Sunday, 15 May 2016

Digital Inclusion for Older people: The HelpAge India Experiment!

Ishanti Ghose from HelpAge India, working on creating the Smartphone Booklet for Elders
When Ishanti Ghose, a young working woman, sipped her espresso, at work, on a Monday morning while narrating to her colleagues, her weekend escapade with her grandmother learning technology, little had she known, that, just a friendly conversation with her coworkers will gradually take the shape of an incredible new project for social change sprouting from within  the organization itself! 

Ishanti works at HelpAge India.  

As Ishanti shared her grandmother’s innocence and excitement at learning Whatsapp and Skype, she also realized how this simple knowledge had the power to connect a senior at home to her old schoolmates across the world and also to her grandchildren with just a mouse click! She saw how giving older people access to technology improved the quality of their lives significantly by encouraging interaction and therefore, combating their loneliness.

Within precisely a few minutes, Ishanti had a candid chat with Manjira Khurana, Country Head, Advocacy and Communications at HelpAge India and within a couple of hours the project idea was firmly conceptualized. Manjira says, ‘It was an idea based on fulfilling a need, elderly had, and was backed by empathy towards the cause, conceptualized by a young person. We brainstormed how this could be a potential game-changer for providing digital access to at least the thousands of elderly actively associated with HelpAge through the pan India network of Senior Citizen Associations. Within a week, a basic tech learning primer was developed – “Making smartphone and computer learning, fun and easy.” Ishanti designed the booklet in a couple of days and before the end of the week, we got the booklets printed at almost zero cost and also made it available online on HelpAge India official website and Advantage website for anyone to download it for free. True information access happens when it is not offered at a premium. We wanted as many seniors as possible to start using the primer and get on the way to becoming tech-savvy.”

Young volunteers across the country are using the HelpAge India Smartphone 
Booklet to teach seniors.
HelpAge reached to 100 plus volunteers and young interns to take 2 day training sessions across 15 cities in India. The digital inclusion initiative started in November 2015 proved to be a success, with over 350 training sessions being conducted within two months.

Young volunteers across the country trained the elderly at the senior citizen associations on the basics of Google Maps, Whatsapp, paying utility bills online, booking a cab if stranded etc. One outstanding impact we saw post the creation of the smartphone and computer training primer was that several small local computer coaching institutes reached out to HelpAge India seeking permission to use the Primer to give free classes to seniors.. Several hundred Young techies from software companies have started using the Primer to teach seniors in their office neighborhoods as a part of their CSR efforts.

HelpAge volunteers teaching navigation on Google Maps to elders at a Senior Citizen Association, New Delhi
Says Raman, a young volunteer from an engineering college in Delhi, “The Primer with it’s easy step-by-step processes and with icons shown against each step gives confidence to the elders to revisit their lessons post the training sessions.
In an effort to fight loneliness, young HelpAge volunteers have picked up a crusade to teach the elderly, Smartphones, Skype, Google maps, Internet and more! These little things have gone a long way to make the seniors feel technologically and socially updated and included.

It is so very gratifying for volunteers when their elder “students” thank them, as was the case of Mrs. Neeta Chatterjee, 82 years from Chittranjan Park, New Delhi.

“When I asked my daughter to teach me how to use my new smartphone, I could not understand her rapid fire instructions. But when the HelpAge volunteer came with the technology primer, she explained it slowly going over each step and I suddenly started enjoying the process of learning new technology. Facebook, Google and Skype were no longer frightening strangers, but, became my friends. Today, I talk to my grandson in San Francisco, pay my Airtel mobile bill online, and can you imagine, I even bought a microwave oven on!” says, Neeta. She goes on to add, “My mornings are no longer lonely. After breakfast, I log on to my Facebook account and chat with six of my college mates - Batch of ‘62.”

With this experiment, HelpAge India is more committed than ever to include digital inclusion as one of the empowering pillars of Active Ageing being propagated.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Elderly as a Resource, not a Burden.

This article originally appeared in Livemint here. Author: Arun Maira, Chair (HelpAge International)

Chandrabhaga Laxman Mandre, 80 years, is from Hiwara Village, Vidarbha, Maharashtra, where Geetanjali Mahila Bachat Gat, an eleven member ESHG (ELDERLY SELF HELP GROUP), seed funded by HelpAge India operates. This group, now, is self-sustaining. Through the sales of beautiful saris each month, the group generates over Rs. 7000 and saves upto Rs. 1000 for the elderly women of the ESHG at a central bank account. HelpAge India's experience with ESHG's has shown that using elders as a resource for their own self-help can migrate an entire community from margins to mainstream. While an ESHG is also pivoted on economic independence, it offers greater benefits like, voice, dignity, purpose and a sense of belongingness in old age. 

(Picture Courtesy: Pradip Das, HelpAge India)

India’s progress in improving the lives of its citizens can be seen in a single statistic, namely, the increase in life expectancy at birth. In 1950-55, life expectancy at birth in India was 36.6 years, whereas the average in the world was 46.8 years. By 2010-15, life expectancy in India had almost caught up with the global average: 67.5 years in India, compared with 70.5 years globally. (Source, UNDESA Population Division). The improvement in life expectancy is a result of reduction in poverty and improvement in healthcare and general social conditions. Of course, India has a long way to catch up with the best: life expectancy in some countries is reaching 80 years.
Increase in life expectancy all over the world, which is a desirable outcome of economic and social progress, is creating new challenges. The problem of ageing populations has become a matter of great concern in rich countries, and now in China too. Provisions for pensions and healthcare for the elderly are straining budgets, while there are increasing demands for more employment opportunities for younger people. What should be a government’s priorities?
In 1980, children (aged 0-14 years) were 39.2% of India’s population and the elderly (over 60 years) were 5.9%. By 2030, children will be 23.9% and the elderly will increase to 12.5%, i.e. 190 million people.
Further, India will have 330 million elderly people (19.4% of the population) by 2050. While India has a lot to do to catch up economically, challenges of an ageing population are already besetting India even while it is yet to adequately address other development challenges, especially adequate care of its women and children. How will the needs of increasing numbers of elderly persons be provided for when the demands of India’s youthful population are not yet met, and when there is insufficient capacity, financial and organizational, to meet them?

Elders contributing fistful of grains at HelpAge seed funded ESHG - Grain Bank - Pragati Jesht Nagrik Sangh in Village Federation, Shibala Village, Jhari Block, Yavatmal District, Vidarbha, Maharashtra. Elders from villages inside and outside can donate handful of grains to any amount they desire. The federation members then decide who is the most needy elder who hasn't eaten for days because of lack of resources in old age and donate it to them. The receiver is under no obligation to pay back. The goodness that goes around, comes around as even more beautiful acts of charity for this ESHG, they've come to believe. 

(Picture Courtesy: Pradip Das, HelpAge India) 

The solution is to see the elderly as a blessing, not a burden. The elderly are becoming the fastest growing, but underutilized resource available to humanity. Rather than putting them aside, physically (and mentally), to be cared for separately, they should be integrated into the lives of communities where they can make a substantial contribution to improving social conditions. The benefits of turning the ‘problem’ of the elderly into a ‘solution’ for other social problems is being demonstrated in several countries.
In Vietnam, Old People’s Associations (OPAs) are improving the lives of the elderly in many parts of the country. In a country of 90 million people, as many as 8.5 million are members of OPAs in their village and town communities. The associations are democratically run by the elderly in the communities. They set their own agendas, choose what community causes to apply themselves to, which elderly persons need special assistance and assign responsibilities among themselves. They represent the needs of the community and the elderly to government agencies, who also see them as a vital support for the government’s outreach programmes into communities.
Women constitute the majority in OPAs since they live longer than men. Youth volunteers support the OPAs, providing energy and expertise that the elders may not have. A great benefit of these ‘inter-generational self-help groups’ (as the OPAs are called) is the social capital they accumulate and the cohesion they enable within communities.
The power within socially and economically excluded sections of populations to lift themselves and the communities around them, rather being supplicants of charity and burdens on economies, is exemplified by women’s self-help groups around the world. By organizing to help each other, women in self-help groups are improving the quality of lives of people in many countries. SEWA (the self-employed women’s association), founded by Ela Bhatt, is one of the best examples.
In her recent book, Anubandh, Bhatt advocates the building of ‘hundred-mile communities’ as a way to improve the world for everyone. Anubandh, she explains, derives from the Sanskrit word anu, which means to follow, and bandh, which means a bond, a connection, a relationship. Anubandh, she says, “encourages us to follow the links of mutual interconnectedness towards a sense of wholeness”. Anubandh is necessary for environmental and social sustainability. To illustrate the idea of a nubandh, she gives the example of the ‘jhadoo’, the broom made of soft grass used in most Indian homes. In the poorest homes, it is never discarded, even when it is worn out. In new sha-pes, its fibres continue to serve useful purposes in the lives of people.
For sustainable and inclusive growth, local communities must be enabled to govern themselves. Elders have experience and wisdom that communities can benefit from. Rather than isolating them and making them dependent on others’ charity for their own survival, the integration of elders can help communities to survive and to thrive. They can be the glue that provides cohesion with tradition, and that brings together conflicting movements for ‘special causes’.
The elderly are the fastest growing, underutilized resource that humanity has to address many other problems. Sadly, in transaction-driven market economies, where activities must have a monetary value to be ‘valuable’, the contributions of the elderly to society are not valued. Re-integration of the elderly into communities may save humanity from mindlessly changing into a technology-driven ‘Industry 4.0’ which futurists are projecting: an economy of robots producing things for each other. Investing a little to engage the elderly in communities can improve the health and well-being of the elderly. It can also improve the health and well-being of communities.
About the Author: Arun Maira is the Chairman at HelpAge International. He has held leadership positions across the private as well as the public sectors, working with the Tata Group in India, and Arthur D Little in the USA, before returning to India as Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group.

In 2009, Mr Maira was appointed by the Prime Minister of India as a member of the Planning Commission of India and has been Chairman of the Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children India. He has authored several books on topics including leadership, capitalism, democracy and his home country of India.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Aadhaar Card – Grave Misery for the Disadvantaged Elders?

Image Source: Livemint 

Old-age brings with it, it’s own misery. In India of the 100 million elderly, more than 51 million live below the poverty line. They are supposedly entitled to pension and subsidized rations. The meagre Rs. 200 per person per month pension (under the IGNOAPS) reaches them late, not at all and in most cases after a payout to the corrupt disbursing authority. The Aadhaar scheme has been touted as the panacea to all these  ills.

While theoretically, the universal adoption of the Aadhaar card will permit direct disbursal of pensions and subsidies to the disadvantaged elders and others below the poverty line, ground realities appear very different.

The Aadhaar card is not proving to be inclusive despite the adoption of technology

The biometric recognition system militates against those with fading fingerprints or ageing irises. There is difference in fingerprint image quality across age groups, although most pronounced deterioration is found in > 60 age group. Error rate in biometric identification significantly increases with increase in age group. Aging results in loss of collagen; compared to younger skin, aging skin is loose and dry. Working with your hands — especially if it involves handling bricks, or other rough objects — can damage prints. The official rebuttal to this argument is that the Aadhaar also records iris information, so it doesn’t really matter. There are two problems with this — one, reading iris information itself is just as error-prone, especially in senior citizens with cataract issues. Secondly, most nodal agencies are loathe to install the costlier iris-reading software.

Pension and Ration is today disbursed using POS machine with finger print recognition. As far as Rations are concerned, the thousands of PDS outlets, are starting to be provided POS terminals. The last few months have shown dismal performance with majority of elders being turned back due to their finger recognition transaction not being successful. In fact it is reported that even successful recognition transactions are taking upto 8 minutes.  Even after poor, indigent elders are being issued with an Aadhaar card, their fingerprints are difficult to match, when they use the POS machines. POS machines connect to a Central Data Registry which houses the biometric details of the Aadhaar card holders. For the POS machines to work – the machines have to be error free, there has to be reasonably high quality internet bandwidth for the transaction to go through and most importantly electricity/battery availability.

The experience in the last few months has been that in majority cases, the elderly are turned away after long waits from POS / PDS shops due to one or the other above mentioned reasons. Now, there are manual overrides which have been permitted, which leads to corruption as is expected. So, what good is Aadhaar?

In the case of pensions, the problems are even graver. Earlier, elders had to go to their banks to withdraw pensions from their accounts. Often, the overcrowding at banks, and the elder unfriendly procedures caused distress. As a solution, a few months ago, Micro ATMs were started to be used, to disburse pensions. The e-Mitr Kendras were converted to Banking/ Business Correspondent (BCs) who authenticated identity of elders with a swipe on the micro-ATM machine.

BC is a representative authorized to offer services such as cash transactions where the lender does not have a branch. Primary role of BC is to oversee the proper development and functioning of indirect banking channels. These business correspondents are subject to RBI regulations and would have direct contact with one or more financial institutions. These BC’s charge a commission from the bank for enrollment of clients, transactions, deposits etc.

Initially only ‘not for profit’ entities were allowed to become B.C’s. However, off late RBI has eased the norms like inclusion of for profit entities and interoperability of business correspondents, aimed at helping customers in rural areas access banking services such as cash deposits, withdrawals, remittances and balance enquiries from anywhere in the country on the lines of ATM facilities available to customers in urban areas.

However, this gives impetus to major corruption as each time a poor elderly who cannot read/write places the thumbprint the transaction is authorized with the BC. When the fingerprint does not match, the elder is asked to swipe his smartcard on the POS terminal. Majority of the times, it is the BC who swipes the card and asks the technology unfriendly elder to provide his PIN number. In effect, the unsuspecting elder has just handed over control of his bank account to the BC. The potential of corruption and mischief is frightening with likelihoods of assuming staggering proportions.

The problem now
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced in the Union Budget that Aadhaar will be made into a law. In fact, the government is in such a hurry that they have already circulated the draft of the bill and decided to pass it as a money bill in this session, so as not to allow any Parliamentary delays in its implementation. This makes the Aadhaar card, and the important biometric information it stores, mandatory for many things. Most serious among this is access to ration and the public distribution system. The poor, who qualify for this, and are often the ones working with their hands, will be the worst-affected. Yet, the proposed law does not have any alternative provisions. It simply abandons those whose fingerprints have failed them, to their own devices.

Technology is expected to be an inclusive mechanism. In not thinking through an alternative for biometrics, the Aadhar technology could work in the exact opposite manner.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducted a Proof-of-Concept (PoC) study of biometric enrolment from March 2010 to June 2010 in the predominantly rural areas of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Bihar. One of the objectives of the study was to measure the biometric quality that could be achieved in rural Indian conditions. The study that involved 135,000 biometric enrolments found out that Older people took longer (20% longer enrollment time) to enroll than younger people, and enrollees whose employment involved manual work took longer to enroll than the rest of the PoC population. For the system to be ‘called successful’ there should be at least about 98% accuracy, which is far cry as of now.  

Monday, 14 March 2016

Top Corporates Commit to Supporting Employees’ Ageing Dependents!

Picture Courtesy: Business Insider

Lately, one may have noticed the emerging trend of corporates doling out benefits for their white collared employees’ dependents - aged parents and parents-in-law, with an intention to minimalize the foreseeable anxiety that comes with being a caregiver. 
According to Economic Times, IBM India launched the Senior Care program, to help employees balance work responsibilities with caring for ageing parents and parents-in-law who require care. This allows the company to offer subsidized rates for noncritical but essential care services that employees could request online – saving them time and effort in the process.

The program contains various elements that make it appear promising – provision of escorted pick-up and drop service to elders for hospital/medical centre visits, home health aides or attendant services for 4-12 hour periods as back-up care, home visits by nurses for shots, as well as sample collection for medical tests from residence and delivery of the hard copy of the report.

This initiative will allow IBM to monitor the utilization of various services and, on the basis of the feedback received, decide whether updating existing services or adding new facilities to the existing provisions is required.

In November last year, Deloitte unveiled its Well Being Programme (WBP), under which employees' parents and parents-in-law are provided an avenue to reach out and seek support on financial advice, anxiety-related and other issues.

Advice is provided through an exclusive helpline."Many among the senior population struggle with a sense of relevance and isolation, besides requiring assistance with medical issues. Some may be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and have no idea how to deal with it," said SV Nathan, senior director and chief talent officer at Deloitte in India.

"The helpline is akin to a counselling service, but it's also more than that it's an outlet for our employees' parents and parents-in-law to talk about issues they're grappling with and thereby be able to reach out and ask for help." Even though India is riding the crest of a young demographic wave, sections of its population are also ageing. By 2021, the elderly in the country will number 143 million, according to a HelpAge India report last year.
Deloitte unveiled its Well Being Programme (WBP) in November last year, which aims at providing an opportunity to the elderly – a vulnerably section of society, grappling with issues of loneliness, isolation and depression – to reach out and seek financial and anxiety-related counselling.  One may avail this service through an exclusive helpline, which can be availed through an exclusive helpline.

Similarly, American Express offers a parental care program known as ‘Dil Se’, responsible for providing a 24/7 health helpline – a toll-free number for employees and their dependents. It offers customized preventive and therapeutic health care packages, consultation by senior doctors and diagnostics at discounted rates to ensure the well-being of its employees’ parents, reports Economic Times.

A welcome move from India Inc. indeed! 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Defying Ageing With Swords and Elegance, all at Once!

At 74 years of age Meenakshi Gurukkul defies the ageing process as well as all that is considered to be socially acceptable, as the oldest female champion of the ancient marital arts of Kerala – Kalaripayattu. As she crouches low with her sword clasped in one hand and her eyes unblinking, she is an awe-inspiring vision of poise.

Gurukkul has been tirelessly practicing, training and teaching Kalaripayattu - one of the oldest forms of self-defense, and a strenuous and deadly physical fighting system in the world – for nearly 68 years. 

Around 150 students learn Kalaripayattu in her school, Kadathanadan Kalari Sangam, in a tiny hamlet in Vadakara near Calicut, Kerala. 

Techniques have been passed down through generations, written in a palm ‘booklet’, delicate with age. When the school term is over, Meenakshi takes part in stage performances too. Such a brilliant definition of #ActiveAgeing.

This inspiring lady, who only seems to grow younger with age, is living proof that age is but a number. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

She Was Illiterate. Yet She Went on to Educate The World About Uncontrolled Mining.

Credits: The Better India
Kinkri Devi did not know how to read and write, yet, she went on to became a pioneer activist who educated the masses about the environment, and raised concerns about the effects of uncontrolled mining. Heroes come in all forms, but octogenarian, green-heroes that wage a war against an unjust system to fight for what they truly believe in, with great conviction, are rare. Kinkri Devi is one such green-hero

Credits: Tehelka
Due to her social background, Devi was denied education and thus resorted to domestic help services. Working as a maid at an early age, her childhood was a challenging one, riddled with problems. At the tender age of 14, she was married to Shamu Ram, a bonded laborer who died of typhoid when she was merely 22, and was forced to become a sweeper.  As the years rolled by, Devi watched the world around her change drastically, perhaps for the worse. Her once beloved surroundings were desecrated by unrestrained quarrying, and the once-rich paddy fields of Himachal Pradesh were slowly yet steadily disintegrating, before her eyes, much to her horror. Seeing the chaos around her she decided to do the impossible – she took a vow to fight against the mining interests.  However, her campaign was dismissed by the quarry owners, who accused of threatening them for her own vested interests.

After a long period with no response to her suit, she headed for Shimla and staged a 19-day hunger strike outside the court until it agreed to take up the issue. The strike won Devi national and international headlines. In 1987, the high court not only ordered a stay on mining but also imposed a blanket ban on blasting in the hills.

Faced with the prospect of closing their operations, her opponents threatened to kill her, but she continued to fight. The mine owners appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them in July 1995, adding to Devi's renown.

Kinkri Devi passed away on December 30, 2007, but she left behind a legacy. She was a true fighter and survivor and hers is a story that must be shared. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Meet India's Solar Engineer Grannies!

(Image Courtesy:

In 2003, the Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, decided to train illiterate elderly rural women as solar engineers. The biggest challenge at the time was to convince donors, policy makers, as well as the male members of the community to accept the ‘impossibility’ that these women could be trained.
But why choose illiterate and semi-literate elderly women to be the solar pioneers rather than men, who will be more likely to have some education and be easier to teach?

“Do you know why we insisted on older women? Because training men is pointless. They will grow restless and go to big cities in search of jobs. Women have more patience to learn the skill. And especially since they are from poor families, they will stay back home and prove their worth to their communities. ,” says Sanjit Bunker Roy, Founder, Barefoot College.

'In six months we can make a grandmother into a solar engineer!'

It ain’t just the age, it’s the grit and determination beyond those silver streaks of hair, that changes the world. To know more, read The Better India coverage on Bunker Roy's initiative and The Guardian's coverage on Women Solar Engineers.