Thursday, November 29, 2007

A better mousetrap

An article that I chanced upon today... amazing to learn of the varied ways in which people make a living in our country!!

Rat trap brings prosperity in rural India

Seema Hakhu Kachru in Houston PTI November 29, 2007 16:18 IST

Better rat trap seems to have improved the lives of many people in rural tribal area of India, as it has opened doors for more money, access to better health care and schools, and improved social status.

That is what a researcher from the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University found when she visited and wrote a case study on the Irula tribe of southeast India whose main source of income and food comes from catching rats in farmers' fields.

The case study -- Building a Better Rat Trap: Technological Innovation, Human Capital and the Irula ?iri Terjesen of TCU in Fort Worth, will appear in the next issue of the academic journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.

"It's hard to believe there's a whole group of people that still catches rats for a living," says Terjesen, an authority on entrepreneurship, strategy, and international business. "Until I visited the project, I was skeptical such a dramatic change in people's lives could be achieved. The Irulas are a great example of how bringing technology to the rural poor can help them improve their lives one step at a time." Sethu Sethunarayanan, founder and director of the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People, an organisation dedicated to aiding the Irulas, enlisted the help of a mechanical engineer to make a rat trap that is effective 95 per cent of the time compared to the old method which was successful only 40 per cent of the time.

The results: Irulas using the new traps have doubled or tripled their incomes, greater numbers of Irula children are going to school, and more Irulas are receiving health care. The tribe may also be enhancing its social status, as other Indian peoples see the success the Irulas are reaping from improved rat-catching technology.

The Irulas' main source of income and food lies in catching rats in farmers' fields, on which they have barely been able to survive. In fact, some Irulas have starved to death over the years. But now assistance in the form of a more efficient rat trap is helping some tribal members to help themselves. Traditionally, the Irulas catch rats by lighting a fire in a clay pot, then using their mouths to blow air through a small hole on the bottom to force the smoke into a rat burrow.
The Irulas then dig out the stunned rat, along with any grains the rat had accumulated. The rats and grains are primary food sources for the Irulas. Farmers, who can lose up to 25 per cent of a crop to rats, pay for every rat removed. However, the clay-pot method of catching rats is successful less than half of the time, and the average rat catcher makes the equivalent of $15 to $30 per month, below the USD 35 deemed necessary for basic needs. Rat catchers also suffer from health problems, such as burned lips and hands, and smoke inhalation resulting in respiratory and cardiac illness.

Upon seeing the hardships of the tribe, Sethu and the CDDP sought to develop a better rat trap. Sethu and a mechanical engineer designed a steel trap, with a wooden handle to prevent hand burns and a crank to eliminate smoke inhalation and lip burns. He then requested feedback from the Irulas, to make sure the design met their needs. Sethu and the CDDP then applied for and received a $98,500 grant from the World Bank to help the Irulas make the new rat traps. After identifying the neediest Irulas among 170 villages, the CDDP selected 1,500 participants to make, earn, or purchase the traps.

The CDDP set up a small factory in an Irula village and hired 50 young women to run it. Since men and boys were expected to catch rats, and married women were expected to take care of domestic duties, hiring unmarried women was the best way to avoid disrupting their culture. The factory operates without electricity, utilizing hand tools, and has produced some 2,000 traps so far.

The traps are sold to the Irulas for approximately $25 apiece.
"In the past, the Irulas were given things for free by higher-status social groups and non-governmental organisations. But they found many of these things were useless to them and developed the view that unless they work for what they receive, the item doesn't have value," says Terjesen.

With the new traps, the rat-catching success rate is 95 per cent, and the Irulas are proud of their first use of mechanised technology. Also, participating Irula families can afford to send their children to school, a promising development for a tribe that has 99 per cent illiteracy.
"Many Irula children now go to school instead of catching rats," Terjesen says. This is all just the beginning, however. Approximately 3 million Irulas live in India, and only a relative few have been helped so far. Sethu and the CDDP hope to expand the project, says Terjesen. "As India becomes more globalised, it's important that large portions of its population not be left behind," she says. "So many more people could eventually be freed from the cycle of poverty."


A 23 year old Delhi girl is one of Business Week's Asia's 25 Youngest Entrepreneurs.

Her company, DesiCrew, has a simple business idea - a distributed BPO model. Essentially, they find 10-15 educated people in rural areas, train them, and get them to do non-voice based BPO work (such as claims processing, data entry, transcription etc).

Companies find them useful since they are cheaper to work with, and face little attrition. Finding the right talent in each village is a bit of a problem, but the enterpreneur claims that with longer training, they do come up the skill curve. Connectivity is taken care of, since the small BPO shops are set up using technology and wireless kiosks from nLogue, another startup incubated at IIT Chennai.

Needless to say, it works well for the employees, since they can stay in their own village, and save more money than in a big city. And it bodes well for consumption in the countryside as well.

The company is 10 months old, and have 60 employed people already. They plan to ramp up to 200 people in a few months. I'm not sure how the economics work, but working out some rough numbers, I estimate that capital expenditure of Rs 50,000 would have to be incurred on each seat established (incl. computers, furniture, network equipment etc). Indian BPOs typically work at $4 / hour for low end work, so if one assumes half this rate as billing rate for the distributed BPO, it gives the company revenue of Rs 16,000 per month per employee. I think employees would be happy with Rs 6,000 - 8,000 per month as salary. Overheads, connectivity etc. would be another Rs 2,000 per seat per month. Essentially, you recover your capital investment within 8-9 months of employment, and after that it is all profits.

The girl in question had to work quite hard for this though! She quit her job in Delhi and camped out in Chennai and surrounding villages for 2 years, preparing groundwork for DesiCrew. She was helped by the incubation cell at IIT Chennai, of course, but it still must have taken enormous amounts of courage and belief in the time that it took to prepare.

Hats off to her!!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Theatre at home

My parents gifted us a Sony home theatre system recently. I saw my first movie on it yesterday, and it was FANTASTIC!! Even though the speakers are yet to be installed in the correct acoustic manner, just the sheer feeling of watching a Dolby 5.1 DVD on the new system was just spectacular.

The Dolby 5.1 standard essentially means that each sound byte is split into 5 different components, and each speaker (there are 5 speakers in all) throws out one component of the sound. Ergo - absolute cinema-hall-like experience!

I saw an action movie, and the room actually vibrated with the explosions on screen. Even FM radio takes on a new timbre when heard on this new system.

But all this is not good for the wallet! Now I will be compelled to buy the DVDs of all the movies I like, just to enjoy the bliss of watching them again on this cool machine.

India's own sub-prime?

I came across this news article in the Economic Times today:

Small towns overtake metros to procure home loans
28 Nov, 2007, 1220 hrs IST,Shankar Raghuraman, TNN
NEW DELHI: Forget the metros; it is the smaller cities in India that are really witnessing a housing boom. Sample this: every fourth household in sleepy Gangtok took a housing loan from a scheduled commercial bank in 2005-06; over one-fifth of all homes in Bhubaneshwar did the same that year. At an average of barely Rs 3.4 lakh per housing loan, the residents of the Sikkimese capital may not be able to match the residents of the metros when it comes to the size of the loan, but in terms of the sheer proportion of families that are borrowing to have a nest they can call their own, small-town India is on the march.

If true, this is absolutely stupendous!! One out of 4/5 households in Gangtok/Bhubaneshwar took a home loan in one year! Is Sikkim or Orissa the new El-Dorado of real estate? Not very likely! Then are these loans justified macro-economically?

The question that springs to mind is - are banks building the platform for a large rise in non-performing loans? Already the more aggressive banks have been hauled up by the judiciary and the media for resorting to intimidatory tactics to recover credit. And anecdotal personal experience tells me that property prices have actually cooled off this year.

Will we too see our very own sub-prime crisis? I would like to find out the dominant banks in Sikkim and Orissa, and short them for a couple of years, once they start feeling the pinch of these excesses - seems like a sure trade to me!!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


For yesterday's lazy post - the correct word is:


And it is on For those interested, check the meaning right here

Hot pakoras

Thanks to wifey dearest, I learnt a new trick today - the making of delicious pakoras. Popularly feted as the ideal combination with piping hot tea for a winter evening, pakoras have always charmed me no end.

The pleasant surprise though was the fact that it is fairly easy to make 'em. And they can be made ready in double quick time. And offer room for creativity (i.e. apart from potatoes and onions, one can make them from chillies, mushrooms, cauliflower, whatever).

One particularly spicy green chilly pakora that i had yesterday still lingers in my mind, and on my tastebuds!! :-)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Don't Panic

As I write, the BSE Sensex is down by 700 odd points and the bottom is coming off the market. I am reminded of the wise words from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the one which has only a 2 word entry for Earth: mostly harmless): Don't Panic!!

I'm going to take a BIG risk and place my not-inconsiderable foot firmly in my mouth - I think this is more or less the low point. So hang tight (if this sort of thing interests you in the least), double your bets, and get set to rocket away...

Believe it or not, I also have a shopping list of favourite stocks!! Mail if interested...

Trivial pursuit

In these days of sub-prime and non-existent debt markets, my mind is stuck (surprisingly enough) on:

(I hereby admit that I had to google it - I could not get beyond super cali fragalistic by memory). claims that it does not know this word. It offers no suggestions also..
Urban Dictionary does better, but I can't trust it.

Dilemma! I'm too lazy to find out the truth...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


After a particularly rough day at work today, I am surrounded by many questions which point to uncomfortable answers.

For instance, what is the point of all this stress? I certainly know what I am giving up - time, which will never come back, my health, and peace of mind. What am I getting in return? Material comfort, security, experience perhaps. But are these qualities / skills that I cannot get without incurring this stress?

Another one - what is the materiality of all my existence? What am I doing that is unique and which cannot be done by someone else? Am I even trying to make a difference? I am trying to get ahead, certainly, but ahead in which queue? At the end of it all, will I be at the front of a queue of lemmings?

Third - why do trivial things like this affect me so much? Poverty, global warming, injustice are issues that are humungously more significant to my future life than any of these infrequent irritants. Yet I let these inconsequential issues take on a much larger significance in the here and now.

Fourth - what am I going to do about it? Other than writing this blogpost, i.e. I obviously dont have the appetite for radical solutions. And incremental solutions probably wont matter.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chickens come home to roost...

I have had a very cordial relationship with ICICI Bank till now. But a couple of incidents in the last few months have severely damaged my confidence in them, so much so that I am now moving out all my business from them.

And looks like I am not the only aggrieved party- check this out

But coming back to one of the issues under discussion - I have a trading and demat account with ICICI Direct, the documents of which apparently got washed away from under ICICI's care during the famous Mumbai flood. After that began an iterative series of events, which if had been happening in a movie, I would have found distinctly funny. The series would go something like this -
1) ICICI Bank would send me a strongly worded letter, saying I should contact their call center to re-execute all documents, or my account would be frozen
2) I would do that asap and get a request number
3) Nothing would happen for 3 months
4) ICICI Bank would send me a reminder
5) I would call up the call center and they would give me another complaint number, assuring me that someone would remedy the situation soon
6) Nothing would happen again
7) Back to step 1

This funny series of events happened 3 times. Now suddenly I find my account has been frozen. On contacting the call center again, I am back to step 5 above for the last 2 times. The most frustrating part of this is that there is absolutely nothing else I can do.

I have written a complaint to the ICICI COO (email id on their website), and have got the following reply from them:

From: Escalations - Webtrade COO (
You may not know this sender. Mark as safe Mark as unsafe
Tuesday, October 30, 2007 10:11:30 AM

Dear Mr. Shrivastav,

We have forwarded your concerns to the team concerned to arrange our executive to assist you in submitting the re-execution forms on priority.

We will reply you with the status in three working days.

Further, we apologise for the unpleasant experience and assure you that every effort is being made to ensure that such lapses do not recur.

COO Team.

Needless to say, the 3 working days are long past, and nothing has come out of it. But what I would really like to know is this - is there really no other option for the small guy? How long can one be forced to take whatever crap these jokers dish out? And is there ANY accountability that ICICI Bank has? I suspect the answer is no.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Ha Ha! I KNEW this had to be true...

I dont need any excuse to chug beer, but for those who do, here it is!!


When you reach for an ice cold mug of suds after playing a game of football, cricket or a long run, you're not just quenching your thirst, you're actually doing something healthy for your body -- seriously!

Researchers in Europe have carried out a study and found that a glass of beer is far better at re-hydrating the body after exercise than water as the sugars, salts and bubbles in a pint help people absorb fluids more quickly. "The carbon dioxide in beer helps quench the thirst more quickly, while beer's carbohydrates replace calories lost during physical exertion," the Daily Mail reported on Friday, quoting lead researcher Prof Manuel Garzon as saying.

In fact, the researchers at the Granada University in Spain came to the conclusion after examining 25 students who were told to do strenuous exercise in temperatures of around 40C until they were close to getting exhausted. Half of the students were given a pint of beer to drink, while the others received the same volume of water after the workout. Subsequently, the team measured their hydration levels, motor skills and concentrationability. Prof Garzon said the re-hydration effect in the students who were given beer was "slightly better" than among those given only water. Based on the studies, the researchers have recommended moderate consumption of beer -- 500 ml a day for men or 250 ml for women -- as part of an athlete's diet.

It may be mentioned that past studies have revealed that sensible drinking of one or two units of beer a day could help reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.