Traveling in India- An Adventure

I think I have had a decent exposure to all forms of travel within India, so its about time I write about the craziness that is India’s transportation system. Lets start with aviation.


I think India’s aviation is pretty good. The airports aren’t as clean as other countries, but they have airports at all the major cities, and they run in a timely fashion. Flying international is the same as anywhere else, in fact the Mumbai International Airport, newly renovated, is the nicest airport I have been to in years. The domestic travel at major cities like Mumbai and New Delhi are similar to any other city in the US- you just have to arrive early enough to get touched all over by Indian TSA which happen to be carrying big AK-47s. Overall, I felt pretty safe at the airport. The smaller airports, like Madurai, are great because you can show up 45 minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart and still make it. The flights are a lot smaller (50-75 passenger planes) and more susceptible to strong winds. Air travel is relatively more expensive than the other options, but much cheaper than other parts of the world.

India’s train system still perplexes me, particularly booking trains. Trains can be booked online but the software they use is Trainextremely complex to understand unless you have used the system before. If you try to book less than 3 days in advance, good luck to you mate because you might have to arrive at the train station beforehand and book it there. Wait-lists are also extremely common. The train itself is pretty nice, especially the A/C sections of the train. I recommend the 3rd class sleeper A/C for long trips. The main problem with trains is how long it takes. They stop frequently and there are numerous destinations that are not accessible. However, some of the train lines are extremely scenic, such was the case going from Madurai to Kanyakumari or to Kerala. Again pretty cheap option.

Oh buses. I have had a pretty rough time with buses personally. Local buses are fine if you have to get from one place to another in a short duration of time. They are crowed, blast classic songs from the 80s, and hot, but extremely cheap and convenient- running frequently. When you start taking the long private A/C buses, such as night buses, some of the problems get resolved. No more blasting music, or congestion, but the roads are too bumpy to fall asleep. Plus there is usually 5-10 people snoring with sleep apnea. I usually have to take the next day off when I take a night bus due to the lack of sleep. They are also a very inexpensive option and are available for travel between all cities.


Private taxis are the most convenient, available in all major cities and can be hailed or called (or ubered in some cities). They are a more expensive option, but you don’t have to deal with noise, crowds, or heat. If you are traveling in-between cities with multiple people, car pooling isn’t a bad option and extremely comfortable. Taxi services like Ola cabs and Fast-track are competitively priced with autos/rickshas, especially in Tamil Nadu. Rickshas, if they have working meters, are a good deal for a short duration, but in the south it is hard to find an honest ricksha owner. Bargaining is required.

We have all heard the stories about India’s roads, but large highways between cities are being built and make travel a lot more convenient. Still, safety remains a major concern. Safe Travels!


Pongul- A Feast for Those Cows

I have family all over India, specifically in Tamil Nadu. So one of the nice things I can do on the weekends is catch a bus to my relatives place. During the festival of Pongal, I decided to visit my uncle in India last month. Pongal is a major holiday in Southern India, it signifies the beginning of the harvest so its particular big in rural communities. There have actually been several controversies surrounding Pongal in Madurai all under the lines of animal cruelty. They usually release the bulls and the locals try to tame them. As one might suspect, many animals and people get killed yearly; however, the state government as prevent such things from happening recently so hopefully this year people will have their act together. Since my uncle owns a couple of farms, I decided to go visit him in Tiruppur along with my great grandparents house. One of my friends, Avilash, also came along.

The contrast from my uncles house to the farms he owns is devastating. He has a really nice place/mansion with a home theater system in the middle of India’s textile hub, so it feels kind of out of place. The farms he owns are outside the city center and are quite lovely-coconut trees as far as the eye can see with baby cows roaming around. It is extremely unique. During the festival of Pongal, my family and friends gathered at my uncle’s farm as we did several poojas for the farm and cows. The cows were each painted and given a nice meal. The whole process probably lasted 2 hours. After the ceremony was complete we headed to my great-grandparents place near Salem, Tamil Nadu.

This farm grows a variety of vegetables and spices indigenous to India such as okra and curry leaves. There was a gathering of maybe 50 plus people as we celebrated Pongal once more. I had the opportunity to see my extended family at this one, which was quite extensive. My grandfather was 1 of 7 brothers and 1 sister. All of them have families of their own and most of them reside on this farm. So it was truly an amazing experience. What was unfortunate was my tamil was not up to par, so communication was slightly difficult, but I think they understood my hand gestures after a bit.


Happy International Women’s Day from Madurai, India!

Happy International Women’s Day! It is only fitting to spend today in India with a team of women who know how to get things done!

I’ve been at Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai for the past few days and it has been a whirlwind of visiting the hospitals, meeting with Aravind staff, and attending a weekly “journal” session where staff share new research via web conference with the different hospitals across Tamil Nadu. Today I was able to attend an eye camp outside Madurai with 10 “sisters” (nurses) and 1 doctor. We piled into a bus at 6:15 in the morning, stopped for breakfast around 8 am and by 9 the camp was set up and receiving patients. 136 patients came today and this was considered a “light day.”

Patients are greeted outside the camp and receive their initial paperwork. They then rotate through the six or seven stations depending on their diagnosis. Many receive glasses on the spot (I could have photographed the team measuring and grinding the glass all day long). Those who need cataract surgery receive a wristband indicating which eye is to be operated on. The patients heading for surgery wait in the back of the camp, eat lunch, and then return with the Aravind staff to the hospital in Madurai. Today 22 patients returned with us on the bus. They will spend the night at the hospital and tomorrow morning will go in for cataract surgery. By the end of tomorrow the surgeries will be completed and they will be taken back to their village. In a few weeks they will receive a follow up visit from an Aravind team so there is no need for them to return to the city.

The process is smooth and works like a well oiled machine. Last year there were 1,507 regular comprehensive eye camps organized by Aravind; 339,416 patients were examined; 73,698 advised glasses; 61,540 glasses ordered; and 46,562 glasses delivered on the spot (the rest are received by speed post). The sisters are trained in their speciality – customer service (meeting, greeting, and paperwork), diabetes testing, refraction, glasses fitting, patient records and more. I’m including a few photographs in the slide show below that attempt to illustrate just how neat it was to be there today!

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In other news, it’s been a blur of a few months at CASI and we are well on our way to announcing our 2015 CASI interns! We had a full team of support from alumni readers, committee chairs, and former CASI interns leading interviews this year! Feeling so thankful all around.

I could write forever but I have an early morning tomorrow with our 2014-15 Sobti Family Fellow Vignesh Selvakumaran!

More coming soon!

My cousin and I being goofy in front of the Taj

Traveling to the Big Apple – Mumbai

The flight that took me from Madurai to Chennai and back.

The flight that took me from Madurai to Chennai and back.

I came to realize while staying here in India, my perception of India is very different than other natives of India. It falls more in line with more conservative parts of India, like Madurai and parts of Tamil Nadu. This probably comes from the fact that every time I come to visit India, it is always to visit my family, which lives predominately in rural areas of Tamil Nadu. I was talking to another fellow here at Madurai, and his view of India is the exact opposite. His family all lives in Bangalore and Mumbai, so his perception of India was extremely liberal. I think after traveling to various parts of India, we both have reached some sort of middle ground and have realized how vast and diverse India really is. Parts of India have really progressed and can’t be differentiated from any other major city in a drastic way while some parts have stuck to their roots. It is really amazing. The vastness of people and having such a successful democracy is something to admire, and I am really proud of that. This blog post, along with the next one, are really about how drastic of a difference those lives are.


In December, I had the chance to explore Mumbai with my family during the winter holidays. The first couple of days I spent very little time in the city, heading to a local retreat in the mountains called Matheran. Matheran was a nice break from the city

11 Year Old Boy that took me to the top of the mountain on a horse. He told me in Hindi that he loves horses.

11 Year Old Boy that took me to the top of the mountain on a horse. He told me in Hindi that he loves horses.

life, no sounds of auto’s blasting their horns; in fact, no automobiles at all. That’s right, Matheran forbids automobiles, so in order to get to the top of the mountain you have to either walk to the top, take the train (2 hours), or ride some nice horses. On the way up we decided to go by horseback.

The resort had many scenic views of the local area and the mountain had a cool temperature which was welcomed by me personally. This mountain is also known for the monkeys, which outnumber the people that live on this mountain (relatively less, very rural). Overall the trip was relaxing and slow, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for me.

The following couple of days I stayed at my uncle’s flat in Chembur, Mumbai, India. Chembur is a heavy residential area in Mumbai.

On the first day exploring the city, my cousins took to the local mall, and wow! I thought the Christmas/New Year’s shopping spree was isolated to the Western Hemisphere, but boy was I wrong. The mall was Black Friday madness (without the sales) and ridiculously  huge. Growing outside the Greater Philadelphia Area, I would compare it to King of Prussia. Very similar style of stores with all the bells and whistles. I really didn’t buy much because the prices were also highly inflated, but I did get the opportunity to drink some coffee at my first Starbucks in India. They even had the special Christmas flavors in stock. You could walk into this Starbucks and think you were on 34th & Walnut store (interesting Fact: Starbucks is franchised by TATA throughout India).


TGI Fridays being TGI Fridays in Mumbai!

The mall also had a TGI Friday’s, I ended up eating all the American Food I could possibly eat. Who knows how many opportunities like this would come up, am I right. We also went bowling within the mall, I felt like I was in the suburbs of Philadelphia once again.

The following day, I had the chance to explore South Bombay. A lot of Mumbai’s attractions are here, including the Taj and the Gate of India. Those attraction, though grand, really didn’t catch my eye as much as the trip there.  Most of South Mumbai looks architecturally similar to parts of London, which makes complete sense. The Indian Government is trying to preserve that architecture throughout Southern Mumbai. You can really see and feel the wealth of Mumbai in this district. The Taj uses Jaguar cars to pick up their guests; the local shopping is all high end; you have access to stores like Swaraski Crystal and Tiffany’s Co. It is truly amazing. The discrepancy of wealth in India became obvious in Mumbai. When flying out of Mumbai you can see the slums surrounding the airport, but then Southern Mumbai makes you forget all about that. It feels like a gated community.

Jaguar Taxi service for the Taj hotel.

Jaguar Taxi service for the Taj hotel.

I had a really enjoyable time in Mumbai. I got to experience another side of India totally different from Madurai. It seemed very Western in many ways, but Indian at heart (that the slogan of the Mumbai International Airport).


Aravind’s Eye Camps in India


One of two doctors doing Glaucoma screenings.

One of two doctors doing glacoma screenings.Earlier this week I had my first exposure to the eye camps here in Madurai. Both me and Avilash, a Fulbright Scholar who is also working at Aurolab, had the opportunity to go visit one this past Sunday.

Eye Camps are usually held in rural areas; however the one we took part in was just on the outskirts of Madurai at a local temple. The temple/ashram was founded by Mata Amritanandamayi – you may know her as the Hindu spiritual leader who gives hugs to people of all walks of life.


Picture of Mata Amritanandamayi

At the ashram, all the workers started the day with breakfast. After breakfast was served, the 15 nurses and 2 physicians went to work setting up the camp. Within a couple of minutes, the whole ashram was transformed into a eye screening and diagnoses center- equipped with 10 separate stations for various visual screening purpose. You had basic stations for registration and selecting glasses, while others were a little more sophisticated – including dilation and glaucoma screening. Each station had a number associated with it and was organized in an easy to use fashion. At about 8 PM the locals started rolling in. It was nothing short of amazing, about 2000 patients probably when through all stations in the matter of 4 hours. The physicians had the opportunity to see all the patients and those suffering from cataracts were sent to the main hospital to receive surgical treatment via shuttle bus. It was amazingly efficient and screened for a majority of eye related diseases. I personally thought this was the biggest bright spot of what Aravind had to offer. DSCN0083

Inside India’s Innovation Ecosystem

When I left Delhi last August, I never imagined I would be back so soon, riding autos through the traffic-jammed streets of Bangalore, admiring the Gateway of India alit at night in a million colors, visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, and learning once more about the incredible potential of this beautiful country.


From December 28 to 31, I took a Global Modular Course on Technology and Entrepreneurship in India taught by Professor Kartik Hosanager on the IIM-Bangalore campus with 30 students from Wharton (executive MBA, full-time MBA, and undergraduate) and 30 students from IIM-B. We heard from executives of Flipkart (India’s version of Amazon), Myntra, Zoomcar, Uber, and Teamlease on the growing opportunity for e-commerce, tech, and mobile startups. Although India has the third highest number of smartphone users and the private and public sectors have increased incubator and accelerator support for startups, India still suffers from poor transportation infrastructure, stringent hiring laws, and lack of quality higher education to serve the needs of its 1.2 trillion people.

After my course ended, I began fieldwork for my Wharton Research Scholars thesis on frugal innovation, funded by a Wharton research grant. Under the guidance of Professors Devesh Kapur and Saikat Chaudhuri, I am conducting case studies of healthcare companies that have achieved high performance under cost constraints through process, product, and business model innovations.

My site visits included two of the most cited sources of “frugal innovation”: Narayana Health, which runs cardiac and multispecialty hospitals in Bangalore, and Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai. NH is a highly scaled operation with 29 hospitals in 17 cities, which provides surgeries for 1% of the cost of similar surgeries in the US. NH has achieved one of the lowest mortality and infection rates in the world (around 1%). A surgeon gave me a tour of the pediatric ward and the telemedicine facility, through which they have offered 53,000 free consultations to people from around the world.


I also had the great privilege to speak to NH’s founder Dr. Devi Shetty, who served as one of the primary caregivers for Mother Teresa in Calcutta. I then spent two days at the Aravind complex, during which I met up with Vignesh and toured all the medical facilities as well as Aurolab, Aravind’s in-house lens manufacturing company.


Although NH and Aravind have both achieved incredible success by international standards, they have different operational models – for example, Narayana is a for-profit which provides subsidized operations to 13% of patients through the microinsurance plan Yeshaswini, while Aravind is a financially sustainable nonprofit that treats 70% of patients free of charge through payments from wealthier clients, who receive more comfortable amenities, but the same quality of care.

Later in my trip, I was able to interview Raghu Dharmaraju, VP of Embrace Innovations, a social enterprise that produces low-cost baby incubators, and compare his marketing approach with that of a large multinational, GE Healthcare, in their launch of the Lullaby Warmer. Both and Ashish Gupta, former Global Product Manager for GE, commented on the difficulty of tailoring their price point and distribution strategy to meet the needs of the Indian consumer.


On January 8, I spoke with Professor Anil Gupta from IIM-Ahmedabad, who founded the Honeybee Network and the National Innovation Foundation to source, license, and commercialize grassroots innovations (e.g. agricultural machinery, herbal remedies, etc.). Although the government has become more receptive to innovation, Gupta said that it is still difficult to secure funding from traditional sources and shift engrained cultural mentalities, which prioritize engineering as a field of study and job security over risk-taking and the creative arts. The NIF holds Shodhyatra (journeys of exploration) to meet innovators in remote areas, tests scientific methods in the Sristi laboratory on the Gujarat University campus to identify traditional processes for patenting, and holds competitions to find new ideas from children, the most open and free-spirited segment of the population.



India is at such an exciting time in history with huge commercialization potential for basic business ideas from developed countries adapted to the Indian culture as well as grassroots innovations that can serve the BoP (bottom-of-the-pyramid) market through unique cross-subsidization models and knowledge of the local landscape. As much as I am glad to be home, I know that India holds a special place in my heart and I am grateful to have spent a warm winter break amazed once again by the hospitality of its people.

Surgeries & ENABLE

I have visited a lot of hospitals and seen numerous surgeries performed throughout high school and college around Philadelphia. I even had the opportunity to see a cataract surgery performed in Bryn Mawr Hospital. Usually the average cataract surgery lasts 1-2 hours, requires a full operating room staffed with 3 or 4 nurses and an ophthalmologist. That is most certainly not the case at Aravind.

Aravind has about 10-12 operating rooms in their main hospital. On any given day, four or so may be dedicated solely to performing cataract surgery. In each operating room there are usually two operations going on, which means two doctors are stationed in each operating room. The doctors’ sole task is to perform the surgery. Everything from the patient arriving at the hospital, to getting gowned and showing up at the operating room is organized and operated by other staff within the hospital. This makes the system extremely efficient. The magic amount of time it takes for each surgery: 10 minutes.

Each physician will probably perform 50-100 surgeries in a given day. This is kind of amazing, especially considering they need to perform more surgeries due to the influx of patients from both Madurai and outside the city from their eye camps.

These operating rooms are pristine too, they have the latest technology (Alcon’s latest phaco-machine) and everyone is in the proper attire, which I cannot say for in the US- there have been numerous reports and studies that claim hospital staff within the US are not following the proper protocol for attire and hygiene.

I had the chance to watch several cataract surgeries along with seeing a cyst removal from a patient’s eye. Overall I was extremely impressed by their operating room layout and organization of hospital resources.

On another note, one of the more interesting organizations I have been reading about while I was in India is ENABLE. It is an open community that creates prosthetic limbs for children using 3D printers. Because children are constantly growing, children who are missing limbs need replacements to keep up with their growing bodies. This means a lot of money is spent on prosthetics especially as a child. 3D printer technology is a possible solution. It is extremely cheap to create prosthetics with a 3D printer, it just requires experienced engineers and doctors working together. As I have been working in Aurolab, I noticed they had a 3D printer available and one of the other interns at Aurolab also has experience with 3D printer technology. So both of us will be working together to try to get prosthetics to children in India who are in need.

I unfortunately cannot upload picture from my room in Madurai thanks to the slow wifi. I should have some upload later this week when I get access to my work computer. Next week I want to dedicate a post to my awesome visit to the eye camps here in Madurai! Stay tuned!!!