As someone who grew up in Bangalore, I have seen my city undergo a startling transformation, from the Pensioners Paradise to the Silicon Valley of India. I am almost a pensioner myself now – I started writing this blog on my 60th birthday. Sometimes I feel stupefied and amazed by the changes – but I can’t feel old: not with so much energy all around me. And from what I see, I feel truly optimistic about the new India, and in particular, the remarkable ways in which a new generation of entrepreneurs is harnessing business skills to tackling the miseries and injustices of the old India.
Take Vindhya-Infomedia Pvt Ltd, an IT company that does business process outsourcing. Vindhya employs more than 230 physically challenged young men and women – two-thirds of the staff. At the door I am greeted by Srinath – I was about to extend my hand to him when I realised he had just two stubs for hands. Seeing my confusion he smiled and explained: “I lost them while working on a construction site. The metal pole I was carrying got stuck to a high-tension wire and my hands were completely burnt. I cannot work on computers, but I can do many other tasks”.
Vindhya was founded by 26-year old Pasvithra Ashok and her husband Ashok Gil. Early on they faced many hurdles: for several months in 2006-7 staff had to go without salaries, employees were accommodated in spare rooms and Pavithra cooked the food. Realising the difficulties, the employees said: “Give us one meal, that will do”. Now Vindhya has clients ranging from Yahoo to local microfinance institutions and a growth rate of 80% per annum.
Or take Dr Sudhakar Varnasi. He observed that it is possible to deliver a pizza within 20 minutes – yet it was almost impossible to deliver health care in emergencies. Out of anger at that incongruity, Sudhakar created the GVK-Emergency Management and Research Initiative and, in conjunction with the government, now provides the 108 toll free number for emergency services. 108 was the brainchild of Mahindra Satyam who began it in Karnataka. In five years 108 was in 10 states, the only professional service of its kind in India, handling medical, fire and police emergencies. Karnataka’s 108 now has 517 ambulances typically able to get to any emergency within 20 minutes – the equivalent of a pizza delivery. In a typical day it saves over 300 lives, and some 8,000 babies have been born in its ambulances. The GVK-EMRI works on a public-private partnership model, with the state underwriting 95% of the cost and GVK and private donations meeting the remainder.
Dr Sudhakar says: “We need to marry the passion and professionalism of the private sector and the power and reach of the government to have a win-win solution. The time is ripe: politicians have recognised that good development is good politics. If the private sector shows the way by transparent, innovative approaches to solve some of these tough problems, partnership with the government can result in phenomenal success, scale and impact”.
Let me give one final example. In 2001 the Supreme Court ruled that state governments must introduce a cooked meal at mid-day in all government primary schools. Now Akshaya Patra provides nutritionally balanced and hygienic mid-day meals to 1.3 million children from the world’s largest centrally managed kitchen, using cutting edge culinary technology. It is another public-private partnership. The government supports some of the running costs, individuals and corporates like Infosys, Biocon and Bosch provide the rest.
What lessons do I draw from these and many other case studies in our report? I would say that we are seeing a new stream of business developing and leading the way in taking on the challenges of equity, accessibility and sustainability. These businesses are many different types; there is no one model. But what they have in common is two-fold: their focus, to tackle poverty and exclusion, and their use of IT to deliver accountability, transparency and – most vitally – efficient and prompt delivery. A new ecosystem of support facilities has started to emerge around these enterprises and what these entrepreneurs are doing has started to be celebrated. A virtuous circle has begun.
So as we all embark on a new year, I see my city changed beyond belief but I feel buoyed by the efforts of these new change makers, not downcast. Do please download these stories and share my excitement!