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Aspiring polymath since 1982

Back To Work

Well, am now back to the world of the living and the gainfully employed. I have taken up an opportunity to work with a startup microfinance organization based in Mumbai For me, the attraction is two fold:

  • I get the opportunity to work in a startup organization in a pivotal role and help in shaping its future prospects, its culture and its success
  • I get to continue working in the field of social ventures even though this time round it is as an employee rather than as a potential entrepreneur

Urban microfinance is quite a nascent field in India because the focus of the government and the NGO sector has traditionally been on the less developed hinterland. The fact that is conveniently ignored is that migration to urban areas has intensified over the past decade of liberalization and that urban poverty is as omnipresent a problem as rural poverty. Interestingly, last year it was declared that for the first time in the history of the world, urban population had exceeded the rural. It just shows the increasing urbanization of the world is a process that is not going to end any time soon.

In India, the population in cities is increasing so rapidly that the average population of an Indian metro today begins to rival that of small European and African countries. There is a study which shows that Delhi adds on an average 665 migrants daily and Mumbai around 236. Thats over 300,000 people annually added to the Delhi population and over 200,000 to Mumbai’s. It is no wonder it is projected that by 2015, Mumbai and Delhi will rank as the 2nd and 3rd largest urban agglomerations in the world. Thats just another 7 years away.

There are a smattering of organizations, mainly in the NGO sector that are working in the urban microfinance space but none of them have actually been able to create a model that is self-sustaining and that achieves exponential growth. Its obvious that this is because they have not been able to understand what the consumer for urban microfinance services requires and actually, the problem might actually be even more fundamental, that these organizations do not view people accessing these services as customers in the first place.

This is the reason why there are no urban microfinance organizations that have reached the scale of players in the rural microfinance space like Spandana, Share Microfin, BASIX and others. Of course, one hears frequently of microfinance organizations that have been successful in setting up rural projects talk about entering the urban space, but it still remains to be seen how many of them will be able to successfully translate their learnings and in-house processes to reflect the realities of urban India.

In the end, urban poverty is something that requires as much attention from the policy makers, civil society and other institutions as rural poverty. There is an interesting UN-HABITAT report that urban slum dwellers are actually worse off than their rural counterparts. As usual, any such report should be taken with a pinch of salt but it does corroborate my own experience in both urban and rural settings of poverty. Of course, my experience is as sketchy as they come and should be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt.

At the end of the day, the success and viability of our society depends on how well we can patch together the disparities in its fabric created due to economic and social circumstances. Microfinance in all its avatars is definitely an important tool at addressing these disparities and bridging the gulf between them. In the packed slums and chawls of urban India, the financial returns, security and social validation that microfinance can bring to the people living in them will go a long way forward into bringing people out of the vicious circle of poverty of opportunities that afflicts them now.

And in the course of doing that, if urban microfinance in India is also able to create a microfinance praxis that can be easily translated to urban third-world settings across the world and do so in a financially and socially sustainable manner, it would do no less than change the world. Let’s see how this innings goes then.

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Filed under: India, , ,

eDemocracy and Participatory Citizenship

The idea for this post came from an event called eDemocracyCamp held in Washington DC that I happened to come across. As the name might tell, eDemocracyCamp is based on the BarCamp model, and its purpose according to their website is “eDemocracyCamp will connect citizens, researchers, developers, practitioners and anyone else interested in the topic to learn about the current state of e-democracy and share their visions for its future direction”.

Going through their website and the sessions that they held, made me realize that for all our talk about being the world’s largest democracy, for most of us our duties as citizens ends with the casting of a vote (if at all). I’m equally culpable as I finally got around to getting my Voter’s ID Card issued this January only. And this, when I do not consider myself an apathetic citizen.

Civil Society and Participatory Citizenship is a theme that has really interested me over the years though like most Indians of my generation, a general fatigue brought on by constant reminders through Tehelka, TV sting operations and the general perception about the political class, that the pervasive rot in our political system is enough to put us of any interest or involvement in governance, local or otherwise.

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The introduction of the Right To Information Act (RTI) was supposed to improve transparency and serve as an instrument for civil society to monitor and critique the functioning of the government. Though how aware the general populace is about RTI and how to go about using it for their benefit is still moot. Even in urban India.

Easy access to simple details such as land records, birth and death certificates, caste certificates, would enable the common man to break free from the grip of the lower bureaucracy was the rationale behind e-governance services in many states. In reality, several villages that I have had the opportunity too visit over the last one year are not yet aware of the availability of their government’s e-governance services.

Therefore access to information alone cannot be the “killer app“.

Mediation of information will be the “killer app”

I don’t know how many people are aware of it, but all the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions and the government’s responses to them are available online here and here. There might even be a similar system in some State Assemblies though I’m not aware of it. All this is fine till some actually tries to find some information on the website. It’s just not possible. Mainly because of their total reliance on search queries to go through the data

The organization that implemented this data, the National Informatics Center (NIC) has absolutely no clue (or interest) in tagging questions with relevant tags, creating a taxonomy of the data collected in the Parliament so that a person interested in knowing if the government has been asked any questions about uranium ore mining in Jaduguda can easily navigate to the relevant portion of the site.

Take the case of another NIC website, Agmarknet. The aim of the website was noble. To capture agricultural commodity prices from across the nation and disseminate them as far as possible so that a paddy farmer sitting in Kerala during the harvest season, will have an idea of the prices for the same paddy in Punjab. Again, an idea which looks far better on a presentation rather than in execution.

Mainly, because there is no assurance to the public about the quality and verifiability of the information being collected and then disseminated. Several times, impossible prices have been reported on the website because the people entering this information are clerks and peons at local agricultural marketing committees, who obviiously have no incentive or interest in ensuring that the information being entered is perfect. And as for dissemination, the less said about that, the better.

Most of my efforts online trawling through Indian Government websites has made me realize the sad fact that if we are going to wait for NIC or another government agency to improve eDemocracy and e-governance services, we will be in for a pretty long wait. Another realization that I came to was that efforts need to start in urban India first and then percolate to rural India. If we cannot make our urban citizens less apathetic about their local governance, expecting rural India to do so is expecting too much.

My third realization is that for transparency and participatory democracy to take off, we as a nation need to take back control of our data and our information, as thats what our choices and causes will be based on. It’s always stumped me why its easier to get data about our country off of multilateral websites rather than Indian Government websites. And when even the UN is setting up a common pool of data across all its constituents, it’s high time we did the same for India.

Fourth realization is that in India, Web 2.0, wikis, blogs have little or no role to play in the implementation of an eDemocracy system. India requires an Indian solution and an Indian medium, and as of now there is no media more pan-Indian than the cellphone and more in use by people of all social and economic strata. When they write the story of India’s rise in the 21st Century, no one technology will be in the spotlight, all the way from humble Nokia 1100 incarnations to Blackberrys.

My final realization is that participatory democracy, literally has to start at home. Don’t start with the creation of an application that tracks how and where the Indian Budget is being utilized and the efficiency of utilization. Start somewhere simpler, like finding out what your local Municipal Councillor is doing with his funds and why isn’t there a garbage bin in your street, for example. This is why Janagraaha has such a strong model.

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As for solutions that can be used in India, thats where I’m really stumped. There are some great solutions that I have come across, mainly through the eDemocracyCamp site. Some of them are:

  • They Work For You : A British website where entering a simple pin code will present you with information about the local MP of that area, his voting record in Parliament, his Parliamentary budget and expenses, and other pertinent information. A great, great idea.
  • Fix My Street : Another British website where entering your pin code will present with you information about your area and where you can lodge complaints regarding graffiti, garbage and road repairs required. Made by the organization called mySociety which also made the site above
  • Stemwijzer.nl : A Norwegian website which allows citizens to test their political preferences, compares them to the manifestos of the contesting parties in the elections, and calculates which party has opinions the closest to you
  • Legistorm : An American website that makes public information on staff salaries, privately funded trips and financial disclosures of members and staff of the US Congress. Something like this which clearly allows us to see what each MP is doing with his Constituency Development Fund would be relevant in India

Some interesting blogs on eDemocracy and participatory citizenship that i came across are:

Free (as in beer) and great reading material on this topic can be found at:

There are some Indian solutions that I have come across also, though they are mainly restricted to participatory mapping. There is an interesting project in Mumbai called Mumbai Freemap run by an organization called Collective Research Initiatives Trust and one run by Janagraaha here. Another project based in rural Andhra Pradesh that comes to mind is the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project.

I’ll keep updating these links as and when I come across something interesting. Like my earlier post on information visualization, I want to make this post into a braindump of all the related and relevant information and literature on this topic that I come across.

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The way to move forward as I see it, is to start a discussion forum on not just eDemocracy, but also on Participatory Citizenship and the strengthening of civil society. Preferably, start of an with an online forum so that people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies can iron out their differences and arrive at a common plan of action (or atleast, a list of common grievances) to take forward in meatspace.

We should then think about organizing an event like eDemocracyCamp or Social Innovation Camp, where the different ideas and approaches that come out through the online forum can compete for more public validation and even funding for pilot projects from sources interested in civil society action and advocacy such as the Center for Civil Society, the Omidyar Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the like.

Create a foundation to run these activities so that there is an element of professionalism as well as continuity for these activities. Have a stellar advisory board for this foundation on the lines of what Janagraaha and the Bangalore Agenda Task Force have been able to gather, to provide critical inputs on functioning, funding and the future of the foundation.

It’s time for us as a generation to start taking small baby steps at creating a new public culture for our nation and our polity. And those first steps have to start with information. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s saying back in 1776 that “Information is the currency of democracy”, is an adage far more relevant and achievable in these times of pervasive electronic media.

To end, check out Hans Rosling’s brilliant presentation at TED where using publicly available data, he presents information in a manner easily understood and appreciated by common people. His project called Gapminder is striving to make the vast amounts of data and information collected by multilateral organizations available in a mediated format, increasing both usage and understanding.

This is the mediation required to generate information that is truly engaging and actionable for the public. Let’s hope that we see similar Indian initiatives coming forward soon.

Filed under: Society, , , , , , ,

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