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Out-of-the-box ideas to crack urban issues, the students' way

Rasheed Kappan, Bangalore, Dec 11, 2013, DHNS : 1:42 IST

25 teams battle it out at the IIHS National Student Challenge

The big idea: A student team makes its presentation at the contest.
An “Insta-Help” device that sends SOS messages to your family and the police if you are attacked. Hygienic, smartly designed foodcarts to help the urban poor earn a livelihood without hindering traffic flow.

A network of water stations in public places to make safe drinking water affordable at Rs 3 per litre. Offering these out-of-the-box, yet simple and eminently workable ideas, 25 student teams from across India are in Bangalore for a unique National Student Challenge.

When the City-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) kicked off this contest in 2011, the objective was clear: To reach out to and guide the youth to understand urban issues and eventually become urban transformation agents. “The youngsters have great ideas and concern for the cities. But they often don’t know where and how to go about it. Our intervention is designed to engage them, help them work out implementable solutions for our urban problems,” IIHS Chief People Officer, Nina Nair explained to Deccan Herald.

The young challengers were highly energised by the spirit of innovation. “ChaloBEST,” the team that showcased a mobile app to guide Mumbai’s BEST bus commuters on the schedules had proved an instant hit at the 2011 edition. The team eventually finished as a finalist at the UN Habitat Youth Fund. But more importantly, they found two venture capitalists ready to fund the project and take it to action mode.

Determined to make a similar foray into real action was the team “AbsolutZero” from St Stephen’s. Shaken by the Delhi gangrape, the team of Chetan Chawla, Aditya Shailaj and Sambodhi Sarkar had done a reality check to find this startling statistic: In Delhi, there were three security guards for every VIP. But there was just one policeman to make 671 Delhiites feel safe! As Sarkar recalled, the team had no choice but to innovate a stand-alone, distress alarm device that triggers SOS messages.

The team consciously chose not to go for another mobile app. “The device had to be stand-alone because when you are attacked, the first thing the attacker does is to snatch the mobile phone. By pressing a button on our device, the message goes out instantly,” said Chawla.

For “Innokart,” the Jamia Milllia Islamia team of Faiza Jamal, Huma Parvez, Ahmed Faraz Khan and Nida Haque, innovation had to address the question of livelihood of the urban poor. So, they chose to redesign the ubiquitous roadside food cart, make it compact, hygienic, and waste segregation-friendly.

“You cannot wish away street food in India. You cannot evict the vendors just like that. A National Policy on Urban Street Vendors is now in the pipeline. Our plan is to make their livelihood sustainable,” elaborated Faiza.

Innokart has its work cut out now: To get funding from venture capitalists and corporates, produce the low-cost but durable wooden carts at Rs 12,000 a piece and give them to deserving vendors at a third of that price in ten crowded markets. “For security against misuse, each cart will have a unique number, and will be insured.”

“Amrut dhara” is another project from IIT Madras, designed to free people from the tyranny of costly bottled mineral water. But there are 22 more unique ideas competing for a podium finish at the National Student Challenge finals on Thursday, and grab the Rs 3 lakh IIHS Implementation Grant on offer.

IIHS would also help the teams with business mentors and even forward their proposals to an incubation panel. If 171 teams tried it in 2011, there were 570 last year, and a whopping 1,200 this year.

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