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Food Security and Basavi…

March 28, 2011 6 comments

There is so much of talk about food inflation all around the world and serious concerns expressed regarding food security. On one side, we have nearly 60 million metric tones of food grains rotting in the open in India. On the other hand, we have 645 million people with less than 2400 Kcal to eat per day. While one is deeply disturbed by these contradictions, one also feels sad at the state of the Public Distribution System. India can boast of having the largest public distribution of subsidized food grains in the world. It has a network of nearly 500,000 Fair Price Shops (FPS) that distribute commodities worth more than Rs 15,000 crore (150 billion) to 160 million households. The 2005 Planning Commission report says that 57% of the PDS food grain does not reach the intended people. For every Rs 4 spent on the PDS, only Rs 1 reaches the poor. The food subsidy bill for 2006-07 for the Government of India was Rs 242 billion. 36 million tons of grain was procured that year, and 31.6 million tons was distributed through Fair Price Shops. Looking at these figures, one feels both disturbed and confused. Confused that we are doing so much but have so little to show; angry and disturbed at the enormous leakages and corruption that has seeped into this system.

As I look back and think on how this must be affecting the millions of the ‘real poor’, my mind is drawn to Basavi. Basavi, a Jenukuruba tribal, lived at Hosahalli with her husband Jadiya and three children. Living close to our Hosahalli campus meant that I would meet and interact with her every day. This was the early nineties and we were just building the school there. It was the post-monsoon season and nature was very generous that year. There were pumpkins and cucumbers all over the place and people were expecting a rich harvest (provided the elephants did not interfere). Basavi also had her share of these vines and would invite me to her modest hut every day for sharing a meal. Unabashedly, I would accept her invitation and sit with her family, making a small talk and learning about their culture and history. Meals on most days were ragi balls and a sambar made out of pumpkin leaves. Whenever she harvested a ripe pumpkin, she would make a small hole in it and fill it with chutney made up of onion, chilies, garlic and the other spices that she could afford. She would then gently barbecue it till the peal turned a brownish hue. Eating these pumpkin slices was something that I can never forget and thinking about those moments makes my mouth water even now. This used to be the meal on most days. Jadiya would occasionally bring in honey with the entire comb. They would crush the comb, pupae, larvae, bees, wax and the honey and eat this tasty concoction as dessert on a few days. There was so much joy and plenty of pumpkins to go around. They never felt hungry or wanting.

Thinking about this now makes me wonder what exactly is Food Security all about. Is it merely the provision of the requisite calories and nutrition? Or is it something more psychological which makes a person feel satisfied, contented and happy with what he is eating. Basavi’s family never felt poor or denied of food. She always felt that she had enough and more to share. This was something that I had not got my mind wrapped around in those days. I felt horrified that they had to eat this day after day, and felt obliged to do something about it. I could never understand that food security was also about culture, lifestyle and attitude towards life itself. It is not merely the presence of food in a quantity and quality sufficient for a family and its daily satiety and nutritional needs.

Over the next few years, we got her family a small portion of land where they started growing Ragi and Tapioca. This met all their needs and they now graduated from pumpkins to more structured meals. They also got dependent on the rain gods and were now at the mercy of the elephants. Staying guard against these marauding monsters, Jadiya’s family lost many months of their sleep. Peer pressure and our own limited understanding of the situation encouraged Jadiya to move into more ambitious crops like cotton and ginger. He now had more money. But this did not naturally translate into more food. It meant more alcohol and money spent on wasteful expenses. It also meant that he became more dependent on the Fair Price Shop and was at the mercy of the State for food grains. More damagingly, he changed his food habits to start eating rice and gave up on ragi. Being a Jenukuruba, he now carries an Antyodaya card, which entitles him to 29 kg of rice at Rs 3 and 6 kg of wheat at Rs 2. Ragi today costs him around Rs 8 and he has never figured out why the Government insists on giving him only rice and wheat. It was easier for him to change his food habits and begin making chapathis at home rather than negotiate with an insensitive State and demand ragi instead.

Most development activists would now feel happy and comfortable that poor Jenukuruba families like Jadiya’s are food secure. But Basavi disagrees. She still longs for the days when nature gave her what she desired, in plenty. She not only had enough for her family but plenty to share with people like me too. She was happy and contented with the fact that day after day, there would be something to eat. More than anything, she was independent and lived a culinary lifestyle that generations of tribals were used to. Today, she has acculturated into eating cereals that she never really likes, and all this in the name of Food Security!

The Union Government recently announced that they were considering Direct Cash Transfers. Operationalising this could possibly give people like Basavi the freedom to choose not only what they want to buy, but also where they want to buy it from. This will be a more realistic vision of Food Security for people like her. Till then, Basavi can only dream and reminisce about the way she ate and lived.

Balu

Categories: Musings

Hosa Kanasu – 4

March 22, 2011 Comments off

Here’s the fourth installment of ‘Hosa Kanasu’, my fortnightly column in Prajavani: 22 Mar 2011

Balu

Categories: Hosa Kanasu

Innovation for the social sector

March 21, 2011 1 comment

‘Innovation’ – this seems to be the current buzzword circulating around. More than a month ago, the Karnataka Knowledge Commission had invited me to a meeting called to form the State Innovation Council. A few weeks ago, the TATA group had invited me to speak at the ‘Innovista’ meet – a meeting of all their companies in the southern region to celebrate their Innovation successes and failures. A couple of days ago, I was invited by the Karnataka Chapter of CII to present my views at their Innovision: India @ 75 meet at Bangalore. Apart from Innovation being the common theme, what left me concerned was the fact that for most of them, Innovation related to only industry and technology. It somehow got relegated to breakthrough innovations in the products and services sector. I was fascinated that not many of them had even thought that one could innovate in the social sector.

The Economist defines innovation as “new products, business processes or organic changes that create wealth or social welfare” or simply “the fresh thinking that creates value”. I do concede that Innovation is a major driving force in global economic growth and development, but can we limit ourselves to this narrow understanding of the term? It generally tends to be a closed process, relying on a limited pool of human resources and knowledge (albeit expert knowledge) and largely driven by companies, individual innovators or specialized research/designers rather than by those who are ultimate users of the innovations. To understand what this term really means, we need to go back to the etymological origins of the word. Innovation comes from the Latin root ‘Innovatinem’ which means ‘to renew’ or ‘to change’ and the usage of the word came into existence in 1540. In a very basic way, it is a term used to describe a process that renews something that exists. It could be a change in the thought process or mean some change incrementally happening, or a change that is radical and emergent. But then, how did this word get limited to just the industry and technology domains? To understand this, we need to go back to the popular book titled ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’ written by Joseph Schumpeter in 1942. This was possibly the first time that Innovation was used with a very strong economic correlation and the world of ‘Innovation economics’ sprung forth. Since then, the limited use of the word became popular and gradually excluded all domains except that in relation to technology and entrepreneurship.

I would like to focus on Innovation from the present context of India and the demands of social and economic justice arising out of our sustained growth at over 8%. Is Innovation in the social sector a mere fad or could it be something that can provide answers to our numerous problems? Could it help us in reducing the enormous inequities that have become increasingly visible with such unparalleled growth? What could Innovation mean in the context of the growing conflicts and the changing role of the State, NGOs and the private sector? Should economics again be the primary driver of innovation for the social sector too? All this and other questions leaves one troubled, especially if you are working at the grassroots where the direct impact of innovations or the lack of it, is visible and palpable.

I would like to draw a parallel from the private sector on what drives most of them to be innovative. A very simplistic understanding shows that competitiveness, profitability and the desire to reduce costs constantly drives them to be innovative. A quick look at the Public or the Government sector clearly shows that these are the very factors that are missing in them. Governments have no reason to be competitive, especially in the Indian context, where they seem to have a virtual monopoly on ensuring social growth. The little space that NGOs had created for themselves has been surrendered to the Government due to changes in the policy and dependency on the Government for financial support. The only Innovation that the Government is now talking about is to move from being a direct provider of services to provisioning them through NGOs. This in fact takes away the innovativeness of NGOs as they are reduced to being mere contractors and they fall in line with non-responsive Government policies. Governments, by the very nature of their structure and function, have no space for ‘profitability’. In fact, in the Indian context, this could very well be a negative driver of the Government, especially keeping in mind the various political compulsions under which they operate. It is quite ironical that the Government in the early 1960s and 70s started numerous industrial undertakings that today are models of inefficient and corrupt administrations. They seem to exist more to pay salaries to their employees and serve as instruments to confer favours by the political class on their followers.

Many years ago, Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister lamented in Parliament that out of every 100 rupees spent on development by the Government of India, only 15 rupees reached the people for whom it was meant. How could any Innovation spring when the system permits such massive pilferage? The Performance Evaluation Organization of the Planning Commission estimates that the Government spends Rs 13.31 per kg on unintended subsidies to give an intended subsidy of Rs 5.46 per kg of food grains for the poor in the Public Distribution System. With inefficiencies and Governance-deficits to this extent, one can now imagine how much this sector needs innovativeness. It is this state of affairs that now makes it necessary for the Government and the entire Public Sector to relook at what they are doing. Can one deliver goods and services to the millions of our marginalized and less fortunate brethren who need a safety net to get out of the trap of poverty? Just imagine how much our Government could do and achieve if only it were to become more competitive, less expensive, and driven by efficient processes and systems. Millions of more needy people could be reached and the ever-widening gap of inequity reduced by making the system more responsive, accountable and responsible. But can this happen in isolation? Will Government machinery used to decades of inefficient administrative practices and with huge stakes in inefficiency be driven to change its attitude and functioning? In my own opinion, only an enlightened citizenry and an activist civil society can drive the Government to undertake this metamorphosis. By itself, the incentives to not perform are too lucrative to think of change. This is also where we truly need Public-Private Partnerships. PPPs are now traditionally limited to creating infrastructure and to profit-making ventures like building ports, airports and toll roads. The private sector has to become socially conscious in sharing of skills, competences and knowledge with the public sector.

I still find it totally unacceptable that many large companies have the best logistics management systems, ensuring that goods and products reach the shelves of their retail stores hundreds of kilometers away,on a National scale when the Government of Karnataka still maintains their inventory manually. Imagine the spoils for a corrupt system that distributes 2 lakh metric tons of food grains on a monthly basis through 17,000 fair price shops around the state. I even wonder if this ambiguity and inefficiency is deliberately maintained to benefit the many who profit from it! How easy it could be if a Big Bazaar or a Reliance Store shared their inventory management systems with the State instead of letting it re-invent the same.

What other areas could we think of in ensuring that the last mile problem in delivering services to our people – whether it is in the health, or the education or the social sector be solved?  If only we can innovatively think through solutions that combine community engagement, good governance, technology and private sector competence in solving them. We are now thinking a very simple project on these lines. We are thinking of getting community representatives to assess their own Primary Health Centers on 10-15 simple indicators and sending a text message of these binary responses from their mobile phones to a central server. These responses would be analyzed and the PHCs rated based on their performance and services and all stake holders including the Government would receive this information. Communities would be encouraged to demand the services that they are entitled to and put pressure on the health department to deliver on its governance mandate.

Considering that land is such a critical issue nowadays and that economic development is irrevocably linked to land, one needs to be innovative in thinking about land usage. Let us consider how one could have been innovative about the Singur-Tata land acquisition controversy. Instead of the Tatas being allowed to acquire farmers’ land on an ownership basis, one could have considered making all the farmers shareholders in the project using their land as equity. The land could be estimated based on the market prices and the landowner provided with a monthly dividend. This would not only create a stake for them to ensure that the company stayed productive and suffered no labour disruptions but also ensure that they have a regular monthly income.

Control of local natural resources is another area that demands innovative management. Let us consider the Taluk of Heggadadevanakote. Home to 3 rivers and 4 reservoirs, this Taluk has 3 power plants producing 27 MW between them. The peak load demand of the entire Taluk is around 5 MW, but the Taluk ends up getting only 1.5 MW and the remaining goes to the rest of the State through the main grid. In the interest of equity, fairness and to stimulate local development, there needs to be some innovativeness in how this power gets distributed to the local people. One could either ensure local distribution through micro-grids or have a reduced tariff for the power consumed by the people within the Taluk.

Another area that provides a lot of scope for innovativeness is in engaging communities in their own development. Communities can be involved in monitoring of local development projects through statutory processes. Social audits in the NREGA projects are one such innovation that is being attempted. Another innovative engagement process could be community contracting.

Innovations in access to information could be a critical means of ensuring that prevailing asymmetry is bridged. Merely having the RTI Act is by itself no longer adequate. States like Bihar are attempting using mobile technology and SMS to ensure prompt and responsive information dissemination to its citizens.

Innovation is all about looking into the future and responding to the demands that one can anticipate. And this requires a lot of courage.  Apart from this, innovating for the social sector needs public agencies to fine-tune the art of listening to communities and building their own capacities to respond to their aspirations. Widespread use of cutting edge innovation processes will increase the scale and efficiency with which social problems affecting poor and vulnerable people are solved. Public and service delivery institutions need to recognize the power of innovation processes to further their work and employ them to improve their organizational strategy and programmatic performance reflected in the quality and quantity of the services they are able to provide to poor and vulnerable people.

Balu

Categories: Musings

(64) Chittadhama – a place where one can truly serve the God in man

March 13, 2011 6 comments

Dr Swaminath is the psychiatrist who has been visiting our hospital every second Sunday for more than 15 years now. It all started with Dr Gururaj Karajagi introducing me to an ENT surgeon friend of his, Dr Deepak Haldipur. Dr Deepak visited our Kenchanahalli hospital along with his friends Dr Swaminath and Mr Venkatakrishna. That was in 1996. At that time, they promised to visit the Kenchanahalli hospital on the second Sunday of every month and started providing their services. Once the Saragur hospital started full-scale operations in 2002, they started to come there instead of Kenchanahalli.

With Deepak and Swami (both in foreground) during one of their visits to Kenchanahalli

After many years of service, Dr Deepak discontinued his visits and his good friend Dr Ashok started coming, and he still does so. But Dr Swaminath has been going on and on! Many years ago, I asked him how many years was he planning on rendering his service voluntarily at our hospital. In his own humble way, he told me that he was not rendering any service and as such, this question did not arise in his mind. Seeking my perplexed look, he continued, “My first and only obligation is to the 35-40 patients that I treat every time I come here. When I began, I did not realize that there would be so many poor rural and tribal patients wanting psychiatric services. Now that I am aware of this, I will continue till I find that these patients can get better psychiatric services than what I can provide.” A simple yet profound answer from a person who on the surface always looked so casual and jovial!

Over the years, I have seen Swami’s (as we fondly call him) commitment to his work increase. Along with a group of like-minded psychiatrists and other friends, they started ‘Chittadhama’  – an institution devoted to providing care, treatment and rehabilitation support to the wandering mentally ill. They bought four acres of land close to Heggadadevanakote town and with the support provided by Infosys Foundation, have built the necessary infrastructure. I had visited this place when they were planning to buy the land. Today, on Swami’s and Bindu’s insistence, I had the good fortune of visiting Chittadhama. What I saw left me speechless. An excellent facility has been created with the aim of providing high quality care for these neglected and less fortunate brethren. I was bowled over by the professionalism, deep sense of commitment, passion and energy of Swami, Dr Ravishankar, Dr Murali and Mr Johnny, the trustees of the Chittadhama Trust.

Mental illness is still a stigma today and there are thousands of people who are left uncared for and are homeless. With medical intervention and treatment, these people can be integrated back into the society. All that they need is psychiatric care, dedicated attention of trained personnel, love and compassion and the belief that they can be treated like any other physical illness. I found all of this and much more in Chittadhama. 

As I was leaving the place, moved beyond what I can express, Swami quietly confided in me that he was more concerned that Chittadhama be able to provide every person who came in looking for solace and treatment, with food to eat to their heart’s content. He was narrating how these people are misunderstood and consequently ill-treated by their families and society. Many of them go without bath for months and eat only when some kind-hearted soul gives them food. Amongst his close friends, Swami is not known to be serious or business like, but I surely found him extremely serious when he told me of this commitment of ensuring that no person is turned away from the doors of Chittadhama, hungry and uncared for. 

This is a place where one can give so much to people – people who will truly make us feel privileged and happy that we are given an opportunity to serve the God in them. May the tribe of noble people like Swaminath, Ravishankar, Murali, Johnny and others increase.

Balu

Categories: Story of SVYM

Hosa Kanasu – 3

March 8, 2011 Comments off

Here’s the third installment of ‘Hosa Kanasu’, my fortnightly column in Prajavani: 08 Mar 2011

Balu

Categories: Hosa Kanasu

A reason to celebrate…

March 6, 2011 Comments off

A hundred years ago, on the 19th of March 1911, thousands of women gathered in Germany. Their main concern then was the plight of working women. What started off as a movement in Eastern Europe and Russia slowly gathered momentum and the United Nations started celebrating this event as Women’s Day on the 8th of March every year on a worldwide basis from 1975 onwards. Today Governments and NGOs around the world including those in India celebrate this event and the day is marked by meetings, seminars, discussions and press articles. What does this day mean to the millions of Indian women? Does it hold any significance that will go beyond mere symbolism and indicate the changing condition of women in society? 

More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda had spoken strongly of women having an equal place in Indian society and said that the country would not progress if it had no equal place for its women. With the changing social, political and economic landscape of India today, are our women leading better lives? Is women’s empowerment mere sloganeering or does it still remain a favour bestowed on them by the menfolk? Do rural micro-credit programs that have come to stay impact the lives of these women? 

I decided to understand all this and more by traveling around and meeting and interacting with some of these women in Heggadadevanakote Taluk. Rathnamma living in Basavanagiri was till recently dependant on her husband for the little money that he brought home as an agricultural labourer. For years she and her family were subject to the vagaries of nature and life was indeed unpredictable. Now she is a confident mother who is not only contributing to her family kitty, but also more decisive and articulate. The last one-year has seen her gradually evolve into a business-woman making snacks and other eatables at home by herself and going around the nearby town marketing the same to petty shops. A gradual economic change without any fanfare or drama but significant nonetheless! If Rathnamma saw economic opportunity in making and selling snacks and other goodies, her nearby friend Chikkamani found business sense in buying and selling garments and cloth. She travels on her own to Mysore and other places and returns home to sell the cloth and garments she has procured from there. She has slowly but surely learnt that trade and commerce need not be a male bastion. She now claims to be earning more than her husband and jokingly says that she needs her husband more to carry the heavy luggage that she brings home after each visit. 

Shivamma of Manchegowdanahalli was completely different. She was more of a social activist who was keen on setting right the Fair Price Shop in her village. She was concerned that poor and destitute women from her community were not getting their rightful entitlements. She had to wage a relentless battle against powerful forces both within and outside her village and ensure that all the Antyodaya cardholders got their rightful share of 29 kg of rice every month. She did not stop there. She goes around meeting other members of the Women’s SHG Federation and urges them to join her in the crusade in setting right the Public Distribution System. 

Machamma of Kebbapura tribal colony was tired of running around to the local politicians, asking for civic amenities for her colony on the outskirts of the Bandipur National Park. After not receiving any response to her repeated pleas from the powers that be, she decided to take things into her own hands. She contested and won the Gram Panchayath elections. Today she is one of the most vocal members in the Panchayath and has taken her role in the Social Justice Committee very seriously. While she chose to express herself politically by joining the electoral process, Putti and Madi of Jaganakote haadi decided to make participatory democracy in their small tribal hamlet a reality. They are active campaigners for Gram Sabhas and are making sure that these are held periodically and are becoming the true voices of the people. 

Kavya is another special young woman who decided to fight all odds stacked against her and resolutely refused to accept that poverty and gender could come in the way of her academic achievements. With assistance from Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, she not only completed her SSLC and PUC but is now studying to become an engineer. She also wants to dedicate some portion of her life and time for the academic upliftment of other rural girls like her.

The success of these women is not anecdotal or distant, but reflect the emergence of a silent change in society. Women are no longer content with the status quo and are unwilling to wait till the men dish out ‘empowerment’ as a special privilege or favour. They are now active participants in processes that concern their lives and welfare and are willing to engage with society and the State in negotiating their entitlements. What makes it all the more special and heartening is that these women are mostly tribals and dalits who are no longer willing to be mere ‘beneficiaries’ of Government doles but are asserting themselves to become partners in progress. Women’s Day may be seen as just another reason to celebrate, but I am sure it does mean a lot for women like Rathnamma, Chikkamani and others to come together and share their successes and failures and learn from each other. Women like them do need a day to call it their own and celebrate the change that all of us wish to see.

Balu

Making Education a People’s Movement…

March 4, 2011 1 comment

Education gives us a basic understanding of the worlds we all live in, and equips us with tools to expand our ability to improve life. Education is a basic human right, and for many of us education has become an integrated part of life, which we take for granted. However nearly a billion people worldwide have entered this millennium without being able to read a book or sign their name, much less to use a computer.

The responsibility of changing this scenario cannot vest only with the government despite the fact that we are a welfare state. No sustainable change can ever be brought without the empowered involvement of the communities. Community partnerships are no longer cliché words but are essential pre-requisites for development and change to occur.

Posted here is an article of mine that seeks to understand how Education affects Community Development, and also the role of the community in the provision of schooling. Most of what is written is from the experience gained over the last few years of working with the community in the field of integrated development with special focus on education.

Read: Making Education a People’s Movement

Balu

Categories: Musings