Tuesday, December 25, 2007

fifteen killed as bridge collapses after hindu festival

By Jason Overdorf in Delhi
Published: 26 December 2007

At least fifteen people were killed and hundreds missing feared dead last night after the collapse of a suspension bridge over a river in a remote part of rural Nepal, a local official said.

The bridge across the Bheri River, near Chunchu village in western Nepal, collapsed when 300-400 local people crowded on to it on their way to a Hindu religious festival. As many as half of them swam to safety, but many others were swept downstream and are feared to have drowned. Last night police officers at the scene predicted the death toll would rise.

"It was not an old bridge, but there were too many people on it," said Yam Prasad Suvedi, the district administrative officer of Surkhet District, the area where the accident occurred. The steel suspension bridge was about 350 metres long, Mr Suvedi said.

The Bheri River is said to have strong currents and be difficult to swim in, although the winter flow is said to be slower than at other times of the year. Some people were seen scrambling to safety.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, local agencies deployed a helicopter ambulance. After dark, the rescue efforts continued with boats. One local report estimated that rescuers helped about 40 people swim to safety and about 150 others managed to reach shore on their own.

The Nepalese Army, Armed Police Force, Nepal Police and Nepal Red Cross Society were mobilised along with several helicopters to search for survivors. The remote location of the bridge, however, about 240 miles from the capital, Kathmandu, delayed some of the relief efforts.

The timing of the incident, which occurred during the Bheri's low winter ebb, may have mitigated the effects of the disaster by allowing some of the victims to swim to safety.

The incident took place at around 1.30pm, as the victims made their way to a temple to celebrate the occasion of Dhanya Poornima, a full moon festival.

Last night hopes that a significant number of the missing would be rescued were fading. Anil Pandey, chief district officer in the area, said: "There were possibly 500 people on the bridge when it collapsed because of the weight. Some of them managed to climb to safety, some fell on the banks, but the ones who plunged into the river are the ones still missing."

Police and troops had been called in to help the rescue effort. Mr Pandey told the AFP news agency: "The rescue work has been halted for today as darkness has gripped the area. Police and army have set up temporary camps to begin rescue works from early Wednesday morning. "The remoteness of the area and poor communication facilities has delayed rescue efforts," Mr Pandey added.

According to some local reports, the majority of those missing are women and children. Deputy Inspector General at the regional Armed Police Force Office, Krishna Bahadur Bista, said that most people crossing the bridge had been women and girls.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

cashless in the hinterlands

Mobile banking might save the government and banks money and reduce fraud that plagues the public-distribution system.

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek (Dec. 17, 2007)

Mobile phones are making life better for people in remote, underserved areas of India. They no longer have to walk kilometers to public call offices to use a telephone—an essential tool for buying and selling goods based on the latest market data, getting credit from lenders and other commonplace activities. So far, most of the benefits have come from one of the phone's simplest features: voice calls.

With more than 250 million mobile users and 6 million new ones added each month, India now has the "teledensity" to support more-sophisticated mobile technologies, which could have a big impact on Indian society and the economy in the next few years. (An extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country leads to an additional 0.59 percentage points of growth in GDP per person, according to a London Business School study.) These include "voice broadcast" services that would let a truck owner inform residents of a village about a scheduled trip to the city, or doctors announce the availability of polio vaccinations. A more complex system would allow a small business, say, to keep track of shipments. What's holding up these services is the lack of mobile banking.

With urban markets nearing saturation, global giants like Nokia are now looking to appeal to the hinterlands. Reliance Communications, which has offered Internet service over its mobile phones since 2002, is sponsoring a contest this year for developers to invent new rural services. "We want to really take advantage of our mobile platform, our data network, and our ability to provide the mobile Internet experience to bridge the digital divide," says Mahesh Prasad, president of applications and development.

Several small companies are at work on mobile banking for small businesses. New Delhi-based ekgaon technologies has developed a system for tracking transactions made by so-called Self Help Groups, which pool members' money and offer small loans to poor people. The system uses a camera-equipped mobile phone to scan forms and a voice-recognition system. A.Little.World, a mobile software business in Mumbai, has developed a microfinance and payment system that lets customers perform banking transactions through a local agent affiliated with a bank (a practice allowed for the first time in January 2006). Customers get a secure electronic identity via phone or smart card; agents take deposits and dispense cash. Biometric data, such as fingerprints, make the phones and smart cards more secure than paper-based banking. A.Little.World has extended such services to about 400 local businesses acting as agents. And it's now working on a national rollout with the State Bank of India—the biggest player in the rural market. Meanwhile, ekgaon, whose partners include CARE, WorldVision and the World Bank, has a pilot transaction-management system for 10,000 Self Help Groups, with plans to extend it to 14 Indian states.

Mobile banking services can reduce the cost of transactions for loans and other services—the main obstacle to providing banking for the poor—by as much as three quarters, according to ekgaon's chief operating officer Rohit Magotra. Mobile transactions could have an even broader effect applied to India's social-security payments and public-distribution system, which sells essential goods to the poor at subsidized rates. By March 2008, people in 8,000 villages in Andhra Pradesh will get their benefits zapped via mobile phone to their smart cards, which they may eventually use instead of cash to buy goods at the ration shop. A.Little.World, which is building the system, says a nationwide service could help reduce fraud in the public-distribution system. It would also mean going from a bankless world to a cashless one, maybe even faster than America or Europe.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/74440