In a recent trip to Samastipur in Bihar, I came across a line of rickety, roadside stalls illegally downloading and selling latest Hollywood movies in HD – that too, at a nominal price of Rs. 10. Villages where electricity is uncertain and where I could still stare up at night and see what my Delhi eyes would call half-of-the-milky-way, there didn’t seem to be even a sliver of doubt that the internet had penetrated deep. Ravish Kumar (journalist/TV personality/one of Bihar’s favourite products) had done an episode on how poorly the media had documented the impact of electrification in rural Bihar. To Ravish I say, there’s something bigger than electricity that’s happening in Bihar right now and thankfully, it’s spreading way faster than electricity connections.
What does technology and the use of internet at the grass root mean for the state of development and change-making? Can development agents quickly adapt and incorporate this to successfully accelerate inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth? In conversations with district health officials across Bihar, I tried to imagine the existence of a system that leverages this available technology in ways that allows the grass root to solve local challenges, locally.
Taking into account constant drop outs and weak footfalls at immunization drives, Ataur Rehman, Vikas Kumar and Bharti Kumari, district officials from Munger district, have conceptualized an automated reminder service using mobile phones. The idea is to get the beneficiary to register by simply giving a missed call on a number while the backend catches her phone number as opposed to community health workers going door to door updating registers.
Due to the unavailability of doctors during night deliveries in Saran district, Rajeshwar Singh – Hospital Manager at the district hospital has started encouraging medical staff to relay all reports of patients to the doctors via SMS or Whatsapp for them to interpret and advise remotely.
Many female health workers in Bihar cross rivers and walk for tens of kilometers to provide basic healthcare services to what are known as ‘hard to reach’ communities. These communities are rarely numbered or tagged and are difficult to monitor. Geo-tagging these hard to reach areas through a unique numbering system was a concept developed by health officials from a Gaya, Sheikhpura and Nalanda districts in a recent co-creation workshop.
These ideas emerging out of the rural heartlands of Bihar is a reflection of a starved and disconnected community’s need to cling on and use any available medium in ways otherwise unimaginable. Tabish Khair wrote about daffodils in Gaya and how Bihar is more susceptible to change than a New Delhi, London, Copenhagen, or Tokyo – and he is absolutely right, change here has been liberating. In a state where a labour room in the local health facility is still a dream, it’s exhilarating to discuss how available data could soon facilitate informed local decision-making and maybe even impact policy. The ecosystem is fast changing, and it’s time development methods do too.
In a talk in Norway, Christopher Fabian, who leads UNICEF’s Innovation unit, spoke about how every night people in the villages of Burundi collect their phones in a bucket and send it to a place with good connectivity to charge them. It’s only time that we realise that local problems will always have local solutions, and real impact will only be felt if we start investing in the marriage of human ingenuity and locally preferred technologies.