We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.

Questioning technology and its implementation

Reflecting on some of my past projects, and trying to study the thought process of some of the projects that I have worked on, I thought of laying out some questions which can act as a set of “tips” for my future projects.

  1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.
  2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?
  3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.
  4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.
  5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve. [If answer to 4 is still no]
  6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.

When you are told about a problem that possibly requires a tech solution, you might start immediately with brain storming in your head(alone) and maybe search for existing solutions that have been tried and tested elsewhere in this world. While that might seem to be a good thing to do, I feel the first thing should be to have an open mind and just try to understand the problem statement at hand. That should be done by direct interactions with everyone involved in the process that involves the problem. For an NGO, it could be project staff, administrative staff, the community or volunteers. Technology enthusiasts often let invention be the mother of necessity. They think of the new thing on the block and then force it to work as a part of the solutions, even when it does not fit the context they are working within.  So having an open mind that isn’t clouded by the next big thing that you’ve read about in the technology world or any other special tool that you fancy, helps in coming up with a more just approach to finding a solution to the problem.

2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?

Start by asking those involved, “What if there was no technology available?” How would they then, solve this problem? In any case, technology is mostly just a tool and real solutions are only aided by technology. So in a parallel universe, where no form of technology exists, how would this problem be fixed? I think that if a significant amount of time is spent trying to find answers to the above two questions, things would become clearer as to whether the solution should have anything to do with technology or not. If the answer is in the negative, as a technology practitioner, it’s best to move on and call it a wrap.

3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.

The keyword here is “observe”. What exists around? Radio? Computers? Mobile Phones? What kind? What make? How do they use it in their daily lives? What is the extent of their usage? Are they able to use all the features of a mobile phone? What Operating System are their computers running? What tools/software do they use frequently? How do they power these devices? We should observe the behaviour of the people who are supposed to be part of the solution as well, because in the end they are going to use whatever you propose to them. So studying their current level of knowledge in using technology & general behaviour is useful to understand the user experience aspect.

4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.

The idea here is to include existing technology as a part of the solution if possible, or to understand the extent of effort that might be required in case something new is proposed to them and then match the training aspect with their current behaviour so that it saves time and effort later on and learning becomes easy.

5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve.

I read somewhere that “the best technology is” that which is “invisible“. It’s something that we should keep in mind always, from the usability perspective, when designing solutions. I tend to focus on decreasing the time and effort I need to spend in training people to use the solution I design for them. How does one achieve that? The best way would be to include existing skills that have already been trained to them(by their own self or otherwise). If they know how to make a phone call using their mobile phone – let’s try to think if we can do something using their mobile phones which just involves making or receiving a phone call. If they know how to write an SMS, maybe we setup an SMS system and interact or communicate with them using that. What if the staff only knows how to use Excel and to check their email? Then maybe, I’d design a web form simple enough to do their task.

6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

If people are still calling you with questions on using the system or with some problem they have, quite frequently, chances are that the job was not well done. Implementation includes training well, troubleshooting and hand over the system to its users. Of course there will be problems, but the idea here is to minimise that by training the ground staff completely.

This post also appeared on ICTWorks in 2012: http://www.ictworks.org/2012/07/16/6-simple-guidelines-ict4d-project-success/

A kid asks: What is empathy?

For all those who have kids do know that they can ask a lot of questions to you. Some are difficult to understand while some difficult to answer.

Empathy, they say, is something similar to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand and feel what they are going through.

But that might be a difficult thing to explain to a kid. I thought I’d give it a try:

One fine evening, while its getting dark you are trying to get home and its raining slowly. You have an umbrella to protect yourself from the rain and walking down the road in your chappal. With the condition of the roads here, you are trying hard to ensure that you avoid stepping on one of those deceptive water-logged chunks, whose depth is unknown.

A car comes honking whose owner seems to be in equal hurry to get home and is speeding. The car drives past you splashing a whole chunk of mud water on you. (Hold that thought)

On the next day, you are driving your dad’s scooter and passing by the same road. The water logging still exists, and you see a couple of school girls heading to school.

Empathy is making sure that you don’t splash mud water on them while driving past because you know and can understand how it feels.

What do you need the most? Knowledge and Education.

Its been over an year now since I started working at, what they say, grassroots level on projects around livelihoods in Rural India. Well mostly UP and then Bihar, Rajasthan. When I look back at my very first interaction with the villagers on a project I was assigned the picture in my mind is still fresh mostly because of the conversation I had. It remains firmly etched in my memories.

May 26, 2010: I went on to meet the people of Ramkola Village, which happens to be surrounded by water on all 3 sides and gets submerged (read: flooded) with water every time there is heavy rain or a flood situation. Its like a “for granted” situation for them which they have accepted as their fate every year. They also have their own coping mechanism and mostly survive the after effects of flood each year.

I went to meet the men, women, elderly and kids to understand the situation there to plan and implement an “Early Warning System” which I had been assigned. I interacted with them as an outsider so that they could feel free to talk and share complains about the organisation I worked for, in case they had any (fortunately they didn’t 😉 only complaints about the government).

After the hour long conversation with the group, I happened to ask one question to them in the end.

“What is it that you need the most here?”
The First Interaction
Response from one of the male members (around late 30’s or early 40’s) who appeared to be the smartest or wisest,  was

“अब क्या बताएं, यह बाढ़ वाढ़ से तो हम निपट ही लेते हैं॥ हमें तो चाहिए ज्ञान और पढ़ाई लिखाई॥ उसी से हम सबका भला हो सकता है और तरक्की हो सकती है हमारी”

Translation: We know how to deal with floods each year. All we need is education, knowledge. Its the only thing that can really help us develop and bring good to our families.

Knowledge. Education. They know how to survive and cope with floods and they don’t really need help there. They understand where there real upliftment lies in.