Monday, June 11, 2007

Ravi Kuchimanchi and AID

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with Ravi Kuchimanchi. Ravi and I were classmates at IIT-Bombay more than 20 years ago. Much more importantly, Ravi is the founder of the Association for India's Development (AID). AID describes itself as a "... volunteer movement committed to promoting sustainable, equitable and just development" in India.

Ravi founded AID in 1991 while he was still a doctoral student in Physics at the University of Maryland. I asked him how it started. Ravi said that he'd always been interested in doing something to help development in India. One day he decided to do something about it: he sent an email to a host of friends suggesting that they all agree to contribute $10 per month to fund a school in a village that had no school. When he sent this message Ravi didn't have any particular village in mind. But this email got people pretty excited, and soon somebody suggested a village that didn't have a school. And that started things off.

AID is quite a remarkable organization. It works with grassroots organizations and initiates efforts in a variety of different areas including education, livelihood, health, women's empowerment, and social justice. I remember reading that AID was one of the first relief organizations on the ground following the tsunami in southern India.

One of its distinguishing characteristics is that much of its volunteer corps is highly educated, often in science and engineering. This means they make an effort to get to the root cause of a problem before coming up with a solution. I asked Ravi for an example of such analysis. He gave me many such examples, but here's a nice one.

In spite of significant government investment in rural electrification, a large number of villagers in rural India live without electricity. A superficial analysis of the situation might suggest that this is caused by poverty. But a more detailed analysis shows otherwise. Most of these villagers who lack electricity use kerosene lamps to provide light in their homes. Kerosene lamps are not an efficient method for generating light---burning kerosene generates a lot of heat. One can generate equivalent, or more, light from an electric bulb for less money. So these villagers are more than capable of paying the monthly electricity bills to light their homes.

The problem turns out to be corruption: the villagers need to bribe a low-level official to have an electricity cable run from the main line (often running outside the home to a street lamp) to the home. And it is the bribe that is unaffordable. Once AID understood this problem, they assisted villagers by helping to prepare applications for a group of 50 or more homes. When the low-level official asks for a bribe, they threaten to take the case to a high-level anti-corruption officer. This leads to a negotiation where the low-level official agrees to provide electricity connections to poorer people without a bribe, as long as he can still get bribes from the rich! AID has used this strategy successfully in a large number of villages.

In addition to its development work, AID is now starting to fight corruption. It uses 2 landmark legislations as its tools: the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Watch. Ravi told some very interesting stories of how AID is using these laws; their work is a good example of the maxim "Knowledge is Power".

We have been supporters of AID for some years now. But as I told Ravi, it is easy to write checks; it is hard to be on the ground and do the work that AID's volunteers and staff do. I wish them the very best in their efforts.

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