SVYM bestowed with the Best NGO in India Award, 2015

July 28, 2015 3 comments

In its journey of 30 years, the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement has received quite a few awards for its work – whether it is the National Youth Award, or the UN Award for our work in the field of HIV-AIDS, the ICAI award for best presented financial statements, the best Annual report award, the Bhagwan Mahaveer Award or the Devaraj Urs Award from the Government of Karnataka. Each of these awards has been given to us for a specific reason and for the high standards that we have been able to maintain over all these years.  Whether it is the recognition or the cash awards that accompany the citation, these awards do mean a lot.  Apart from recognizing and affirming our relevance and contribution to society, they also seek to raise the bar, both individually and collectively.  The recent award that was bestowed on SVYM by Resource Alliance is yet another recognition and a critical milestone in the history of SVYM. This award is special as it is given for NGOs at the National level and the winning organization is selected after a long and systematic multi-layered process.  What makes the award all the more special and meaningful is the fact that only people and Institutions from the development and civil society sector are involved in the entire selection process.  SVYM was bestowed with best NGO in the large category for the year 2015.  SVYM was shortlisted out of 300 participants invited for India NGO Awards, organized by ‘The Resource Alliance’, New Delhi and the EdelGive Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored the cash prize.   image

The evaluation criteria that the selection process was based on were the following:
1. Effective and sustainable mobilisation of resources in support of programme ?and project work, including support from local communities
2. Demonstration of efficient management of financial and human resources, good governance practices, transparency and accountability, and effective communication.
3. The impact of their work in bringing about tangible benefits to their target communities.
4. Innovative practices within program and project activities, their implementation and measures to ensure sustainability.
5. Gender sensitivity in the planning, implementation and impact of the program/initiative.
6. Sharing of good practices and good policies with other NGOs.

The selection process was also elaborate and done at multiple stages.

Stage 1 was the Internal sifting of entries – Entry forms were scrutinized and checked for all the requested documents.
First level shortlist was done as Stage 2 – Independent Assessors and M/s Grant Thornton reviewed completed entries and shortlisted organisations for the next level of review.
Stage 3 was shortlisting these organizations at the Second level and they were requested to submit a Statement of Support describing the role of innovation, scale, replicability, collaboration and impact of work in enrolling individual/other donors.
Stage 4 were the Site visits – These were done by independent Assessors who evaluated the statement of support and further shortlisted the top 10 organisations for the large category for site visits assessment. The financial statements of shortlisted entries were then evaluated by M/s Grant Thornton and four finalists were shortlisted.
Stage 5: Jury Round – The 4 shortlisted organisations were asked to make a presentation to the Jury in New Delhi on 23 July 2015.

Dr Seetharam and myself had been to Delhi to make these presentations on August 23 and explain to the jury our many activities and respond to the different questions that they had.  The decision of the jury was announced on the 24th evening and the award given to us in a function that was held in New Delhi.

Apart from the joy of receiving this award after such a thorough process of selection, the processes involved also taught us a great deal.  It helped us understand ourselves better from the framework of resource mobilization and utilization, from the perspective of efficiency and effectiveness of our many programs and from the sustainability and scalability angle of SVYM as an organisation and of our many interventions.

More than anything else, this award along with the many other recognitions that SVYM has got over the last three decades once again re-affirms our commitment to our values of Ahimsa, Satya, Seva and Tyaga and to the spirit of togetherness that prevails.

– Balu

Categories: General, Story of SVYM

Will Justice ever get done?

July 25, 2015 6 comments

Basavaiah, a Jenukuruba tribal died a quite death in the month of May 2015…No one would have even noticed his death but for the turn of events that happened after he died.  The Jenukurubas are considered a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG, earlier called as Primitive Tribal Groups) by the Government of India and for good reasons too.  They are one of the finest people that I have met and lived with.  Their wants are small, they have never looked at materialistic acquisitions and they have always lived in near perfect harmony with nature.  That ended with the Government deciding to intervene many decades ago – and all in the name of protecting the forests and building reservoirs and then developing these primitive tribals.  Today they live a life that is difficult to describe – living a subsistence life with little or no support from the forests that they have depended on for centuries.  The forest department thinks of them only when there is a forest fire to douse. At other times, they are seen as encroachers in the forests that they have loved and cherished from time immemorial.   They believe in after life and that the spirits of their forefathers are guiding and overseeing their welfare.   And that is why it was important for the Yajamana and the family members of Basavaiah of Kantananhadi in H D Kote taluk to ensure that his body was buried in their traditional burial ground.  And the Forest Rights Act, 2006, constitutionally protected this right to a dignified burial and all community rights were supposed to be restored by the State.

Unfortunately, this has not happened in Karnataka and people like Ramu, the cousin of Basavaiah were heart broken that he could not give his brother a decent traditional burial.  The local Range Forest Officer was determined not to allow them to enter the forest across their tribal colony where they wanted to bury Basavaiah.  This was in the month of May.  Yajamana Bommiah had consulted the Spirits who advised him on how to atone for not following their time-honored custom.  He was asked to take Ramu and their family to their ‘Holy tree’ and worship it and ask that the spirit of Basavaiah find peace.  Unfortunately, this tree was 5 meters beyond the deep trench that separated Kantanahadi from the forest.  Ramu, who is also the President of the local Forest Rights Committee formally requested the local RFO to permit him to complete the rituals.  Not only was the permission denied, but also the Ranger reached the spot as the tribals began cleaning up the place for doing the pooja.  Angry and irritated that the tribals had encroached on what the RFO called ‘his forest’, he is alleged to have beaten up Ramu. His wife Ambica and sister Manjula who intervened were alleged to have suffered a similar fate.  Ambica in fact is still distraught recollecting what happened that day. She mentions has she was dragged by the hair, her dress torn and she being slapped and kicked. Her ‘karimani mangalsutra’ being snatched is something that she has not been able to come to terms with.  Choked with emotion she asked the Principal Secretary of Forests & Environment and Addnl Chief Secretary of Karnataka, Mr Madanagopal, how is it that women are protected by law from being beaten by their own husbands but the state could not prevent her being beaten up by one of its functionaries?  A profound question indeed for which, the humane and people-centric Madanagopal had no satisfactory answer.


Mr Madanagopal and his team of senior forest officers were there along with the Deputy Commissioner and the SP of Mysore to enquire into the incident, verify the truth of the complaint of the tribals and ensure that Justice gets done.  After more than a 3 hour-long meeting, the people were left disappointed with no concrete and immediate result in sight.  All that the tribals wanted was to live in harmony with the forests, with their constitutional rights ensured and with peace with the officials of the forest department.  Their only demand was to ask the erring officer to apologize to the women and be treated humanely henceforth.  But then the department officers thought otherwise. Not only did they insist that the incident not take place, but also alleged that the tribals were actually caught smuggling in the forest. It is anybody’s guess how and what these poor Jenukuruba women could be smuggling a mere 10 feet in the forest?   The tribal leaders present at the meeting were justifiably infuriated.  They narrated many incidents of injustice, violent treatment of tribals and how people looting away the forest wealth were getting away scot-free while poor tribals with no livelihood options were being mercilessly targeted.  This and many such questions continue to haunt people like me?  Why is it that the state, not deal with marginalized forest dwellers with compassion and empathy?  Why are the state organs and departments not on the side of ‘people’ when the constitution clearly mandates them to be?  Why is it that the voice of the poor and the marginalized gets crowded and drowned out by that of the rich, the powerful and the mighty reach of the ‘State’?  Will the peace loving and gentle tribals ever be able to live a dignified and respectful life?  Will the Forests Rights Act ever get to see the light of the day and ensure that these tribals are also treated as equal ‘citizens’ of a just state rather than as mere ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘subjects’ of a heartless state?  Kala, one of the educated tribal leaders present said it beautifully and had this simple question that he posed to me.  He asked me if there was any difference between how the British treated Indians before our Independence and from how the Government was treating the tribals today?  All that he wanted to know was, ‘Will Justice ever get done?”

This is a question that both the State and all concerned Citizens need to be asking.

– Balu

Categories: General, Musings, Story of SVYM

Grassroots democracy in Action…beginning of a silent revolution!

July 19, 2015 4 comments

Working with indigenous tribals has been one of the most fulfilling things in my life.  From a small clinic at Brahmagiri to all the diverse projects that SVVM is running, it has been a very enriching experience till now. I have always maintained that development has to be about an expansion in the human and social capital of people and communities, for it to be sustainable and meaningful. While it is easy for one to get carried away by short-term economic gains of the many development interventions that both the Govt and NGOs undertake, we must appreciate that the long drawn and sometimes painful process of building capabilities of people is more permanent and rewarding. As we evolved in the different activities that we undertook in H D Kote for the indigenous forest dwelling tribes, it became increasingly evident that meaningful change would only be possible if the people took on the responsibility of development themselves. This is easier said than done in an eco-system that looks to marginalize already disadvantaged communities. SVYM believes in working with the state at the local level to strengthen the Panchayath Raj Institutions. This will not only strengthen local governance mechanisms but also ensure greater participation of the people at the grassroots level. We were also painfully aware of the challenges that tribals faced in negotiating positions of power in these local bodies in an electoral system that is skewed in favour of the rich and powerful. The recently concluded elections to the Gram Panchayaths are truly a milestone in this long and painful evolution. The quiet revolution that had commenced many years ago in the form of collectivization of the tribals in different forms, including the many self-help groups that SVYM established finally yielded results that far exceeded our expectations.


Felicitation for the elected members

For the first time in the history of indigenous communities in HD Kote, 35 tribals were elected to the different Panchayaths across the taluk. Most of them are women and a couple of them are former students of VTCL. 6 of them will be presidents and 2 will be vice presidents. The efforts of collectivizing the women that Mamatha began and for which Poshini worked hard in shaping and federating is now visible for all to see. It was a matter of pride for Chikkamani and Bhagyamma, the president and secretary of Prakruthi Mahila Okkoota (the federation of the many self help groups for women set up by SVYM) to participate in felicitating these new members at VLEAD on the 17th of this month.

IMG_0091 IMG_0075

Orientation in progress

The day was also used to orient and train these newly elected members in understanding their roles as elected representatives and in appreciating the role of the Panchayaths in the development of their constituents and villages. They also could appreciate the importance of the formidable force that they represented now in the taluk. SVYM and GRAAM will work hand in hand with them as they grow and evolve into people who will not just shift the structure of power but will bring in community centric development into the lives of the thousands of indigenous tribals that they represent. One is hopeful that this manifestation of democracy that we see at the grass roots will be the beginning of a more powerful revolution – a revolution that will put ‘tribals first’ and make them owners of the development that concerns their lives.


Categories: General, Story of SVYM

Rediscovering SVYM and sharing the joy of togetherness

June 29, 2015 Comments off

Yesterday was a very special day. We had the Annual General Body meeting of SVYM at our VLEAD campus in Mysore. It was a day when more than 25 members of the organization came together for a day of fun, fellowship, formal & informal discussions and reaffirmed our collective commitment to make the world a better place. For me personally, it was also a day to feel energized and further deepen my conviction in the power of a ‘collective’. It was also wonderful to see some of our members bring their families along and share in the joy of service that prevailed all round. Apart from the routine business that gets conducted in such meetings, it was also a day to explore how we could all stay connected – physically & emotionally and be update with all pertinent information regarding the organization and is growing activities.

SVYM AGMWhen SVYM was born thirty-one years ago, things were more linear and less complicated. All that we wanted to do at that point of time was to take rational, ethical and cost effective health care to rural India. It all seemed so straightforward and we set about this task in right earnest. The passing of years has seen us mature and evolve – from a small service provider to becoming one of India’s leading development organizations. Our work is now recognized and we have secured not just the affirmation and goodwill of the communities that we worked with, but also that of the Government and our many donors and well wishers. We now appreciate how creating human and social capital amongst the people we work with, has led to noticeable economic consequences.

As we enter our 31st year, we are also cognizant of the changes in the eco-system that we operate in and the consequences thereof. The FCRA laws have changed and add to the already overburdened administrative requirements. Other statutory and regulatory laws dealing with Income tax, Service tax, Professional tax, ESI, Gratuity, Commercial taxes, Pollution control, Drug Control etc makes one wonder whether the eco-system is deliberately designed to stifle the growth and work of legitimate non-profits. Added to this is the altered financial environment wherein the Central Government has transferred 42% of its revenues to the State Governments. While this is indeed a good step in taking forward the spirit of co-operative federalism, one is worried whether the State Governments have the capacity, the intent, the competence and the fiscal discipline to spend the additional money wisely and on the social sector. This decision is also expected to alter the support that the Central government has been giving to Institutions like SVYM. While one is encouraged by the changes to the corporate laws regarding CSRs, one is yet to see the full benefits flow to the sector. The recent national budget is another indication of the challenges ahead. The allocations to the social sector have been alarmingly cut and this further validates and makes our work that much more needed and relevant.

It is amidst all these challenges that a new SVYM needs to emerge – a SVYM that will not only be able to re-discover itself and its relevance to the communities that we partner with, but also emerge as a leader in the development sector. We need to continue our search to balance professionalism with our passion to make the world a better place; to bring in the intellectual talent that can find solutions to the complex problems that a dynamically evolving environment creates; to mobilize the resources to sustain and grow our existing activities, and to ensure that our standards of delivery are of the highest level and we continue to operate with a high degree of efficiency and effectiveness. Doing this and more will not only change the way we think and operate but also bring in newer paradigms and processes. The next thirty years will see SVYM version 2.0 emerge. It will see a more agile, inter-connected, responsive, citizen centric, socially accountable SVYM with robust partnerships with Governments, responsible corporates and communities. In the coming years, we will be consolidating our activities; dropping some of the less relevant ones; exploring alternate models of revenue generation; strengthening our documentation, reporting and M & E systems; use technology optimally and expand our support base amongst individuals and socially responsible corporates. This phase of consolidation will not be without its share of pains and aches, but I am confident that with the support of well meaning individuals and organizations, we will be able to emerge refreshed and ready to continue our endeavour of serving humanity.


Categories: General

Measuring the 1st year performance of Mr Modi’s Government*

May 26, 2015 3 comments

*This is a longer version of the article that first appeared in today’s Deccan Herald on page 9.  See attachment below

It is now a year since a new Government has been sworn. The hunger for change, the restlessness of the youth and the oratorical skills of Sri Narendra Modi paid electoral dividends for the BJP and today the Government will be measured by how many of their expectations could be reasonably fulfilled.  People will neither have the patience nor the desire to measure the government’s performance evidentially or give it the latitude of allowing for change to emerge organically.  Most will measure it emotionally using their own yardsticks.  And the Government too will not sit back and patiently try and explain what it could do and not do.  They will use the power of the media and the skills of brand managers to project performances that will feed on a hungry population willing to lap on the hype.  The opposition too will add to the decibel levels and communicate their side of the story. Amidst all the din and confusion, what will be missed is an objective search for the truth.  Can one truly measure the performance of public agencies and goverments?  And what is the reasonable time frame in which such measurements can be done.  Before one actually measures, one needs to understand and appreciate what ‘performance’ actually means.  The dictionary defines Performance as ‘an action, task or operation, seen in terms of how successfully it was performed’. Most of us have a tacit knowledge of Performance. We can recognize and understand that something is indeed working as it should be and from a very young age learn to appreciate performance and quality. How does one translate this tacit understanding into something more structured and measurable? Can one actually measure performance in the public sector?

It is indeed tempting for many to focus on the visible indicators like GDP growth, visible infrastructure, industrial climate etc; but we need to also see deeper and look at the invisible indicators of Governance like functioning of democratic Insitutions & citizenry participation,  growth of the primary sector economy and infrastructure gains in rural areas too.  One also needs to be realistic and take a objective look at what the Government has done or has been attempting to do over the last one year.  While there has surely been a lot of talk on ‘Making in India’, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, less Government and more Governance, Citizen Engagment and Global visibility for India; we need to look at the intent and end result of some of the actions of what the Govt has been trying to do.   And a good place to begin with will be the avowed intent of the Prime Minister and the manifesto of the BJP.  While his style and manner of functioning can be criticized to be less inclusive and very centralized, one needs to keep in mind that this can also be a virtue, especially when one is trying to negotiate the complex power dynamics of Delhi.  Reining in the Indian bureucracy used to years of inefficiency and incompetence does need a demanding taskmaster  but there is also the danger of his over dependence on a few selected bureaucrats whose only claim to fame is unquestioned loyalty to him rather than any visionary ability or exectuive capacity.   Limiting the focus to a few select programs initiated in the last year indicates that it is a mixed bag of achievements. While the Jan Dhan Yojana is indeed ambititous and welcome, one finds that more than 60% of the 150 million accounts opened remain unused with not a single transaction reported in the last many months. When goes beyond the hype and photo-ops that Swacch Bharat Abhiyan has created, one recognizes that what India needs is not the PM leading the campaign with a broom but the ordinary citizen undergoing a mindset change. If one were to measure the sociological transformation that is critical to the success of this program, India has a long way to go. But one cannot fault the government for this and ordinary citizens have to take the responsibility for this state of affairs.

To make the ‘Make in India’ happen, one needs to understand that  one year is too short to affect a change in the prevailing eco-system. Beyond changing rules, regulations and the policies governing the industrial climate, one also needs to have the skilled labour force in place.  And this can happen only when the education and skill base of the millions of Indians are in place. This is a long drawn process spread over at least two decades and the action of the Government in cutting the budget of both primary and higher education leaves much to be desired.  While skill development programs have been initiated, the nation still does not have a single source where an detailed inventory of skills required and skills available is present.  The Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana is another well thought out scheme, but is yet to take off as originally concieved.  It is a pity that many parliamentarians themselves have not bought into the program.

The NITI Aayog was started with a lot of fanfare but one is still unsure of what this body will end up doing. Will it remain the policy think tank that it claims to be or be the nodal agency to ensure co-operative federalism is still uncertain.  The fact that this body is not fully populated with competent members from different sectors that are required ends up sending confusing signals.  While cooperative federalism is a good indicator of a maturing democracy, one has to appreciate the Government for the bold move of transferring 42% of the revenues to the states and alowing them to spend on programs that really matter for them.  This is indeed laudable and states have to take the responsibility of expending this new channel of funds wisely on social sector programs.  What is difficult to fathom is that the Government of India as a consequence of this decsion has cut its budgetary allocations to critical sectors like health, education, child welfare, rural development and Panchayath Raj while expecting fiscally indisciplined states to do the spending prudently.

Conflicting signals are also being sent out to the NGO sector.  It is not only putting a few large NGOs on the watchlist or cancelling the FCRA registrations of thousands of NGOS (many of them defunct), but the worrisome fact is that several good NGOs are yet to receive their legitimate due of financial support from the Govt of India for more than a year now.   A visible dislike to dissent expressed by citizens groups and civils society actors is acceptable but becomes a matter of concern when it borders on intolerance.  The Government has surely done a remarkable job in the coal and spectrum auction and in curbing corruption at high places, but then the attention given to democratic instiutions like the Vigilance Commision, the Information Commission and other bodies like the DRDO, IITs, NCERT etc leaves a lot of room for doubt about its intent.

The enhanced visibility for India created by the many foreign visits of the Prime Minister is a positive step in ensuring that India secures its rightful place in the comity of Nations. But when one goes deeper than the media hype, one understands that we are yet to clearly formulate a visionary foreign policy that expressedly states the intent and basis of action of India towards our neighbours, the USA, China, Russia, the UN and we are yet to officially articulate what Indian interests will be and how they will be safeguarded in a rapidly changing global order.

Finally we need to  understand that one year is still a short time in a Nation’s history and there will be spill over benefits and setbacks for this government from the many decisions taken by the previous one.   And performance is much more than the kms of road that is built in a day, the ease of business index, or the number of tourists that visit India. It is also about facilitating creation of the human and social capital the country needs and the economic consequences that ensure because of this.  And what matters, is to see whether the intent of policy making,  the many legislations that are being contemplated and the intiation of the several programs over the last one year are truly reflective of utilatiarn and egalitarian values within the framework of the Indian Constitution.  What the overall report card indicates is that the Government is surely moving, but whether this movement is pro-corporate or anti-poor, only the next 2-3 years will show.  And the Indian electorate which has always shown itself to be both responsive and responsible will be unforgiving if it believes that the performance of the Prime Minister and his Government is against their interests.

– Balu
DH article 26 05 2015

Categories: Articles in Press, Musings

Back to Harvard

May 19, 2015 4 comments

It is now 5 years since I graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School.  When we first came to the school 6 years ago in May 2009, the one and only Prof John Thomas asked us to write a note for ourselves.  A note that would lay out the blueprint of what we would do in the next one-year and what we would do with the knowledge and experience gained over that one year through the remainder of our lives.  This note to be placed in a sealed cover would not be read by anyone else other than ourselves and would be returned to us the next year.  What a great way of inspiring ourselves to think of not only our immediate education but also of the role that we would each play in making the world a better place.  It was then that he also mentioned that life would never be the same again for our classmates and us.  More importantly, he said that life would be very different now that we were in the company of some of the most wonderful people in the world.  The last 5 years has indeed been remarkable for many of the fine men and women whose classmate I was privileged to be.  Whether it is grappling with earthquake in Haiti or the sheer struggle for survival as a media house in Pakistan or fighting corruption as the minister of education in Moldova or managing the nation’s economy as the finance minister of Kenya or ensuring power sector reforms in India & Egypt….each of these classmates have gone on to occupy positions of power and importance around the world.   Many of them are in key positions within the United States and beyond in sectors as diverse as politics, foreign affairs, banking, business, academia, defense, media, real estate and my familiar world of non-profits & social development.  Despite all this one thing burns fiercely within them.  Their commitment and passion to make the world a better place with little or no concern to themselves and their welfare.  This has been the greatest learning for me…to be amidst such people and to be a part of this larger change process.  Meeting many of them again 5 years later in the recent reunion that we had at the Harvard Kennedy School brought back old memories and strengthened the conviction to be different and make a difference.

HKS Class of 2010 IMG-20150516-WA0029

The school too seems to be caught up in the change…There are now plans to put up a new building, to raise more resources, to get more diverse faculty and to look for a new Dean later this year.  All this, without losing out on the original ideal and mandate of being one of the finest schools of public policy and administration in the world.   It was indeed nostalgic for me to think about how my life has changed while remaining the same too.  I was an activist before I got here…I continue to be an activist now.  What has not died is the fire and the conviction in me that change is not something to wait for but is something to work consciously and strategically for.  And what Harvard has done is prepare my life to ask the right questions, to have the humility to accept the fact that I will not have the answers to many of these questions and more importantly to feel secure in the company of great men and women who think and act similarly.  The joy and warmth that each one of us felt and shared was something that was worth traveling such a long distance for.

Much has also not changed.  Harvard Square seems the same and continues to be the bustling center that it always is. Life here never seems to die and one has the usual share of people walking around, the sight of the homeless asking for support, the street vendors peddling their ware, street cafes and coffee corners, the cycle rickshaw (it is got the sophisticated name of a pedicab here at the Square), the commuters exiting from the ‘T’ (as the Metro rail here is known) and the Harvard students who seem to be carrying the burden and joy of both their studies and the impending graduation ceremony.   So many memories for me as I remembered rushing to the Harvard Business School across the river for some classes and to MIT-Sloan by the ‘T’ for others. I also realized that I missed the intellectual stimulation and the high energy of this campus and the many discussions, dis-agreements and conversations that I had with so many students, classmates and faculty.

PedicabTime will surely let many things change. But one constant that I feel sure about is the camaraderie and joy that one experiences when you are with people who share your vision and dream but do not feel threatened by the path you take.  It is this friendship, the ability of others to rejoice in your success and the support that one gets that will not change and will continue to be the indescribable and intangible benefit of having been here.  And at this reunion i not only found that this was a place where ideas met, but people with the ideas too.

Categories: General

An interview that had appeared in the Cornell Policy Review, USA

May 8, 2015 Comments off

This interview had appeared a few years ago in the Cornell Policy Review, a journal of the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, Cornell University, USA.  My views on Micro-finance still remain the same.