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.
When 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-Version2.0 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.
*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.
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.
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.
Time 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.
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.
The financial year in India runs from the 1st of April to the 31st of March. The year usually ends with its own demands – books have to be balanced, receivables managed, creditors answered, salaries paid, reports to be written, donors to be spoken to…the list is indeed endless. And magically, things seem to be different the next morning with the day bringing along the excitement of starting afresh and all over again. For us at the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, the new financial year today began in much more than a refreshing manner. We had a visitor who not only came along like a breath of fresh air but also carried with him the message of friendship, peace and the spirit of togetherness. He was Ambassador Richard R Verma, the ambassador of the United States of America to India. He spent more than an hour visiting our Mysore campus and getting to know more about the Vivekananda Institute for Leadership Development, the Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies and the Grassroots Research & Advocacy Movement. His demenaour and warm smile carried the message of peace, harmony and the desire to build positive energies for the progress of mankind in general and the peoples of both countries in particular. Bala Murthy, his brother in law and a good friend accompanied him to our center. After watching the videos on SVYM and VIIS, he spent time going around the campus and learning about our activities. He also spent time discussing different issues ranging from how SVYM was founded to the policy advocacy that we were engaged in. The icing on the cake was his interaction with our Master’s in Development Management students. He bid farewell to us after garlanding the statue of Swami Vivekananda at VLEAD. The entire team at the Mysore campus had worked overtime the last two days in order to make his visit memorable.