An integrated healthcare initiative floated by a group of US-based Indian-origin professionals in Agiya, a backward village in north-western Gujarat, holds out the promise of being replicated as a template for small-scale, local community healthcare interventions across rural India.
An offer of three dozen netbooks from IIT-Bombay has now come as a shot in the arm for the project.
Initiated by a non-profit organisation — Wheels Global Foundation – run by a clutch of IIT alumnus and aided by netbooks supplied earlier this year by an IIT Bombay team, the Agiya project has a three-pronged objective — operationalising a reverse osmosis-based clean drinking water plant in a village in 26 districts of Gujarat, constructing 100 toilets in these villages and simultaneously training volunteers under a project called ‘Sevak’ that aims at providing health monitoring and early intervention.
Instituted in 2010, the Sevak project — an acronym for sanitation and health education in village communities through improved awareness and knowledge of prevention/management of diseases and health promotion project — aims at developing a team of volunteers to monitor the general health of the population in villages such as Agiya across these 26 districts. The idea was to collate data on factors such as the households with toilets and those consuming clean water from the newly-developed reverse osmosis plant delivered under the project, and thereby draw some correlation between the reduction of communicable diseases with higher usage of purified water and toilets.
The three-month training for the volunteers was organised in Vadodara, with MS University and Baroda Medical College playing a key role in imparting the basic training, which included lecturers from the preventive medicine department of the hospitals speaking on the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes, hypertension and knowledge of symptoms of heart attack, strokes and infectious diseases, as well as delivering lifestyle modification education.
However, when the project was operationalised in Agiya there were some teething problems. The volunteers — or ‘sevaks’ as they were called — were found to be doing the entire survey in longhand, entering data manually and then laboriously writing reports to be sent to the coordinators by post. The group needed an inexpensive computing device that would be programmed to report health data in the spreadsheet format under the project so that they could also develop spreadsheets on specific interventions such as the households with toilets, consumption of clean water from the reverse osmosis plant, and thereby use the project to correlate between the reduction of communicable diseases with the increased consumption of pure water and the use of toilets.
That’s where IIT-Bombay stepped in, with an offer to provide inexpensive netbooks so that the data gathering and reporting for the project can leap frog from manual writing and snail mail to online reporting to the programme coordinator. Simultaneously, the engineering institute initiated a training programme for the sevaks to use the Libre office programme on the netbooks.
“Prior to the training and subsequent use of the notebooks, the Sevaks were doing everything longhand, laboriously writing everything and then send that off to the coordinators by snail mail. The use of the Notebooks using the FOSSEE equivalent of Excel has made their life easy,” said Ruyintan E Mehta, an IIT-Bombay alumnus – a 1970 batch chemical engineering graduate – and a US-based serial entrepreneur in the plastics industry, who is part of the team that conceptualised and rolled out the ‘Sevak’ project.
The IIT Bombay team, which earlier this year developed the $100 netbook, has handed out 32 of these devices equipped with early-stage open source technology to the healthcare volunteers.
“As this work involves quite a bit of data entry, the laptops have made a big difference,” Kannan M Moudgalya, a professor of chemical engineering, systems and control and educational technology at IIT-Bombay who was instrumental in the support extended by the engineering institute to the Gujarat project, said. Each of the volunteers selected for the project needs to be a resident of the village, with ideally a graduate degree or at least a high school certificate. They should be able to read English, even though they need not be proficient.
“With the use of the netbooks, the Sevak coordinators have more time on the field as they don’t have to enter the data manually. One of the sevaks, for instance, is a policeman who is learning to use the netbook, but his daughter enters the data. Overall, a lot of time is saved and we have just started in full swing,” IIT Bombay’s Moudgalya said. The netbook, which was conceptualised during IIT’s work with the low-cost Aakash tablet project and was launched in February this year, has been put to use by about 90 first-semester students at IIT Bombay, said professor Moudgalya. The 10-inch machines were built primarily for students from low-income households who cannot afford costlier laptops. LibreOffice, an open source alternative to MS Office, and Calc, an open source alternative to Excel, has been put to use by IIT Bombay as part of the open source software used for operationalising the netbooks.
“All Sevaks were first exposed to Gujarati-dubbed tutorials on the Netbook and later four tutorials of Calc, which was sufficient for them for doing the survey work for the project,” Kannan said. With the project underway, each Sevak collects mainly health-related data of all residents of one chosen village in a district. Apart from the 26 sevaks, there are 4 coordinators and there is a programme director overseeing the project, who are also given one netbook each. An extra netbook is handed over as a standby, he said.
The future plans for the project are three pronged: Extending advanced training to current Sevak volunteers to act as certified medical technicians to dispense drugs in statewide pilot, to integrate the health care with other health- related projects such as sanitation and clean drinking water; and to connect villages to cities through telemedicine and tele-health support by medical experts in large cities and uplift the standards of rural health care to that available in semi-urban centres. The Wheels team is hopeful of this being used as a template for replicating the project elsewhere in Gujarat, as well as in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
“It’s in use in places where there is not a single laptop in the whole village… When the government talks about Digital India – it is going to be these kind of small “one-on-one” use of netbooks, computers, laptops, smartphones when combined hundreds of millions of times, will have a significant impact on the country’s progress,” one of coordinators of the project told The Indian Express.
Nearly 700 million people live in India’s villages, where obesity and cardiovascular disease are estimated to be among the top 10 causes of death of the general population.