When 17-year-old Varun Sridharan was told three days ago that as an after effect of two operations on his ears last year, it might take a while before he regains his ability to hear, he immediately began planning ahead. “They said I have to start using hearing aids. I realised a lot would be spent on them and the batteries every month,” he says.

Instead, he decided to get a microphone Symbian application installed on this phone, and asked a programmer friend to boost the volume. “I just have to keep the phone in my pocket and my earphones plugged in, and I can hear so much better now,” says the boy, who dropped out of school a few years ago, to pursue his interest in emerging technologies.

“There was so much to do outside,” is his eager response on why he left school. And his life has been a testimony to that spirit. After enrolling for tennis classes, he left it midway because he felt the academy needed to leverage its services better online and ended up creating a site for them. When people said he drew well, he thought why not make ‘photoshop-ic caricatures' of his own drawings. Programming, debugging, making websites, handling viruses, he has learnt and done it all.

Varun believes in the potential of technology to solve many problems. There is so much software freely available everywhere that can counter bigger problems, say unemployment, he confidently declares. His is one of the inspiring stories to emerge from the Tenth Planet Open Source Foundation which provides opportunities for engineering graduates who believe not getting into a top-notch software firm is not the end of the road.

For instance, Ushashree, an engineer from Perambur, over the last two years, has been frequenting sari shops in the city to create a catalogue that will help people browse through the collections. Ezhilagan is all set to launch his site listing local trainers who coach students on various sports. There is also Sadasivam, an engineer with physical disability who has launched a website that has every little detail about welfare schemes for persons with disability.

Many at the foundation have been searching jobs since 2007, but there are not enough jobs to employ every engineer who graduates, they feel.

What the foundation offers is an alternative. “There are 25,000 business establishments on every 25 km and the owners think maintaining a site can cost them a lot. There are several people looking out for simple products and services online and there are hundreds of engineers who can be used to build these websites. We are just bringing all of them together,” says Kumaran Mani, who runs the foundation.

Along with several other unemployed, trained engineers and Varun, he initiated ‘Indiainternetready' that hundreds of Chennai-based commercial establishments registered, that include, boxing classes for girls, many bakers, grocery shops, tuition classes and many others. “The biggest feature of the venture is the opportunity for young engineers to do something that connects them with society in a way that engineering education does not,” says Mr. Mani.

Varun's initiative has been helpful in a way because it has shown them age is no barrier . “Most of them are expected to get plush jobs as soon as they are out of college. They seem to associate leaning with company tags, a sentiment we need to break,” says Mr. Mani, about his team. “We may not be able to create Steve Jobs, let us create local jobs, instead.”

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012

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