COWMesh Ranikajal #2 – The School In The Valley

(…continued from Part 1)
13924867_1059980900746734_8740613872229136920_nThe first time I visited the Ranikajal Jeevanshala, it was almost peak summer and the hills were baked a reddish brown from the merciless sun. Returning in the middle of the monsoon, I found the very same hills covered in a fine carpet of varying shades of green. Madhya Pradesh is an excellent place to watch nature at work across seasons. The change in colors is very stark, as stark if not starker than the fall colors of the north eastern parts of the United States.

This time around school was in session as well, meaning that in addition to the staff and their children who I had met on my last visit, this time there were an additional 200 children.

Those of us who do not run rural schools or participate in the running of them cannot begin to comprehend the kind of balancing that people who do run rural schools do on a daily and weekly basis. Managing food and lodging for 200 growing children is much much tougher than it appears.

Moreover, the region suffers endemic malnutrition, since deforestation has left most of the land un-arable or at least unsuitable for cultivation of high nutrition crops such as vegetables. This is the story across rural India. We found similar circumstances in rural Karnataka. Most of the vegetables that grow in villages are earmarked for sale in wholesale markets in the largest nearby town, which may be as much as 50-60 kilometres away.

13007262_1063843960305355_5051762933802997458_nAs a result, the local population get precious few nutrients and those usually from animal sources such as reared goats, hardy animals that can increase muscle weight even on a diet of scrub grass, and fish.img_20160827_181719

The Narmada is nearby and the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river has resulted in some stark changes in the river fauna, not the least of which are oversize prawns and silver fish. Meat and fish though require refrigeration to build a supply chain around and currently it appears that fishermen must gauge demand carefully to not end up with a catch too heavy to sell.In an environment where food is scarce, proposing a connectivity network seems almost ludicrous. All the more so for a school community that has 200 growing children to feed on a regular basis.

However, to my surprise, the school community not only insisted on paying for their own network in terms of infrastructure, they also offered me a fee for my time spent in setting up the network.

This in contrast to every other community I spoke to in the last year ( and there were many!) who found themselves unable to participate unless we, The Mojolab Foundation and associates, were willing to help raise resources to fund their participation.

I suppose it is not surprising that the school is run by and caters to the Bhil community, an indigenous Adivasi community of central India. The Adivasis I have known have always been the earliest and most responsible adopters of practices of value.

Thanks to the Ashoka fellowship program, my time was available without charge and the community was required to pay only for the hardware and the cost of my travel to the location.

I doubt there has ever been a network deployed that had to compete rupee for rupee on expenditure with nutritious vegetables and school infrastructure for under-served children, but I certainly hope there will be more.

It would be useful here to demonstrate via a thought experiment, how we think about providing value. At the Mojolab, we have a little thought experiment that we do when we need to get in the right mindset to provide value in such scenarios.

We imagine a hypothetical gram sabha, the smallest community recognized by the government of India for administrative purposes, composed of the minimum required population, i.e. 300 adult voting individuals. We further imagine that these 300 adults are all productive and employed for remuneration and all earn at least INR 32 per day, as this is the minimum amount guaranteed by government unskilled labor employment programs currently in operation in India.

Doing the math, this gives us a collective purchasing power of INR 32 X 300 individuals = INR 9600 per day.

We then design solutions and price them such that they can be expressed in number of days of earnings that each member would need to contribute in order for the community to collectively own the solution and the number of years such a solution would be expected to last based on life of components and maintenance requirements.

This of course is merely a thought experiment, since such perfectly sized situations almost never occur in practice. However, by engaging in it, the solutions architect can get into the right mind set to provide value in a community ownership scenario. The idea is inspired by a short note called “Gandhiji’s Talisman”, that used to be part of all NCERT text books when I was still in school (not sure if it is still fashionable, but have linked for the interested none the less).

Based on the specific use case, the architect may also include comparisons with existing solutions that people are already paying for.

Finally we pitch the idea to the community as an offer and proceed based on their reaction.

The real work, of course, begins after the community has accepted the offer.

In the next chapter, read how these ideas played out in the Ranikajal COWMesh story.


COWMesh Ranikajal #1 – The Biology of Connectivity

The Internet is fast establishing itself as the central nervous system of a newly evolving entity, i.e. connected humanity. For the first time in the history of our planet, a species has built a mechanism that allows members displaced over great distances to communicate instantly, using electricity as the medium. This is no smaller feat than the evolution of the central nervous system in life forms on this planet, which is the basis of identity and self awareness.

This new central nervous system interacts with the existing systems already in place, which are also electrical in nature, i.e. the biological central nervous systems in living beings.

The internet stimulates more and more of our senses every day, by making it possible to transfer entire experiences instead of just messages. However, in this race to communicate, some members of the species are being left out, almost as if marked for extinction by the larger organism.

The poor, the primitive, the aboriginal, the weak and the non-aggressive in all parts of the world are being increasingly left behind in the race to connect to the mainstream. This is not so much a sign of discrimination amongst individuals and communities, but a sign of sickness and malnutrition in the super organism being created by the inexorable advance of the internet into newer and newer dimensions.

This organism can no longer afford to grow centrally, simply because it is finding it too costly to extend a central nervous system to all parts of the species.

There are therefore two pathways from this point on.

Either the single organism that is represented by the current centralized internet will dominate and those members of the human species who fail to connect to it will simply become extinct.

The other possibility is that those who are left beyond the pale of the mainstream internet will find ways to build their own networks and find ways to interact with other networks.

Until recently it looked like the former would happen. We at the Mojolab Foundation finished the first prototype of a local wifi network model in partnership with Janastu and Servelots at Hale Kote in Karnataka sometime in the middle of 2015. However, given the cost of equipment and the gap in skill availability to use and manage a network of this sort on the ground, we spent the last year searching for the first community who would actually IMG_20160409_181253find it worthwhile to buy, own and operate a network of their own. We explored many groups, ranging from urban low income housing communities in Bangalore, to elite IIT-JEE training facilities in rural Maharashtra to members of both the tourism industry and the development community in Uttarakhand, but we were unable to establish a usecase for any of the communities that warranted expense and effort by the community themselves. It seemed that those disenfranchised by the telecommunications industry had given up hope.

IMG_20160411_165015Finally in October of 2015, we had a communication from Indore, from Shri Rahul Banerji, an Ashoka fellow and a long term grassroots worker in the Central Indian region.

Rahul da is associated with the Ranikajal Jeevanshala, a small, partly residential school run by and primarily for but not limited to the Bhil community in and around village Kakrana, District AlIMG_20160411_171810irajpur.

The school is run and managed by Shri Ninga Solanki, the headmaster and Shri G Kemat, the director along with a dedicated staff of teachers some of whom live on campus with the children. Connectivity is almost non existent as the school is in a valley and no cellphone signal reaches it.

The Mojolab Foundation’s Arjun Venkatraman visited the school in the summer of 2016, to assess the need and suggest a minimal network strategy to link the school to the Internet. Based on field experiments at the time, it appeared that the school received an intermittent 2G network signal from a mainstream ISP at one location on a hilltop within the campus. By placing a mail server relay at the network hot spot, we were able to send the first email from the school. Based on this proof of concept, we designed the #Ranikajal #COWMesh

(….see more in Part Two)

Disks on A Plane – Building The New Information Supply Chain

FlyingDiskBy way of open source development where possible and piracy where not, new innovation is enabling communities and individuals to experiment with building, owning and operating communications infrastructure. This is enabling strengthening of localized communication. At the same time the global nature of the Internet and the new opportunities it presents for peer to peer collaboration are resulting in virtual communities being created on the Internet that augment local communities and provide access to content that would not be available locally. New hybrid models of communication and information sharing are being invented and experimented with. In addition to Mojolab’s own experiments with mechanisms such as data muling and locally operated COWMesh networks, Learning Equalities’ Kolibri project seeks to bring the benefits of a digital classroom and current content to communities beyond the pale of the Internet.

We re-did our thought experiment of muling data on a railway journey, this time with a larger data packet size and then we tested it out in part by muling some data back and forth between Bangalore and Kakrana, a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, via Bhopal.

The though experiment revealed the following –

Screenshot from 2016-02-24 13:56:05Screenshot from 2016-02-24 10:02:28








On practical experimentation –

I downloaded a total of 25GB of data on my home connection –

Initial data download (MB) 25600
Rate of data acquisition (INR/MB) 0.0111816406
Cost of data acquisition (INR) 286.25


Total data transacted over journey


Date Data Rcvd (MB) Data Given (MB) What Cost
10/04/16 42.6 0 R resources 0
14/04/16 272998.4 0 Ranikajal Data 0
14/04/16 27238.4 Arjun Brought 0
Total (MB) 300279.4


Had I attempted to perform the same transaction over a 3G connection @ INR 250 per GB or ~INR 0.25 per MB, the cost of transaction would have been .25 * 300279.4 = INR 73310 plus change.

As it happens, the cost of my travel (by air conditioned train) cost less than INR 5000 in total (up and down). This puts the cost per MB of my mule based data transaction at about INR .015 per MB.  Which is about 1/14th of the cost per MB that 3G would have provided.

You can imagine our enthusiasm therefore to get tools like Kolibri and KALite on to a plane quickly!


COWMesh Ranikajal #0 – Building Networks in Connectivity Choked Rural India

DSC03027Earlier this month I was at the Ranikajal Jeevanshala school in Kakrana, Madhya Pradesh, studying the region for possible applications of the COWMesh network design that we have been working with.

Connectivity in India is interestingly distributed. The Internet is penetrating every day into new and hitherto unreached areas. However, and this is a big however, the quality of connectivity varies drastically between different areas. In most newly connected locations the best possible data connection that can be found is a 2G network that experientially feels like an old 56k modem line to use.

Even this connectivity is quite welcome as it is perfectly adequate for text browsing and email. DSC03056However, GMail and other popular webmail services now come with extremely heavy interfaces (all that AJAX and Javascript-y stuff that keeps pulling data from the server “on-demand”), which are extremely hard to use on slow connections. Furthermore, even where a fast connection (like a 3G) is available the cost of data is quite high, considering that rural India is has traditionally been viewed as a low income region. The current retail rate for 3G is about INR 250/GB. This means that a standard 120 minute mp4 video would cost almost 180-200 rupees. Compare this with the price of  DVDs which often contain several 120 minute videos for the measly price of INR 40, or even with the price of an SD card, which retails at about INR 280 for a 16 GB card, which can be re-used and overwritten.

DSC03036The Ranikajal team, which has recently seen the addition of outstanding ex-DAE scientist Shri Swapan Bhattacharya, originally envisioned using the COWMesh to create a wireless link to the nearest location where 3G connectivity is available to bring fast Internet to the school.

As part of our survey and following discussion we observed that the vantage points where we would need to set up hops in order to connect Kakrana to the nearest 3G connected locations, i.e. Dahi or Kulvat, were largely uninhabited. Therefore setting up and maintaining routers in those locations would not be feasible.

Further, 2G network access was working via Airtel on the school campus, at a hilltop and it appeared to be far more feasible to set up a local mesh to connect the top of the hill to the bottom and then provide a link into the village. Since full scale browsing on the new graphical web is not really feasible using the 2G network, we concluded that we need to set up a mechanism to provide email access. The way this would work would be that a local mail server running on a Raspberry Pi would be attached to the wireless router on the hill. The Pi will be connected to a smartphone over a usb tether to provide an internet connection, which will be share over the mesh. A dongle may also be used, though our experience tells us that mobile phones are best optimised for using low bandwidth high latency connections, provided of course that advertisement downloading apps can be weeded out.

DSC03100The mail server will download emails from the users accounts whenever the connection permits. Users in the school and anyone else on the mesh with an account on the local mail server can access and send emails through it. This would allow users to use email without the slow experience of trying to load a rich web interface through a slow connection.

System is currently being built. More posts to follow on testing and application.

(Update – We are using OfflineIMAP and Postfix with a Roundcube interface at the moment)


स्वतंत्र लोग, मजबूत नेटवर्क


सामाजिक कार्य करने वाले लोगों एवं सन्स्थाओं की दुनिया में अधिकतर व्यक्तिगत असहमतियों और मनमुटाव की स्थितियों का तांता बन्धा रहता है। कई बार हम इन असहमतियों और मनमुटावों के बीच सामजिक कार्य के मूलभूत सिद्धान्तों से इतने दूर हो जाते हैं कि सामाजिक कार्य भी हमें असामाजिक सा बना देता है।


फिर भी किसी किसी दिन कोइ ऐसी खबर सुनने को मिलती है कि मन प्रसन्न होने के साथ साथ सामजिक होने की इच्छा फिर प्रबल हो जाती है और हमे सामजिक कार्य में जुटे रहने के लिये नई स्फ़ूर्ति और ऊर्जा मिल जाती है।


ऐसा ही कुछ पिछले हफ़्ते हुआ. हम ऐन्टहिलहैक्स की तैयारी आरम्भ ही कर रहे थे कि भोपाल से हमारे पुराने साथी अनुराग दुबे का फोन आया और उन्होने बताया कि वे हाल ही में डाल्टनगंज, झारखण्ड स्थित सन्स्था “मज़दूर हूं मजबूर नहीं” के लिये एक मोजो बोल सर्वर लगा के आये हैं, जिसका उपयोग सन्स्था अपने साथ जुडे जन समुदाय से सम्पर्क बढाने के लिये करेगी. “मज़दूर हूं, मजबूर नहीं” मुख्य रूप से मनरेगा को सही रूप से लागू किये जाने मे आने वाली बाधाओं का निवारण करने एवं मज़दूरों को उनके पूरे अधिकार दिलाने के लिये कार्य करती है।


संस्था का कार्य तो सराहनीय है ही, पर हमारे लिये खास बात यह रही कि सर्वर लगाने का निमन्त्रण अनुराग को श्री राजू राणा से मिला, जो कि सी जी नेट स्वर से लम्बे समय तक जुडे रह चुके हैं. राजू ने ही अनुराग का सम्पर्क मजदूर हूं… के मिथिलेश जी से करवाया. गत वर्ष तक मोजोलैब और सी जी नेट साथ मिल कर कार्य कर रहे थे, पर पिछ्ले कुछ महीनों मे दोनो ही समूह अपने अपने कार्य में अधिक व्यस्त हो जाने के कारण एक दूसरे से सम्पर्क बना कर नहीं रख पाए हैं.


राजू सी जी नेट द्वारा प्रशीक्षित जन पत्रकार हैं और अनुराग मोजोलैब द्वारा प्रशीक्षित जन अभियान्त्रिक। राजू और अनुराग, दोनो ही ने प्रशीक्षण हैकरग्राम भोपाल में लिया। दोनो को बिना सन्स्थाओं पर निर्भर हुए एक साथ कार्य करता देख सचमुच लगता है कि हमने पिछ्ले कुछ साल व्यर्थ नहीं गवाये। मोजोलैब और सी जी नेट, दोनो ही की प्रबल इच्छा रही है कि हम कार्यकर्ता प्रशीक्षित करें, कर्मचारी नही। आज राजू और अनुराग ने यह कार्य कर के हमें आश्वासन दिया है कि हम सही दिशा में बढ रहे हैं। हम राजू और अनुराग के आभारी हैं और उनसे निवेदन करते हैं कि इसी प्रकार कार्यरत रहें। हमारी शुभकामनायें और सहयोग हमेशा आप के साथ हैं।