One day in November 2016, 16-year-old Mridul Manas came home from school to know about a 45-year-old mother of two, who had committed suicide due to the waves of misinformation and rumors that hit her urban slum in Indirapuram (Uttar Pradesh) post the Indian government’s announcement of the stripping off of all 500 and ₹1,000 banknotes of their status as legal tenders.
“Even though our Prime Minister in his announcement had provided the details for citizens to exchange their currencies even for those who didn’t have any bank accounts, the slum dwellers in settlements just 2 miles away from my house were in treacherous state of panic and had already lost all their hopes of getting their wealth back.”
The information-gap prevalent in India’s urban slum communities is a pressing problem. Given the myriad of challenges that these communities face to fight for basic amenities, knowledge and access to the right information at the right time can transform lives especially for the mothers and children, who require quality healthcare and educational opportunities.
However, while Urban India is claimed to have 60% internet penetration and is home to India’s largest internet-user base, these thousands of families in the dilapidated slum settlements are still far away from the reach of the much touted-digital and information movements.
To come up with a solution to this problem, Mridul immersed himself in the subject matter. “I was highly inspired by African technology startups like M-Pesa and Ushahidi, and wanted to explore the applications of crowdmapping and SMS reminders to bridge the information-gap in the slum communities”, says Mridul.
This lead him start a SMS and voice message delivery system called MeraSMS in November to educate the nearby slum household members about demonetization, the procedures involved and to bust the various myths and rumors. He then set up a small volunteer team and these high school students then started visiting the nearby slums and further helping the slum residents with required paperwork.
Today, MeraSMS caters to over 20 urban slums across North India and uses geotagging and crowdmapping technologies to acquire real-time information from slum households. “A database is used to deliver tailored information such as maternal care reminders to women as per the age of the infant. Apart from supporting the mothers, we also connect the slum dwellers to nearby government welfare programs and NGO services as per their needs and give them the option to send a missed call to sign up for a service or welfare scheme. The MeraSMS volunteers then subsequently help the interested users to join the featured scheme or service”, explains Mridul.
When not working on MeraSMS, Mridul is busy operating his global youth-led nonprofit initiative, YouthFWD (youthfwd.org), which is working with youth in underserved regions of Pakistan, India and Swaziland by setting up social-entrepreneurship schools to help them to become changemakers of their communities. The students also receive mentorship from the YouthFWD mentor board which includes undergraduates at institutions like Yale and Wharton to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Mridul and his student members have already launched a unique computer-literacy project for young women in Pakistan whereas their students in New Delhi, India have chosen the rising school dropout rates as their target challenge and are developing and testing a data-driven dropout prevention program.
“These young individuals in the conflict-hit and developing communities have their own unique perspectives and ideas to solve the problems they face. But most often, these voices get ignored. We simply ask them to join our enriching program and we work together turn their ideas into reality. It’s not about changing their lives; It’s about giving them the chance and tools to do it themselves.”