TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with VK Madhavan

With the non-profit Chirag, VK Madhavan tackles development issues in the Himalayas by helping recharge springs, attracting IT business, setting up cooperatives, and more. True to TED’s interdisciplinary nature, this Senior Fellow integrates interests as broad as traditional weather forecasting and mobile phone technology into his perspectives and work.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Madhavan asks:

Does everything have to be measured in quantitative terms? If it can’t be measured in quantitative terms is it not worth doing?

Click here to respond!

Tell us about the work you do with Chirag.

I’m fortunate to work for Chirag, a non-profit here in the Himalayas, which leads an integrated approach to development. I see this approach as a strength, though we don’t claim to have that one single silver bullet that some organizations do. We work with diverse things that could potentially change the quality of life of a person living here in the mountains. We work on a number of issues, and my responsibility is to provide leadership to the organization.

We’ve been spending a fair amount of time over the last six or seven months rolling out a new livelihood initiative. We’re trying to pull all our experiences of working on agriculture, animal husbandry and other livelihood initiatives together, into a new structure. We’re creating six  formal cooperatives of women in the first phase. These cooperatives will commence operations in April.

Most cooperatives tend to be single-commodity enterprises, or single value-chain enterprises. You could set up an enterprise on cotton. Or you could set up an enterprise around dairy.

Poor families tend to diversify risk as a survival strategy. So some of their land is set aside for horticultural crops, some of it is used for food grain, there might be some livestock on the land. Poor families do not rely on just one single thing for their income. So what we’re trying to do is set up livelihood cooperatives. Each cooperative will try and provide opportunities for improving market access.

A woman sells her herbs. (Photo: Ranu Sharma)

The cooperatives will focus on agricultural goods, fresh fruits and vegetables,  milk products or poultry … so it’s a complex mechanism. And we’re trying to make cooperatives of the poorest women producers. We’ve started off identifying who the very poorest women in each village are, and have picked those to begin with.

A cooperative workshop. (Photo: Adam Huggins).

Chirag’s purpose is also to support sustainable agriculture and diversified livelihood options. Chirag’s team continues to try to improve or increase production. So it’s not just market services, but working the back end as well. In some cases, if they don’t have adequate resources to create the options, then we help set up institutions to help market these goods. Chirag’s role is also to create a macro level institution which will provide value-added services, such as providing information for farmers — using mobile phones – and also weather forecasts.

Which of Chirag’s projects are you most proud of?

There are two in particular that have recently had a big impact. We rolled out a project a couple of years ago to recharge springs. For a wide variety of reasons, hundreds and hundreds of springs in our region have started to dry up over the last couple of decades. We spent a couple of years trying to understand this phenomenon. We don’t usually think of mountains as having aquifers, but once we started to recognize that mountains have aquifers too, we began employing basic principles of hydrogeology. We linked up with a team of hydrogeologists from a technical institute, and over a two year period, trained our Natural Resource Management  team in understanding the basic principles of hydrogeology.

Since October 2009 we’ve been recharging springs. We identify the specific area which is the recharge zone for the spring. In that area, you put in vegetation, you put in trenches … anything that could lead to greater water infiltration in the soil.

Today, if you came here, you’d meet colleagues of mine who grew up here and studied only through the 10th grade. But they can actually map the geology and explain how a fault works, and why, if you were actually to have soil conservation efforts in a particular plot of land, it would lead to an increase in water discharge 400 meters away on another slope of the hill.

We’ve started to see results, but we’d like to wait to see the impact over two or three bad years. We’ve had excessive rain this year, so that could very well be the major reason why we’re seeing an increase in discharge. So I’d like to see a really bad year before I can say that we’re 100 percent successful. In the next three years, we hope to be able to train other organizations in the area to be able to do this on their own.

The fact that these springs get recharged and are successful has nothing to do with what I’ve done, it has to do with my team that’s doing well, and the fact that communities see the value of it.

And what’s the second program that’s lately seen a lot of success?

We’ve been working with young girls for eight years, basically providing them with what are broadly called “life skills.” We’re training a new generation of women leaders for the region. We’ve been running two workshops each year for about 60 girls. And the girls all love it. We can see the change in them. But some years ago the girls turned around and said, “All of this is great, but why aren’t you investing in the boys in our area, too?”

So we began to work with the boys. And the boys turned around and said, “All of this is great, but our problem is we need jobs.” So we started training them in electrical work and plumbing, and training them for the hospitality industry. But the girls were not opting in for this training.

Finally we met two individuals open and excited about the prospect of opening a back-office operation — a business process outsourcing unit — in a rural area.  They created a new start-up institution and are currently employing 70 young people — half of them girls — in our area. These young people had never seen a computer before in their lives, and now they go to work every day on computers, earning decent wages.

How did you first get started in this kind of work?

I got my master’s in international politics, and I had started to volunteer during my undergrad years. I had the choice to go to the US to get my PhD in South Asian studies, but I decided to defer my admission for a year and to go and live in a village. I didn’t want to have regrets later in life that I’d never done it. So I went off to work on development issues in the desert in Western Rajasthan and stayed there for eight years.

Occasionally now I have a tinge of regret that I didn’t do a PhD. But it’s only occasionally and it’s only a tinge.

After running an organization, managing a team of 100 people in the desert, I was sort of physically and emotionally burnt out. I felt I had changed in a way I didn’t particularly like — I felt I had become in some sense dispassionate while making decisions. So I decided to quit and move to Delhi.

After a year working on policy issues  with ActionAid, I did some consulting, and then worked with The Hunger Project on women and governance. Then the city got to me — I started to feel that the lines between necessities and luxuries got blurred. Thankfully, my wife Aloka is equally comfortable in cities and villages. We had a child on the way, and figured it was a good chance to flee. So we decided that we’d go to the mountains, and my daughter has grown up in the mountains.

The Himalayan mountains.

Was there an incident in your life that led you to dedicate your life to serving others?

When I was studying political science as an undergrad, I was taught a lot of political theory and a lot of Marxist theory as well. In 1988 I was volunteering, doing a survey on the impact of the drought in Western Rajasthan. I was interviewing families who, despite a minimum wage, were getting paid far less than what they should have. I couldn’t understand this. Why would they accept it?

I was on a bus and I was speaking with one of these workers, and I asked him why all the people didn’t just get organized, protest against this injustice, and solve the problem? I suggested the man speak to the other people in his village and that they should all refuse to go to work — that was the only way he’d get his right. He looked at me, and he said, “You know, you’re right, but there are a couple of problems in this.” As a naïve 18-year-old university student, I thought they would be simple problems that would be fixed easily.

He said, “One problem is that if our village were to say that we won’t work, they would give work to people in the next village. So what would we do then?” I said I realized that yes, that was a problem. Then he said, “The other problem is that, when I go home in the evening, with no money, and my daughter cries for milk, what do I tell her?” I had no answer for that. I figured that I needed to develop some humility and to spend some time trying to figure out what really makes a difference to people, and I’m still searching for the answer.

I’ve heard that you’re interested in traditional weather forecasting. What is traditional weather forecasting?

Historically, over time, people in many different traditional cultures noticed a correlation between changes in wind direction, for example, or certain changes in vegetation, and found relationships between the behavior of animals and insects and rainfall or other weather patterns. People had these methods for predicting the weather that they developed over time.

I first learned about this in the desert of Rajasthan when I was walking with a farmer on a hot June day. He pointed out ants carrying their bits of food out of their anthill to higher ground, and said, “It’s going to rain in the next seven days. It’s going to be a good year this year.” He explained, “If the ants are moving their food out of their anthill to a higher ground, it means they know their anthill is going to get flooded.” And I’ve been interested in traditional weather forecasting ever since.

Traditional societies are caught in a bind, though. The rate at which climate is changing now is much faster than it has done in the past.  So suddenly they are challenged by the fact that because there are dramatic changes in the microclimate around them, some of these observations, which have withstood the test of time, and have been passed on through generations, suddenly aren’t all relevant any more. I don’t think we should sit back and romanticize all traditional knowledge and say that all traditional knowledge should be followed today, but it had a value in it, and it has an interesting process by which it was arrived at. While it might not all be necessarily relevant or true, the fact is, it’s still worth learning from.

As people have more access to, and increasing faith in modern education, they tend to dismiss traditional knowledge. I think that’s really sad. At some point in my life I’d like to write a book on traditional weather forecasting.

Part of your Senior Fellow project is to use new technology — mobile phones — to help with disseminating weather predictions to local farmers.

Well, I’ve had a modern education as well, you see. What we’ve done is set up nine automatic weather stations in the area we work in. We’ve been tracking forecasts and we’re now talking to a service provider that can provide us forecasts every three days or so from each micro weather station. In these mountains, from valley to valley, the weather can be completely different, even when they are just five kilometers away.

The Chirag office and school.

We hope to start providing localized weather forecasts basically as a risk mitigation strategy. If, for example, you’re going to spray your crop, and you know it’s going to rain in the next 24 to 48 hours, better to wait for it to rain, and then to spray. Otherwise it will all get washed away.

How has the TED Fellowship impacted you?

As someone who has diverse interests — I’m interested in everything from education, to health care, to young people, to agriculture, to technology — there can’t be a better place than TED. TED brings together people with such diverse experience and interests, that I have so much to take away from each conference.

TED allows me to listen to people with expertise and specializations that I would otherwise not encounter. They don’t know, and I don’t know, when I listen to them, how it’s going to fit in to what I do. But it does fit in.

The idea of providing forecasts through mobile phones would not have occurred to me if I hadn’t met people in the TED community who were actually doing it. TED has allowed me to see information, after it’s been filtered and has settled down, come bubbling up again months later. It helps different pieces of the puzzle fall into place. I hadn’t anticipated that.

I also find TED a very democratic setting. When you’re standing in a queue, you could meet someone who works for an important company. In India, I’d probably have to grovel outside their office for months before they’d let me in through the door. At TED you have a fair chance of encountering someone that you wouldn’t encounter otherwise. That does a lot in terms of how it makes you feel about yourself.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

The first thing I would tell social entrepreneurs, is not to  lose sight of who you’re trying to do things for. That’s very crucial. In this day and age, sometimes the success of the enterprise takes so much precedence over why we started the enterprise to begin with. We can very often run a very successful social enterprise, and over a period of time lose sight of why we started it, and whom we started it for. I think we have to be clear that we don’t lose sight of whom we started it for, or whose lives we wish to change.