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Archive for the ‘Orissa’ Category

The morning of November 5th (election eve in the US) found me up at 5:30am, glued to the BBC and CNN IN in rural Orissa, while my friends massed in groups of multiple hundreds throughout India to watch the returns. By 8:30am, when Ohio was called for Obama, the race was over and a rush of excitement left me cheering and crying in my room. The TV commentary highlighted for me the incredible significance of Obama’s election for India. The nightly news (and that morning’s news) has been flooded with minute analysis of every way in which an Obama presidency may impact India.

Interspersed with this commentary were glowing reviews of the “only in America” story of Obama’s election, given his biography. This we have all heard, but I can assure you these emotions are very real here in India. There is a genuine, new admiration for Americans, spurred by his election, and India is not a “US-hating” country, in general. This is particularly poignant, as India is readying for federal elections and there is a strong desire to reduce the influence of corrupt, criminal politicians (literally. A dismayingly large percentage of Indian politicians, both aspiring and empowered, are criminals, whether convicted or not). So, Indian stations were already asking who would be India’s Barack Obama. No answer to this query, yet, but I hope that India finds a similar, inspirational leader.

A few days after the election, I headed back to Hyderabad, buoyed by that sense of optimism that was painfully absent on November 5th, 2004. I had spent some time, while awaiting a rescheduling of my flight, befriending a few folks from the Deccan Chronicle cricket team. Our flight eventually gets called and I part ways with Hyderabad’s cricket gods.

I trundle towards Indian airport security. The only excitement in this line is how daring a game of chicken the CSF officer (India’s TSA, though these guys have guns) will play with me during the thorough frisking required to pass unto the pre-boarding, waiting area #2. Fortunately, his are unadventurous hands, so my plastic explosives and switch blade get through.

As I step up to his pat-down platform, CSF officer Raj Kumar asks, “what country?” Being habituated to regular recognition of my foreigner status by these friendly sleuths, I am ready with a clearly enunciated “USA.” I leave out my usual proof of “Real American” citizenship through the traditional patriotic blusters: “Don’t mess with Tejas,” “I’ll invade your backwater country,” and “Did you know that we invented your freedom?”

He completes a cursory molestation and, just as I am about to step off the platform, Officer Kumar leans forward displaying a slightly concealed mustached smile and says, “Best wishes to President Obama. I am proud.” I react with at least half of the excitement of a “My Super Sweet 16”-star receiving a gold-plated Porsche. In contrast, my enthusiasm is genuine, though lacking the energetic expletives of “OMG” and “I’m the richest girl ever.” Raj is a bit surprised that his two sentences elicit such a reaction. I respond, “Thank you, sir. I’m happy you are happy. He will be a great president for the US and better to the rest of the world.” This is probably a bit much, but Raj smiles, nods, and reciprocates my handshake. I head off to collect my bags. As my smile widens while reflecting on the exchange, I decide to return to Officer Kumar. Tapping him on the shoulder, to his evident surprise, I expand, “Thank you so much for your well wishes, sir,” perhaps ignoring that he sent his best wishes to Obama and not me.

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I spent the past five days in Orissa repairing a project that had nearly jack-knifed off the rails. In the process, I learned my first words of Oriya, participated in my first Ganesh Puja, got chased away by an irate father, and saw some of the most breath taking scenery I’ve spied thus far (which, as of now, isn’t saying much, because I’ve spent most of my time around Hyderabad and Bombay).

Geography lesson time: Head north-east from my adopted state of Andhra Pradesh to the neighboring area of Orissa. Orissa’s capital is Bhubaneswar. It’s from here that we are preparing the pilot.

We’re working to crack the code on whether solar-powered lighting, through the use of micro-loans, meets the short-term electrification needs of our members and, by extension, the poor. So far, the results are mixed. In particular, a number of the areas that we had hoped would be promising candidates for the pilot are more electrified than originally thought. Nevertheless, many of our members have demonstrated intense interest in having an affordable way to obtain reliable, clean energy. And so, we are working on tightening up the model, reducing cost to our customers, and preparing for launch in the next month or so. Until then, I do not have too much that I can share about the program specifics.

What I can say is that I am convinced that this is an important first step in allowing our members to provide their families with a key resource to improve their lives. In Udala, when nature’s light goes out our members rest. After sundown, children cannot do homework, mothers cannot develop their businesses, and husbands cannot complete their work. Kerosene lanterns are polluting, dangerous, and expensive (over the long-term) and flashlights are totally inadequate for lighting a living space.The solar lights that we are currently testing will lift these constraints on our member. I am sure we’ll also learn of many creative uses that we could not have anticipated.

My hope is to work with some highly innovative, but realistic, product design and engineering companies that are creating flexible home energy solutions for off-grid households. In essence, the challenge for our members is that they need an affordable, reliable method for storing energy (i.e. – a battery) and a method for reliably accessing power (i.e. – AC grid power, solar, micro-hydro). The most expensive piece of that equation is the battery, currently. But, battery costs are declining and energy-efficient lighting units (LED lights, for example) are extending usage time and increasing lumens.

I am working on slightly more nuanced posts about Orissa, the gender divide, differences between developed and developing states within India, communal politics and violence, and my developing perspective on the value and constraints of microfinance. I suspect this will take a bit longer than I hope, but…

In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos from our field work and from our travels around Orissa over the past five days. We are pushing forward on our pilot, so I hope that I will soon be able to spend a couple additional weeks working to better understand these communities’ needs and what we can do.

Our assistant Sangam leader- beautiful and captivating.

Roadside friends.

Tanvi practicing her best Vikram Akula.

This kid was born to perform.

The 8th wonder of Orissa: The Rice Paddies

Northeastern Orissa’s main coal-fired power plant. 30 km from one of our sites, but electrification is years away. This was jarring when we came around a curve and this blight was smack dab on the horizon. I’m a bit conflicted, because ultimately this plant can drive huge quality of life improvements for our customers. That is unless, of course, we get our solar panels covering the countryside. Then our customers are in charge!

The harmony that rose from this group in the paddies was beautiful. While I couldn’t understand the lyrics, the sound was powerful. We stopped for a while and traded “ap kaise ho”s (hellos) and then attempted to stroll into the paddy. That proved a bad idea, so we stuck to the road and soon departed.

Just back from fishing. Tanvi and I decided that she carried the crown of Ms. Orissa 1958 proudly. There was no posing necessary for this photo.

A reflective moment. I found this boy’s manner to be wonderfully relaxed and self-assured.

The Cart that was put before the horse. We didn’t see any horses or water buffalo in this family compound, so I’m not quite sure which adage to mangle.

Unfortunately, the lighting was quite low in this room. I was trying to capture these fascinating, quizzical looks this young girl was giving me. A slightly blurry image will have to suffice.

GOATS. Nothing says rural India like a goat blocking a bridge.

A Sangam Meeting in a schoolhouse.

The lonely cement industry. This guy had just loaded up a huge dump truck full of sand and was waiting for round two. As we drove over this river, I caught this scene out of the corner of my eye. I could write a separate post about the construction industry in Orissa. I won’t, but for 10 KM before and after this river bed we saw families sitting in stone breaking camps preparing rocks for road surfacing. The price of manual labor is so astoundingly low that I saw rock crushing machines sitting idle next to these manual rock breaking sites.

To market.

The following are all shots of the children of our members, who (mostly) patiently waited for all this lending to get out of the way:

This girl kept peering out from behind the door frame. Her mother is in the lower left. Her shirt has a huge Chicago Bulls logo on the chest. We chatted for a while about the upcoming season, she’s bullish on Paxon’s ability to pull the team together and prefered Beasley as our first draft pick.

She spent the meeting hitting a boy in the head and eating sweets. Seems like a pretty good day’s work. This captured a moment of passivity.

Preparing to seed a rice paddy.

Beats Coppertone’s UVA/UVB protection every day.

Ingenious. Apparently cows don’t like to put too much effort into their foraging. This bundle blocked there path and made rolls of barbed wire that you might see in Wisconsin look a bit excessive.

He was knocking off the top of this wall, one carefully balanced swing at at time.

Another shot of the paddies.

You get the picture. We’re trying to create more of these scenes.



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