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Why Is ‘Startup India’ Not Focusing On Rural Innovation?

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By Yatti Soni:

A gardener plants seedlings at the entrance of Start-up Village in Kinfra High Tech Park in the southern Indian city of Kochi October 13, 2012. Three decades after Infosys, India's second-largest software service provider, was founded by middle-class engineers, the country has failed to create an enabling environment for first-generation entrepreneurs. Startup Village wants to break the logjam by helping engineers develop 1,000 Internet and mobile companies in the next 10 years. It provides its members with office space, guidance and a chance to hobnob with the stars of the tech industry. But critics say this may not even be the beginning of a game-changer unless India deals with a host of other impediments - from red tape to a lack of innovation and a dearth of investors - that are blocking entrepreneurship in Asia's third-largest economy. To match Feature INDIA-TECHVILLAGE/ Picture taken October 13, 2012. REUTERS/Sivaram V (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTR3B6DT
Image credit: Reuters/Sivaram V.

Indian entrepreneurs are ferociously foraying into hyperlocal, e-commerce, SaaS – all that sounds trendy and more often than not, has a counterpart in Silicon Valley. But do we ever ask ourselves whether a new app on my INR 20k smartphone makes India developed or is it better transportation in rural areas that will bring about development.

According to Poverties.org, 50% of Indians don’t have proper shelter, 70% don’t have access to decent toilets, 35% of households don’t have a nearby water source, 85% of villages don’t have a secondary school and over 40% of the villages don’t have proper roads connecting them.

While E-commerce, Hyperlocal, Food-Tech, Health-tech, Logistics, Cab Hailing are all great technological interventions, none of them address the enormous opportunities in agriculture, health, education, water, sanitation or housing.

According to the estimates of Ashok Gulati, Infosys Chair Professor at ICRIER, 55-60% of India is farm-dependent and still the contribution of agriculture in the national GDP is mere 15-17%; that is nearly two-thirds of India subsisting on just one-seventh of the GDP.

This clearly brings out the poor redistribution of riches in our country. While India’s economy keeps on rocketing at the rate of 9% (approximately), poverty remains pervasive, especially in rural India which makes up for 70% of India’s population.

These figures call for an introspection of our tech-centred vision of growth. As we keep on advancing urban India while neglecting the rural, the already wide gap between rich and poor keeps on broadening and it is chilling to imagine a country which chooses to leave 70% of its countrymen behind.

Therefore, change is required in the way we think and study business, we need to integrate the idea of creating social value in business within the core curriculum of business schools and not seclude it from mainstream economic and business research.

The Fortune at the Bottom of The Pyramid‘ by C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart, identifies the widely shared assumptions that multi-national corporations have about Tier 4 (population with an annual income of less than $1,500) of the pyramid and also, stands true for many entrepreneurial minds:

• “Assumption 1 – The poor are not our target consumers because with our current cost structures, we cannot profitably compete for that market.
• Assumption 2 -The poor cannot afford and have no use for the products and services sold in urban markets.
• Assumption 3 – Only urban markets appreciate and will pay for new technology.
• Assumption 4 -The bottom of the pyramid is not important to the long-term viability of our business. We can leave Tier 4 to governments and nonprofits.
• Assumption 5 – Intellectual excitement is in urban markets. It is hard to find talent that want to work at the bottom of the pyramid.”

The paper reasons out these assumptions by comparing them to the story of a person who finds a $20 bill on the sidewalk and does not pick it up thinking that if the bill really existed, someone would already have picked it up!

These assumptions can also be refuted by considering the homegrown examples of rural innovation like the SELCO Foundation which facilitates solar lighting in rural areas. The company was essentially conceived in an effort to dispel the myths that poor people cannot afford and maintain sustainable technologies.

The company works on the wonderful model of user segments, each segment is specifically designed to match the customer’s need in terms of usage, as well as finance. “Remove the M from EMI and all of a sudden, even an expensive technology comes within the reach of the ‘poor’,” Harish Hande, co-founder of SELCO, explains in Rashmi Bansal’s I Have A Dream.

C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart further summarise the idea with, “Perception of market opportunity is a function of the way many managers are socialized to think and the analytical tools they use.”

Thus, the loophole is not our innovations but our idea of development. Most of us have grown to believe that urbanisation is development. This idea has undoubtedly made India the seventh largest economy with a GDP of $2.067 trillion. On the other hand, the same fastest growing economy scores 0.586 on the Human Development Index (HDI) and is being stated as a ‘medium developed’ country by United Nations Development Programme along with others such as Iraq, South Africa and the Philippines.

In order to bust this bipolar image, Indian entrepreneurs must devise technological innovations for the problems of rural India. This will create a link between modernised India and a stagnant rural ‘Bharat’ so that the tech-driven sector can act as an engine that pulls the rural economy along.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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