Sunday, February 7, 2010

4th January, 2010 – Dignity and Pride

4th January started early for the yatris. But by now, we were quite used to waking up in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t even bother about bathing and just got down when the train halted at Brahmapur station in Orissa. The weather was pleasant; quite a novelty for a Bombay girl like me. We got onto the buses to reach our next social enterprise, Gram Vikas.

Gram Vikas is a village development programme launched in 1979 by Joe Madiath. He had started working with villages right from his high school days. He, prior to starting Gram Vikas, had taken a year-long odyssey of the whole country on a bicycle, travelling 100 kilometers a day, visiting villages and towns of the country. “That was an eye opener for me!” proclaimed Joe Madiath.

So when cyclone hit Orissa in 1971, he came to the state to work for the victims. He rebuilt roads, homes and schools for a year in Orissa post the cyclone. It’s after this phase that he started Gram Vikas in 1979. The aim of this NGO is to bring sustainable improvement in the lives of villagers in Orissa. Gram Vikas covers 2, 50,000 villagers from 22 districts.

Madiath spent the first 10 years in Orissa and started 6000 bio-gas plants to ensure steady supply of electricity in the power starved state. The next step was to deal with water issues in rural Orissa. 80% of rural areas didn’t have access to protected water. 95% of rural Orissa didn’t have sanitation facilities. So what Madiath did was, he collected Rs. 1000 from each family of a village and invested it in a bank. Sanitation facilities were built from the interest that came from the initial sum invested. The government also contributed in a small way. Madiath named the sanitation facility as the House of Dignity because he thought toilets gave each villager a sense of dignity and self respect. Gram Vikas has also resolved the issue of water supply to an extent by digging wells, building water tanks and by water harvesting.

We also visited a Gram Vikas residential school for tribal children, which was started in 1982. Currently around 460 tribal children study in this school. The students are mostly children of marginal farmers who own not more than two to three hectares of land. However, the male: female ratio in the school is skewed at 65:35. But, it has improved over the years and they expect it to improve as years go by.

3rd January, 2010 – Creative Juices

That was one lazy day. The morning started with a creative writing and visual minutes workshop organized for the yatris in the AC chair car. The creative writing workshop was conducted by Yemisi Blake. He is an artist at Southbank Centre, UK. Most of the yatris ended up writing about the yatra. I guess the yatra was already the most memorable experience for the most! Few lines which Blake wrote on the yatra are: A trojan charge of young minds soak up the sounds of a shifting landscape. Real India woven into their memories. Delicate images of glistening solar panels, village paths and hand-made futures. On leaving the train the Yatra begins. A long walk home. Ideas and inspiration lighting a new India.

Visual Minutes lecture followed the creative writing session. We had seen Kirstie and Claire make paintings in real time while the role model speeches were in progress. Kirstie and Clair too were artists from the Southbank Centre, UK. Each of these charts had the story of the entrepreneur and the most important points made during the speech in form of diagrams and sketches. I think it is a really great idea to make visual minutes instead of written notes. Actually, everyone can put up some of the most important lists, plans and dreams in form of visuals in our rooms and on our soft boards. So with a paper and pen, even we tried to create a visual sequence of the few poems. Some of us did really lame drawings! But some were very good too. All in all, it was a good start to the day.

The other half of the day was spent lazing around on the train. Most of the yatris caught up with their sleep while others used the time to get to know the fellow yatris better.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

2nd January, 2010 – Feeding a million dreams

Contribution to the education sector is always linked to setting up schools, teaching or supplying free books. But when a child is born in a ‘below the poverty line’ family, where the next meal of the day is uncertain, free books are not a very strong incentive to get that child into school. With this thought in mind the government of India had launched the Mid-Day Meal programme in early 1980s. Children from the poorest parts of the country sometimes walked several kilometers everyday to school, just to feed their hungry stomachs. However, due to corruption and bad management, this scheme had really never attained its optimum potential.

On 2nd January, Yatra reached Hyderabad. That’s where we met Manoj Jain, the CEO of Naandi Foundation, who told us how he manages to feed a million school children everyday to keep them from quitting school at a young age. Naandi Foundation is one of the few public private partnerships that have been successful in this endeavor. It feeds a million mouths everyday at government run schools in hundreds of hunger struck districts of our country. Naandi has to encounter insurgency threats in Naxal infested areas, government bureaucracy at all levels of their operations and sometimes politicized union teachers. But good management, excellent distribution and mass production keep Naandi going.

A centralized kitchen is set up in every state which Naandi operates in. This food is then transported to various schools spread across villages and districts. The kitchen is set up on donation money and the rice is supplied by the government free of cost. Vegetable, labour and transportation cost is borne by Naandi. Good management and mass production of food have got down the per thali plate cost to just Rs. 4. According to Manoj Jain, the CEO of Naandi Foundation, his enterprise works on really thin margins.

Naandi Foundation started when Jain was approached by Andhra Pradesh’s Naidu Government in the year 2003, after Supreme Court’s guidelines on the Mid-Day Meal programme were passed. Today apart from Andhra Pradesh, Naandi operates in states like Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and so on.

Apparently, one of the reasons behind the success of Naandi is that, it has given governments of each state a project to show off to the voters during elections. So, when Manoj Jain was asked, why he wasn’t doing enough publicity for Naandi, laughed and said, “Can’t be more popular than the government, will be kicked out!”

1st January, 2010 – Rural artisans, a forgotten human asset

When I got up on the brand new year of 2010, our Tata Jagriti Yatra had reached Bangalore. Our next destination was Mother Earth, a retail chain dealing in rural handicrafts. It was quite a task for 400 yatris to fit into Mother Earth’s retail outlet. After all of us were settled, Neelam Chibber, Founder-Director of Mother Earth, started off the story of her organization, which was founded in the year 1994 as a for-profit organization. However, through the years, they shifted their focus to not-for-profit entrepreneurship. They started working with the government to train rural artisans, who in turn procured goods. Thus, Mother Earth (the brand name under which Industree Craft Foundation sells its products), as it is today, was born in the year 2000.

What struck me most of the business model, was that the real owners of the products were artisans themselves. The retail chain just handles the distribution and selling part of the business. 97% of their rural artisans comprises of women, who are organized into self help groups with the help of local NGOs. They are the real owners. These women buy the raw materials, make the products and send it to Mother earth for selling. I thought it was very smart of Mother Earth to do away with most of the problems of raw material procurement and labour issues. Mother Earth just has to charge exorbitant amount of distribution fees to make money. But, Chibber also added that the rural artisans are given 14% mutually beneficial shares. This way the artisans have ownership at the brand level where the real wealth creation takes place. She informed us that with every Rs. 100 increase in profit, artisans earned Rs. 56.

Currently, Future Group owns 43% of the brand. Mother Earth plans to expand their business into tier two cities in the near future. And one more thing to say before I end the post, excessive amount of shopping followed the lecture! I guess New Years was as lucky for us as them…

Friday, February 5, 2010

31st December – The New Years

Story of Agastya International Foundation - Igniting rural minds

The last day of the year began with all of us waking up to Suprabhat bhajan on the PA system. Urrrgg… Against all my wishes, I got down from my berth to head to the bathroom bogie. I don’t remember the exact time, but it was pretty early in the morning when we got down at Yaswantpur Station in Karnataka. The branding team was busy with putting up banners on the buses. And yeah, I had quit the branding team by then as I couldn’t sacrifice one hour of sleep every morning.
The road trip from Yastwantpur station to Agastya International Foundation must have been the longest ride that we had undertaken. Agastya International Foundation, a non profit educational trust, lay on the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border. It was not a very eventful ride apart from a few New Year celebration plans underway and the buses getting stuck at Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh border apparently due to the Telangana issue.

Somehow, the TJY team managed to get us out of the mess and we reached Agastya Foundation by 4.00 pm instead of 2.00 pm. The rural campus of Agastya International Foundation was beautiful. In the middle of green hills, a tent had been put up to accommodate 400 yatris.
We sat there to know more about Agastya International Foundation from its founder, Ramji Raghvan. A former NRI, Ramji Raghavan quit his banking job and came back to India to do something in the educational sector. And so Agastya International Foundation was born in the year 1999 to provide education to rural children and teachers. The foundation focuses on science education and aims to spark curiosity among the children. They want the children to ask more questions rather than just rote learn the answers from the textbook.

Agastya Foundation also works with government schools in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka through outreach programmes. Mobile Science labs move from school to school to teach and demonstrate simple scientific experiments. These experiments are done using simple yet gripping techniques that can be replicated by students in their own environment. The sole aim of this exercise is to foster interest in science. Apart from mobile labs, Agastya International Foundation also runs other interesting parallel programmes like science fairs, teacher development programmes, young instructor programme, arts on wheels programme and many more.

Agastya Foundation is completely dependent on donations. Though, there is government funding too, its extent is limited. Raghavan over the next seven years, plans to reach 4-5 million children in rural India. He wants to set up 50 more mobile labs and expand his staff capacity to 600 employees.

The best New Year, I’ve ever had

By the time we left the village to head back to Karnataka, it was already dark. We thought our New Year was doomed to be celebrated in the buses. Thankfully, God blessed us and we reached Yaswantpur station by 11.20 pm. And then the celebrations began!! The station was brought to life with delicious food on the platform, a huge cake, dholak music and an in house deejay system. The whole train was empty and the platform was full. The yatris, the TJY team members, the caterers danced till 2 in the morning to Punjabi and Bollywood tunes on the platform. Obviously, the Tata Jagriti Yatra Team had coordinated the whole event with the station authorities. Cheers to them!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

30th December – Son of Kuthumbakkam’s soil

We got down at Chengalpattu Junction on the 30th to head to R. Elango’s village, Kuthumbakkam. We had heard that he was one of the rare engineers who had returned to his village to transform it. Hmm… interesting. Sounded to me like the story line of Swades. So we hopped on to the buses and headed to Kutumbakkam. When we reached there this small village girl came up to me and asked, “What is your name?” so I answered. “Nice name, nice to meet you,” she said. All of this communication took place in English. Wow! I was impressed.

R. Elango walked in to greet us. We were all settled inside a brick mortar sort of an auditorium. His face was shining with pride as he started off to tell the story of Kuthumbakkam. Elango entered his village Panchayat in 1996 after quitting his job as a scientist at CSIR (Council of Scientific and Indian Research). Thereafter, he won the elections to become the Sarpanch of Kuthumbakkam, a seven hamlet village; thereby taking the first step in the long journey of change.

The village was rotting with unemployment, illiteracy, liquor problems, domestic violence and many such issues. 60 – 70% men were working hand to mouth on daily wages that then used to be spent on liquor. Women used to get beaten up and population was on the rise. So when Elango was elected, he prepared a five year plan. He tried to incorporate villagers in the process. He explained to them the importance of education, good roads and infrastructure. The villagers pooled in money and the government contributed some amount too. So by the year 2000, the problems of the basic amenities in the village were sorted out.

The next step was to provide sustainable income to the villagers and of empowering women. Elango fought the government to employ only the local people for any infrastructure construction which happened in the village. So, while infrastructure got a boost in the village, the locals got employment too. Elango, who is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, believes in self reliance, which he feels is more sustainable. He has converted his village into a self running economic zone. The villagers produce everything that they need from local resources and sell surplus produce outside their villages. The women of the village are organized in several SHGs (Self-Help Groups). They not only earn a decent living today, but have also earned self respect. “Even if they (men) drink, they dare not beat women,” Elango proudly said.

Hmmm… interesting. But I was not very comfortable with one thing which Elango said. He said that he doesn’t encourage ‘outside’ products to come in and establish their market. If he would, his economic model was at a risk of falling apart. His village products which are produced and consumed by the same villagers would face market competition. I am a little right leaning person. Maybe because I am from a city which is heart of India’s capitalism or maybe because I was a management student. I don’t agree completely with Elango’s protectionist policy. But he wasn’t wrong too. The top down approach hadn’t worked for Kuthumbakkam much. The benefits of India’s ‘development’ were not reaching its villages. A socialist self sustaining economy was his answer to numerous problems stunting the village growth.

Today, after 15 years of coming to back to his roots, R. Elango’s Kuthumbakkam has schools, paved roads, brick houses, empowered women, and a self sustaining village. Though the scalability of the socialist and protectionist economic model is debatable, no one can deny that R. Elango has truly made a difference. I’ll always remember one thing that he thundered, “Be a part of the people to change things; don’t act like ‘great’ outsiders.”

Friday, January 29, 2010

29th December – Finding a Vision

Madurai was our next stop. Madurai, the temple town of the south India, is home to 2500 year old Meenakshi temple. As our yatra wasn’t a leisure trip but an entrepreneurial one, we headed directly to the yatra’s next social enterprise; Aravind Eye care. As the bus made its way through the roads of Tamil Nadu, I noticed that the walls on the sides of the pavement were either painted with ‘larger than life’ political figures or plastered with huge Tamil movie posters.

Story of Aravind Eye Care – Giving Vision to the Bottom of the Pyramid
“Intelligence and capability are not enough, there must be a joy of doing something beautiful” –the philosophy with which late Dr. G. Venkataswamy the founded of Aravind Eye Care. After Dr. V’s retirement from the army at the age of 58, he thought he still had much more to do with his life. Thus, Aravind Eye care was born with only 11 beds in 1978. “Today, Aravind Eye Care has five eye hospitals and 33 primary eye care centres, which cater to 70% of Tamil Nadu’s, 8% of our country's and 3% of the world’s eye patients,” Dr Arvind from Aravind Eye Care.

But this is not just a success story. The business model it’s run on is what is striking and sets it apart from any other eye care hospital in the world. World statistics show that 80% of the blindnesses are curable. Aravind Eye Care was started with a vision to end needless blindness. Dr. V observed that the blind in the rural and poorer parts of Tamil Nadu lost vision in the later part of their lives due to their inaccessibility to Cataract treatment. He started catering to the needs of that segment of the market where healthcare had never reached. And, the hospital doesn’t charge the poor at all!! 60% of the cataract operations performed in the hospital are free of cost. The hospital works on the cross subsidy model. 40% of the patients, who can afford the treatment, pay, and the rest don’t. A paid patient takes care of himself and one more patient in addition to providing a little surplus to the hospital.

Surprised? Not much? Okay, I’ll add one more fact that makes Aravind Eye Care different. The patients don’t come to the hospital to be treated. The hospital goes out to them. The eye care centres moves from one village to another, to set up rural eye camps which select people who need treatment. About 30 camps are conducted in a week. These camps reach out to almost 6, 76, 000 villagers every year! These villagers are then picked up by hospital and taken to the hospital for the treatment. They are transported back into their villages in two days after the operation. All of this is free of cost. Still, Aravind Eye Care has three times returns on investment!

You would be wondering how this is possible. Aravind Eye Care’s workforce constitutes of 90% women. Most of these women are only high school pass who have been trained by Aravind Eye Care in eye healthcare. These are the women who run eye camps in villages and also work in the hospital. Only the surgery is taken care of by the doctors. “Aravind can work without doctors but not without mid level workers,” Dr. Arvind stated in the presentation. Aravind Eye Care trains about 300+ high school girls and recruits them into the hospital chain. So, cheap but effective labour is the mantra!

When Dr. V started this hospital, he wanted to replicate the McDonalds franchise model i.e. Mass production, consistent good quality and a self sustaining model. And that’s exactly what he has done, only at a much lower cost!