Welcome to India

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The (mis)adventures of USC students trying to bring clean water to an Indian village.

My return to the blogosphere has been triggered by two events: my discovery of a reliable internet connection & the coming of monsoon season.

If you’ve never been to India, it may be difficult to appreciate these two events. I’ll address the first in a later post (India’s infrastructure deserves its own) but to give you a sense of what monsoon season means, it (a) allowed me to shower outside on the roof our unfinished dorm building yesterday and (b) turned the track I normally run on into a swimming pool.

But I’m way ahead of myself! Allow me to first catch you up on the past two weeks.

I came to India on a grant awarded by the Deshpande Foundation, a non-profit started by successful IT entrepreneur “Desh” Deshpande to fund social entrepreneurship and tech projects in his native town of Hubli-Dharwad in the Karnataka state of India. Five other students (Christine Lee, Kimmie Lewkowtiz, David Livingston, Alex John, Nanda Surendran) and I applied earlier this spring with the intention to work on water & sanitation. Our proposal included three elements: water treatment technology to bring clean water to those without access, educational workshops to teach good sanitation practices, and patient informatics software for health clinics to record the changes in health that the filters and educational workshops bring about. We applied under the auspices of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, a great little resource that works with every school and discipline at USC to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation and help translate research and ideas into success applications. Months later, we had written off the opportunity but, just a couple weeks before summer began, we received a call from USC Stevens. We were heading to India!

I arrived in India two weeks ago today. There’s no Shanghai-Hubli express flight so my journey took the better part of two days, most of which I spent reading and sampling India snacks in the airport rather than sleeping.

My first day was a mixture of excitement and jetlag that left me in a state of passive enjoyment of all that I encountered. My teammates (Alex John, Christine Lee, and Kimmie Lewkowitz) expressed that my naive excitement was refreshing. The ominous implications of this statement (read: “oh you just wait kid…”) were then lost to me. I spent most of the afternoon familiarizing myself with the campus of BVB Engineering College, “Desh” Deshpande’s alma matter and the home of the Deshpande Foundation. The evening was spent familiarizing myself with the dizzying array of Indian dishes available at a local restaurant (this supposed “variety” implied by a large menu would soon be debunked).

My first night was spent in the boys’ hostel at BVB College. I made three important mistakes. One, I slept in my boxers. Two, I slept without a sheet. Three, I slept without a mosquito net. I woke up two hours after I had fallen asleep, a red, bumpy, shivering creature. I was certain I had contracted some form of accelerated malaria (which usually doesn’t kick in for a week after infection). I woke my roommate Alex and we jerry-rigged his mosquito net to fit over both of our bunks.

The next day we moved to the “new” hostel. I say “new” because its still being built. Each room has a few beds and a 50% chance of other furniture. Noticing the emptiness that should have been filled with a window pane & fearing a return of the mosquito menace, we taped grocery bags to our window frame (a few days later, they’d be replaced with screens). Water and power are intermittent and hot water a dream forgotten long ago, but that’s more a symptom of Indian infrastructure than the unfinished status of our building.

My first fully conscious day in India was spent in the community we’re working with - a government housing project called SM Krishna Nagar (“SM Krishna” after the former Chief Minister of Karnataka and “Nagar” being Hindi for “town”).

A quick project aside: To explain how we choose this community, I’ll need to step back a minute and update you on what happened in India before I arrived. Christine, Kimmie, and Alex flew to India at the beginning of July to set our project in motion. They deftly surveyed the water situation in Hubli-Dharwad, visiting government officials, testing for bacteria at the municipal water treatment plant, and searching for a place in need. What they found was SM Krishna Nagar. Local social workers expressed that, though the government had provided cheap housing years ago, infrastructure had since been neglected and water quantity and quality were a major problem. Christine, Kimmie, and Alex met with the principal of the local elementary school and found him to be intelligent and eager to work with us. The elementary school offered a perfect venue for educational workshops as well. These conditions convinced our team to concentrate our summer efforts in SM Krishna Nagar. Our hopes of empowering local clinics with patient informatics software, however, were dashed by the lack of reliable power, security, and computer training in the clinics as well as state-side setbacks in the development of the software.

My goal in SM Krishna Nagar that day was to work with a local translator to interview families on their current health conditions, water situation, and sanitation behaviors. I encountered two wonderful themes of the Indian subcontinent that day: hospitality and [diversity->indian diversity].

Every home I have entered in India, be it that of a wealthy government official, middle-class graduate student, or impoverished day laborer, has offered me tea and crackers (or, more specifically, chai and Par-lee-gees). Women in the houses I visited that day in SM Krishna Nagar regularly scrambled to offer their only chairs and stools to make sure I and my translator were comfortable while they curled up on the floor.

The range of cultures I encountered in that single slum was also impressive. I walked past mosques on the way to visit families with posters of Jesus on their walls then stepped outside to follow groups of Hindi boys to meet their Urdu-speaking friend’s mother. While India is primarily a Hindu nation, SM Krishna Nagar is about 90% Urdu-speaking Muslim. The rest of India too is sprinkled with pockets of diversity as each state in India maintains [its own language and customs->indian diversity].

Over the next few days, Nanda and David arrived as well and our team of six was whole again. Alex and I worked on testing and improving a novel filter he had designed using local materials as a less expensive alternative to the ceramic filters from Basic Water Needs we were to introduce later. The filter concept was built around chlorine and charcoal. Chlorine is a cheap and effective way to eliminate bacteria from water and is especially ideal for cost-sensitive communities like SM Krishna Nagar. Unfortunately, its Achilles heal is that chlorinated water tastes like pool water. Luckily, chlorine deposits on charcoal upon contact. Using PVC pipe, cotton cloth, a piece of rubber from the inner tube of a rickshaw tire, activated charcoal (charcoal treated to have more surface area), and bleaching powder (a source of chlorine), we built a device took in chlorinated water, ran it over charcoal, and spit out tasting, safe drinking water. Our initial results proved promising, but Alex soon left for home and, considering our short time in India and the realization that there wasn’t time to test whether the chemicals in our “flip-filter” reacted to form any human-mutating byproducts, I decided to shelve development for later.

The first (and last) weekend our whole team was together in India, we headed for Bangalore. We spent Saturday in Bannerghatta National Park, embarking on a safari and wandering the local zoo. Both had the delightful India quality of few safety standards. Our safari guide frequently pulled right up next to lions and tigers and snapped his fingers and imitated animal sounds to elicit reactions for the eager white people in the back. In the zoo, we found far more monkeys wandering the pedestrian paths than sitting in cages and discovered an elephant that had been trained to “bless” tourists by touching their head… after depositing a rupee in his trunk. Sunday left us time to singlehandedly tilt the US-Indian trade balance far to the east as Christine raided the countries supplies of sari cloth and Nanda replenished his wardrobe for the next few decades. We also wandered Bangalore’s public parks and made a shoeless pilgrimage to the Iskcon temple which happened to be holding the biggest bake sale this side of the Pacific.

The following week, we bunkered down to finish our educational materials before Christine and Kimmie left Sunday morning (yesterday). Their time in India was fittingly capped on their last day with a visit to two orphanages to donate ceramic filters and give seminars on water filtration & sanitation.

And then there were three… Nanda, David, and I are now left to ice the cake in our final weeks. This week is the last week that all three of us will be here, as Nanda returns to his home in the nearby state of Kerala for a wedding and pilgrimage on Friday. The following week will find David and I alone and Hindi-less and the week after Nanda as our sole water warrior. This week, we hope to finish our initial health surveys, distribute water filters in SM Krishna Nagar, and begin searching for reliable community members to start a “water kiosk” to sell & repair water filters in SM Krishna Nagar once we leave. The water kiosk is a key part of our project as it ensures that (a) community members who already have filters can repair them when they break and (b) community members who don’t have filters can buy them once they taste that delicious, E-coli-less water at their neighbor’s house.

A busy final stretch and yet, perhaps next week… we may just find time for a jungle trek through the hills and forests of the Nilgiris.