Delhi’s Bad Air …

Air pollution is reaching peaks in Delhi and the city – citizens and government – have finally started to fight it actively. One major cause for the bad air is of course traffic. In the first two weeks of January 2016 the Delhi government was running “odd-even” –  meaning one day all “odd-mumbered vehicles” were allowed to drive in the city, the next day all “even-numbers”. The campaign achieved a lot of media attention and a website for commute partners was launched by the government.

After the two weeks the environmental impact of the campaign was discussed manifold … political games on all sides. It would be insane to expect a significant reduce of air pollution after two weeks but what the intervention proofed is that the citizens are ready to take action and that the overall traffic situation was extremely relaxed. Everyone I have spoken to said this. There was no one complaining of not having been able to take the car. And most of Delhi’s citizens would do it again … So there is hope on the horizon.

What also became obvious during odd-even is that there aren’t enough measurement points in the city to serve all citizens equally. Now there is some kind of pressure to install more units and also to push the citizens somehow to action. This can only be done when they are somehow actively involved. Knowing about bad air is one thing – doing something actively against it is something different. The streets in Delhi are packed again and odd-even is almost history in this sense.

I’ve wirtten earlier on this blog that I am involved in an environment open data project which actually would close exactly this gap. While I was in Delhi the last 10 days I took the chance and spoke with Mrutyunjay Mishra (M2), co-founder of Juxt Smartmandate, a data analytics company based in Delhi and Hyderabad, and driving force behind the India Open Data Association – a non for profit company which believes in the open hardware and software movement and is promoting “open” as the secret for success to tackle the massive environmental issues in  Delhi and the rest of India is facing.

With M2 I’ve talked about the status of Open Data in India in general, about potential open data business models and what it takes to make a real impact – meaning not only collecting data but also creating communities and drive action. The first 15 minutes are about India in general, the last 20 minutes we tackle the other issues!

(Just click the play button and the audio file will start)

 

Just this morning I was reading an article featuring a French woman residing in Gurgaon (South od Delhi) who has started going around town, taking photo portraits of common Delhiites, making them pose with masks and X-ray films of a pair of lungs. As a matter of fact the air pollution is heavily affecting people’s health. The numbers of patients with breathing problems and many other symptons of pollution are skyrocketing!

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Here is the interview in an abbreviated form:


Ulrike Reinhard: You’ve started this initiative India Open Data Association (IODA). What is it all about ?

Mrutyunjay Mishra, IODA (MM): Our cycle is so to speak Data.Knowledge.Action. We collect data. We make it publicly available in an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand way and – knowing what the data is all about – we trigger action to solve problems which are of public interest. Let me give you one example. Our environment project. We started it last year at Kumbha Mela. Back then we’ve tested our open hardware machines for collecting various environment data such as dust, …. . The results of this field test helped us to fine-tune our machines, make them more accurate and sustainable and we optimized our software – meaning sending the data to the server and make it available. The new prototypes were ready for the odd-even experiment in Delhi in the first half of January 2016. There we’ve had the chance to compare at specific locations the measurements of our machines with those cost-intensive machines of the government. And it turned out we were absolutely competitive – not as precise as the high-end machines which cost more than one cruore INR, but within an tolerable variance. Government officials told us this.

Our next step is to cover with at least 40 of our machines more locations in Delhi, send the data to our server and make it available on our website. We visualize the data so that it is easy to understand for the public and we provide it in cvs-format so that everyone who wants to play around with the data can use it. With more machines out there and with more location-based data coming in we can serve the public better and provide knowledge how good or bad the air in Delhi is. We assume once people know how horrible air quality at their own place is and how it affects their health – they will chance behavior. This is when our cycle Data.Knowledge.Action. is completed.

So the India Open Data Association functions as a platform …

MM: Yes, I’d like to call it a platform. Because its role is to connect ideators, makers, financiers and users. We’ll be able to very clearly show that Juxt SmartMandate, which is my existing business and one of the founders of IODA, led the role of the ideator in this environment project and also brought in some seed funding. We connected with makers in China, where we bought the open source hardware for the machines and we found makers in India who assembled the hardware and designed a handy box. A new start-up is selling these boxes out of Gujarat. Other makers were working on the software and developed a mobile app which users can download to receive real-time environment data of various locations. So this model is working. What we need to do now is to scale it. For this we need more money … but we believe we delivered a strong proof of concept.

… and IODA is setup as a membership model, a non–for–profit company. Why have you chosen this structure? Why would a for profit company join?

MM: The organizational structure allows us to have maximum 200 members – these can be individuals and these can be organizations who are really interested in the open data ecosystem in India. To become a member you pay an annual fee and the one-time joining fee which is very nominal – I think it’s 5000 INR one time and 10.000 INR annual. So it is affordable for many. And because the legal structure only allows 200 members we’ve created one additional layer called “associate members” which allows us to include more if needed. Members have one voting right. So the structure is a more democratic one. We’ll see how it evolves. Initially we are looking for academics who are working in this field. We are looking for organizations and open data enthusiasts who have been doing groundbreaking work. We are looking for mentors, people who can guide us in this whole initiative. So there is a set of initial 15-20 members coming in. Hopefully also some financiers who provide a small fund to initiate projects. That is the answers to the first part of your question.

The second part – why would a for profit company join? We truly believe in the power of networks and in the power of many. The problems which we are planning to address and hopefully solve – as I said earlier – are problems which are relevant for the public. For all us. These are BIG problems like air pollution, waste, network-coverage – problems which can’t be solved by a single company, a single maker or even a single government. They can only be solved when we collaborate and co-create in a transparent manner – the ideaters, makers, users and financiers. And this is why we’ve chosen exactly this structure – it’s for us the best existing legal structure to achieve all this. That’s our basis. So now suppose you are the ideator of an open data project – and “open” is the premise – and you run your own private for profit company. Just like my company Juxt SmartMandate does in the open environment project. You define the skill set needed to make this project possible. The goal is that within IODA you’ll find the makers who are interested in your idea, you’ll find scientist who evaluate your data and so on. If the idea is good enough it will be translated into a product and/or service and we’ll find funding – meaning all the people will get paid. Everyone is working for profit. So the people who are making this project happen are all for profit. But the frame set in which all of this happening is a non-for-profit entity – it provides the basic management and the platform. So it’s a fairly good structure that way.

Where are the potential revenue streams for a company?

MM: For us at Juxt SmartMandate we see various revenue streams. Our core business is data analytics – so for us it’s business to analyze big data streams, to reduce complex data and translate the emerging patterns into easy to understand graphics and visualizations (meaning not losing any information while reducing the complexity), we structure data and provide downloadable data-packages and we might even develop desktop or mobile applications for the end-user. The person who developed the environment monitoring kit for our first project started meanwhile his own business and sells these boxes. So there are plenty of revenue streams … I am sure.

You were also saying that everyone can use the data – meaning also people/organizations who are not member of IODA?

MM: Yes, that’s true. We’ll provide all the data we are collecting on our internet platform in cvs-format. Everyone can download the data packages and play around with it and explore and build. All the data collected in any of the IODA-projects will be published under the a Non Commercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license, which allows the data to be shared and adapted as long as the appropriate credit is given to the creator and all the changes made are clearly mentioned. Commercial usage remains with those who initiated, collaborated and funded the project.

What is the current status of IODA?

MM: Regarding IODA as an organization I can say, that it is registered under Indian law and ready to practice. The bank account is opened and we can now invite the first members to join. We’ve already spoken to a few organizations and people and we are happy to announce our first members soon. Our website with the basic information is ready for launch.

Juxt SmartMandate will bring in the environment project I was talking about earlier. The status is that 40 boxes including the software are ready to be rolled out all over Delhi. The project website is ready for launch and the mobile app can be downloaded. For a successful start it’s crucial to increase the number of users.

What other projects can you envision ?

MM: I can only speak for my own company. We are planning to bring in at least two more projects once the environment project is up and running. One is the crowdsourcing of network coverage problems and analyzing the main reasons why in India the network is so fragile in order to achieve a more stabled infrastructure. Another one is the mapping of crimes let say in the city of Chennai. The data is publicly available but it is provided in a way that it is basically of no use. We are planning to visualize it in a way that let’s say women can see on a map which areas in Chennai are known for which kind of crime at a certain time of a day. So they simply can avoid going there. This doesn’t mean that they can’t become victim in a crime – but it can certainly increase the chances NOT to become a victim. I am sure other people / companies have many more ideas … I am really curious to see IODA taking off.

The Farmers – What about us?

Suicide rates among farmers are the highest in the country (India) – maybe only topped by the age group of the 16-24 year old male students. While the students very often cannot stand any longer the social and family pressure to become an engineer or a government employee in order to “pay back” to the family and sustain the clan, farmers “escape” from not being able to pay back loans and make enough money to feed their families. This is the brutal reality in India. And it’s horrifying. According to various sources (2013) roughly 55% of India’s population are involved in farming/agriculture. Over the last 10 years there was an significant decrease in the number of farmers (10%) but the number of farm laborers has been increasing. All together they are the “food back bone” for the entire country. Still for so many reasons the “profession” farmer isn’t at all something young people yearn for. No money in it. And what might even be worse no social status is going along with it – on contrary, it’s rather a social group people look down to.

Therefore in a village like Janwaar where at least 80% (if not more) of the villagers depend on farming real change can only happen, when the farmers and agriculture are included in the scope of our work. This is the next step we have to take – riding on the wave of trust, confidence and enthusiasm the kids and their skatepark have created. Without changing the living conditions in Janwaar for the better our endeavor Janwaar Castle has no chance to survive long term. So empowering and guiding the farmers in the village is a very consequent and necessary next move. And exactly this was being asked for at our workshop early in October 2015. To tackle the main challenges of farmers in Janwaar – scarcity of water, wild animals destroying the crops, minor revenues – we’ve decided to set up a farmer producer organization (FPO). The promotion of FPOs has become a national policy in India and has been one of the most effective pathways to improve the life of small and marginal farmers. There are a couple of government programs from which FPOs can draw benefits and (financial) support. In Madhya Pradesh, the state where Janwaar is located, has a high above average number of registered FPOs. No wonder, the state is completely relying on agriculture.

What is an FPO ?

In short an FPO is a “… collective of producers, especially small and marginal farmers, which addresses the many challenges of agriculture but most importantly, which improves access to investments, technology and inputs and markets. It’s an institutional form to mobilize farmers and build their capacity to collectively leverage their production and marketing strength.” It is a member-owned private limited company. Our goal in Janwaar is to set up a “democratic” FPO which is long term sustainable. We aim to bring at least 1000 small and marginal farmers together, each of them investing 1000 INR as equal shareholders. This also means that each single farmer can only be hold reliable for his/her shares. A matter of fact which will significantly reduce the pressure on a single farmer. If each of the 1000 farmers brings in 1000 INR then we’ll have 10 lakhs INR and the Indian government will immediately fund an additional 10 Lakhs INR – it’s their way of supporting the FPOs. And with 20 lakhs INR we can start working sufficiently and built something sustainable. That’s the advice we’ve got and that’s our plan!

I am very happy that Vini, my local partner and one of the stakeholders at Janwaar Castle has taken the lead in this. Vini knows a lot about farming and agriculture, he has access to all the farmers in our area through his father’s political function – so it will be easy to reach out to them – and he has a huge interest to make the people’s life in the buffer zone area of Panna National Park (where Janwaar is located) better – it would become the world’s first example of how the co-existence of man and animal in a buffer zone can be managed.

Further support we get from a group of farmers around Prem Singh, a farmer in Banda, Utter Pradesh (UP) bordering MP. I know Prem for more than 3 years now and he participated in our first workshops with villagers in 2013 in Patha, UP. Over the last 10 years Prem has developed a farming model which cherishes and balances the co-existence of nature (resources), animal and mankind. His model includes among others organic farming, renewable energy and water management. In his agriculture center in Banda he is teaching the farmers for free – in their newsletter they reach out to more than 20,000 farmers. I’ve agreed to join the board of their KISAN School, which will be inaugurated on February 12. I see my role to connect the farmer community to the Web. KISAN school will provide free courses over the period of two years, it’s designed that the farmers come and learn theory and then go back to their fields and practice and report in the next sessions their experiences and results! On February 12 we will also attend an award ceremony Prem and his team has set up to acknowledge and cherish the important role farmers play in the daily life in India. It’s the first award in India for farmers and Vini and I are very happy to support this endevour. The Banda team will also set up an FPO in their region and we agreed that our FPO and theirs share the same common values – transparency, equality among the stakeholders, co-existence model – and work for educational and marketing purposes closely together! I am really happy that we brought this cooperation on its way – Prem Singh and his team are true role models.

Why would a single farmer join the FPO?

It won’t be an easy task to unite 1000 farmers – mistrust, fear and the lack of education are our biggest opponents – but we are very confident that the trust we’ve gained in Janwaar and the reputation we have will help us on this way. And of course there all the arguments of how a single farmer will benefit from such a move.

Our estimate is that it will take as at least 6 month to “win” the farmers and we will work hard in the field to convince them to join. We’ll run workshops, we’ll have meetings and and and … It’s basically their only way out especially in situations like we are currently facing. A huge drought after a very bad monsoon will bring famine and many other problems in the coming month. It’s only mid January and already many wells have dried out … it will be a very tough spring and even worse summer of the farmers and their families. So we hope that this horrible situation will at least help to found the FPO. As tragic as it might be …. !

The Art Of Letting Go

I was working with The Church of London a few years back on the very first edition of Google’s THINK QUARTERLY. Luckily they’ve come back to me with their HUCKMAGAZINE which describes itself as:

“Huck celebrates radical culture – people and movements that paddle against the flow. Inspired by DIY principles and rooted in the rebellious heritage of surf and skate, Huck roams the globe to document grassroots counterculture as it unfolds, seeking out freethinkers who are a wellspring of new thoughts and ideas.”

They did a short interview with me on Janwaar Castle and its power for transformation. Here is an excerpt which I myself find pretty important:

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your experiences in DIY community building?

I’m not sure what you mean by DIY community building – communities can only be build by DIY, you can’t force them, can you? If there isn’t a common cause or a common set of values it will never work. And both cause and values can’t be defined, because it’s a process of interaction and reflection among community members. It’s about doing things together, collaboration and co-creation and learning together. Only then can we all learn which things resonate. It has a lot to do with transparency and empathy and not so much with telling others what to do. It’s a nonlinear network model, not a hierarchy with command and control lines. Unfortunately the latter is still a frequent and strong component in development aid. So if you ask me what I’ve learnt, I’d say it’s the art of letting go.

Here you will find the entire interview on Janwaar Castle.

The Power of Pull

Over the last few month Janwaar Castle was really blessed. Not only are the kids doing great – they bring a smile on my face when ever I see them – also our “closer environment” is doing good to us. By feeding our Facebook and Web page more or less frequently with our latest news and with the help of the incredible pics by Vicky Roy, my photographer friend in Delhi, Janwaar Castle managed to become interesting for media and volunteers. We’ve had a short article in the Sunday edition of the Times of India (October 18, 2015), India’s largest newspaper, a journalist from Bombay, Shail Desal, was here for four days and his article will appear this weekend in scroll.in . Shail is running his own social project “Project Play” and he came with tons of soccer equipment in his luggage. So now the kids have footballs to play with and football shirts to wear. I myself just finished an article on the “Making of Janwaar Castle” for an Indian skateboarding magazine (SKATE A WAY, to be published in Jan. 2016) and two journalist from Deutsche Welle visited the skatepark; they are planning a short film on “transformation” and will be back early next year for shooting. All this without any press kit and without any “PR” work! It just happened.

Our new website also attracted new volunteers. Anveer Metha a skateboarder from Goa connected with me and two weeks later he was in Janwaar. He stayed for five weeks and is seriously thinking of coming back in January or February to help Janwaar get solar powered. Being an engineer this would be a great support for me – the idea is that he writes his master thesis or even his PhD on this. Let’s see.

His first days were kind of intense. The day he arrived we’ve had a first aid emergency with one of our dogs, Kallu, who decided to stay with us. He got terribly bitten by a wild animal in the jungle, just after having recovered from a crocodile bite in summer this year. And two days after Anveer’s arrival our workshop with the villagers started. He helped me a lot on that.

Anveer quickly became a role model for our skateboarding boys – even though he had to admit that teaching the kids skateboarding was beyond his reach … in many ways the kids were much better than him :-) Actually three weeks after Anveer’s arrival one of the kids asked me when the skateboarding champion I’ve promised them will arrive and teach them. We both had to smile :-) Nevertheless Anveer could show the kids some cool tricks and I assume they’ve had a lot of fun together.

Anveer_kids

 

Anveer also had the pleasure to assemble nine skateboards which finally made their way over five month to Janwaar. Skate-aid in Münster, Germany, is luckily supporting with used boards and equipment – a tremendous help! Even though the boards are used, they are much much better than anything you can get in India. This package was shipped to Delhi in May and we’ve had declared it already “lost” when suddenly M2, a friend of mine, called in October and said a huge parcel from Germany had arrived. Lucky us :-) So we practiced our “Indian way” of sending parcels from Delhi to Khajuraho and had the boards with us in less than 24 hours. And on a beautiful Sunday morning in October it was up to Anveer to assemble the “new arrivals” – it was then when we decided that these skateboards would become “personalized” skateboards, meaning each skateboard would belong to one child.

anveer_skateboards

 

 

A new era begun. The decision who of the kids will get his/her own skateboard is mainly in the hands of the principal in the government school. He is telling us who is most at school and these kids will now receive their own skateboard. Our rule “No school, no skateboarding!” has tremendously increased attendance at school. And you should see the smiles in their faces when they get THEIR boards. Their eyes are on fire and they couldn’t be more proud :-) Lovely.

no_school

Shortly after Anveer had left Anna and Philipp arrived. This was just a few days ago. The young German couple is planning to stay until the end of March and to work continuously with the children. Anna has studied ergonomics and spent quite some time in India. She has been working with girls in a home in Gaizabad, close to Delhi. Philipp has studied sports and is a good skateboarder – he can definitely uplift the kids to their next level in skateboarding. Let’s see how all of this will work out.

Anna_yoga

Anna and Philipp have planned their trip a few month ago – they also found us on the Web. Before they’ve left Germany they’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign on betterplace.org to finance various activities for and with the kids. Their campaign is still running – you can go here :-) With this money we are able to provide fruits to the kids twice a week, we can buy three more tablets and the spare parts we need for the boards. That’s the first plan. What else we will do time will tell.

For now their time has just started …

skateboards

Anna and Philipp carried 30 kg extra luggage – skate-aid in Germany had sent extra 8 boards and spare parts with them … more boards for the happy kids in Janwaar Castle!

A village bursted into life

“This is the first time that kids themselves change the scope of a rural village in India, in an area – Bundelkhand – which is known for its resistance to change and its tremendous poverty. I’ve never seen a village changing so fast!” said Mehmood Khan when he returned to Janwaar after nine months last week.

Mehmood is my guide for the change process we’ve started almost a year ago when the construction of the Janwaar Castle skatepark began. He is a well-known change agent in India and he has decades of experience when it comes to innovation. Last year at Christmas when he was in Janwaar the vibes and energy of the village were pretty much like in any rural village in India. There was no hope. No work. No fun. Villagers were following their daily routines and struggling to survive. Yes, there was some kind of suspicion in the air because of our ongoing construction work – the villagers didn’t know what was going on. And even when we would have told them about the skatepark project – none of them would have understood. Even the local stakeholders weren’t very clear about the project but to their credit I have to say they trusted and supported me. So when Mehmood and I walked around in Janwaar late in December last year and spoke with the villagers and the stakeholders of the project – it looked like a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome until we would spark interest and drive change.

But all this has changed.

The Janwaar children have changed their village in the last six months. The children who initially whiled away their time aimlessly and skipped school and often indulged in chewing tobacco, smoking and drinking and had a lack of respect for each other in general abusing violently, now work together and believe that there is something for them that could shape their future. The positive energy they bring in with their activities around the skatepark trigger their parents, their teachers and everyone who is there! The principal of the nearby government school said: “The skatepark has really helped the kids – they are clean, follow a routine and are cordial in their behaviour. They now want to be champions of a sport they never heard about one year before. We see a lot of social change with kids moving in and out for competitions in the village.If this continues it will bring change in other nearby villages, block, district and even in the entire province. Kids have a lot of potential here – be it academics, sports or painting. Its just their circumstances that drive them to become labourers. We believe in this approach and would be happy to keep supporting this initiative.” I never thought that this was possible in such a short period of time …. a rural village in Bhundelkhand has started a wonderful journey and bursted into life.

So this was the right time to enlarge our circle beyond the children and involve all stakeholders, teachers and villagers to discuss Janwaar’s urgent problems and the potential for solutions. I invited Mehmood to conduct a (design-thinking) workshop with all of them. Just like we did in Patha two and a half years ago. The workshop took place last week. We’ve held it at the far end of our skatepark under our huge tree – the spot which also suited so well during our summer camp. A diverse group of people participated: surprisingly many women of all ages, the teachers and the principal of the school, many of the children and the usual crowd of male villagers who hardly work but have the say.

crowd

The process was collaborative in all phases. In small groups of 4-6 people they were asked to write down their main problems in their own words. Every group presented the results afterwards – and slowly our tree – which was providing shadow on very hot October days – was functioning as a bulletin board.

IMG_1131

After three hours of hard work we were losing the villagers’ attention and all of us were ready for a break. So we collected the chart papers and translated and summarized what was written on them in the afternoon. Below is the list of the chief problems the villagers identified:

  • Unemployment and poverty
  • Scarcity of water for irrigation and consumption
  • Inefficiencies and corruption in government officials at an operating level in various areas of farmers interface
  • Lack of secondary, higher secondary and technical education
  • Lack of cooperation with the Forest Department with respect to forest boundaries

The second day was “solution” day – Mehmood explained the villagers what we’ve done in summarizing the problems and he was trying to get them into “solution” mode. Again they were intensely working in small groups, discussing and writing down potential solutions. Co-creation has started. At the end each group presented their solutions and all of them were debated and evaluated. At the end we’ve had the following five suggestions on which we were planning to focus.

  • Setting up a Farmers Producers Company (FPO) to create a critical mass of farmers to generate employment and economic activities.
  • Request the government to create a second water reservoir for the village.
  • Create an interface through the collector to get various government schemes delivered to the farmers. eg. meeting of agricultural officers with the farmers.
  • Request to the member of parliament to get approval for the 10+2 school and skill development initiatives.
  • Installation of fencing around all the fields of the villagers to avoid damage of crops.

A funny thing happened at the end of day 2. A woman stood up and basically said, that they’ve now all said what they need and now she asked me to get it done :-) And she left with a smile on her face.

If it were all that easy …

Finally at our last day our goal was to bring all the solutions together into what we call an action plan – a joint venture of all the stakeholders and villagers. The action plan includes the necessary actions to be taken and by whom and when they will be taken. And at the end Mehmood – as a symbolic act – took the oath from everyone to follow the plan. We were very lucky at this day, a couple of coincidences happened and fueled the process with positive energy.

First on our way to Janwaar we’ve met postgraduates from an agriculture university in Rewa, a city 150 km from Panna. They are doing their field work in Janwaar. We invited all of them to the workshop, including their professor and the official from the Panna Agriculture Department who accompanied them. All of a sudden we’ve had access to all the farmers and to the details of the land. The second very helpful coincidence was that the entire management of the close by Taj Safari Hotel came – they’ve been to the government school the day before and the principal has told them about the skatepark and our activities. They were so surprised to find a skatepark in the middle of nowhere and immediately understood the potential it has to offer. So they’ve decided to join the team and showed up with a very clear vision of what they can contribute (see further down in the action plan). And their medical officer immediately initiated his work by explaining the children the first aid box I’ve brought in from Germany. In the future he will hold periodically first aid workshops to train and prepare the kids for accident cases and he also committed himself to be available for medical emergencies. And thirdly Vini, my landlord and son of the member of parliament for the district in which Janwaar is located, encouraged the farmers to join forces and get things done – he envisioned the solution on how to do the fencing and how to strengthen the farmers in all their activities. Furthermore he will file an application for a higher secondary (10+2) school – because many families can not afford to send their kids to Panna for higher education. So our action day really turned out to be empowering and everyone could feel it.

action

My job now is basically the job of a project manager.
I will bring together all the people needed and I follow up where needed.
I truly feel we’ve reached a point where we can bring this village and the surrounding area to the next level and that all the causes on our action plan are within reach.

A huge thank you to the kids of Janwaar Castle – its them who bursted the village into life!

Janwar Castle needs a Bamboo House

The children in Janwar Castle have never seen a skateboarding instructor – nevertheless they’ve made it within five month to skateboarding champions. Just look at the pictures.

Now we want to move on and add a bamboo house for further actvities to our learning environment – and we need it before winter sets in. Therefore we decided to run this foto campaign. Vicky Roy, whom I know for many years now, is a well-known and established Indian photographer. The pictures he takes of children always reflect a very special atmosphere and ambiente … same holds true for his pics from Janwar, the village where our skatepark is located. He connects with the rural and he connects with the kids. I am very happy that Vicky Roy is supporting us and gives us these pictures for free for this specific campaign.

Thank you Vicky Roy!

His work has traveled around the world and his photographs are meanwhile a good investment.

We only fixed a minimum price for each picture which covers printing and shipping – otherwise the price is really up to you! Please help us to make this bamboo house become reality!

On the Road

For the past three and a half years I’ve been exploring the roads, the highways and byways, of India on my motorbike. I’ve probably traveled more than 50,000 km all over the country – the only area I haven’t been to is the north east. I usually go on longer trips, 4 weeks or more, and I try to avoid the sterile and boring to ride highways and look for the lonesome roads, the country tracks. To put it mildly, these are not always in tip-top condition – but most of the time it’s well worth investing that extra time and effort. Simply because it’s here that you can dig deeper into the country and get a real feeling for it. I believe it’s on roads like this that India shows its true face: beautiful but sometimes very unforgiving. The landscape can be stunning but all too often it’s scattered with litter and scarred with garbage dumps. The people you meet are among the most innocent and curious that you’ll find but they’re horribly left behind. All these are pictures that we don’t usually find in Western media which pushes the image of an emerging, rapidly growing economic power.

I started to ride a motorbike a few months after arriving in India. Before that I had 20 years devotion to the humble motor scooter and my longest trip on the 50 ccm two wheeler was from Berlin to Heidelberg – a grand total of 650 km! It took me three days and what a great way it was to explore the country roads of my home land away from the straight and narrow of the Autobahn. But motorbiking in India is a different story. Upgrading from a scooter to a motorbike wasn’t so much of a challenge – the real challenge was how to cope with the sheer unpredictability of any kind of Indian traffic situation. Whether on a four lane highway where on-coming traffic shouldn’t be so surprising, not even on the fast track, or arriving in an urbanized area where the density of everything suddenly and dramatically increases. In less than a minute you move from the free breeze in your face to jostling crowds of people, an exploded zoo of animals, swarms of children and jostling competitive traffic: anything from bicycles and auto rickshaws, to oxcarts, pick-up trucks and motorbikes. And the noise is simply ear-splitting. There seem to be simply no rules – it’s freestyle, self-organized traffic where each driver seems to take his life in his hands and act like there were no tomorrow.

My first long tour was on a Honda Hero Impulse 125 ccm – a dirt bike – from Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh all the way up to Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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Climbing up to Manali

On my way back I went through Rajasthan and Gujarat. The same bike took me to the south of India. Climbing up the Western Ghats was one of my most memorable experiences – it was like driving through the lands of the Avatar movie. Spectacular landscape, fascinating light and lush nature. And plenty of tea plantations.

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Western Ghats in the early morning

After a year on this very dashing bike I bought a new one that was a bit faster when I decided to go on a four month trip to Kashmir and Ladakh. Now the 200 ccm KTM is a very speedy bike, but for me – who had to endure it on long rides – it was simply too small and too tightly upholstered which made for a very ass-numbing experience at the end of a long day.

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And then, last year in Diwali I had this Eureka moment. I was on a tour with a friend going from Bombay to Goa (again on the KTM) when he offered me to ride his “Bullet”. So I got my first taste of how it feels to ride a right Royal Enfield – the supreme incarnation of the motorbike in India that’s been in continuous production now for 75 years. Only my first taste was disappointing. I felt it was way too heavy for me and that I couldn’t handle it properly. So I gratefully hopped back on my KTM. But two days later temptation overcame me and I tried again, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. I’ve bitten the Bullet ever since. It’s like a luxurious sofa on wheels … and once it starts rolling, believe me, it really does roll.

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Exploring India by road has given me a pretty good sense of how just huge, wild and diverse this country is. Distance has taken on a new meaning here where I can drive 500 km but when I look at the map I’ve hardly moved from my starting point. Using Google maps in India – which is what I do while traveling – can turn out to be tricky once in a while because, as I’ve found to my cost, Google maps don’t scale right. Very often distances on the map might look the same but in fact can vary from between 50 km to 150 km which really screws up your day’s travel schedule. And Google won’t show you how winding the roads are either which is another important factor when you’re calculating travel time.

Usually with the Bullet I do 350 km a day, and rarely stretch myself to cover a grandiose 600 km. If I have to, it means I’m KO in the evening – because 12 or more hours on the bike on bumpy roads is definitely too much. It only happens when I want to reach a certain place or when I’m forced to continue because I can’t find a decent place to stay for the night. There are no hotels or homestays in the villages and small cities. There might be places where you can sleep – but seriously after a day on the bike I do need running water (preferably hot water which is a challenge in itself) and I do need a toilet. My face is a mask of dust and dirt, my clothes are ready for laundry and my hair – even though most of the time I’m wearing a helmet – is so stiff with filth it can hardly be brushed. So sometimes the only option is to move on. Over time I’ve developed a routine where I check out various places online for my next destination – but this doesn’t always work out.

When I finally reach my destination it’s always an adventure finding the place where I plan to stay. Hardly anyone in the streets speaks English and, on top of that, hardly anyone can read – so my Hindi written papers are no help either. It’s pretty much trial and error until I find someone who understands what I want. In the bigger cities it’s slightly easier to find someone who speaks English and I’ve discovered that auto rickshaw drivers have some very basic understanding and at least some sense of direction. So very often I let an auto rickshaw driver be my guide. Sometimes I ask the policemen standing along the road and to my surprise three times a police guy jumped on his motorbike and showed me the way. Probably a special gallant service for lone western women on motorbikes!

The wildness and diversity of India is a continual source of fascination and inspiration. But sometimes it also frustrates me and makes me angry. I see the wildness in the ways the trees grow and the forests and lawns are “not maintained”. I see it in the way the waters flow and fall and how the mountains are shaped.

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Doodhpuri, Kashmir

The co-existence of nature and humans – sometimes brutal, sometimes harmonious – adds its part to the picture. The endless bright colors of the saris with the brownish and greenish shades of the landscape in their background are stored in my memory for ever. The eyes of the children, sometimes empty, very often curious and astonished to see “something like me”. The huge number of wild animals roaming around: tigers, leopards, hyenas, jungle cats, snakes, elephants, camels, donkeys, monkeys, goats, buffalos, pigs, cows, insects and endless number of birds, the infinite variety of sounds you hear – all this expresses India’s abundance and messiness and its beauty. The women working in the fields, taking care of their children and carrying home water and other goods on their heads have become a very familiar scene in my life. But what frustrates me and makes me aggressive is the way that men are absolutely dominant in the rural parts of the country – and by “men” I mean bunches of mostly uneducated, unemployed guys hanging around acting macho like little lords of creation but not moving a muscle to make a more decent life for their villages. On the contrary they make things much worse. In the early hours of the evening they start drinking their local wine and rum, and when they’re pissed out of their tiny minds they’re in a fit state to go home and beat and abuse their wives and very often their kids too. It’s disgusting, abominable but unfortunately way too often just part of the fabric of daily life. Women count for less than nothing in these rural areas.

I don’t know how many of India’s 700,000 rural villages I’ve passed through on my travels. This is where most of India’s population is living, probably some 800 million people. And this is where India is the most exploited. These villagers live without any water supply and electricity. They’ve hardly any health coverage and no kind of sanitation. Malnutrition is chronic and just part of life – they have too much to die but too little to prosper. Yes, government schools have arrived in some parts, but often enough teachers don’t show up or children don’t attend because they have to work in the fields. There’s no TV and if a village has a phone it’s simply one very basic cell phone for receiving in-coming calls with no chance of making an out-going one. The homes are mostly just one room with no furniture where three generations of the same family plus an odd goat or two sleep on the ground. They carry cans of water to wash themselves after they’ve emptied their bowels somewhere else. Sometimes they’ll follow the call of nature right next to the road, sometimes along the railway tracks, sometimes in the fields, and very often kids will squat down on heaps of uncollected garbage where pavements should be. Right next to the chickens, pigs, donkeys, goats and cows looking for something to eat. This mixture of rotting garbage and excrement sends out an acrid nauseous smell which hangs in the air and sticks in your throat. When they set fire to it, which they very often do, it becomes truly excruciating.

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Bophal, MP

But still these people laugh. They are very friendly. They are happy – much more happy than many of the people I see in the streets of Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. Or back home.

Why is this?

This is a question that puzzles me and that I often mull over while crossing India on my motorbike. So far I haven’t found an answer. But I think it has something to do with NOT having access to the Western or the so-called developed world. These people accept their lives for what they are and enjoy what they have. For “us” it seems like nothing – for them it might be a hard life but it’s a happy one. There is an innocence and a curiosity about them which urban culture has lost.

Riding my bike is a form of mediation for me – my mind becomes free. Many of my best ideas were born on these trips. There’s no tension. No phone-calls. No e-mails. Nothing to worry about. The roads and nature are wide open. All you need to do is to go. And you can go endlessly. I become one with the bike and the road and the surroundings. I don’t count the kilometers I am riding, I simply enjoy the NOW.

I feel the country.
The sun. The dust. The rain. The dirt. The air. The noise. The smell. The density. The wildness.

(Thank you my dear Paul Morland for adding some “Shakespearean Art” to my text)