Category Archives: Allahabad – India

What’s next – staying smarter after the SCC challenge

It has been 3 months since my Indian adventure – new year, new goals and new questions – what am I going to do in 2016 to at least match 2015? Working in Allahabad was definitely once in a lifetime opportunity  – I honestly do not anticipate going back as it is not on the typical tourist or work path for IBMers or adventurous tourists. However, the experience has encouraged me to take the passion for #experteering a bit more seriously – and not as a random thing that happens even at the most supportive companies.

I tried to express this on my LinkedIn post a few weeks ago. The idea is that we can all lend our skills anywhere, anytime. Today’s Oxfam report on the huge inequality of wealth distribution really hit it home for me. There is not that much I can do to change that – but I can do something, I control something. So my resolution is to lend my skills every year – it may not be as exotic and well organized as a typical Smarter Cities challenge or a Corporate Services Corps engagement (pretty sure it won’t!). In fact, it may be more local or less corporate and consultative – but all I can hope for is that it will be rewarding and impactful. Have you browsed through the Catchafire or Moving Worlds websites? Some amazing things out there… just takes time and a bit of a risk – and off we go… who knows, maybe I will see you working in Congo on a coffee farm….probably not with Powerpoint – but see you somewhere! Get smarter and make smarter….keep me posted.

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When waste becomes your life for 3 weeks

So what were we doing here for the past 3 weeks? I realized that in the midst of all the experiences and impressions, we never wrote about what we were here for. One word should give you a hint – or maybe a few depending on where you come from – trash, garbage, rubbish, waste. Yep, we spent the past 3 weeks helping the city of Allahabad figure out how to improve solid waste management in the city. If you’ve ever been in India or have seen any pictures and documentaries – you know that trash is pretty much everywhere. It is a very sad view – let your mind go visual for a sec (and I will help with some pictures) and imagine this:

Busy streets covered in trash, with a few bins but mostly no bins – if they are there, they are either overflowing because there isn’t enough of them or are empty because it is easier to dump than walk a few meters. Trash all around it, organic or non. Cows, dogs, pigs eating all of it and whatever was actually in the bins is now spread out all over the place. Large spaces in the middle of the city covered with trash – basically unofficial landfills that serve as collection places. Rag pickers walking through it, trying to collect anything that can be sold (glass, bottles, plastic). Fires are frequent, mostly because the rag pickers start them to get rid off the non-valuables. Sometimes because of the chemical reaction in the tons of waste, the fires start on their own. Typical home sorting of trash does not happen. Businesses, restaurants, even our hotels, do not regularly install bins (I had to carry around my plastic bottle for 2 hours to finally find a bin). Processing of waste happens in one large plant (which we had a pleasure to visit) where some level of segregation of the wet (organic, food, plants) and inorganic happens. Then a few men physically go through the rest to take out the plastic (usually bare hands, no mask). Drains in the streets are open and usually blocked with trash or full of it. With the 90F/high 30C temperatures, it is hard to not to notice the smell. Houses with trash spread in front of them because if even one person dumps trash, it encourages others to do the same or it spreads around with animals, traffic. All of this has impact on everything else… animals eat plastic, the burning trash pollutes the air, kids play in trash filled areas, the unofficial landfills contaminate drinking water, the open drains and sewage overlap, insects – I think you get the picture.

Our challenge was to help the city of Allahabad to put in place a few frugal, pragmatic and sustainable actions to accelerate the city’s journey towards a smart city. Managing waste is one of the basic city services that every citizen expects, but only about 20% of the citizens are actually willing to pay for the services. Everyone recognizes that a mindset shift has to start with the public – Indians are very conscious of personal hygiene but social hygiene is an issue. Prime minister Modi has launched a few initiatives to focus on cleanliness and has gained some real traction. In fact, our last day in Allahabad, October 2nd was a holiday, celebrating Mahathma Gandhi’s birthday. It is also the day that the country focuses on Swachh Bharat – the national campaign for clean India- but it feels a bit too much top down and a government programme so far.

We spent the first week learning about the city, the process, visiting the plants, talking to people. Not just the officials, but the citizens as well. The stories varied quite a bit so our primary challenge was in sorting through all the said and unsaid with very limited data available. I think we particularly enjoyed talking to the people that really live it everyday – the street sweepers, the residents in the gym, the hotel employees, Richa’s friends – this after all is on everyone’s mind because you can’t escape it if you wanted to. Our second week was spent formulating some emerging hypotheses – and we had many! And week 3 was crunch time in our hotel room #410 – our office – working on the high level presentation to formulate our recommendations and heads down writing the report. We did not forget to have fun though … no worries there. Shopping, tailoring, exploring all the hotel restaurants, even one super local one (where the plates were made of recyclable leaves (surprising dichotomy between the creativity in how to use recyclables and what you see on the street), some Indian mendhi and lots of Indian food (even though I think we are ready for some fresh seafood, vegetables, salad and fruit).

Our work is done for now, cameras full of trash pictures, memories full of laughter and funny stories, stomachs full of tikkas and aloo ghobis, hearts full of Indian hospitality – and everyone of us richer with a few new friends worldwide. For this team, it was special & special, at times 100% no problem, a few dry days here and there and definitely lots of glowing with the Indian flow 🙂

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

Formal picture of the team with the Divisional commissioner and the Mayor

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When children leave you in awe

Over the past week, we have been discussing what the WOW moment of our presentation is. Little did we know that our own WOW moment of the entire Smarter Cities Challenge was around the corner  – and perhaps not surprisingly it came from children of Allahabad.   We were very lucky to be able to visit a truly inspiring school (Khel Gaon Public School) which is dedicated to combining sport and education for the students that attend.   We received an amazing welcome from the students and staff – I lost count of the number of rounds of applause we were given.   We were presented with beautiful garlands upon our arrival before being taken into the school’s enormous gymnasium – to receive yet more applause from the 500-600 children that were sitting above us on three sides. With us on a podium, hundreds of children from 5 years old to 17 years old watching – I just couldn’t believe that this was:

  • for us only! there was a poster with our names on it and pictures!
  • put together in less than a week because it would take a whole PTO and 10+ parent volunteers in the US
  • so quiet and organized – can you imagine hundreds of children in uniforms, in less than well air conditioned gym for 2 hours watching someone speak – quietly? And genuinely smiling?

Each of us had goose bumps (and yes, some got a bit more emotional as they spoke) from the warmth of the reception.

The children performed an amazing set of gymnastics, dance and other sporting demonstrations – the standard of each was extremely high. I was particularly thrilled to finally see a piece of real Indian dance (one that I have been looking for but so far only got the techno beat in the gym). We were then bowled over by the exchange of some beautiful personal gifts  –  embroidered scarfs from the school and signed books from our IBM team.    The students were very interested to hear from each of us about our countries and our schooling – in fact during this exchange we also learned a little more about each other.

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But perhaps the most impressive part of the visit was the smaller interactive sessions we had with some of the senior students of the school.   They were clearly extremely bright children – they had researched our backgrounds and asked us insightful questions about our education as well as our Smarter City Challenge. You should see our faces when these kids, in fluent English started talking brownfields/greenfields, cybersecurity, and quoting information about us that they clearly looked up on LinkedIn or other public sources. I was beyond impressed. The hunger for knowledge, global view, learning from others was absolutely mesmerizing.

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As we drove away – everyone of us reflected on a wonderful morning. I don’t know what the final presentation will look like (I have an idea though) but 100% sure it will not beat this. The genuine interest, passion, smiles, talent – this was something that is impossible to replicate. And I am pretty sure you won’t see us (at least me) sniff during a powerpoint presentation 🙂

Note: this blog post was co-written with Colin Hall – thanks Colin!


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Hour of Indian history for everyone

After a week of finalizing our presentation to the municipal commissioner, we were quick to allocate some relax time for Saturday and Sunday afternoon. That basically meant shopping for 80% of the weekend – starting with jewelry that went on for hours – mostly because you can’t see any of it until you sit down. Then boxes start coming out and piece by piece is put in front of you – so with 5 people with completely different tastes and purchase objectives this can take a bit of time (hint, yes, it took the women or me specifically the longest). We then split up and ladies decided to head out to a local beauty parlor for any treatment that would be available and the gentlemen headed out to a tailor for some custom made suits and shirts. Overall, success on both sides – pedicure / massage / a suit / a few shirts / toe rings / ear rings / anklets – and the team re-energized.


Our jewelry shopping experience – sit and wait! And better have 2 hours at least

Sunday was a bit more historical and educational – we visited Anand Bhawan which gave us appreciation for Indian history. This is a house where Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first India prime minister lived. I had a very basic understanding of the Indian independence moments. Seeing where the Nehru family lived, their work, the place where their mentor Mahathma Gandhi stayed and met with the dignitaries – was absolutely magical. Indira Gandhi, India’s first female prime minister was Nehru’s daughter and it was fascinating to read through the details of their family life, passions and dedication to the nation. The place was packed, very simple and casual – and just about the right size – about 7 rooms to give you a look into their life. Mr. Nehru was quite the gentleman, very well educated, adored by the Indians, humble and someone who loved children. He built planetarium for the kids at his house and later in her life Indira Gandhi donated the house to the Indian people. Colonel Pandey, our IBM India leader, gave us a private recollection of his own time in Allahabad in the 60s – he even participated in Nehru’s funeral which happened at Sangam, very close to our hotel at the confluence of the 3 rivers (if you remember!). 

Last picture is a bit of a memory of last week – lots of flip charts, lunches, powerpoint, joking, driving, glowing, confusion, discovery, driving around, exploring, trash photography, cow avoidance – so busy week for the team !


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The glow of the Ganges (and of our team)

After a full week of touring sewage and waste management plants (and interviewing government officials, rickshaws and street sweepers), we headed out to Varanasi for a tourist-only weekend. This came with a clear direction of “no laptops” which we gladly followed. Varanasi is THE Indian town that makes every single tourist book, as well as the 500 or 1,000 places to see in your lifetime – and it lives up to it. After a rocky (literally and figuratively) 3 hour drive from Allahabad, we arrived and headed for some shopping and walk around the city. After a few of sarees, pashminas, silk scarves negotiations, we were ready to board a small wooden boat on Ganges to see the river banks from the water. I am personally not very religious or spiritual (full disclosure) but there is something about this city that throws you in a very quiet state of thinking and reminiscing (after the loud engine boats stop though). As the sun was coming down, we (and other 100 boats) stopped by the Dashashwamedh Ghat and waited for the aarti to start. What’s a ghat and aarti, you may ask….

Ghat is a series of steps leading to the river Ganges – and there are many of them across Varanasi. Aarti is a prayer ritual / ceremony which translates to a Worship of fire. The ghats fill up with people, the rivers fill up with boats – and the aarti begins. Richa was able to participate from the bank which was a very unique and rare opportunity for her – the rest of us watched from the water. Even though most of us didn’t understand what was going on, it was clearly very emotional for Hindus around us and absolutely fascinating to watch. And so was the traffic on the way back 🙂

The next morning, we experienced probably the busiest 430 am wake up call in the world, as close to everyone was heading out to the banks again for the sunrise. I was a bit skeptical – is this just a hype and a credit to the Varanasi tourism bureau or will this really be spectacular? It was fantastic – the dark walk thru the markets, the boats full again, the sun coming up and shining a beautiful light on the city. Seeing it wake up to the world, watching the families and Hindu tourists take baths in Ganges and praying, kids splashing water and playing – pictures tell a better story so look below. I think most of us were a bit conflicted though. Seeing importance and emotions the river ignites in Indian people was once in a lifetime opportunity. But seeing how polluted and possibly contaminated the water is, the trash on the river bank right next to the kids swimming, the ashes from the cremated bodies thrown in (and hearing about the dead bodies being thrown in as they can’t be cremated) – it is hard to reconcile.  Enjoy the pictures…

We finished our trip with a visit to Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Despite the brutal heat and humidity (the team decided to just call it a glow b/c you turn very shiny very quickly), we really enjoyed the brief history of the jainism and buddhism – and there are hundreds of stories, names, gods and traditions – so definitely a big to-do for some of us to “get a comparative religion book in local library” – you have to – once you visit these sites with so much history, tradition and spirit.

I almost forgot to mention that we met with the #ibmcsc team India 28 which is based in Varanasi for the next month. It was great to catch up, hear about their projects and for me personally to remember my fantastic IBM CSC experience – go team (picture coming later)!

And the glow? The river glows for sure – but everyone of us had a bit of a glow too – not just from the 40C degree temperatures, high humidity and the mix of repellent/hand sanitizers – but from being in a place of such a significant history, tradition and spirit.


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IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Allahabad Team Effort Underway

2015 Smarter Cities Challenge 059

When asked why I chose to participate on the IBM Team addressing the challenges Allahabad faces as it embarks on a journey to evolve into a Smarter City, I expressed the honor I felt in being able to contribute to the city that my grandfather and father called home. I, too had spent 3 years of my childhood in Allahabad and felt a strong bond with the city. I wanted Allahabad to become smarter, yet retain its unique cultural heritage and identity as a place of pilgrimage for Hindus around the globe. These sentiments immediately resonated with the City’s Mayor who responded saying “Exactly! We want Allahabad to evolve its infrastructure and become a pleasant and inviting town with revitalized industrial growth but not lose its cultural identity as a home to the “Kumbh Mela.” Allahabad should remain as Allahabad, but just get smarter!”

City Authorities stressed the importance of solid waste management as a foundational issue in Allahabad’s Smarter City Planning Process and thanked IBM for investing in an overall assessment of the city’s challenges in this area.

Following the official kickoff, the team visited the banks of the Yamuna and Ganga rivers that are home for people coming to Allahabad during the annual Magh Mela and the famous Kumbh Mela (held every 12 years).

The IBM SCC team for Allahabad on the banks of the river Yamuna.

The IBM SCC team for Allahabad on the banks of the river Yamuna.

On Day 2, the team visited Sewage Treatment plants and learned about the current and planned initiative addressing waste water treatment.

The Sewage Treatment Plant at Naini

The Sewage Treatment Plant at Naini

IBM's Smarter City team at the Naini Sewage Treatment Plant

IBM’s Smarter City team at the Naini Sewage Treatment Plant

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Arrived to Allahabad

We have finally arrived to our home for the next 3 weeks, the Indian city of Allahabad. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel bad – most people have not. The city is in northeastenr part of India, the flight from Delhi takes less than 2 hours. It has a population of about 1.1 million which is not that big for India and is situated in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It has a very strong cultural and religious history, mostly because three rivers Yamuna, Ganges and invisible Saraswati meet here (now, we haven’t seen it yet so more about this later).

allahabadOur team consists of of 6 IBMers: myself – Michaela Santa Barbara (US), Richa Pandey (US), Colin Hall (UK), Tony Walter (Australia), Sachiko Yoshihama (Japan) and Mike Yesudas (US). Four countries, six IBM divisions – all working on one Smarter cities challenge with the city – on the topic of solid waste management. If you’ve ever been to India, you will recall that waste management is a huge infrastructure, sanitation and quality of life issue in many parts of the country. The larger Indian cities with reasonable infrastructure are making progress but the smaller municipalities are struggling with even the basic city services around waste management (think limited garbage collection, no sorting, open dumping, water contamination, etc.). We will try to expand on the real issues in latter posts as we start our discovery process.

Today, we spent all day getting briefed by the local IBM team on the government structure of India, the waste management challenges in general, IBM’s smarter cities agenda and some team building. We are about to start our Discovery week with a kick off tomorrow – so stay tuned!

(scroll over pictures for description)


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