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SPB – not just a musical legend!

March 8, 2018 8 comments

SVYM’s founding was based on the inspirational message of ‘Tyaga’ (Sacrifice) and ‘Seva’ (Service) propounded by Swami Vivekananda. All the work of our last 34 years is based on these foundational principles and our activities are driven by the undercurrent philosophy of ‘Seeing God in man’. This is best reflected in the Palliative Care Program that SVYM has been running from 2009. Started in a small way, the program today covers close to 200 patients across the city of Mysuru and its suburbs and is striving to help people who are terminally sick, live their last days in dignity.

While the services offered at the doorsteps of needy people costs us around INR 16000 annually, we are constantly looking to finding donors and volunteers who can helps us in expanding this program. Ensuring acute medical care in an Institutional setting to terminally ill patients is also a critical component of Palliative Care and we thought of adding a Hospice facility at Mysuru. Our team was undeterred by the fact that this would require huge resources and they decided to mobilize it through our annual fund raising musical event. This event called ‘Swaranubhuti’ has already seen two earlier editions and helped mobilize the resources needed for home based palliative care. Creating a Hospice meant much more than what our earlier programs had generated and the team decided to request the renowned singer, Mr S P Balasubramaniam (popularly known as SPB) to support the initiative. Ramakrishna Mudre met and apprised him of our activities and what we do and he agreed to sing at this event. A singer of SPB’s repute must be getting innumerable requests to sing for charitable causes and he agreeing to do this for us without a moment’s hesitation left me much more than impressed. Swaranubhuti-2018 was thus planned and it was decided to hold the event in Bengaluru on the 4th of March 2018.

This day will now remain a day that will be permanently etched in my memory. Not merely for listening to a musical legend but for something that I find it difficult to describe in mere words. Here was a man who has sung more than 40,000 songs in 15 different Indian languages in his lifetime – and not for a moment did he allow any of the adulation or the recognition get in the way of the larger purpose of participating in a program that wanted to help people live & die in dignity. He was clear on why he was doing what he was doing. The thought of participating as a family member along with several other committed people wanting to help other fellow human beings was so evident in everything he spoke and did.

SPB2

As I watched and listened to him, I realized that he was not merely a singer who has achieved the status of a ‘legend’. This was truly an intensely spiritual man in the pursuit of a higher purpose – that of actually seeing god in every person that he interacted with. Whether it was the fellow musicians on stage or the young compere – he only had good things to say about each of them. He was constantly looking to bring out the best in everyone present – whether it was himself, or the attending musicians and even the audience. For someone who teaches leadership in different places around the world, this was possibly the best class in leadership that I have attended. The qualities of compassion, seeing only the positive, constantly demanding perfection of oneself and those around you, being disciplined, never allowing one to become the work at the center, staying focused on the larger purpose and never allowing one’s ego come in the way of one’s existence – all this and more was there for me to see and learn from this great person.

SPB1

And more than anything else, this was not a mere show that he was presenting to the audience. It was more than evident that this was the way he lived, and it was his natural and authentic self. For someone who has reached such a high stature to be so simple; for someone who has the world at his feet to be so humble is something that is unbelievable. But SPB is all this and more. He is a true humanist, a spiritual seeker and one who oozes divinity in his singing and in his very existence. We at SVYM were not just privileged to have someone like him support our work; I think he gives us the living inspiration of Swami Vivekananda’s message. And I consider myself truly fortunate that I was treated to not just a auditory feast, but to be in the presence of a spiritual giant who made himself so ordinary by making everyone around him become extraordinary. Sir, we salute you and thank you for being with us, for inspiring us to do more and for your message of never forgetting that we are mere instruments in the hands of God…

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings

Remembering a Saint…going down memory lane!

March 5, 2018 8 comments

Social media and online news today makes it real time for us to get to know what happens in different parts of the world. Whether it is real news or fake, good or bad, all it takes is a moment before the notification on one’s phone tells us what is happening. The message that I got on the 28th was not just sad but something that left a sense of emptiness within me. As I sat coming to terms with the several emotions that I was feeling, I remembered how 30 years ago, HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham had come visiting to our small dispensary at Brahmagiri.

It was early October 1987 and the three of us – Devaraj Acharya (presently in the UK and a founding member of the SVYM of UK), Ramesh S.S. (presently working as Professor of Medicine at K.R.Hospital, Mysuru) and I were holding on to the SVYM flag with great difficulty. We were running out of our meagre monthly stipend as Interns (or house surgeons as we were known then) and our motivation was also running low. We had stationed ourselves in the watchman’s shed at the old Inspection Bungalow at Beechanahalli and were yet to get the clinic at Brahmagiri up and going. Things were not looking good and only the embarrassment of failure and being ridiculed by friends and foes alike prevented us from returning to Mysuru. As luck would have it, the doctor working in the hospital run by the Ramakrishna Ashram at Ponampet quit and they were not able to find a replacement. Swami Veetamohanandaji, the President of this ashram met me in Mysuru (currently he serves as the Head of the Vedanta Center in Gretz, France) and wanted to know if I could refer anyone to work as a doctor on an ad hoc basis. It was the silver lining that I was looking for. I told him that two doctors would come to Ponampet and would be happy to manage the hospital at least for the next one or two months.

Back in Beechanahalli (where the Kabini dam is located), I told a relieved Devaraj and Ramesh that they could now lead a comfortable life at least for the next 2 months and could do some doctoring too! Both left for Ponampet and I stayed back to hold fort. My mind was blank and I could not figure out what to do. The next 15 days were possibly the greatest test of my resolve to undertake rural service. Here I was, a young intern who believed that he could make a difference. The only problem was that SVYM and I were completely broke. I would wake up each day hoping that something would happen to give me back my sinking courage and fill me with hope and encouragement. I still remember the long walk of nearly 16 km one way to reach Brahmagiri to oversee the construction of a toilet that the Zilla Panchayath (called Zilla Parishad then) was building for us. Whenever my rationed finances permitted me, I would travel by bus till Begur and then walk to Brahmagiri. This was few and far between. Lunch was indeed a luxury and wholly depended on the generosity of Karunakar, who was the caretaker at the Traveller’s Bungalow of the forest department. These were the times I felt like giving up and even today I wonder what kept me going then. But for the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda that I would read every day, I am sure I would have closed shop and returned. It is now hard to imagine what I would have ended up doing if I had done that then.

HH

HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal (1935-2018)

One of those days, I had come to Mysuru and was reading the newspaper at the Ramakrishna Vidyashala and came across a news item that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Peetham (or Mutt), Shri Jayendra Saraswathi had abdicated the Mutt and was in the Talacauvery area in Madikeri. What caught my attention was the fact that he had told the interviewer that he felt shackled by the orthodoxy of the Mutt and wanted to initiate a movement for the regeneration of India based on the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. I immediately shot off a post card to him, explaining what I was doing and suggested that he help us if he was indeed serious about it. I expected that he would never even read my letter, leave alone respond to it. It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture by a frustrated and tired young man who gave vent to his feelings and that was that. What indeed surprised me was that I got a reply from the Mutt. He had by then returned to the Mutt on the persuasion of his devotees and the senior Acharya. The Srikaryam (administrator) had written to me asking me to come to Kanchipuram to meet Shri Jayendra Saraswathi and share with him what I was doing . It was indeed a welcome break and I borrowed Rs.400 from Swami Sureshananda and reached Kanchipuram via Bangalore the next morning.  I reached Kanchipuram by bus very early in the morning. It was around 4 am and I did not have enough money to take a hotel room for myself. Not knowing what to do, I started walking towards the Mutt and was there within the next 20 min. The doors were obviously closed and I just walked ahead. One of the houses down the road had an open and inviting front yard and I just walked in and lay down.

I must have fallen asleep, for I was awakened by an elderly lady (Iyer maami – as she is called in Tamil) who was quite surprised to see a stranger sleeping in her yard. She was gracious enough not to scream and politely asked who I was and what I was doing there. I told her that I was here to see the Shankaracharya and was waiting for the Mutt doors to open. This kind-hearted lady then invited me in and gave me a cup of steaming coffee. On getting to know my background, her family offered that I rest, bathe and have breakfast with them. Sometimes, poverty can limit your sense of dignity and I did not even wait to be pressed to accept their generosity.  Around 7 am, I strolled into the Mutt and found the Shankaracharya giving darshan and prasad to a long line of his devotees. I too stood in line and introduced myself and told him that he had asked to see me. He invited me into his room and heard my story. After an hour of listening patiently, he asked if I would like to walk with him to the Kamakshi Temple.  Here I was, a 22-year old idealist walking alongside a man, whose generosity and support I was to experience later. It never occurred to me that this very man was revered and worshiped by thousands of devotees and he could with his mere wish, command extraordinary resources to help us. After returning to the Mutt, he suddenly switched to speaking in Kannada and asked me about my needs. I just blurted out that I would need his support to serve the forest-based tribes in and around Brahmagiri. He sat pensive for a moment and then told me that he had to verify my credentials. He told me that one of his devotees by name Chandramouli lived in Bangalore and that I needed to meet and take him along to Brahmagiri. Chandramouli would then report back to the Shankaracharya about my work. If his assessment were to be satisfactory, then he would consider supporting me.

I thought that this was indeed fair and rushed back to Bangalore. The same evening I met Chandramouli who had been spoken to by the Shankaracharya and told about his assignment. I requested him to visit us the very next day and pleaded with him to come with me. He agreed and offered to drive down, but warned me that he needed to return to Bangalore the same day.  Chandramouli was a very devout person. After a morning pooja at a Ganesha temple near his house, we set out to Brahmagiri in his new Fiat car. Chandramouli did not believe in driving at less than 100 km per hour and in those days, this was an adventure which I did not exactly relish! As we neared Kengal on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, Chandramouli noticed that there were celebrations going on at the famous Hanuman temple located there. He swung his car towards the temple and declared that we would take a break to have darshan. He was now convinced that the festivities at the temple were a good omen and a signal that I could be trusted.  We reached Brahmagiri at around 1 pm. The drive on the bumpy road had tired him out and he did not want to spend too much time there. All that he remarked was that it would be difficult to work in that god-forsaken place! We hardly spent 15 minutes there and drove back. On the way back, he insisted on having his ‘tiffin and coffee’ at his favourite Dasaprakash Hotel at Mysore. We reached Bangalore around 8 pm. I insisted that he speak to the Shankaracharya immediately and update him on our visit.

The next morning, I set out once again to Kanchipuram. By evening I was with the Shankaracharya, who informed me that he had heard from Chandramouli. He asked me what kind of support I was expecting from him. This was indeed an unexpected question and I was unsure how to ask him for money or for anything else. Would he consider me greedy? Would he think that I was there only to get his financial support? As all these questions raced through my mind, I decided that I would ask for a princely sum of Rs.1000! After all, I had to borrow money to reach Kanchi and my first priority was to return it! Even before I could ask him for anything specific, he asked me if Rs 100,000 would help in starting the work. He also matter-of-factly told me that he would ask the Trustee of the Golden Jubilee Charitable Trust in Chennai to give me the money and a Jeep for my use in the forest. It took a while for this generous offer to sink in. He gave me the address of the Trust and I left for Chennai in a daze.

In Chennai, with the help of my uncle Mr.Narasimhan, I went to the Trust and met the Trustee. He gave me a DD for Rs 100,000 and told me to meet Mr. Ravi for the vehicle. Ravi showed me an old broken down stationary ‘Trekker’. I was indeed disappointed. This vehicle did not look like it was road worthy and I was crest fallen. But then beggars can’t be choosers. This Trekker needed repairs, a new set of tyres, new battery and everything except the shell and the engine. Using the name of the Shankaracharya and his credibility, I managed to find donors in Chennai with Ravi’s help and got the vehicle moving. My uncle volunteered to drive it down along with me to Brahmagiri. We left for Bangalore early one morning and as we neared Bangalore, the vehicle broke down. The first expense that I incurred with the donation given by the Shankaracharya was to get this Trekker repaired again in Bangalore. After a couple of days, I drove this vehicle to Ponampet where Devaraj and Ramesh were still staying. Imagine their shock, when they saw me getting off an old vehicle and announcing that it was ours and that we could now return to Brahmagiri in style! We left to Brahmagiri the next day and the vehicle broke down again as soon as we reached there. By then, I had realized that I was flogging a dead horse and decided to make this vehicle our temporary home. The ‘Trekker’ stood there motionless for a few months more, till the Shankaracharya visited us in 1988.

The support given by HH Sri Jayendra Saraswathi will possibly be one of the most significant events in the history of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. But for his support, we may not have been able to set up and start the Brahmagiri clinic (in those days, we used to call it the Jan Kalyan Tribal Health Center). I became a regular visitor to the Kanchi Mutt and used to meet with him at least once a month. Apart from the usual updates from my end, we used to have such wonderful conversations – from development to politics to the economy of India to Karma Yoga! He had a wonderful sense of humour too and it was such a joy to interact with him and just be seated in his room as he went about conversing with the several thousand people who came to get his darshan and blessings. He was not the Shankaracharya in the traditional sense and differed from his Guru the revered ‘Maha Periyava’. He was a monk, a humanist, a philanthropist, a mentor and several other things all rolled into one. Not just the traditional Dharmic Guru that the whole country revered him as, but also the social reformer that India desperately needed.

It was during one of my many such visits that he mentioned that he was going to give us Rs.5000 every month and that he would do so for the next 5 years. He told me that I needed to use those 5 years to build the organization and go beyond depending on him. While I might not have understood the far-sightedness of his actions then, today I must say that we have been able to grow only because we never became dependant on any one person, donor agency or the Government for financial assistance. True to his word, he gave us Rs.5000 per month for 2 years and then raised it to Rs.7000 per month for the subsequent 3 years.

More than the money, his support reinforced in me the belief that all good work will eventually find support. It also gave me access to a wide network of his devotees. His association gave Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement the legitimacy and much needed credibility at a time when we were small and hardly known. It gave us the exposure and visibility that helped shape public opinion about us.  My repeated visits and interactions with the Shankaracharya helped me learn and understand a lot of things. I was amazed at the level of compassion and concern that he could generate for his fellow human beings. I was a witness to his generosity – many occasions where he would respond spontaneously from the heart to pleas for help. Once I asked him if he had been let down by somebody whom he trusted. His explanation was simple. He told me that the question of being let down comes only when you expect something in return from people whom you support. His point of view was that you support somebody because you are placed in the position of being able to do so. The moment you expect the other person to use your support wisely and benefit from it, then it means being attached to the fruits of your actions. Here I was, being explained the concept of Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga in such simple and pragmatic fashion.

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Unveiling the plaque at Kenchanahalli for the Hospital that was built there

He visited us in August 1988 to lay the foundation for the hospital that we proposed to build at Kenchanahalli. He also visited our clinic at Brahmagiri and the campus at Hosahalli. He had brought along with him hundreds of expensive sarees that people had gifted to the Kamakshi temple. I still remember that day. It was raining and there was no road to our campus at Hosahalli then. One had to walk in the slush to reach there. Much to the chagrin of his attenders, he alighted from his vehicle and started to walk along with me. Along the way, he told me how people were blinded by faith. He told me that people were willing to spend thousands of rupees on expensive sarees for the Goddess, but were unwilling to buy clothes for the poor who needed it more. He said that he was making sure that the sarees were reaching the ‘real gods’.  At Brahmagiri, he noticed the broken down ‘Trekker’ and without hesitation, called his driver Rama and told him to hand over a Jeep which was part of his entourage. But people in his coterie created a ruckus and told him that they would need the Jeep to get back to Kanchipuram. He then asked me to come to Kanchipuram and collect the vehicle.  Despite the rains, the foundation laying program was great fun. Vivek and Seetharam had laboured for 3-4 days, walking each day from Brahmagiri to Kenchanahalli to oversee the preparations and it turned out to be the beginning of our collective journey.

Several years later, when I was at Harvard, I suddenly got a call from him asking me to come to India and meet him. Even before I could respond, he mentioned that several of his devotees were having a event in Bengaluru and he wanted to felicitate me on that occasion. Though I was in Bengaluru when the event happened, I could not receive the award that he bestowed on me as my father had just then passed away.

Some of the many memorable moments that I spent with the Shankaracharya during his visits to our centers

The years have now rolled on and fate and many forces with vested interests conspired to humiliate and marginalize this extraordinary person. From being arrested to being acquitted by the court, from being courted by thousands to being side-lined, from being worshiped to being ignored – he saw it all. But the inner strength, poise, humour and equanimity that he displayed is something that has always stood out for me. For me and several like me, he was not just the upholder of the Hindu Dharma, but the very incarnation of it. He was not just a monk at whose feet you prostrated, but someone who inspired you to take on the cause of National reconstruction for one’s own inner spiritual evolution. Though millions of his devotees will miss his smiling presence, what remains testimony to his life and times are the many social development activities that he initiated and supported.

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings

The population challenge for India…

November 19, 2017 1 comment

Events in India hardly get reported in the global media. But what found space in many of the world’s newspapers and televisions were images of smog filled Delhi and streets clogged with thousands of vehicles. And as usual, we saw the blame game enacted by our politicians, schools closed down, the National Green Tribunal having its say, NGOs coming up with their share of comments and the band-aid solution of odd-even plying of vehicles. Once the winter moves on, so will this crisis, till the onset of the next winter and the whole story will be played all over again. Why is that the underlying, larger systemic reasons not being handled the way that it should be gets little attention or media space? And why is one unwilling to see the larger picture of our burgeoning population being a part of, and the critical undercurrent of many of the problems including pollution that India is facing today?

India is now the home to around 1.32 billion people. Furthermore, India’s population is expected to grow to 1.8 billion before stabilizing around the middle of this century, even if sufficient measures are taken before hand and sustained till then. India is stretched to its limit due to overpopulation on several fronts. The demand on already scarce resources negates any development or progress that the nation attains. Whether it is drinking water or sanitation, the programs that are being initiated by Government will never cease to end. There are always more toilets to be built, more people to be provided with safe drinking water and more houses to be constructed. Apart from the inefficiency and leakages in the system, what makes matters worse is the sheer increase in number of people placing a demand on the system.

Excessive population leads to dysfunctionality of public and private institutions and makes all plans to improve a country’s infrastructure, health care facilities and social welfare initiatives ineffective. This includes the Indian Government which has struggled to enact reforms over the past 70 years since independence. Whether it is public infrastructure in rural or urban areas, or creating spatial and digital connectivity to the teeming millions, investments can never really match the needs. For real progress and the nation to thrive at the current levels of economic growth, the country’s population should ideally have been around 500 million. But we are nearly four times the population that India was when it got its freedom in 1947 without a parallel growth in support facilities. The consequences of population growth are a problem that the whole world will soon face sooner or later, but it is worse for India. Lack of fresh water, whether it is for domestic, industrial or agricultural use; crumbling sewage treatment and waste management systems; rapid depletion of natural resources and increasing use of fossil fuels; increasing urbanization with crumbling civic amenities; extinction of many plant and animal species due to deforestation and loss of Eco-systems; increased levels of life-threatening air and water pollution; inability to maintain public infrastructure; fall in standards of public probity and societal morals; high infant and child mortality rate and hunger due to extreme poverty are some of the results of this over-population that we are already experiencing.

While billions of rupees are being spent by public and private sources, one cannot dismiss away the growing inequality socially and economically. One cannot merely keep repeating the rhetoric of growing the pie, the reality of having less number of people sharing the social and economic pie has to be taken seriously. The issues are even more critical due to the advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Automation. Automation threatens 69 percent job losses with millions of job losses already occurring in the IT and production sectors. Despite all the skill development programs, we must keep in mind that India’s problem of jobless growth is just not going to be wished away by mere sloganeering. With farm labour becoming less and less remunerative, unskilled people are now looking for low skilled jobs that are just not there. Imagine the challenge of India’s social and economic fabric threatened by this growing numbers of dis-enchanted and restless generation of young people with heightened aspirations. While it is customary to see them as law and order issues, let us not forget that the sectors that can absorb some employment – whether it is the police, the judiciary, retailing or hospitality & leisure – they can only assure secure jobs to a small segment of this population, and that too after basic skilling. Even jobs like driving and running taxis are going to disappear as driver-less cars are going to be the reality within the next decade. Let us not forget the fact that the city of Dubai is already experimenting with robot policemen and Walmart in the US has begun to replace low skilled people checking store-inventory with robots.

While many people are already aware of the social and environmental problems due to overpopulation, but only a few are aware of its adverse effects on health. Most Indian cities (and not just Delhi) are badly polluted and have little fresh air. This leads to countless airborne diseases and skin infections. Poor public transport further worsens this as private vehicle are now becoming a necessity and not just seen as a luxury. Whether it is unscientific agriculture, in terms of burning agri-waste or vehicular pollution, reduction of sheer numbers is the only viable solution. And that cannot be managed as our population size coupled with a populist political system, will just not make it feasible or tenable.

While it is easy to wrap our minds around the problem, we need to understand what led to this. Though marriage age has been legally fixed at 18 years for girls, it is still customary for families, especially in rural areas to get their daughters married earlier than that. There is enough statistical evidence to show that girls getting married after 18 are likely to be educated and have less children. Poverty has seen to have a direct correlation to family size but unfortunately it ends up being a chicken and egg story. Growth cannot benefit people as the population is too large while the rich are known to have less number of children. State intervention beyond just doles and welfare are needed to tackle this head on. Whether it is a re-look at other incentives for smaller family size like eligibility to contest elections or getting tax cuts, one has to think out of the box to disincentive large families. Building the human and social capital of the citizens on a war footing is inseparable to the issue of over-population. The cultural narrative of seeing the men as wage earners and women as confined to the kitchen has to be refashioned and a voluntary movement to undo years of conditioning is imperative.

The government, politicians, policy makers, media and civil society groups and activists should come together with a bold population policy so that the human, social and economic growth can keep pace with the demands of a growing population. Major steps which have been already implemented need to be emphasized more and go beyond any political or religious underpinning. It is not about being a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian – it should be about being an Indian and such a population policy should be universal and enforceable across all demographics. Increasing the welfare and status of women and girls, making education and health care universal, increasing awareness for the use of contraceptives and family planning methods for both men & women, sex education in schools, and building safety nets for the socially and economically marginalized – all has to be done together and at the same time for consistently long periods to start making a noticeable difference.

We need to remember that India has 15% of the world’s population with a mere 2.4% of the land area. While it is inconceivable to expand our land area, the only way out is to stabilize the population to manageable levels. And these needs to be done within the next 10-15 years, or we may not have an India to talk about in real terms after that.

-Balu

This article appeared in the Star of Mysore, dated 22nd Nov 2017. 

SOM Nov 22

 

Categories: General, Musings

GDP is passe, Human capital takes center stage for WB, IMF

October 27, 2017 Comments off

This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 27th October, 2017 and can be seen here:

Deccan Herald Fri 27 10 17The article can also be read here –

While the Indian media and political analysts have been talking about how the slowing down Indian economy is likely to hurt the electoral prospects of the BJP and slow down the Modi-Shah juggernaut, a different scene unfolded last week in distant Washington DC. The annual meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was held then and it brought together central bankers, ministers of finance and development, parliamentarians, private sector executives, representatives from civil society organizations and academics. The core agenda was to discuss issues of global concern, including the world economic outlook, poverty eradication, economic development and aid effectiveness.

Only a few years ago, India’s growth story was being touted as the only shining patch in an otherwise depressing economic world order and experts were quick to offer differing explanations for the same. Equally quickly are the experts again explaining the dip as possible outcomes of the demonetization or the introduction of the GST and poor handling of the nation’s economy by the government. Somewhere in this narrative, human development and the fate of the ordinary citizen on the street does not find any mention. It is in this context, the meetings of the WB and IMF offer a shift in the way these global bodies are beginning to view development.

For several decades, the World Bank and its allied Institutions were seen with suspicion and as mere political instruments with very little appreciation of grassroots development and of being insensitive to local community interests. They have also been accused of turning a blind eye to citizen engagement, to environmental concerns and to mis-governance and mal-administration in the implementation of projects funded by them. They have been working over the last decade and more to shed this image and are now actively soliciting engagement with local community groups, in ensuring social accountability of the projects funded by them; and of looking internally to address inherent structural flaws in their aid and loan processes. But despite all this, their primary focus was on income growth and economic development. This year’s meetings saw a quiet and subtle shift which if sustained, could have long term consequences on how the world sees human development and progress.

While the WB President Jim Yong Kim and the IMF Chief, Christine Lagarde stressed on the relevance and effectiveness of Institutions like the WB and IMF, they also conceded that the Multilateral banking systems need to evolve and become more responsive and accepting of the changing geo-political realities of the day. The challenges of the Globalization backlash, of countries becoming fiercely nationalist and losing interest in multilateralism, technology transforming labour, and the global economic slowdown were some of the key concerns articulated. The newly announced Global Concessional Financing Facility appears to make it more strategic and flexible but one needs to see if the Bank can take it forward with the kind of lukewarm response that was shown by the member countries to a call for increased capital infusion. One also needs to appreciate the challenge that the WB will face keeping in mind the view of the United States regarding the WB funding of middle income countries, especially China. It is to be seen whether the World Bank will truly be a bank owned by the member countries and operate in a free, fair, just and democratic manner or continue to stay as extended political arms of powerful governments in the Global North?

Another major shift that was announced was the recognition of expanding human capital before any meaningful economic development can happen. The WB’s decision to publish ‘Human Capital Index’ reports annually like the ‘Ease of doing business index’ reports will push countries to now reassess how they will begin to view human development. Focus on Nutrition and the impact of stunting on the GDP of countries were highlighted in the discussions.

A call for participation of private capital in WB funded projects sounds like a monster waiting to be unleashed and paradoxical to the call for enhanced social accountability frameworks. With many countries including India already grappling with ‘Policy Capture’ by select corporates, this could result in policies being skewed to the advantage of powerful forces and drowning out the needs and voices of the common citizen. Dr Jim also raised the controversial topic of enhancing ‘sin taxes’ and presented the enormous health benefits by making tobacco products increasingly unaffordable. Though agreeing with him was politically correct for many of the finance ministers present, it needs to be seen how many will walk the talk and take on the powerful tobacco lobbies. Focus on women entrepreneurs and creating platforms to promote them is being spoken about for some time now. But it should gain more legitimacy and momentum, now that these Institutions have provided formal space. This welcome change needs to be reflected in clear and specific policies at the country level and presents a unique opportunity for India as untapped potential in millions of Self Help Groups is waiting to be unleashed.

Going by the past, one is hesitant to believe that all these major shifts will get operationalized immediately or if these agencies will be de-politicized soon. For too long have policy debates been distorted by over emphasis on incomes alone. It is indeed a welcome move for these Institutions to focus on other deprivations like poor health, lack of education, stunting, social exclusion and unemployment which reflect in poor human capital within nations. It is in this context that India needs to present a refashioned narrative and look to building the human and social capital of its citizens rather than get lost in the debate of the state of the economy and mere GDP numbers.

-Balu

 

 

 

Making Indian democracy dance…

August 30, 2017 1 comment

India is not only the largest democracy in the world but is also known as one of the noisiest and unhealthy ones. Whatever it is, the events of the last couple of months is something that will make Indian democracy qualify as a ‘ugly’ one too. We always knew that the electoral democracy in India made our politicians dance – dance to the tune of the pressures of caste, cash and elite interests. But these recent events do not take much to convince us that our politicians are now making the Indian democracy dance. And that too in its naked form bereft of any decency or dignity and with scant regard to the people for whom this democracy exists.

If formation of a coalition Government in the state of Jammu & Kashmir by parties with two opposing ideological forces was mocking our democracy; its continued existence without a clear action plan to deal with the problem of insurgency, of conflicting interests and of the stagnation of both governance and development in the state leaves one feeling lost and despondent. This situation does not seem to trouble anyone in the Government or in the citizenry beyond issuing emotional expletives and listening to irrelevant politicians and retired bureaucrats on endless television debates.

The state of Bihar saw the change of dancing partners overnight. Partners who had earlier come together to tie the knot knowing fully well that their marriage may not work and with another opportunistic suitor constantly wooing one of them. How could anyone promise good governance and a corruption free administration with having one of India’s most corrupt politicians as a partner? And overnight, we are again promised good governance all over again.

As though the decibel levels are not enough, we have the latest entrant to India’s list of politicians – Arvind Kejriwal striking at the core of our Electoral System. While he seems to be convinced that good governance for him is the constant blaming of the Central Govt for all ills prevailing his state, his antics surrounding the Election Commission of India lies exposed by the fact that he never took up on the challenge that they posed to him. All that he seems to be indulging in are cheap theatrics, but he must be given the credit to make this ‘dance’ a ‘duet’. And the promise of exposing all his opponents and getting them to dance naked seems to be stuck in the court of law while his lawyer saw fit to script his own dance and withdraw from the defamation case that he was representing him in.

The election to the august office of our President and Vice-President was another treat that was scripted by Prime Minister Modi and his chief choreographer, Amit Shah. Together they pulled off one of India’s greatest political Operas. It was so well planned and executed that the opposition could not even get their stage ready, leave alone perform their dance. While one has no opinion on the ability or the capacity of the people elected, one only wonders if merit alone was the factor under consideration. Suddenly being a Dalit or coming from a poor farmer’s family or from south India seemed to matter. Democracy is now spoken of as being healthy as the elites’ of Lutyens Delhi are now being replaced. Are we sure that these replacements are because of democracy working or is it because of a few master puppeteers pulling the strings and making democracy dance to a new tune that one will hear for some more time before this new set of elites will be replaced by the Indian electorate.

Maharashtra presents an altogether different scene. While a coalition government is ruling the state, one of the partners seems to be living in perpetual doubt over whether it is on the dance floor or in the audience. One is unsure of how the Chief Minister keeps assuring the people growth and development, while at the same time battling this everyday distraction and rumors of his cabinet colleagues succumbing to the temptation of corruption.

The Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections was surely an anti-climax to what could have become a well-orchestrated performance. One party went overboard to ensure a candidate wins while another tried hard to get him to lose. The ECI not to be outdone also jumped in and disqualified two MLAs. All in all, this dance had so many twists and turns and was performed on so many different stages and with several actors. Karnataka had its share to contribute to this emerging dance-drama and a key protagonist was made to dance to the tune of the Income tax department. One is unsure if the dance has ended or we will soon have a series of sequels. In the same Rajya Sabha elections, another political party refused to endorse the candidature of a star parliamentarian for the third term. One is not sure if this was just democracy in action or a party going by its own constitution or the handiwork of another senior politician in the party who wanted to end the parliamentary role of Sitaram Yechury.

The entire drama of Tamil Nadu is something that defies reason. We have powerful external forces negotiating peace and bringing together warring factions and allowing them to share the spoils of war. All in the name of saving democracy and wanting to provide a stable Government. Not to be left behind we can see dynasty politics establishing itself firmly in both Andhra Pradesh and Telengana with members of the Chief Minister’s family in both the states holding sway. In neighbouring Kerala, we have political differences settled in barbaric ways and end up maiming and killing each other. All this in the name of democracy.

Karnataka has begun its electoral dance in right earnest. From stroking regional sentiments and having a separate flag to starting a debate around forming a religion, the state’s politicians are writing tunes that they will soon lose control over and lead to irretrievable consequences. The cacophony that will emerge will possibly deafen saner voices and we can be assured of some interesting days ahead.  Amidst all this, the fact that 8 MLCs gave false residential addresses to vote in the mayoral elections of BBMP is getting forgotten.

West Bengal is a state that never tires of making democracy visible. From the streetlights, all over Kolkata painted in the ruling party’s colours to ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ being the slogan scribbled all over, to the everyday fun that the Chief Minister dishes out with her own special touch – the dance is always loaded with contradictions that is so cleverly camouflaged. It is indeed ironical that the TMC keeps talking about grassroots democracy and how the voice of people matters but bans Student’s union and Elections in a reputed University. One needs to follow the social media of the key political leaders of this state to indulge in some real confusing intellectual dancing.

Haryana – how does one even describe what has transpired in this state in the last few days? How do we condone the actions of the Government and the state which acted by not doing anything? How can one describe the Institution of the executive failing to dance along with the Judiciary? How can the state escape the responsibility of not ensuring law and order with its police being one the most top heavy in the country? How will one justify the loss of 38 lives and millions of rupees worth public and private property? How can we pretend that we are living in a democracy when it takes 15 years to prosecute a rapist? We saw how the state works to please a potential electoral constituency while losing sight of the larger responsibility of providing law and order to all citizens alike. And as though this degenerate dance was not enough, we have another parliamentarian arguing that the voice of 5 crore devotees of this God man should have been heard more than that of the court of law.

With elections to several large states around the corner, this dance will not only get more interesting, but unfortunately be baser and degraded. With the Nation having no credible opposition party and motley groups coming together not out of any larger National interest but out of their own need to survive and be relevant, this dance is only going to border on the absurd. We need to remember that the audience always gets the show that it deserves. The quality of this dance will continue to worsen, till we the citizens decide that enough is enough. We need to reclaim the space that we have so negligently given up. We now need to restore dignity and decency to democracy. And this can happen only when each one of us breaks out of our slumber and self-imposed indifference and decide to rid ourselves of our ‘voice poverty’. It is only the citizens voice that can provide the much-needed music to make our democracy healthy and vibrant again. Otherwise we will only have ourselves to blame for the trash that is dished out to us in the name of democracy.

-Balu

This article appeared in the Star of Mysore, dated 6th Sept, 2017

SOM Making Ind Demo dance

Categories: General, Musings

‘Seeing God in Man’ – Article that appeared in the Star of Mysore on 5th July 2017

July 7, 2017 1 comment

The Joy of giving…

June 21, 2017 1 comment

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.
– Kahlil Gibran

Running a Non-profit anywhere in the world is not as easy as it sounds and is a difficult proposition. Apart from the image that the sector generates, the constant uncertainties of funding and resource mobilization, the lack of high quality talent, the changing demands of accountability & prevailing statutory laws, and most importantly the evolving nature of the world of social development itself, all pose great survival challenges. While all these factors make high demands, it is resource mobilization that takes away a major chunk of the time and energy of leaders of the non-profits. We at SVYM are also not immune to these pressures and we saw a major crisis that emanated last year.

The Government of India undertook a paradigmatic policy shift 2 years ago and decided to transfer 42% of its resources to the State Governments. While this is a major milestone in the history of India’s federal structure, it affected many non-profits like ours. The Indian Government decided that ‘social development’ is mostly a state subject and the states now needed to fund all such development programs from their own resources. In line with this thinking, funding to SVYM for running the tribal hospital, tribal school and the mobile health unit was abruptly stopped from last year. While this sent our programs into a toss, we could not suddenly stop health and education services to the indigenous communities. We felt truly caught between the ‘devil and the deep sea’ with the Government funding stopping on one side and the communities not being able to or willing to pay for the cost of services on the other. This is the time when we truly understood that in the last three decades and more of SVYM’s existence, Indian philanthropy had also evolved and matured. This was also the time that the people of India in general and of Mysuru in particular, rose to the occasion and donated generously to ensure that our health and education programs do not cease to function.

Though India has a long tradition of philanthropy, most charity has been focused on religious giving. Until the 1800s, giving in India was largely religious in nature and motivated by the search for individual salvation. Later, philanthropy also began to be directed toward social causes such as education and women’s rights. Throughout the 20th century, leading Indian industrialists established foundations and other charitable institutions of national importance, some of which were partly inspired by the country’s freedom movement. The last decade has seen a major shift in the number of people who are donating, the causes that they are supporting, the new CSR act that has come into place and the changing nature of Non-profits themselves. Donors are also contributing more and donating to a larger pool of non-profit organizations, giving philanthropy a much higher public profile. All of this has put philanthropy in India significantly ahead of that in other countries with similar levels of prosperity. This growth trend is showing a continuous upward trajectory. In fact, more than a third of current donors expect their donations to increase in the next five years. And as the nation implements the corporate social responsibility (CSR) regulations under the new Companies Act, there will be a positive disruption in the philanthropy space, bringing in more corporate donors and bringing about greater accountability and transparency.

Bain’s ‘India Philanthropy Report’ mentions that 28% of the adult population donated money and 21% donated their time in 2013. This means a staggering increase of more than 100 million more Indians making donations in cash or time than in 2009.  Media reporting of philanthropy is also now double what it was five years ago. What in 2009 was a tiny sapling is now a resilient tree in bud, awaiting its first blooms. The November 2012 ‘India Giving Report’ by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) found that philanthropy in India has the potential to soar in the next decade, with more than half a billion-people giving for religious and charitable reasons each year. Overall the report found that most people in India—84% of the 836 million adults—give at least once a year. What is remarkable is that philanthropic donations in India are ahead of donations in other developing countries. India is a global outlier, with a larger percentage of its population making charitable donations than other countries at its level of prosperity elsewhere in the world. As a consequence of this growth, India is now No. 91 on the World Giving Index, up from No. 134 in 2010. In a few short years, India has moved from the bottom to the middle of the pack.

To sustain and grow this interest in philanthropy, there are several issues that non-profit organizations also must address. Donor apathy and a general mistrust of non-profit organizations and their operations are widespread. The space is dominated by a large number of “disconnected” donors who donate out of guilt or due to personal relationships rather than a personal connection to the cause. They demand low overheads due to their lack of faith in non-profits and this generally affects the quality of the services rendered by the NGOs. There are also a large number of small non-profits that lack adequate transparency, sophistication and organizational capacity, which make them less credible to donors. Non-profits need to develop better accountability & transparency measures, put in responsive reporting systems, deliver to communities on the social commitments made, build sustainable relationships and learn to use technology and social media to communicate their successes to their stakeholders. Government’s decreasing spending on social development needs alternate but efficient and effective partnerships to emerge in the non-government and private space. This can happen when genuine, transparent and accountable non-profits partner with this growing number socially conscious philanthropic minded individuals, foundations and corporate entities.

The constructive evolution and growth of the Indian Philanthropic scene gives organizations like SVYM much needed confidence that our work will not dry up for want of support. And like the old adage goes, ‘no good work will ever stop due to want of support’ and whether it is the palliative care project that is today fully supported by the people of Mysuru or the tribal development projects that we are implementing, we are confident that resources available locally will be more willingly shared by this growing number of philanthropic minded people and organizations.

-Balu

This article appeared in the Star of Mysore on 25th June, 2017 and can be read here…

Joy of Giving SOM

Categories: General, Musings, Story of SVYM