A politician and a gentleman…

February 7, 2016 1 comment

A few days ago, I was at the Global Communication Association’s (GCA) annual conference that was being held at Mysore.  This conference was being held in partnership with the University of Mysore as part of its Centenary celebrations.  Apart from delivering one of the keynote addresses, I was receiving the award representing GRAAM which was being conferred the GCA Award for Communication in the NGO category.  The occasion also saw the GCA conferring the Lifetime Achievement Award on Sri S M Krishna, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka and a man who has spent more than 50 years in public life.  As I walked up the stage to receive the award, he surprised me by not just remembering but also engaging me in a conversation.   Though he knew me and had visited our centers thrice as the Chief Minister, little did I expect a senior and accomplished politician like him to spend time talking to me.  This took me back to a couple of incidents that I would like to narrate.

More than 16 or 17 years ago, SVYM had applied for land to establish VLEAD in Mysore and the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA) had sanctioned half an acre of land on a 30-year lease to us. This lease agreement had to be ratified by the Government and the file was stuck in Bangalore for an unreasonably long period of time.   One could sense that the ‘system’ was expecting to be greased and we would never be able to get the land sanction approved with our principled stand of never participating in any act of corruption.  Someone suggested that I meet SM Krishna, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka and ask him to intervene on our behalf.  I did meet him and he politely heard me out.  Instead of intervening in clearing the file, he politely asked his then Secretary, Mr S V Ranganath to ensure that we would have suitable land allotted to us in Mysore for setting up VLEAD.   Within the next few months, he made sure that 2 acres of land was sanctioned to us in the KIADB Industrial area and we were given the physical possession immediately after.  Though he could not ensure that corruption in the system was addressed, he did redress our grievance and ensured that we ended up with more land costing lesser money.

Another incident was of a far greater significance and showed the human side of SM Krishna.  He has always been known as a person skewed towards urban development but this incident will show otherwise. We had filed a petition against the Government of Karnataka in the National Human Rights Commission on behalf of the indigenous tribals.  We had won the case and the NHRC had made many recommendations.  The bureaucracy of the state was not very inclined in implementing these recommendations and we were getting increasingly frustrated.  It was at this time that I again met SM Krishna and drew his attention to his Government’s inability to resolve the issue.  On learning that two arms of his own Government were not seeing eye to eye, he immediately suggested that we have an exclusive cabinet meeting to discuss and solve this problem.  And for the first time in the history of independent India, the cabinet meeting of a state took place outside the state capital in a small tribal colony. This historic cabinet meeting (dubbed by the media as a ‘mini cabinet’) took place in the presence of his entire cabinet, the Chief Secretary and all the secretaries and 24 tribal chieftains on the 4th of April, 2001 at our tribal school in Hosahalli tribal colony.  The cabinet not only approved the implementation of all the NHRC recommendations but went beyond that to have nearly 3600 houses for tribals, 100 tribal girls appointed as ANMs and many more welfare schemes for the indigenous tribals.  It was here that I saw for myself the humane and softer side of SM Krishna who was very concerned that tribals get the benefits of state interventions.  What touched me was this concern continued to be evident when he met me at the GCA event.  He asked me if the status of the tribals had improved post the cabinet meeting and if the state machinery was responsive to their needs.  This is what makes a person like S M Krishna a different kind of a politician and shows the ‘gentleman’ side of his nature.

– Balu

Categories: General, Story of SVYM

SVYM on Doordarshan

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Watch a short documentary on the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement that was telecast on Doordarshan’s Chandana Kannada Channel on 16th January 2016.  This 8 minute video captures the activities of SVYM in a nutshell


Categories: Articles in Press, General

Celebrating the National Youth Day 2016

January 15, 2016 3 comments

January 12th  is a very special day for all of us.  Apart from being the day when our icon at SVYM and the very reason for our existence was born in 1863, it is also the day when we Indians celebrate as the National Youth Day.   The last many years has seen me travel around India and sharing my thoughts on how the youth of India can engage in the service of the Nation and this year too was not very different.  I was invited to be a speaker at the Yuva 2016, the annual Youth festival that was held at the G B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (GBPUAT) at Pant Nagar in Uttarakhand.  Hundreds of young men and women attended the proceedings enthusiastically and listened to several young achievers talk about how their lives were making a difference.  It was a joy to hear the teacher Imran Khan talk about the more than 50 apps for education that he  has built and gives out free to students across the country.  Whether is is Arun Krishnamurthy the passionate environmentalist or the IIT graduate Manish working with farmers in Bihar – it was indeed a joy to see how they were translating the vision of Swami Vivekananda into concrete reality.   Swamiji had thundered that the National ideals of India had to be Tyaga and Seva and here was the practical demonstration from many such young people.  It was here at the GBPUAT that India’s Agriculture revolution began and this changed India from a food deficit to a food surplus nation.  Looking at the enthusiasm and commitment shown by the faculty and students of GBPUAT, it would be no exaggeration to say that another silent revolution is brewing here.  The students and alumni are quietly working to build a resurgent India and the impact will soon begin to be felt.

SVAs i sat there in the Terai region nestling amidst the Himalayas, my mind was drawn to over 33 years ago when I found myself privileged to have been deeply inspired by the life and message of Swamiji.  I realize that I or my life would be empty and without meaning but for knowing him and his works.  To me, he is not just an icon, nor a saint, not even a nationalist reformer – but all of this and something more.  He is an indescribable force that gives meaning and purpose to my very existence itself.  As I look back and look above towards the mighty & majestic mountains, I am reminded of the words of Romain Rolland.  What power and influence would swamiji have had over people who lived with him as his contemporaries.  In Swamiji’s own words – ‘Life is short, give it up to a great cause’ needs to lived and acted upon.  We now need to come together, throw aside any petty differences that could exist, gear up ourselves, take the whole responsibility on our shoulders and rest not till we see our mother ‘Bharat’ as the ‘Jagadguru’ (World teacher) and the ‘Jaganmatha’ (Mother of the world)…. For it is not just India, but the entire world that needs his message of peace, harmony, universalism, practical Vedanta and global citizenship.

Let us all pledge not to rest till we realize this dream…


Categories: General, Musings

An Interview at IIT, Rourkee

December 23, 2015 Comments off

Find below the excerpts from an interview that i gave to WONA, the official newsmagazine of IIT, Rourkee in the month of October 2015.  My book, ‘i, the citizen’ was also release locally at Rourkee on the same day.

Interview to WONA, IIT, Rourkee


Categories: General

Going beyond medical care in healthcare CSR – Excerpts of an interview with me

December 16, 2015 2 comments

Healthcare CSR should go beyond curing diseases and look at the larger objective of helping people lead a healthier life. Corporate social responsibility in healthcare gives maximum return on investments when it complements the ability of the corporates to mobilize resources with the competency of the on-ground partners, says Dr R. Balasubramaniam, the Founder and President of the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM, http://www.svym.org) in the state of Karnataka.
“The CSR thinking should shift from ‘my responsibility’ to ‘what can we create together’ for maximum impact. That’s where I believe the more exciting opportunities for innovation lie,” says Dr Balasubramaniam, who has been engaged in the areas of education, public health and food security for over three decades.

Under his vision, SVYM has worked towards achieving health and happiness of displaced, dispossessed, and dis-empowered people in the tribal and rural belts of South India. As a special investigator for the Karnataka Lok Ayukta, Dr Balasubramaniam has investigated corruption in health and medical education and institutional corruption and maladministration in the public distribution system.

Dr Balasubramaniam is a qualified physician with interest in public health issues. He has an M Phil in Hospital Administration and Health Systems Management from the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Pilani and a Master’s in Public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Dr Balasubramaniam on how corporates can partner with non-profits to deliver effective healthcare on the ground.

What are the gaps in the public healthcare delivery system today?

The government is constitutionally mandated to spend on citizens’ health and wellness. While the government professes primary healthcare, it has been spending a lot more on secondary and tertiary healthcare (78 per cent), when it is known that the returns on health are far greater when invested in primary healthcare. Today, 85 per cent of healthcare costs come from the pockets of common citizens; only 15 per cent is the contribution from the government. This denotes a huge shortfall in our healthcare system.

Another big change is the transfer of budget from the Center to the states, making states fiscally responsible for healthcare – this has not translated to action on the ground. With devolving budget and responsibility to the states, the central government has cut back on its spending above 50 per cent, leading to a trap.

What are the various parameters in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in healthcare? How can corporates support public health?

There are three paradigms in healthcare CSR:
* Healthcare is more than medical care
* Healthcare is a collective responsibility (and there are various actors including the state, and corporates)
* Partnerships are critical in order to achieve the challenging goals posed by healthcare

The pattern I see among corporates in supporting medical care includes hospital expenditure, medical equipment and free or subsidized surgeries. While this is much needed, I would urge corporates to examine healthcare beyond curing diseases and look at the larger objective of helping people lead a healthier life.

There are five areas where corporates can play a strong role in supporting healthcare delivery:

1. Affordability of healthcare: About 60 per cent of people routinely slip back into poverty because of a single health shock in their families. This is where corporates can come in, either by being insurers, pooling in for insurance or micro-insurance schemes, providing a social security net or backing state-supported mechanisms to prevent people from falling back into poverty.

2. Focus on integrated healthcare delivery: Corporates must look at the larger dimension of health and wellness that goes beyond treatment and hospital expenditure to exploring holistic ways of providing integrated healthcare through informed partners. These partners must be well-equipped to integrate the social determinants in health, including sanitation, clean drinking water, nutrition, women’s rights and other areas of healthcare delivery.

3. Technology: A country as big as India needs huge innovation in technology to deliver effective healthcare and this is an area of opportunity for corporates, both medical and non-medical, to create products and solutions.

4. Demand-supply match: There is a demand-supply mismatch in public health infrastructure – 80 per cent of India’s public health infrastructure is government-operated. However, only 34 per cent of the population is using the same. We need to investigate and understand these supply-demand issues and work towards creating an ecosystem where both are evenly matched. On one hand, there is a need for building awareness among communities about the government utilities and on the other we need to hold the government systems accountable to deliver quality healthcare.

5. Governance issues: Corporates can invest in funds that look at health ‘systems’.  We have very little governance systems in place. Given the existing shortfall in public health spending, this is not at all a priority for the government.

Will aligning to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals help design CSR objectives?

While big companies with sizable spends on CSR can look at the broader canvas of integrated healthcare delivery, smaller ones can look at single focus areas that they feel strongly connected to. For example tuberculosis, palliative care, mental health, cancer care and so on. Any project that impacts health of communities, especially over a long period of time will surely have a bearing on the SDGs.

What kind of partnerships should corporates look at?

Corporates need to partner with the government for scale.  I would quote the example of a corporate that started working in the Bidadi industrial area outside Bangalore on healthcare. Due to the alarming pollution levels and industrial refuse being dumped in the area, the disease burden is very high among the workers and population here. No single corporate can make a substantial difference in such an issue. My strong recommendation is to come together as a group of companies, pool in CSR funds, have one strong community-based organization as an implementation partner and necessarily partner with the government. The local Panchayaths and other local bodies are constitutionally mandated to deliver on healthcare. Non-profits can play the role of a knowledge or technical partner.

The partnership of corporates, non-profits and the local administrative body can bring about a huge impact. CSR should shift its thinking from ‘this is my responsibility’ to ‘what can we create together for maximum impact’. That’s where I believe the more exciting opportunities for innovation lie.

We see many corporates conducting independent health camps. Are health camps a model for effective healthcare CSR?

Health camps afford corporates a view of community healthcare that seems very tangible. You can mark the number of people mobilized; the repeatability of the same lends itself to showcases. Yet, often there is very little follow-through once the event is over. My strong recommendation for corporates is to conduct health camps only if they are able to follow through with action and support on the diagnosis that emerges from these camps, which then translates to supporting people with medical interventions, surgical or otherwise. Health camps have relatively less impacts if they are seen as standalone events, though they do create a lot of PR and visibility opportunities for the Corporates. They need to be seen as a starting point for long term engagement with local communities and as part of a well thought thru process.

How do you determine the impact of healthcare CSR?

Maximizing the return on investment in healthcare CSR means being able to develop partnerships that match the ability of the corporate to mobilize resources, the emotional connect the corporates have towards the cause and the implementation competency of the on-ground partners that corporates work with.

CSR must base metrics on health outcomes rather than the extent of donations. It is far more effective, in terms of social return on investment, to look at how many people were detected with health conditions like tuberculosis using an X-ray machine in a certain health camp and how many of those cases were then tracked and cured completely over a period of time than to measure an output like ‘one lakh spent on medicines’. There are many standard metrics that can be measured: community engagement in healthcare, medical audits and governance metrics, leading up to the larger goals around infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate and more. The metrics to be measured must be standard and delivery systems must be relevant to the local context.

What kind of partnerships have you seen working on the ground?

There are 6Rs that are critical to ensuring effective partnership of corporates and non-profits/implementation agencies.

Resources brought to the table by both corporates and non-profit partners. For instance, the corporates may bring in the funds and NGOs may bring in intellectual expertise and implementation competency.
Risks to the partnership must be acknowledged and shared. For instance, will the corporate continue support and will the non-profit deliver effectively on the ground?
Roles: Each partner must have a role clearly defined based on their competencies and skill sets.  The partners must be willing to hold each other accountable to play these roles meaningfully.  Role definitions should also ensure that there is a sense of fair play, equality in the partnership and that the partners treat each other with respect and dignity.
Responsibilities must be clearly determined and shared. Corporates must participate in more ways than signing a cheque. Non-profits must collaborate to create effective channels for partnership.
Rewards in terms of better healthcare delivery, that are equally shared.
Review mechanisms must be tuned to the processes of both partners and measure all the other  5Rs mentioned above.

As a health professional, I would focus on establishing long-term institutional partnerships, strengthening existing public infrastructure and mechanisms, demand creation and ensuring optimal utilization of existing services. These, I believe, would create programs that have a long-lasting impact on the health of the community.

Categories: General, Musings

Samvaad 2015–an ethereal experience

December 8, 2015 1 comment

Puttamma, a 60-year-old Kadukuruba tribal from the Bandipur forests of Karnataka was excited. She had just completed a fascinating 2-day journey to reach distant Jamshedpur in Jharkhand.  This was not only the first time that she was traveling anywhere outside the district of Mysuru but was also her first time on a train. She along with 18 other indigenous tribals belonging to the Kadukuruba and Jenukuruba tribes had come here to Jamshedpur to participate in ‘Samvaad’ – a conclave of indigenous tribals from all over India. Her world began and ended in Elachikattehadi, a tribal hamlet abutting the Bandipur National Park. She and thousands like her were ousted from their forests due to the formation of the National Park and construction of large reservoirs in the area between 1960 and 1970.  She belonged to a generation which was at a crossroads and had little to hold on to.  All she had was the fading identity of being an indigenous Kadukuruba and this did not give her much solace.  But all this changed with her experience at the Samvaad.  Here she came to realize that she was not alone in this struggle for an identity and an existence.  She suddenly found herself in a context where being a tribal was not about being at the receiving end of either exploitation or charity.  She not only found a voice but also her esteem amidst hundreds of people like her.  Samvaad to her, was not just a jamboree where thousands had come together to celebrate.  It was an extraordinary 4-day event, where her identity was respected, her culture celebrated and for once, she felt important and visible.
She was beaming with joy as she beat the traditional tribal drums to which her fellow tribals danced and performed on stage watched by thousands.  She was not just showcasing her tribal dance, but re-living her traditional past with a new found pride.

And watching her fellow tribals from different parts of India dance and sing was to her a live expression of a culture that needed to be preserved.

20151117_092707This was the second edition of Samvaad organized by Tata Steel as its effort to revive, preserve and promote tribal culture.  More than a thousand indigenous tribals from 20 states of India had converged here between November 15 and 19th.  The event was inaugurated on the 15th evening and saw three days of intense discussions and dialogue from the 16th to the 18th.  The closing session of the tribal conclave was truly inspirational and was presided over by Mr. Cyrus Mistry, the Chairman of Tata Sons.  All the senior management of Tata Steel led by its Managing Director, Mr. Narendran were present.
20151117_194617What impressed me was the passion and commitment that one could see from the entire team of Tata Steel and the team of Tata Steel Rural Development Society led by its chief, Mr Biren Bhuta.  Just a few days ago, I had read newspaper reports of Mr Mistry showing Mr Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister around the factory of Land Rover-Jaguar in the UK.  And here he was, immersing himself in the joy that one can only get in the company of indigenous tribals.  Watching him beat the drums and honoring tribal chieftains in a spirit of partnership and equality was an activists delight.  So much can be achieved if this spirit of togetherness and camaraderie is shared by Corporate leaders with indigenous tribals.
20151117_104016What has begun has a cultural event lasting a few days, is now metamorphosing into a process that can bring in a new paradigm of sustainable development.  The discussions and dialogue that happened both formally and informally is something to be cherished and built upon.  This is possibly the first time that such large numbers of indigenous tribals from so many distinct anthropological groups had come together to share and explore what development meant to them.  This is also the first time that I repeatedly heard conversations of how it was time for tribals to stop receiving aid, charity and development ‘inputs’ from either Government agencies or NGOs but to start exploring what they could offer the world in terms of their knowledge, expertise, lifestyle and traditional wisdom.  If this momentum is carried forward and translated into concrete action, the world will surely be a better place.

– Balu

Categories: General, Musings

How dare you call us intolerant?

November 29, 2015 19 comments

Everyone around us today are making us believe that we are intolerant while the truth indicates otherwise.  In reality, we are a very tolerant nation.  How else would one be able to explain the fact that we have been tolerating mediocrity in public life for so long?  Haven’t we tolerated corruption and stinking scams the last many decades?  What about our tolerance of the media’s obsession with a celebrity murder or the fact that we have been tolerating being home to 1/3rd the world’s poor?

How can anyone call us intolerant when we tolerate the road rules being broken with impunity or the collapse of our civic agencies?  Aren’t we tolerating our women being disrespected and sometimes publicly disrobed even?  What about the fact that we tolerate the increasing number of rapes in our country?

We not only have been tolerating the increasing banality of public life but also the fact that our Government has been gifting away an average of Rs 400,000 crores each year for the last ten years to India’s rich and the mighty. And people call us intolerant while we have been tolerating the dis-respect that our honorable soldiers have been shown the last many years, all for asking their rightful due.

How can anyone label us intolerant when we have been silently tolerating the budget cuts in the social sector?  Are we not tolerating the fact that millions of our children continue to be mal-nourished and many more millions of our country men are rotting in our jails as under trials?  How dare people call us intolerant when we have tolerated the elite capture of our Nation’s public policies and the increasing number of crony capitalists?  Are we not tolerating the last mile delivery problems of our public services or the fact that our higher education is in a mess or that the youth of today are getting increasingly restless about their future?  Have we not tolerated the growing social and economic inequalities despite being told that the good effects of globalization, privatization and de-regulation will trickle down?

Our tolerance stands vindicated by the fact that we have hardly raised a whisper to the promised black money not being brought back; the fact that even today 65% of Indians in rural areas do not have access to a toilet and nearly 50% of India still struggle to access clean drinking water.  Are we also not tolerating our pseudo-intellectuals and writers returning their awards with a new found sense of intolerance while they hardly noticed how tolerant we have been to all these issues over so many years? How can we be intolerant when we seem to tolerate celebrating the past deeds of an intolerant King while we are continuing to tolerate the fact that we have stopped worrying about the future of India and its countrymen?

I could go on and on for I know that you readers will tolerate me and my writing too…for after all we are a very tolerant nation.  Right now, we will only have to tolerate those who continue to call us ‘intolerant’.

– Balu

Categories: General, Musings
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