Parag Mankeekar

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2008

Parag has been working on building his dream - the RealLives Platform - a gamified simulation to promote global empathy & related socio-emotional skills. As a result of his efforts, RealLives (even in its pre-platform avatar) has managed to be listed in the top 5 simulation games on CNET (out of about 1200 other games).

Having attained a cult following in the academic as well as the gaming world, the vision of the RealLives platform is to create an entire global generation of young adults who are trained in empathy, sustainable development and changemaking. Through RealLives, Parag hopes to intervene in the current STEM pedagogies by adding the components of Empathy and Sustainability - to create eSTEeM as a more rounded model of pedagogy for a new world.

Being a data-driven simulation (with data drawn from over a 100 reputed sources), RealLives is currently being scaled globally, as per the vision of reaching every single student across the world. After having upgrading to the cloud platform, RealLives is now touching more schools and colleges - currently being in the process of achieving higher linguistic diversity. Even the corporate sector is now being reached to enable employees to attain a healthy cross-cultural understanding.

Through RealLives, students are given exposure to how other human beings live across the world in different cultures and socio-economic categories, how global challenges (taught through the framework of the UN’s SDGs) are affecting lives, and the need to approach all such problems in an empathetic manner. As a gamified simulation, RealLives is successful in speaking the language of the young generation - engaging them in a manner that appeals to them by adopting contemporary digital pedagogies.

Dr. Parag Mankeekar has previously worked in the medical domain - helping to set up multiple hospitals in India with unique affordability models in a bid to challenge unhealthy erstwhile medico-social practices. In the course of his work, Parag has tackled many health and social challenges such as disaster management during his involvement in developing multi-disciplinary hospitals and social enterprises. He has also worked in understanding terrorism both in India and Afghanistan. In recognition of his work, Parag was awarded the Ashoka fellowship in 2008.

As part of his current work at Neeti Solutions, Parag spearheads purposeful gaming for social purposes, such as livelihood and financial literacy training, disaster management & risk reduction training, climate change and other social, environmental and civic issues etc. reaching out to echo-screens of young and youth.

This description of Parag Mankeekar's work was prepared when Parag Mankeekar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


In a nation where natural disasters strike often and with devastating effects, Dr. Parag Mankeekar is helping India’s children master disaster preparation and response planning. Parag’s training camps and computer games create simulations that teach children how to be effective first responders for their families and communities following a disaster. Moved to action by the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 in which thousands of children died, Parag looks forward to spreading his approach through coordination with government first responders and schools across India.

The New Idea

Governmental disaster management programs in India focus on mitigating the post-event impact on a population by providing emergency health care, rescue, and clean up. This approach neglects the potential that people have in preparing for a disaster or responding to a disaster, and it also encourages citizens to passively rely on government services while they could organize themselves as effective first responders. The challenge is thus to find new ways of building a community's capacity to respond in the event of a disaster that do not rely solely on traditional power brokers such as the government and international aid agencies. Parag’s insight is that people, especially young people, can be trained to respond quickly and powerfully using local materials and manpower.

Parag has founded disaster camps that train through experiential learning and ultimately enable children to come up with collective solutions in the event of a disaster. These camps overcome the children’s lack of awareness in the event of a disaster and prepare them to mobilize effectively through a pre-planned community wide response. The camps are hosted at para governmental facilities that house professional disaster responders. The rapid success of these camps has led to school requests to organize more such camps for other youth groups and classrooms and also started the thought process of formalizing the camps as a part of the curriculum.

The second part of Parag’s new idea is to use gaming—specifically computer and cell phone software—to reinforce his message about disaster preparedness. He has designed games based on popular Indian board games, which convey information in a fun and noninvasive manner. The use of gaming stands in opposition to the traditional method of disseminating information on disasters such as pamphlets, which are useless to the illiterate population and usually fail to hold the reader’s attention. In contrast, his games attract young people who in turn educate their families and friends. In this way, youth are natural “message multipliers,” returning home to tell their families about what they have learned and showing them the techniques and games that they have picked up at the camp and through their school.

Parag's approach is currently being tested in flood prone areas. He has launched the disaster camps and is testing the gaming software in Pune. Schools have asked Parag to introduce more disaster scenarios into their curriculum and government disaster campuses have invited him to hold more camps in other locations including Gujarat and Orissa.

The Problem

Young people are often the first victims in a disaster because they lack the life experience to make the right decisions quickly in life-threatening situations. They are also at risk in post-disaster situations because they are dependent on their parents or communities for nourishment and shelter. Today 151 million of the India’s youth are in areas with high level of seismic risk, while tens of millions face regular flood and fire threats. In India there is no formal disaster response training available for school children, nor is there education on personal health risks following natural disasters.

As these young people grow older, the lack of training and education at an early age makes them indifferent to the danger posed by disasters. As parents they are less likely to inform their children of the risks they face and are less amenable to suggestions made by others about disaster-response techniques.. Formal teaching methods also tend to have low acceptance among the illiterate populace since a lot of emphasis is on reading and writing rather than on experiential learning. This lack of education and awareness contributes to the slow and ineffective citizen responses to natural disasters. And while government assistance is always critical, government workers are rarely the first responders, and rarely have the manpower to address the many consequences of a disaster. Despite this, populations are encouraged to expect a sort of paternal, protective role from the government, creating a cycle of dependence.

After the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, when more than 20,000 people died, India began to address the urgent need for a disaster response infrastructure. A national response system was established based upon an aid distribution approach which used regional response centers in disaster-prone areas. These centers housed specialists trained in specific techniques such as earthquake relief and chemical spill cleanup. The government succeeded in creating highly trained teams that could be dispatched to any area of the country but they failed to build an indigenous response capability. The over reliance on professionals who do not have knowledge of local soil conditions and irrigation systems not only limits the effectiveness of their efforts, but also deprives citizens of any agency in decision-making about appropriate responses during a disaster. Additionally, the regional response centers were not designed to educate citizens about life saving techniques or appropriate response measures, thus depriving them of knowledge that could be critical to saving lives or homes.

Even in Gujarat and Orissa, where the government has tried to get schools involved, efforts to include disaster preparedness in the curriculum have so far proved unsuccessful. Incorporating disaster education into the curriculum was seen by teachers as another unwanted burden in a long list of demands that included teaching sanitation techniques, raising HIV/AIDS awareness, and introducing environmental science. The government-prepared material also seemed too technical, involving long lists of specific scenarios and prescribed actions, and was packaged in a way that students were unlikely to digest and absorb.

The Strategy

Parag has developed an approach that uses schools, government agencies, and young people to disseminate information on disaster preparation. The information is presented through curricula, disaster camps, and simulation games that serve to reinforce the message of personal safety and community responsibility. By using multiple paths, the information is both reinforced in the child's mind and passed onto older members of the families and into the wider community.

Parag is targeting his services for young people to address the need for experientially based education. He founded disaster camps in government response centers where young people practice skills such as identifying simple means of purifying drinking water , constructing flotation devices, and identifying escape routes in their own schools. He will be expanding the curricular offerings to cover new types of disasters and finding more locations for the camps outside of government facilities. Parag has found that young people enjoy the element of play that is incorporated into the camp and has seen the demand for new camp curriculum from both young people and educators. The camps will be expanded and curriculum will be incorporated into schools through play-learning initiatives adopted by teachers who send their students to the existing camps. Each camp is supported by donations and volunteers who teach the classes.

Parag is also designing a method of disseminating information on disaster preparation outside of the disaster camps and classrooms. Parag recently created a computer game based upon the Indian board game “Snakes and Ladders,” akin to the game of Shoots and Ladders in the United States, which rewards young people for answering questions pertaining to disaster response. This game is available on communal computers in towns and villages, which are already social hubs where people congregate and naturally discuss the information that is presented. Parag is now developing more formats for the games, which include both a cell phone-based version and a web version of a physical board game. The gaming element reinforces the notion that learning about personal safety is fun and gives the young people a culturally relevant reference point for the information that they receive. Development and production of the games is supported by cross-subsidy from his computer services company.

Parag found that youth are powerful viral message multipliers. Their parents and other adults are drawn to the computers he installs and find themselves participating in the social hubs created around these computers. Parag is now experimenting with how to develop a social networking tool that incorporates disaster gaming into a virtual hub. This would probably look something like an application that users can download and play through a website. He will soon launch an application that can be used on social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut, which will supplement the virtual disaster hub to act as a decentralized forum for disseminating information on disaster preparation.

By hosting his training camps on government grounds Parag has gotten the attention of the official Disaster Response Force, which is now reconsidering how it interacts with the citizens it is responsible for protecting. Part of Parag’s strategy to spread the idea nationally is to use state campuses for nationwide training. Since relying on individual governmental bodies would limit the spread of his information, Parag is in contact with schools and other national and international organizations that are focused on disaster response.

The Person

When Parag was a young man, his family's home in Pune was swept away in a flood. At a young age he developed a close bond with local communities while trekking and bicycling in the hills around his home town. In school he was a member of the Indian National Cadet Corps during which time he led a group of students to Punjab to learn about cultural heritage and the impact of terrorism on common man and on Public Health metrics.

After school Parag became a doctor and began working in a rural village near Pune, but found that he preferred tackling broader issues of public health to simply treating individual patients. In the village he observed a divergence between healthy social behavior and the medical treatment that he was able to offer. The stark contrast between the need for a comprehensive community health system and his own medical services inspired him to redesign the package of education and treatment that targeted individual behavior. When he had implemented this health education system in the village, he sought new opportunities outside it.

During his time as a rural doctor he was approached by a group of friends who were going to purchase a defunct hospital. He was selected to manage the hospital's staff and provide limited medical consulting services. As a hospital administrator he was able to solve a labor dispute, bring in donated dialysis machines, and shift the focus from basic service provision to larger public health concerns. By raising the profile and enhancing the facilities of the hospital he was able to make it financially self-sustaining.

Parag continued to search for ways of having a broader social impact through his work, particularly around public health concerns. In 2001 when the Gujarat earthquake struck he was exposed to the tragedy in many schools where young people were buried alive. This triggered a second realization about the need to educate young people about disasters. Working part-time as a technology consultant, he had the idea to design games for young people to raise awareness of personal safety. He soon founded his own company to produce the games, and then recognized that gaming alone was not sufficient, and founded a not-for-profit organization to organize and run the disaster camps.