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Onno Ruhl's blog

Dreams and Questions

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 Samik Das
Thenmoli wants her daughter, Vijayalakshmi, to become a doctor. Photo: Samik Das

“I wanted to become a doctor,” Thenmoli said. Her whisper echoed in the room which instantly fell silent. “There was no way even to get started when I was little.” Thenmoli pointed at her daughter, “Vijayalakshmi wants to become a doctor. She is only three. I will make sure she finishes school and goes to college.”

I was visiting a women’s group in Annathur village in Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu. This group had in the past been supported by the Pudhu Vaazhvu Project that also provided skills training for young people. I discovered that the group had mostly goat keepers, small dairy farmers, and vegetable growers. All women had managed to improve their lives with the support of the project. Yet our conversation was not about the women’s livelihoods. We only talked about how they could fulfil the dreams of their children.

“They choose computer training Sir…some of them nursing.  All of them got a job after the training.” I was amazed, but then again Tamil Nadu is one of the fastest transforming states in India. “How about the boys?” I asked. “They chose driving, Sir, mostly light vehicles. The ambitious ones go for heavy trucks or forklifts.”

“So did any boy choose computer training?” I enquired. “No Sir, none of them did. But we did have one girl who chose driving. Girls are more ambitious!”

'This is our house now'

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In Unit #95 (Photo: Martje van der Heide)

“This is unit number 95”, Preeti told me. “It is the standard model.” Geeta Devi the owner shook her head. “Look up”, she said, “This is our house.” I looked up and saw what she meant: there was a beautiful lotus flower design in the ceiling. “My husband made it” Geeta said proudly. “This is our house”.



The tireless Preeti works with village communities to help them build back better (Photo: Martje van der Heide)

Preeti Bisht is the community worker for SUDHA who is mobilizing the victims of the Uttarakhand floods in this small village on the Mandakini River, well on the way to Kedarnath. She took me all the way to unit number 107 and in passing showed me the school. I soon discovered that none of the house units were standard. Some people added a room, others an extra window in the kitchen to show the amazing view up river. And the houses that were already finished were painted in every color imaginable as houses in Uttarakhand are meant to be.

Let there be cyclone, we are ready!

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"1700 people Sir!” Satya said. “Everybody is fine.” Satya had just shown me the equipment of the multi-purpose cyclone shelter in Ganjam District, where Cyclone Phailin made landfall. The equipment had looked exactly the same as what I had been shown during the briefing the day before at the Odisha Disaster Management Agency in Bubaneshwar.

That had surprised me because the shelter where we were was almost ten years old, being one of the first ones to be built after the super cyclone of 1999. “I am the Secretary of the Shelter Management Committee Sir; I am in charge of maintenance.” Satya had said when I asked him how come everything looked in such good shape. “I have done this for seven years.” He added proudly. I was amazed. It is not often that a field visit highlights a facility that is close to ten years old. Even new facilities rarely look this good…

I am Kusum Kumari. Next Year I Will Be in Class 8

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It was not my first visit to a Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). Every time I go to one, I come out inspired. What a great program this is: many thousands of girls who have missed the education boat are being brought back into the school system all over India!  To me, it is the best part of Sarva Siksha Abiyan (SSA), the Government of India’s very successful Education for All Program.

That day in January, we were in Jehanabad in Bihar. We were sitting in the court yard of the KGBV school watching the karate demonstration the students put up for us. The girls learn karate for self-esteem and self-defense; it is a great thing. During the demo, one of the other girls came up to us.  “I am Kusum”, she said, “I am in class 7.” Her English was perfect, so I complimented her on that. Kusum went back and we continued to watch the karate. When the program was over, Kusum came back to the front, with a determined look on her face. “Next year, I will go to class 8” she said. “I am happy you came to visit my school.”

Rishikesh Kumar: Best Grassroot Innovator

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Rishikesh, Best Grassroot Innovator has made a hearing aid out of electronic waste“What is that, on this side?” the Chief Minister asked.  “It is the earphone connector of an old cellphone Sir” Rishikesh said. “What do you use it for?” the Chief Minister asked. “It is like the ear Sir”, Rishikesh said, “It is where the sound enters”.

I was standing behind the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, and I was amazed as he seemed to be. This young man from a village in Bihar had actually made a functioning hearing aid using electronic waste. He even designed his own Styrofoam cutter to quicken the production process. And the cost of the hearing aid is only 75 rupees ($1.20)! The cutter costs a few dollars only.

Nitish Kumar was making a tour of the Innovation Expo at the Bihar Innovation Forum (BIF). For me, Rishikesh was clearly the most amazing talent, but there were good innovations in many, many areas. Recycling groundwater for irrigation, thus slowing the depletion of scarce groundwater resources; using rice husks to generate electricity in the village; an Internet platform that allows small investors to contribute to grassroots loans; a platform to harness traditional culture to create jobs; I could go on.

The BIF is organized by Jeevika, Bihar’s flagship livelihoods program, which has empowered over a million women already and connected them to banks. I am proud to say that the World Bank is a long term supporter of both Jeevika and BIF.

Many people associate innovation in India with big cities like Bangalore and Chennai. Bihar decided seven years ago to see what innovation can come from its villages. This year they looked again, not only within Bihar but across India and found innovative rural solutions from 16 states. And it does not stop at a forum. The Chief Minister announced the same day that Jeevika will create an Innovation Center to support the grassroots innovators with handholding and technical assistance and to make sure that what works gets scaled up in many villages. This could transform the rural landscape!

She Will See a Miracle Next Year

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Kallo at Hursaina Village, Aligarh“They say this land will change next year”, Kallo said. We were standing on the edge of her barren land, just after a late monsoon down poor. Even when wet, I could see the land was useless, it looked very much like the sand dunes by the sea in my own country. Nothing grows on them except some long hard grass. Nobody could make a living off that land….

Kallo is a widow who also lost her elder brother and her son. She scrapes by on some manual labor she does, but her life is visibly tough, it shows in her face. She is not able to pay for school for her two children and struggles to make ends meet. “I do not know what it means, but they say the land will be better.” she insisted. “I will go to the meeting and get my registration card.”

Disaster will strike again…

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I went to bed early that night in Rudrprayag. The trip had worn me out and we were not even halfway up the Alaknanda Valley. Still, sleep would not come. The air conditioning made too much noise. When I got up to switch it off, the noise stayed. I suddenly realized how close we were to the river….

Ten days later nobody would have thought the river’s noise was an air conditioning unit. The river became a monster that obliterated everything in its way. Many hotels like mine were simply swept aside, as were people, roads, bridges, houses, and much more. They call it the Himalayan Tsunami. There was a cloudburst, causing a lake to burst, triggering a series of events that led to terrible destruction and loss of life.

Asha by boat: the last mile over water

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“If I don’t get a hundred it would be a bad day.” said Muniran Bibi. She sounded like an ambitious cricket player. “The boat clinic is our only chance of getting health care here on the island.” she insisted. “If not many people come, a big chance would be wasted for them.” Her eyes were bright with anticipation. 

Will Little Rahul Be Poor in 2030?

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“Bye sir!” Rahul was running ahead into the distance. It was hard for me to imagine how he could be running… The cracked soil was incredibly hot and extended all the way to what looked like a lake in the distance. It was not a lake…it was a mirage.

“He wants to be a doctor,” said his mother, who was walking next to me. “His sister does not know yet. She is only 2...”

When I came home from my visit to Gujarat, where we met Rahul Kalubhai Koli in Dhrangadhra in Surendranagar district, I could not stop thinking about him. He is 4 1/2, and he wants to be a doctor.

The Last Mile, at Last?

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Onno visiting a medical dispensary in Okhla, Delhi, IndiaIt looked like an ordinary little drugstore. A reasonable supply of medication on the right, and man behind a small desk in the middle.

But what was on the desk was not ordinary: a netbook laptop and a fingerprint scanner. And on the left were boxes, all the same medication, with names written on them. “Try it,” Neema said. “Scan your finger.” I did and the screen turned yellow. “You have never been here yet” said Neema, “I cannot give you any medication.”  

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