Archive for the ‘Lok Darshan’ Category

Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.  The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at times– a must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.

Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river.  Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.

While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience.  Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.

Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.

When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets.  Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets.  Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore.  However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.

Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas,  Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India.  Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation?  After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?

Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film.  In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.

Enter Arvind Singhal.  He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change.  A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested.  The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS.  At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents.  Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.

Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum.  Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal.  Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network.  Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge.  Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy.  And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context.  This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.

So could this approach work for toilets?  The answer is “maybe”.

The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well.  One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world.  You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.

The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out.  Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge.  So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise.  And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.

And that stinks.  Literally.


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The New York Times recently reported on the Peepoo, a biodegradable plastic bag containing urea crystals that serves as a single-use disposable ‘toilet’ for people that lack access to regular toilets.  The urea crystals kill the harmful bacteria in the excrement that would ordinarily end up contaminating water supplies and spreading very preventable diseases.

The World Health Organization estimates that unsafe water kills 1.8 million people a year, and that inadequate sanitation and hygiene is responsible for 88% of that burden.  When you include the millions who daily suffer from non-lethal sickness from contaminated water, its easy to say that this is one of the world’s biggest problems.

The inventor of the Peepoo got the idea from observing African slum dwellers using regular plastic bags as ‘helicopter toilets’ that would be disposed of by twirling overhead after use to fling as far as possible.  Bags easily burst on or after impact, so this practice is as ineffective in dealing with the problem as it is humorously disgusting.  Can you imagine all the bag bombs flying around Kenyan slums in the morning?

The company claims to have done successful testing of the bags in Kenya, so would disposable, biodegradable ‘toilets’ work in Indian slums?  Let’s consider the question from several perspectives.


Each bag will be sold for $.02 – .03 , so an average Indian slum family of 5 would spend 10 – 15 cents (or Rs 5 – 8 ) per day, or Rs. 150 – 230 per month for their waste disposal needs.  That can be as high as 10% of household income for waste disposal in the face of several compelling alternatives.

Option 1:  Status quo.  Open defecation wherever you want.  Financial cost: zero.

Option 2:  Gov’t toilet.  On-going programs in most states allocate funds for toilet construction for those who lack access.  Financial cost: Rs. 1000 unsubsidized; or Rs. 100 with NGO subsidy.

Option 3:  Pay-use toilet. Like seen in Slumdog Millionaire, or those operated by a number of private players like Sulabh.  Financial cost: Rs. 1 per use.

Clearly, any option trumps the Peepoo.  The economics of a solution usually determine its fate, but there are ways to mitigate economic cost so we’ll examine social aspects next.

Social Dimensions

First, there is a widespread belief in India that the excrement of children is more ‘pure’ and less dirty than that of adults.  Slum kids tend to defecate openly even when their households have a toilet, and dislodging the adult misinformation around changing this practice is challenging.

Secondly, most Indian slum dwellers use water and their left-hand to clean themselves after defecating.  I wonder if the design accommodates for this, as it would make it more challenging to tie and dispose of the bag in a manner that doesn’t contaminate the right hand.

Boy holding his own poop in a bag.

Third, the stigma surrounding any type of waste handling is huge, and also has deeply entrenched caste and class characteristics.  An illustrative example is that people are opposed to using the biogas from composting toilets to cook even after all the smell has been removed.  Ignoring these facts, would you want to be seen carrying a bag labeled “Peepoo” in big letters?  I didn’t think so.

Fourth is the question of privacy.  For women in Indian slums, this is often the driving force behind getting a toilet, trumping all other financial and social costs associated with open defecation.  Peepoo does nothing to address this fundamental market-driver for toilets.

Lastly, one of the value propositions of Peepoo is that can be buried and used and fertilizer for crops.  However, there is usually very little digging that happens for human waste in Indian slums.  Only farming communities have adopted this practice, though I have not researched how widespread it is.

One segment of Lok Darshan‘s first episode, made by our talented team drawn from Gujarat’s largest slum, examines the realities of toilets for Indian slums through humor and song.

Community Compliance

Assuming economic and social barriers are overcome, Peepoo requires 100% community compliance in order to reduce the burden of disease.  In other words, it only takes one person pooping outdoors to contaminate a community’s water supply.  To my knowledge, the only organization deploying toilets and sanitation solutions that has understood this from the beginning is Gram Vikas, which insists that 100% of a community sign up for full sanitation facilities before deploying anything.  Everyone else can pat themselves on the back for building a few people toilets, but cannot rightly hope to impact that family’s or that community’s incidence of waterborne disease.

So What Is Peepoo Good For?

Despite this product’s current limitations in the context of Indian slums, I would argue that it has a number of practical, potentially powerful uses besides those in African slums.

Refugee Camps and Disaster Areas

Keeping them from becoming breeding grounds of disease is difficult.  I’d be willing to wager that the end-to-end cost of the current portable options is much higher than the PeePoo, and that gov’ts and aid agencies would be thrilled to take advantage of the cost savings.

Hikers / Campers In The West

On trails and locations that lack access to toilet facilities, Peepoo would be ideal.  Stores like North Face and REI could probably sell them for $1 / bag or more, especially if the price aimed at subsidizing 50+ free bags for refugee camps.


Seriously.  Just counting America’s 8.8 million babies, we generate 27.4 billion disposable diapers a year.  Getting even a small fraction of these to be biodegradable reaps huge benefits, though landfill degradation is still slower than normal degradation.  Again, I would subsidize free bags for Africa through sales to disposable diaper makers.

Regular Plastic Bags

The Pacific has its plastic garbage patch and it was recently discovered that the Atlantic has one to match, leading progressive cities like San Francisco to ban plastic bags entirely.  During the 2005 monsoon season, Mumbai was flooded because plastic bags had clogged the drainage systems, leading to a statewide ban on them.  If the plastic in Peepoo is truly biodegradable, why not take the urea out of them, re/de-brand the bags, and make them available to all the places still using plastic.  Its an instant market that addresses a global issue, and has huge potential to subsidize free PeePoos where needed.

All that said, there is a model for how Peepoo could work in Indian slums.  Whether the company is smart enough to discern it’s appropriate use and drive the market towards this solution is an entirely different question, and perhaps the test of how committed they are to their stated mission.

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Lok Darshan is an experiment in socially-relevant media. In this experiment, kids from Ramapir-no-tekro (Gujarat’s largest slum), were trained in video production so they could make empowering and engaging content for the slum community in video news magazine format. The 30-minute programs were then taken into the slum and narrowcast in any location where between 300 – 1000 people could gather, using a portable projector and audio system. In one month, 7,200 – 24,000 people can be reached directly with this method. Many more people are reached through broadcasts on local public-access cable. The program also becomes a platform to advertise appropriate technology that has the potential to make make improvements in the lives of slum dwellers.

The Need for Lok Darshan

In the slums, many people have televisions. Many have cable TV or even satellite TV. They watch the same Hollywood and Bollywood programming under their leaky tarp and tin roofs (or worse) that we watch from the comfort of our homes. The difference between our viewership and theirs is that nothing that they see on television is a reflection of their own lives. None of the dramas are the types of scenes that occur in their world. None of the locations look like places they see or have ever been. None of the characters come from their class (or caste). None of the products advertised on TV are things that are even directed towards them.

The result is that TV programming is a subtle, but potent and persistent psychologically disempowering force in their lives. It emphasizes and re-emphasizes the message that they are nobody’s, that they don’t matter, that nothing in this world is for them. In rare instances where their world is portrayed, it is always in a negative way, showing their community as the source of the latest city-wide pandemic, or as the site of some crime, or as a scene of poverty or calamity. This overt negative portrayal adds more heavily to the subtle dehumanizing message already continuously coming from television and is a source of feelings of inferiority, helplessness, hopelessness, depression, and even anger.

In fact, slums have their own internal news networks that don’t rely on mass media. Whenever bad news happens, it spreads like wildfire through the chatter of gossip. Something bad is happening somewhere in the slum on any given day, and so not only is everyone in touch with a disempowering mass media, but they’re also receiving a continual stream of news about the faults and failures of people in their own environment. The results are dire. When everything in your world gives you a negative message about yourself, you start to believe it. And that robs you of your inherent power to improve your life.

Yet the reality is that every home in the slum has something positive happening in it everyday. There are countless local heroes who work to help others in their community everyday. There is wisdom, love, knowledge, and inspiration at every narrow gully and nook. Goodness is everywhere, but what is in short supply are people who highlight the goodness and bring people’s attentions back to the positive and proactive forces in their world.

That’s where Lok Darshan comes in.

Lok Darshan is focused on creating media that empowers the slum community, gives them good news, shares vital knowledge with them that can change their lives for the better, and inspires them with shining examples from their own environment and community.

The Journey

Lok Darshan was inspired by our friends Stalin K. and Jessica Mayberry from Drishti Media Collective and Video Volunteers. Drishti and VV pioneered in the development an approach to media that involves the community through ‘Community Video Units’ (CVUs). Each CVU is paid for by the sponsoring NGO at approximately $25,000 for the first year. This includes equipment, setup, and a year worth of salaries for everyone involved. The NGO and its constituent community elect people to serve as their community reporters, who then are trained and work toward developing news magazines that serve the interests of the NGO and its contributors.

Lok Darshan is a variation on the CVU theme. We began as just two people with some media skills, some saved up money, and our own videography equipment and laptops. To that, we added a small paid staff, and attracted a growing group of volunteers that enabled us to run more cheaply than a standard CVU. We value input from Manav Sadhna, the NGO we work closely with, but take no money from it. As a result, we are free to develop content that stays true to our mission of serving the slum community without necessarily having a linkage to the NGO’s non-slum-related activities or agenda. There is no hierarchy at Lok Darshan in full recognition that though one person may possess technical skills and initially teach others, they are of no value without, say, the insider’s perspective on the slum that allows the programming to effectively reach the community. Everyone has a different skill-set and needs everyone else to achieve our common mission of effecting positive change in the slum.

We began our pilot on February 1st, 2007 and ran until May 14th, 2007. In our short pilot, we managed to create four ~30-minute episodes, each with a health-based core. The first episode focused on sanitation, and profiled a trashcan project, and a toilet-building and toilet-usage initiative in the slum. The second episode’s health-core focused on tuberculosis, a rampant killer in the slums that still remains shrouded in secrecy, shame, and misunderstanding. The health focus of the third episode was alcohol and tobacco addiction, a problem that plagues over 40% of the adult males in the slum. The fourth episode addressed issues of family planning.

Since each episode is effectively created by youth from the slum community itself, the message resonates deeply with the people. Moreover, the show flow is crafted to successively engage each demographic in the slum and deliver the health-core message when their interest is at a peak. It all sounds quite intense, but the reality is that the audience is simply having blast while they’re watching the program.


Every episode has a ‘funny news’ segment at the top of the show flow. It is designed for kids, who are usually the first few hundred people to gather at any screening of Lok Darshan. The first episode featured a funny news segment where a girl was distressed at the loss of her broken, two-year-old slippers. Hemangini holding up a 'photo' of her lost slippersHemangini holding up a 'photo' of her lost slippers After the first screening, she found it impossible to go anywhere in the slum without children genuinely concerned about whether she had found those slippers. Months later, though the kids now realize it was a fake news segment, she still gets asked about her slippers by kids with big smiles on their faces 🙂

The second episode’s TB piece featured a song about the symptoms and treatment for the disease written to the tune of a popular slum wedding song. About a month after the first screening, I was entering the slum from the opposite corner from where our screenings had been held. Some kids saw me, and though I never appear on camera in Lok Darshan’s programs, started singing our TB song! To think that this song that carried vital information that could save people’s lives was being sung by children in the narrow lanes of the sprawling slum was astounding, and begged the unanswerable question about how deeply and widely the message had rippled. People unknown to me still approach me in the slum as ask for my help in getting their stubborn relatives to seek out the free TB treatment provided by the government.

The loss of a laptop due to the unstable electric supply in the slum has prevented the third and fourth episode from being screened, out of recognition that our equipment is inadequately protected and that we’re not rich enough to be able to afford to lose anything else. Yet each episode has only refined our skills at reaching the audience more deeply, and I can’t wait to see the community’s response to the third and fourth screenings.

Keeping It Going

There are scores of innovators across India and the rest of the world that have worked hard to technically solve all the problems that slum dwellers face, like lack of clean water, cheap and efficient fuel, low-cost power, microfinance, etc. Yet these innovators who come up with products and services to serve the underprivileged fail much more often that your average startup. The reason is that they lack an effective marketing mechanism to reach their target population. There is no ‘slum newspaper’ or ‘slum tv’ or any other media outlet that allows them to avoid the time-consuming and laborious process of both making their potential customers aware of their products, and educating them on the need and benefit of using them. This failure of the market prevents the slow, incremental process of ‘poor’ people lifting themselves out of extreme poverty by keeping them away from products and services that have tremendous transformative potential in their lives.

The initial idea was to keep Lok Darshan going by getting these innovators to advertise their products and services on our program. I traveled around India and met a handful of these individuals, only to discover that none of them have very much money. Moreover, if they had the funds to advertise on a humble program like Lok Darshan, they lacked the ability to distribute outside their states into Gujarat where our target population is based.

The lack of an effective marketing mechanism for appropriate technology means that there are no banks willing to give these people a loan, and few investors or entrepreneurs interested in backing their potentially revolutionary products. A new approach was needed.

An easy route would have been to ask the countless funding organizations and potential donors for assistance. We have not done this because we firmly believe that this is something that need not be supported by charity. Lok Darshan is creating tremendous value for the slum community, and thus has the potential to support itself by advertising products that can change people’s lives for the better and thus amplify the good that it does as a medium.

Our new plan makes sense on paper, but it remains to be seen if it actually works out in reality. The idea is now to set up an appropriate technology demo center at Gandhi Ashram where the products and services with the highest potential to incrementally improve people’s lives can be stocked and distributed. The corporate donor that invests the modest sum needed to set up the center not only establishes a permanent site of goodwill in the slum community, but also gets their branding impression both narrowcast and broadcast through a key agreement with SITI cable, Ahmedabad’s cable distributor. Lacking good content, SITI is eager to broadcast Lok Darshan on their ‘VCR channel’ a self-produced and self-distributed local channel that reaches 1.2 million households. SITI usually charges about Rs. 42,000 for a 30-second advertisement (a sum just under what Lok Darshan costs in a month!), so if Lok Darshan embeds a 3-minute infomercial in our weekly content aired on SITI that features the donors brand (by virtue of it being in the demo center’s name), that exposure is worth >Rs. 500,000 a month. Hopefully, this means that the donor is willing to support Lok Darshan at a level that is 10% of that amount.

The good news is that National Innovation Foundation, a central government organization aimed at identifying and assisting grassroots innovators in bringing their products to market, is interested in partnering on the appropriate technology demo center. The scope of how they would like to partner is still being worked out.

My own interest would be to ‘CharityFocus’ Lok Darshan i.e. make it fully volunteer run, move forward without asking for anything, and to dis-intermediate the work into small enough segments such that many more people of much wider ability levels can get involved at their own leisure. The obstacles, in my opinion, are several. First, relief from poverty is imperative in the slums, and thus its difficult and probably inappropriate for slum dwellers to volunteer full-time. Moreover, I believe that employing people in the slum is itself a service, especially when you employ them in a manner that helps their own communities. Second, much like soup-making, video work is spoiled if there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Conceptualizing, shooting & interviewing, scripting, editing, and post-production need to be done with a single focus by a small number of people, or the results are apparent in the form of a disjointed and poorly-delivered story. What adds to this is that there are almost no people in the slum who own a video camera or know how to create and edit a story. Everyone must be taught from scratch in a process that takes at least two months, and use shared equipment owned by the few who can afford it. Lastly, even if we achieve the mark of being fully volunteer run, our equipment does not last very long in the harsh conditions we work in (as was apparent by the loss of our first laptop). Even in the absence of catastrophic failure or damage, this environment will destroy the equipment in two years or less, and this means that depreciation alone costs Rs. 17,500 a month. Ideas for overcoming these obstacles are welcome 🙂

In the absence of a donor who sets up an appropriate technology center, the next option would be to get corporations to sponsor one or several episodes, preferably with a ground-level initiative to match their program support. An example would be to have one of the local pharmaceutical companies sponsor an episode on malaria while simultaneously donating malaria medication and mosquito nets that can be distributed in the slum. If something like this didn’t work, I personally would prefer to allow Lok Darshan to disappear, but because it seems as though it has the potential to save lives, I would probably approach a funding organization.

Lok Darshan Supporters

Manav Sadhna is a continual source of inspiration and soft support, always engaged in work that is worth highlighting to the slum community. Jayeshbhai Patel, a rare hero of towering, yet humble proportions, has helped in ways too numerous to list. Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K. have shared much knowledge that has made the initial steps with Lok Darshan easier. Babubhai K. Patel has been a critical supporter of Lok Darshan, allowing us to use his Ranip home as our studio and office space. Mark B. Jacobs and Yoo-mi Lee donated an older laptop that we do all of our subtitling on, as well as allowing us to borrow Handycam when the firewire port on our deck camera malfunctioned. Pallavi Naidu also donated her old laptop. Dipti Vaghela connected us to Domes International, run by her uncle Harsinh Vaghela. Haru Uncle donated fiberglass a dome home to a struggling slum family in an experimental initiative that we hope we hope helps the slum community as much as it helps his business. Shagun Shagun at the Cannes Film FestivalRastogi, a promising young filmmaker and recent NID graduate, managed to work on Lok Darshan as part of her diploma project in the creation of four powerful public service announcements. Jesal Parekh helped with our ‘business plan’ with rare insight scarcely found in youth his age. Anand Sirwani deserves special mention as a committed and intensely passionate volunteer who often would show up at the office before work, come into the office after work, and spend all weekend in the hot sun to make his creative and entertaining contributions to our work. Lastly, countless volunteers in the slum who value Lok Darshan and rush to attend our smallest needs whenever we are in the community must be praised for their love and devotion.

Getting Involved

The best way to support Lok Darshan is to get involved! If you are in Ahmedabad and already have video production skills, we would love to work with you when we start up again in November. We also need actors, singers, musicians, writers, directors, and crowd controllers.

People who have evenings free can be part of our projection crew, and get the exhilarating experience of seeing the community respond to the content. We can always find a use for old laptops, mini-DV video cameras, surge suppressors, UPS’, LCD projectors, and portable audio systems. If you know of a product or service that should be highlighted on Lok Darshan for its capacity to help urban or rural poor, let us know about it. Having a web presence would be nice, and will also allow more writers to volunteer. Know someone in an organization that would want to sponsor an episode? Put them in touch! Ideas on how to make Lok Darshan more sustainable? Let’s talk!

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