Karnataka's Grand Challenge to start-ups to solve Bengaluru's sewage problems

Priyank Kharge, Karnataka’s IT minister is wooing technology  entrepreneurs and coders in Bengaluru to solve local challenges that dog the capital city, which they can take to solve similar issues in smaller cities in the state.

The first of the projects under the Grand Challenge is around managing wastewater, an issue that has caused heartburn to Bengaluru citizens who have to navigate waterlogged roads during every downpour.

Kharge, who also holds the tourism portfolio, is concerned over the city’s reputation of being unclean as sewage water that fills Bellandur lake emits chemical foam on streets elevating its position as a tourist spot on Google.

Bengaluru, India’s tech hub, faces massive infra challenges such as overflowing drains, pothole filled roads, bumper to bumper traffic and power blackouts.The state government, after drawing the ire of citizens for years over the overflowing drains in the city, have finally decided to take action against illegal constructions on canals that drain water to lakes.

Prominent citizen Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Chairman and MD of Biocon, who has raised these issues several times says the move by the state government to seek help of start-ups is a good one. A combination of innovative ideas along with good governance is the only way Bengaluru can be saved.

“Bangalore is in a crisis and when you have such smart people living here, I think it’s very important to engage them in solving these problems. Now when you actually have a grand challenge, the government can legitimately run pilots. It’s a great way of solving your problems because these start-ups are doing it in a commercial way,” said Shaw.

Start-ups will have to send in proposals on how they would build a system for real time monitoring of the quality of water discharged from sewage treatment plants. The move is part of the state’s plan to foster the development of at least 25 tech-led solutions that have a social impact.

“Bengaluru is a laboratory for innovations. Sharing and transferring these innovations through a public private partnership can help solve many of the issues facing the state,” said Kharge.

Entries for the first Grand Challenge will close in September, allowing start-ups to pitch ideas, work with the government on piloting a project, show results over a two year period and jointly take it commercial.

Post a rigorous selection process, the best start-up will be awarded an initial grant and follow on funding for implementation of a pilot project within a period of two years. start-ups selected through this process will also get access to government funded incubators.

Karnataka is planning to have five such calls every year, each focusing on solving different issues under urban development, agriculture, healthcare and education. The initiative will be headed by Karnataka’s newly formed start-up cell, a product of its revised start-up policy.

To be sure, start-ups such as Teatherbox Technologies are working on such issues. The Bengaluru-based firm has built an Internet of Things solution to monitor oxygen levels in lakes and diffuse precise amounts of oxygen when they get low. The firm partnered with the Karnataka Pollution Board to run a pilot in one of the city’s most famous lakes, Ulsoor lake, where over 100,000 fish were reported dead in May this year.

The public pressure driven governance model isn’t going to work as Karnataka has to begin planning far into the future if it wants to save Bengaluru, a city that drives 60 per cent of the state’s revenues. For this, the government is now turning to technology and innovative thinkers, a necessary move according to T V Mohandas Pai, chairman of the Manipal Group and prominent citizen of Bengaluru.

“I think tech companies can give innovative ideas and they can solve part of the problem, but the government cannot give away its responsibility of governance and making thing work. It’s good to call grand challenges and the government must back these with a process by which these projects can turn into a business,” says Pai.

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