Addressing Household Air Pollution and Celebrating Cooking : Dharma Chef

Household Air Pollution (HAP) is emerging as a major health risk and is responsible for more  than 4.3 million premature deaths globally every year. The biggest and most common contributor to HAP is the use of biomass fuels for cooking in our traditional cookstoves. Availability of free biomass, free traditional cookstoves, and our age-old and ingrained cooking practices, which revolve around these traditional cookstoves make these polluting and health threatening cookstoves quite attractive and ‘comforting’ to majority of rural households.

Making these household move from cooking on traditional cookstoves to LPG or other clean cooking solutions such as induction stove, advanced biomass cookstoves can result in substantial economic, health and environmental benefits. Yet, households have been very stubborn in their use of traditional cookstoves and fuels. The transition from traditional cookstoves to new generation cooking devices is excruciatingly slow and frustrating.

While there are many factors such as product performance, cleaner fuel availability and pricing that can be attributed to this continued use of inefficient traditional cookstove and slow adoption of dvanced biomass cookstove, the need for behaviour change has been identified as of the most significant factors. In fact, some studies suggest that it might be even more critical than the economical factors.

“Empirical work demonstrates that people do not make decisions by taking into account all costs and benefits. People want to conform to social expectations. People do not have unchanging or arbitrarily changing tastes. Preferences depend on the context in which they are elicited and on the social institutions that have formed the interpretive framework which individuals see the world.”- (Mind Society and Behaviour, World Bank, 2015).

The transition is complex for a common user. The complexity of transition often decides against the health and economic benefits of the clean cooking devices. It requires them to adopt to a new device, a new way of cooking and probably some compromise on the taste.

“It overcooked my rice.”

“The chapatis were not as good as my regular chapatis.”

“My family did not like the taste of food prepared on this.”

“I cannot cook my regular dishes on this.”

The above are the most common remarks one gets to hear in the early transition efforts. The transition becomes a drab and often there are negative memories that get associated with the new devices.

These problem forced us to take a different route for promoting transition to clean cooking devices. Something that was not dull, something that was exciting and resulted in associating positive memories with the transition. Something that excited and motivated users enough to make them find a way to overcome the early adoption challenges.  We launched a cooking competition for rural households: “Dharma Chef”.

DharmaChef

Dharma Chef participants making “chapati” on induction stoves.

A multi-stage state level competition in which participants cook traditional and fusion dishes on clean cooking devices (such as induction stove, or advance biomass cookstove). While on surface it was just like any other cooking competition, it was designed to achieve the following:

  • Motivation:  motivate users to adopt, improvise and develop new ways to cook traditional dishes on these new devices.
  • Education: Create awareness about the challenge of household air pollution and need for clean cooking devices.
  • Celebration: Celebrate cooking skills of rural cooks and associate positive memories with these devices.

The campaign is doing very well on all these counts. We have got people to make “Roti” on induction.. Something that many consider quite a challenge.. The event not only gathered the women (who take the responsibility of cooking in rural India) but their whole family participated. They cheered them up while she cooked. The campaign is also making all the winning recipes compiled into a cookbook and the next steps is to make the videos available on dedicated youtube channel.

Dharma Chef campaign is being run by Dharma Life and supported by Tata Trusts. At present the campaign is running in Gujarat but soon it is going to be launched in other states as well.

Dell XPS 13, 2015- Keyboard Problem

The compulsion of my professional environment often forces me to resort to Windows operating system. Especially for those spreadsheets and Microsoft Exchange requirements, when MacOS or Linux are still not up there. I use  Macbook Pro as my primary machine but I wanted to get an ultrabook which I could use for travel and for those tasks when I need a Windows based machine. Dell_Desktop

A quick research on the available options and their specs made it clear that Dell XPS 13 with its infinity display and Lenovo Thinkpad Cabon X1 were the two top machines with good computing power, battery life and portability. I went in favor of Dell XPS 13 as it offered a  display with mind-blowing resolution and form factor (smallest 13 inch machine). I chose the top-end version with i7 processor and touch screen display.

It was a costly purchase and I was expecting a great experience with the machine, which is essential for my sanity as my tolerance level with a few things is absolutely pathetic. And, I am really finicky about my gadgets. Unfortunately, there was a horrible experience waiting for me.

No doubt the machine is a gorgeous and powerful piece of technology from DELL but there is a big problem with this machine. The keyboard has a double typing problem. I started spotting double/triple typed characters while typing and sometime a random sequence of intended characters. First, I thought that I might be typing fast or not able to adjust to the keyboard. I changed keyboard settings to make sure that there is enough time between repeat of characters. Nothing worked.

A quick check online highlighted that the double typing is a major problem with this flagship DELL machine. Many people have faced the problem and it seemed that there was no solution from DELL. I made a complaint to DELL support and got really nice after sale-service support from them. They replaced my keyboard but it did not solve my problem. The only thing seems to work was downgrading of the BIOS from Vers 5 to Vers 0. It is strange as Vers 5 was to fix the double typing error but it aggravated it. Once I upgraded to Vers 5, it was impossible to work on the machine. I downgraded the BIOS again and made a complain.

This time, DELL support changed my motherboard, keyboard processing unit and keyboard. I tested the machine and realized that I did not spot double typed characters in my brief test in front of the service engineer. But soon I started spotting the double typing characters. Although, less frequently than earlier. I checked the BIOS it was set to Ver 0. I upgraded the BIOS and realized that it again aggravated the problem. I downgraded the BIOS and gave up on the machine. I can still do work on it but it has taken my confidence out of my typing. I do touch typing and pretty confident of my typing accuracy but with this machine I have to make sure that there are no typos.

Coming back to BIOS ver 0, this version of BIOS gives the better experience with the keyboard but it has other problems such as noisy laptop fan and laptop heating. I am waiting for DELL to upgrade the BIOS or accept that DELL XPS 13 has this problem and takes corrective measures.

Lighting Up Young Minds

A reading session with solar lights

A reading session with solar lights

One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.
-Agatha Christie

Indeed, a happy childhood is something that every kid deserves. On this literacy day, we started something that was our contribution to add happiness to some childhoods. We (know more about what we do) started a campaign titled “Lighting Up Young Minds”. The objective of this campaign is to inculcate the habit of reading in rural children and make it a fun activity.

Personally, I vouch for the magical effect that reading has on growing up children. It can transform and transfigure childhoods. Unfortunately, our rural kids often do not have either access to quality reading material; or the boring academic books have made reading a drab and dull activity. We want to make reading a fun activity and inculcate the habit of reading.

So, we partnered with Pratham Books for getting some quality reading content and conducted reading sessions at more than 250 locations to start the campaign. We reached more than 17000 children in a single day.

Each reading session was followed by a painting competition and some fun activities for children. From ‘Chhota Bheem’ to ‘Indian national flag’… their imagination captured it all.

This is just a start for us. We are looking to reach more than 100,000 children on by this Children’s Day. We want to make this a regular event and get more people, partners to engage in this. Drop us a line in the comments if you want to contribute in our this goal.

Bihar: A Glorious Past and An Uncertain Future

As I walked past a small hut the chorus of ‘ek duni do.. do duni char.. caught my attention. The sound was coming from the hut on my left. I took  this route many times, but never stopped to have a second look on the hut. It was so commonplace in a village full of huts. I stopped and so did a couple of people who were with me. One of them was a visitor from Japan.

There were around 20 kids in the hut, swaying back and forth and reciting  do ka pahada (table of two). Some of the kids seemed too young to be learning tables.  The teacher was nowhere to be seen.  Yes, this hut was one of the several centres under Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). The kids spotted us, some kids stopped their recital and took stock of us. Soon, they realized that we are some random visitors making them victim of our stupid  curiosity. Soon a young lady, barefoot, hastily covering her head with pallu walked in to the hut. She was the teacher. Suddenly, there was more enthusiasm and participation in the recital.

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

ICDS Centre in Lalpura, Vaishali

There was a sudden onrush of mixed emotions. Nostalgia, pride, frustration, helplessness, happiness and hope were all mingled together. The kids were oblivious of the odds against them. Uncertain of what lies ahead of the hut. Many of them may were there because their parents sent them to get free food there. And, many of them will dropout after this school. But some of them will surely defy many odds to achieve what their parents never dreamt of.

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

Ashokan Pillar at Kolhua, near Vaishali

It was very ironic. We were in Vaishali: birthplace of Lord Mahavir, workplace of Budhha and the capital of the glorious Licchavi clan. The hut was on our way to Ashokan piller and Abhishek Pushkarni : two reminders of our glorious past. Every person that you will meet from this area will not forget to highlight our past glory. I too, do it without fail when I meet someone who wants to know more about my home state. Often, this helps when I am not keen to discuss the embarrassing present and uncertain future.

A few meters away from that hut, one can find the world peace pagoda and several other palatial Buddhist stupa and temples. These stupas and temples are constructed by several Buddhist countries such as Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan etc. Every year a horde of tourist visit this place to experience and appreciate the work of Budhha and Mahavira.

I look at these temples and stupas which are meant for celebrating the teachings of our enlightened souls and several questions pop up. Would  kids there in the hut be able to enjoy and celebrate the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira? What if there were a few schools also built along with the stupas? What if there were enough schools here? What if teachers were inspired by  selfless services of Budhha and Mahavira?

Killer in the kitchen

Several news articles highlighted the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and its impact on health. Many of my friends and colleagues started contemplating options that can save them from air-pollution. They discussed options ranging from buying masks and air-purifiers to shifting to a city with better air quality. These frequent news and articles about air-pollution made them really concerned.

Mainstream media has an unparalleled capacity of influencing our priorities. However, mainstream media is very stubbornly selective in what it chooses to highlight and what it chooses to ignore.
One such issue that never got duly highlighted by the mainstream media is the impact of household air pollution (HAP) on health.

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

Annually more than 4.3 million deaths occur due to HAP. The deaths are caused by HAP from household cooking. HAP is a silent killer in many households. The majority of victims are women and children from economically backward rural population. These households use solid fuels such as wood, crop-residue, dung, charcoal etc in their traditional cookstoves, often made of three stones put together. There are more than 3 billion still dependent on solid fuel for their cooking energy needs (see here for more info).
These lives can be saved if these households shift to cleaner cooking fuel such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity; or improved biomass cookstoves which can be used with solid fuels but emissions are within the permissible safe limit. In fact, improved biomass cookstoves make a very good case for replacing traditional cookstoves. These can be used with locally available fuel and are considerable cheaper (cost USD 10–70) than LPG. Sadly, moving from traditional cookstoves to clean cooking devices is not an easy transition.
LPG is expensive and access to reliable and affordable electricity is limited. Furthermore, households have limited budget for cooking fuel and stoves. Many households build their own cookstoves and collect fuels at nominal or no cost. This makes them reluctant to spend a significant sum of money from their limited resources. Households are also not aware of the extent of health risk. Most believe that smoke is just an irritating inconvenience associated with cooking. In some areas, LPG distribution network disappoints many of the households that aspire to get LPG.
There are behavioural challenges as well. Households have been using traditional cookstoves since generations. The traditional cookstove is central in many of rituals and festivals. Switching to a new cooking devices often requires changing the way a person cooks or compromising the convenience of their age-old cooking methods. Improved cookstoves are also not seen as aspirational as LPGs or induction cooker. Several households also do not feel comfortable paying the upfront cost of improved cookstoves despite its economic and health benefits.
All of the above challenges are surmountable. But the issue itself has not got its due attention from policy makers and most importantly from the users of traditional cookstoves. Households do not feel the need to move from life threatening inefficient traditional cookstoves. They have limited awareness on its ill-effects and fail to see the benefits of clean cooking devices in context of its cost.
Creating mass awareness about the ill-effects of emission from traditional cookstoves, and need for switching to a clean cooking device is essential in solving this problem. Our media can play a monumental role. I hope more main-stream media houses start highlighting this issue so that it goes up in the priority list of policy makers and households.

Malice – Another gem from Higashino

Keigo Higashino is referred as ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ on the cover of this book. I think this is a very bizarre comparison if I consider the plot and writing style of these two authors. The comparison can only be justified if we consider a) both write crime fiction, and b) both have been bestsellers in their respective countries. Anyway, I am happy if this comparison brings more people to read to this master storyteller’s work. wpid-PastedGraphic-2015-01-4-13-38.tiff
Malice, written in 1996, is the third book by Higashino to be translated in to English from Japanese. The other two books “The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Salvation of a Saint” are among the best murder mysteries that I read in last five years. In both these books, readers were aware of who committed the crime but the mystery was how the murders were committed. In Malice, we know who committed the murder but the mystery was why the murder was committed.
Kunihiko Hidaka, a bestselling author, was found dead by his wife Rie and friend Nonoguchi just before he was to move to a new country. Detective Kaga, ex-colleague of Nonoguchi, gets the responsibility of the case and soon he discovers major flaws in Nonoguchi’s alibi. Nonoguchi, a writer himself and aspiring to be a bestseller author like Hidaka, confesses his crime but there were many missing pieces in his confession about the motive of the crime.
Higashino narrates the story through Nonoguchi’s and Kaga’s written accounts of the event during the investigation. The two main characters of Malice are writers and there is a lot of discussion of meeting timeline and writing styles, yet Higashino’s prose is bereft of any literary-ostentatiousness. Higashino is easy on his readers.
Malice is another gem from Higashino. I am eagerly waiting for his other works to be translated in English.

The Goldfinch – A very short review of a rather long book

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I just finished “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. A really bulky book (784 pages) and on top of it this is a very slow book. I read some glowing reviews of this book and since I was planning to read something other than a murder mystery or thriller I chose to read this book. This was anyway the first book from this author so I had no clue about what kind of experience I am going to have.

This is a story of a son who lost his mother in a bomb blast in a museum and gained multi-million dollar painting “The Goldfinch”. The whole book is about a dead mother, a lost painting and growing up years of a grieving son. However, the supremely detailed narration is drab and dreary. I kept on going through this book, searching for things that made this novel the most talked about bestseller fiction of this year. The Independent and many others summarized this as a gripping page turner that describes modern day life. Surely my reading taste is different than many of these reviewers. Although, there are still some readers who will agree with me.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore – A nostalgic read

Some places might not be very exotic, scenic or on people’s list of must see-must visit but often they offer something that many places do not: nostalgia and comfort arising out of familiarity. The neighbourhood park where one spent many of the childhood evenings playing with friends is one such place. If we take this analogy to stories, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hours Bookstore is one such story. This is a story of 24 hour bookstore which employs a recession-hit, out-of-the-job website designer Clay Jannon.

A simple story which takes you through some of the familiar world of books and technology. There is an undercurrent debate on traditional books/bookstore vs the modern technology; and a fistful of elements taken from mystery and suspense thrillers thrown in there. The story forces one to move from one page to another, but for me reading the book was akin to visiting the neighbourhood park of my young days. There were a lot of things to make me feel nostalgic or relate to the story. Clay was a web-designer, loves technology (is a MacBook/iPhone/Kindle guy) and loves book

Mr. Penumbra’s quaint bookstore is not a normal bookstore, it has mainly arcane and cryptic books for a devoted clientele. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore has a higher purpose and Clay Jannon, the bookstore clerk, is not supposed to know that. But the curiosity gets better of him. With the help of his friend ( a lady who works at Google ) and Google’s tech-tools, Jannon tries to figure out the true story behind this unusual bookstore full of books containing gibberish.

Robin Sloan provides interesting glimpses of a modern metropolitan life, and pervasiveness and potential of technology. However, the story takes a formulaic path in the end and is only salvaged by the characterisation and the narrative.

Decoded – An Unusual Thriller

Although, Decoded blurb and reviews considered the book to be a thriller, it is surely not a thriller in the traditional sense. It is a languid and intriguing story of a mathematical genius who worked for a top secret cryptography unit of Chinese government. However, this is surely worth a read for its beautiful, poignant  and intelligent portrayal of a life of a mathematics genius.

I had never heard of Mai Jia or any of his works before this book, but the glowing reviews and the bestseller status of this book made me pick this one. Also, since this year I am reading translated popular fiction of different countries, this book fit very well in my reading plan. In China, Mia Jia is a literary sensation and his work has been adapted in movies and television serials.

The blurb of this book and all the online reviews, highlight that this book is a thriller, about cryptography, code breaking etc., but I did not find any elements of a thriller or mention of these themes in first 100 pages. However, this book is not boring, on the contrary, the first 100 pages gave a very interesting snapshot of China in 1960s and described the childhood of a socially awkward mathematics genius Rong Jinzhen.

The story turns into a new direction, more familiar to the genre of spy thrillers, when Rong Jinzhen gets recruited by a mysterious character and disappears from the normal life to join the cryptography section of China’s military intelligence. Rong gets the task to solve two legendary ciphers PURPLE and BLACK, developed by his long time friend, professor and mentor who now works with Country X. Mai Jia (the pen name of Jiang Benhu), reproduces the development in the field of mathematics and cryptography with details that very few can provide. As Jiang Benhu, Mai Jia spent a significant part of his life in intelligence unit of People’s Liberation Army, and he borrows a lot from his personal and professional life to enrich the story.

Once Rong joins the cryptography unit, most of the story describes the challenges of cryptography, application of mathematical logic in cryptography and joys and frustration of code-breaking. Rong’s success makes him a national hero and a reverential figure in China. However, in subsequent turn of events he loses his mental balance.

The story does not start like a thriller and it also does not end like a thriller. The end of the story leaves some questions unanswered and might not be palatable to people who grew on Dan Brown, Lee Child or Baldacci. But as I said earlier, this is not a typical thriller.

Apple India- No options to customize iMacs

I often find laptops not adequate when I am working on multiple applications windows and require a bit of more power for photo editing or any other resource hungry operations. Since I have been pretty impressed by the quality (both in terms of software and hardware) of Apple products, I decided to invest in an iMac. A rather expensive yet the best options considering the compatibility with my other devices and already invested softwares.

A 27 inch iMac with 16 GB of RAM, 1 GB of graphics memory and an 1 TB fusion drive is what I am looking for. And, it is easily available in United States. However, when I approached the local Apple retailer, I found that Apple India does not have the required tech specification for iMac. I can only get normal mechanical hard drive of 1 TB, no option to upgrade to a fusion or SSD drive. There are not many options in terms of system with higher capacity RAM, though I can buy an iMac 8gb ram and upgrade it to 16 gb as the 27 inch iMac comes with 2 empty RAM slots. However, if you are buying the 21.5 inch iMac you can only get 8 gb RAM and you cannot upgrade it.

Sad. Apple India should start providing either customization options like Apple US does or Apple should facilitate upgrade through their service centres.