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Offering light to street vendors – an alumnus story of Aakarsh Shamanur

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Alumni in Food and Nutrition Security

Alumni stories

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10.15.2020

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"With my design background and work experience in Amsterdam, I have come to the conclusion that renewable energy can improve the lives of many people.” Aakarsh combines the cultural aspects of the Diwali festival (associated with the victory of light over darkness) with his knowledge of sustainability and citizen participation. And so came his initiative , #BePolite into being.

Aakarsh: “#BePolite stands for portable solar powered light” (Po-Lite = Portable Light). “In the campaign, We ask people to sponsor a solar-powered-light to a street vendor. Essentially we ask the general public to use the money they would otherwise use for firecrackers, to give a light to a street vendor. Street vendors are entrepreneurs but are yet to be formally recognized by the government. So we said ‘let’s bring light into their lives and see how lighting can improve livelihood and income levels’.”

With the solar powered light, the street vendors can work longer hours. Another advantage is that trust is improved: “As there is better lighting in the shops customers know that the vendor will not be cheating them.” Furthermore the lights improve the safety for women. If there are a lot of street vendors with bright lights around the area, women feel much safer walking outside.

In his normal work as an architect, Aakarsh designs sustainable buildings, with rainwater harvesting and solar power. “I did my master in urban management and development (IHS, Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam). We started looking at several urban issues. Given the huge number of street vendors in India, they could contribute a lot to the economy. Why not exploring their basic infrastructural needs? #BePolite answers their needs and is based on the principles of the full circular economy.” 

Young people enthusiastic
Aakarsh is already running #BePolite for a couple of years. “It is mostly younger people who relate to the cause”, he explains. “They realise that bursting fire crackers causes a lot of harm to animals & creates pollution. And giving a light to a street vendor is much closer to the essence of the Diwali festival.” Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. The festival is widely associated with Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. 

Substituting fire crackers with solar powered lights can also be tricky, Aakarsh found. “Sometimes people are saying ‘you are trying to change the tradition’, but the thing is, fire crackers were never a part of the festival of Diwali. It was added only fairly recently.”

The first year Aakarsh did #BePolite by himself. Over the years he has collaborated with NGO’s like Sauramandala Foundation & Y-East. Since last year he started to involve university students who took up crowd funding. “We had about 120 students and made teams of 10-12 people, we taught them how to raise funds online. They found the process very exciting, the teams started competing with each other. In that way we were able to reach out to 30 street vendors in one city. We did the same with students in Kolkata. In total we reached around 350 street vendors in 2019. One solar powered light is about €35.” 

God has sent us light
“Street vendors often feel very threatened because the police and the municipality are always trying to evict them”, Aakarsh explains. “When we give them the light they are often very surprised: ‘are you sure you want to give this to me?’ They are surprised by the act of kindness. By the way, we don’t give it to them for free, we ask €5,- to create accountability. And we tell them that the remaining €30,- has been sponsored by different people, who offered money instead of bursting crackers. Some of the vendors are really thankful, often they have faced so many negativity and opposition. Giving a light is a very symbolic act: within many religions, giving somebody a light is a very powerful act. They say: ‘Maybe God has send has send us light’.”

Mahatma Gandhi has been an inspiration for Aakarsh. “There is this quote by Gandhi: any decision you take in your professional life, take it with the man at the bottom of the pyramid in mind, than it would be a successful initiative’. I started looking at it from that perspective. A street vendor is someone who has despite all the odds in his life, started an entrepreneurship journey. If we help them a little bit, they can take the next step on the social ladder. It is also a way to make the city more inclusive. Street vendors consist of 1% to 2% of the city’s population, so that would be roughly 250.000 people in Bengaluru. That is a large number.”

Aakarsh’ creativity goes beyond solar-powered lighting. He is already thinking about next steps: “Street vendors have other infrastructural needs, like refrigeration. If you would create a market place with dishwashing facilities, than you would avoid waste. In Rotterdam you have Blaak market: imagine a very well designed market like that with some basic hygienic facilities. That would be my dream for Bengaluru too.” 


There is the library, go figure it out
Looking back at his studies at IHS in Rotterdam, Aakarsh recalls that it was initially challenging. “In India, the professor would present the books and guidelines, but in the Netherlands they say ‘this is the topic, there is the library, go figure it out’. That process really changed me. Looking back I am glad I went through that struggle, because today I know should not limit my scope of thinking to a certain set of rules, books or guidelines.” 

Another thing Aakarsh fondly remembers from his period in the Netherlands, is that the work process is often very inclusive. “Everybody in the room is asked for their opinion. Even when I did an internship in Amsterdam,  the CEO would ask me what my thoughts were. I found that process very inclusive. The very fact that I am now working together with the street vendors comes from looking at the things from a more inclusive perspective. If I had a conventional architectural practice, I would just be designing glass buildings for IT companies. The fact that I looked at actual issues that people in India face. Issues faced by street vendors. We have to make things better at the bottom of the pyramid. Inclusion and environmental sustainability is at the core of all of my work.”

“I attended a couple of events of Han in The Hague. I definitely profited from this global network. Because I attended these events, my LinkedIn-profile contains people all over the world!"
Time for global solutions

In the Netherlands, Aakarsh was an active member of the Holland Alumni network. “I attended a couple of events of Han in The Hague. I definitely profited from this global network. Because I attended these events, my LinkedIn-profile contains people all over the world! Especially in todays context we need global solutions and cross cultural exchange. If I want to understand what is happening in a particular country, I can just look someone up in my network. Yesterday I was talking to a friend from Taiwan who I met at a The Hague-event, he is a water-engineering person, we talked for an hour and he gave me all kinds of tips on how to approach businesses in Taiwan.”

It was his cousin who put Aakarsh on track for studying in the Netherlands. “She studied in the UK and told me that half her classmates were from India. That’s not the idea of going abroad!” So Aakarsh opted for the Netherlands and he is not disappointed. “The Netherlands is very design oriented, in the field of architecture, the Dutch are way ahead of other countries. Also there is a lot going on in the field of sustainability in the Netherlands, that helped me a lot with my sustainable initiatives. I really feel that my studies in the Netherlands have giving me an edge.”



Aakarsh in short
Aakarsh Shamanur is currently working as program manager, urban community labs at SELCO Foundation, in Bengaluru, India. He did a bachelor of architecture at the R.V. College of Architecture in Bengaluru, India. After that Aakarsh did a master of science in urban management & development at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. His #BePolite initiative can be found here. You can find Aakarsh on LinkedIn.


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