Last month, I visited the Jaipur Foot clinic in New Delhi. The Jaipur Foot is both an invention - a prosthetic foot made from cheap materials costing about US$45 (versus US$8,000 for a similar device in the US) - and an amazing, low-cost network of clinics around the world that has served more than 1.3 million people with new limbs, calipers and crutches.
I was expecting something like a hospital; instead, I found a hole in the wall. A group of people, some missing limbs, sat waiting to be served; others were limping or walking from one small room to another - from assessment to fitting and testing. Overall, there were roughly 50 customers (who paid nothing).
Lost limbs are a huge problem in India. Most cases result from traffic accidents. But there is also the effects of polio, diabetes, civil strife and other causes - 10 million people in all.
Earlier in my trip, I had visited a team developing a curriculum for plumbers. So now, I wondered, why not provide training for those amputees who have no careers? Perhaps in the six months between the amputation and the new limb, someone could arrange for them to learn a new trade, such as plumbing.
Such a scheme would be consistent with the growing attention in India nowadays to addressing root causes, rather than just dealing (ineffectively) with bad outcomes.
Indian businesses and other institutions are beginning to see opportunity in addressing their country's problems - which brings me back to plumbing. The training programme I have in mind is part of a broader initiative at Amrita University.
I was lured to Amrita's Ammachi Labs by a haptic simulator - a device that lets you feel directed pressure like when one is cutting plumbing pipe. I was even more impressed by the notion of practical courseware that could give people marketable skills at a fraction of the cost of conventional vocational training.
The plumbing course includes taps, how to lay and cut piping. It teaches women as well as men, and many women plumbers work in female sections of schools, hospitals, and other institutions where male plumbers are unwelcome or forbidden.
The lab acknowledges that online videos alone cannot effectively train most people; but they can provide a baseline of competence, to be supplemented by local training and practical exercises.
India has more than a billion people. The challenge is to think of them not just as mouths to feed, but also as minds to educate and skilled workers to employ. And, with a steadily widening focus on the underlying causes of India's problems, perhaps a few million more will stand on their own feet.
Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Copyright: Project Syndicate