Jaldhara Trust, which has played a major role in Saurashtra in constructing check dams with the help of the government: "The check dam revolution of Gujarat has a message for the entire country that India can overcome the burgeoning water crisis if the government and people come together with a firm resolve and a clear-cut plan."

— Uday Mahurkar

Spreading the Wealth of Health
Eight years ago, Karnataka Milk Federation requested cardiac surgeon Dr Devi Shetty to endorse its low-fat milk product as the best diet for heart patients. Dr Shetty agreed but demanded something in return: The cooperative body must offer health insurance to all its members (milk producers). The idea caught on. On June 1, 2003, the state launched Yeshasvini, a health insurance scheme targeting members of cooperative societies. Eventually, the scheme was extended to their family members as well. They can join the scheme by paying Rs 150 per head per year and get a medical coverage of Rs 2 lakh. The scheme is run by Yeshasvini Trust, a government initiative involving both senior officials and healthcare providers.

There are 410 hospitals that are currently open to these members. "The intention of the scheme is to pay for all varieties of surgeries," says Dr Shetty, a member of the Trust and Chairman of Narayana Hrudayalaya. The biggest success of the scheme, he says, lies in not just covering three million farmers but in proving a concept that with just Rs 10 a month (Rs 5 when it started), it is possible to run a health insurance scheme. In the 12-month period ending May 31, 2009 about 75,000 members had surgeries and about 2 lakh members availed treatment as outpatients, free of charge.

— K.R. Balasubramanyam


The Home Remedy
Neetu Chauhan, 24, a housemaid, and her husband Guddu Chauhan, 35, a driver, have a family income of roughly Rs 15,000 a month. Till recently, they were staying in a slum in Worli in central Mumbai. Today, the duo has moved into a 360-sq. feet flat in the suburb of Virar on the outskirts of Mumbai. The Chauhans bought their dream house for around Rs 6.5 lakh.

Like the Chauhans, there are an estimated 14 million households with earning members working in the informal sector in India's cities. Within these, 9 million would be those where earning members are typically drivers, vegetable vendors, and small foodstall owners getting between Rs 10,000 and Rs 20,000 a month—with no salary slips. "We gave the Chauhans a 15-year loan of Rs 5 lakh after personal interviews with Neetu and Guddu and their family supported by checks with the employer; we confirmed their incomes based on which the loans were granted," says Rajnish Dhall, Director, Micro Housing Finance Corp, a micro-mortgage finance company.

"The estimated market size (for homes in the Rs 3-10 lakh range) is Rs 13,00,000 crore with potential demand from 21 million urban households (with household incomes between Rs 7,000-25,000 a month)," says Ashish Karamchandani, CEO, The Monitor Group, India, who has been has been closely involved in this space.

— E. Kumar Sharma

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