THE MOBILE MAN
"Victor uniform two mike Kilo Papa," Robert Kohli barks into a microphone, his voice spinning off into the ether via an amateur radio satellite 4,500 km up in the sky. He pauses to listen for incoming signals. He hears a crackle, then the voice of Charlie from Hong Kong: "You are strong as ever today."
Each morning, Kohli, a Swiss national who suffers from multiple sclerosis, which has left him paralyzed from the neck down, maneuvers his wheelchair using a chin-operated control to a table in the living room of his Bangalore bungalow. There, neatly laid out, are his laptop, transceivers and an assortment of amateur radio equipment. His physical movements may be limited, but by using his mouth to manipulate a set of three sticks to work his laptop, Kohli, an avid ham operator, can change the direction and height of the four massive antennas on his roof and communicate with the world.
Life has become richer for Kohli, 59, since he moved in 1994 to the sprawling Koramangala suburb of Bangalore, home to many of India's well-known technology companies. His disease had ended his career as a technical adviser to Contraves, a Swiss antiaircraft surveillance radar manufacturer. In India his illness is treated more matter-of-factly, and Kohli and his wife Teresa are able to affordably manage their bustling brood of five foster children, ranging in age from 2 to 14, with the help of a driver, a gardener and two maids.
Nearly every day VU2MKP, Kohli's ham radio name, converses with the world with Suleiman in Saudi Arabia, Xavier in Germany, Hal from Johannesburg. He and Charlie from Hong Kong talk about growing bananas in the backyard. With Chandru, who also lives in Koramangala, he discusses the latest antenna technology. A program running on his laptop helps him track which of 20 radio satellites are available at any given moment. Details about his radio friends show up through an automatic program as soon as he feeds their code in with his stick.
Technology also allows Kohli to be independently mobile. In his battery-operated wheelchair, he has clocked some 4,000 km in the past couple of years, visiting friends and shopping at the weekly farmers' market. "My wheelchair is interactive," Kohli jokes. Evenings he spends with his family or eyeballing (as face-to-face meetings are called) local ham buddies over a beer at the neighborhood pub. "I gave up the Swiss climate that I loved," he says. "I thought: What use is the climate if I have to spend the rest of my life in a ghetto?" India and innovations have made him free.
The tribal people of Dhar in central India's Madhya Pradesh have found magic in a box. Gendalal Verma, a farmer from Bagdi village, seeks its wisdom every week. He rides his motorcycle along 8 km of bumpy paths until he comes to a simple PC housed in a kiosk. He doesn't surf, but looks up the price of garlic in the wholesale markets of nearby towns to make sure area middlemen aren't shortchanging him. The difference can be more than $4.25 on 100 kg of garlic, and Verma has 9,000 kg ready to harvest. "The traders," he says, "are unhappy about the computer."
The traders better get used to it. Although three years of drought have ravished the Dhar countryside and electricity is only a recent phenomenon, the computer project, known as Gyandoot, or Bearer of Knowledge, shows that innovation can thrive among poverty and illiteracy. The $45,000 community-financed project the brainchild of district collector Rajesh Rajora, who supervises it with Nitesh Vyas, CEO of the local government strings together villages through a series of 34 rural cyberkiosks and links them to the district administration through an intranet. Half the users earn less than $300 a year each, and one out of six has to walk at least 5 km to reach a computer. Charging about 10 cents, a kiosk manager records villagers' complaints or provides them with information. That user fee makes kiosks self-sustaining.
The system works. Since it was set up last year, 40,000 people have used Gyandoot to check out produce prices, sell land or cattle or get official documents. Gattu Lal, 65, applied online for his grandson's caste certificate, which guarantees school admission and a scholarship. Within a week the request was processed and verified. Before, it would have required several 20-km treks to the government office and some bribes. When a group of women from Malipura village recently complained they had not received their $10 maternity benefits, their protest was forwarded to the local government officer, Mohini Srivatsav, who ordered the village chief to pay. If not acted on within a seven-day deadline, pending complaints pop up on the computers of Rajora and Vyas, the top district officers, who then take action. "Government employees once accepted bribes and hardly delivered, confident that nobody was looking," says Srivatsav. "Now, Gyandoot has them terrified."
VIRTUALLY BY YOUR SIDE
On a cool bangalore morning a month ago, Swayambu Viswanathan was discussing work with a colleague when he felt a sudden tightness in his chest and broke into a sweat. Rushed to a clinic, his ECG showed he had suffered a heart attack. Viswanathan, 59, was taken to Wockhardt, a heart specialty hospital, to undergo an angioplasty procedure to clear a clogged artery.
Thousands of kilometers away in Austin, Texas, Viswanathan's older son Ravi was just stirring. When the phone rang, the 28-year-old assumed his parents were calling at such an unearthly hour to talk about an upcoming family holiday. "When my mother broke the news," he says, "all I could think of was the great physical distance between us." How could he juggle his work commitments at Motorola, where he is a software analyst, and his desire to see his father?
He was able to do both. When his father came out of intensive care two days later, Ravi sat at home and watched him. Using Wockhardt's groundbreaking Virtual Family Visit, Ravi and his brother Karthik, 26, who works in London, logged on to the hospital's website (whhi.com) to get a firsthand medical update. "This is a new way of communicating," Viswanathan told his sons, as he lay in bed in his hospital pajamas. Ravi was relieved. "Just seeing my father gesticulate and talk was a great feeling," he says. In turn, Viswanathan perked up when his sons sent virtual cards telling him how good he looked.
In Bangalore, many elderly people live alone while their children, often globe-trotting software professionals, work far, far away. Sensing a need for interactive communication, Wockhardt launched its free virtual visits more than a year ago. After doctors clear an encounter, a digital camera records a patient's video message to the family and stores it on a laptop. The video is edited, compressed and stored on the Web. The website is password-accessible, and patients' records, doctors' updates and videos are kept confidential. (It also offers an online payment mechanism, so relatives anywhere can help out with medical bills.) To date the hospital has logged nearly 500 online visits. Says Dr. Vivek Jawali, chief cardiovascular surgeon: "We started this as an innovative technology play, but it is turning out to be an emotional support system." That is certainly true for the Viswanathan family. Their sons are preparing to rig up their home PC so they can come face-to-face more often.