SVYM’s development paradigm & the mobile vegetable store…

It was nearly 6 years ago that I had first written about Rathnamma, a street vendor who made her living by selling greens and vegetables in Mysuru. One of the actions that emerged from this experience of having spent some time with her was the project of working with street vendors. From collectivizing them and forming Self-Help Groups, to extending credit facilities and giving them the training to manage their finances, to empowering them to negotiate with the local power structures; the SVYM team worked hard to ensure that their human and social capital was constantly expanded. Along with these activities maturing and stabilizing, I too had moved on and laid down office at SVYM. This meant that I was not aware of how our work had changed the lives of the people that we worked with, till a pleasant encounter with Siddappa helped me understand the lasting impact that SVYM had created.

My wife Bindu and I were returning back from our morning walk when we found enroute an auto selling fresh vegetables. Though, this looked like a regular auto, it had been modified by Siddappa into a mobile vegetable store. As Bindu was wrapping up her purchases, Siddappa recognized me and mentioned that he was part of the SHG initiated by SVYM for street vendors and his life had changed over the last several years. He proudly told me that he now had a consistent and near-certain daily income of INR 500 after deducting all his expenses. He also now owned the auto and his working day was fully under his control. What made one feel truly happy was he mentioning that his older daughter was now studying in the second year Bachelor of Science program, while his son was in the eight standard. His life had truly transformed, and he and his family could now look forward to a more meaningful future. Our efforts at building his human and social capital were now seeing economic consequences.


It is experiences like these that serve to reaffirm our conviction in the development paradigm of SVYM. SVYM believes that the development process is inter-generational and does not happen overnight. We strongly believe that development is best manifest by the constant expansion of human capabilities. While economic growth is necessary and a part of our vision for a strong nation, we believe that our primary efforts need to be focused on building the human and social capital of people. We are convinced that this will enable the creation and management of the economic capital that will ensue. Not only has Siddappa expanded his own capabilities but is slowly building the equity that his children will benefit from. From a personal viewpoint, I not only felt emotionally fulfilled but intellectually reaffirmed too.


So many memories…so many stories…

Laying down office seems so easy when one writes about it without the subjective pressures of emotion and memories. After more than 30 years at the helm, I felt that I had done what needed to be done over the last 30 months to future-proof SVYM. Whether it was Governance or moving SVYM closer to sustainability or streamlining our management functions, bringing in technology, reorienting our programs and making them more relevant to the times – I felt that so much could be done and this was possible only by the emergence of a wonderful and creative team of 16 motivated people from within SVYM. Playing the catalyst and watching the maturation of collective leadership has been so rewarding. I wanted to explain all this to our employees at Saragur and Hosahalli and let them know how I did not have much to offer in terms of real value to SVYM now. I also wanted them to appreciate how I have always lived life with the guidance of my inner voice and also inform them that I would no longer be playing the role of the President from the 1st of October 2017.

Meeting and interacting with our staff showed me how far SVYM has come. So much energy, so much enthusiasm and suddenly I was reminded of how much water has flowed under the bridge over the last 33 years. From our aborted experiment at Chinnadagudihundi to the celebration of our first anniversary at Thumnerale to my meeting Swami Achalanandaji, my spiritual guide and mentor – so many thoughts seemed to rush through my mind. Going to Hosahalli, I was fondly recollecting the challenges that we had faced building the Kenchanahalli hospital and how today it is more relevant to transform this hospital into a rural livelihood center. At Hosahalli, I was reminiscing how Dr Manjukumar (currently a monk at the Ramakrishna Math, Belur) so lovingly planted the raintree saplings which today have grown into such gigantic ones. I was remembering how difficult it was to grow the Ashoka trees around the old school which stood patiently watching the school and the children grow over the last 28 years. And then it stuck me! How change is the only norm that is constant. The Ashoka trees have been cut and all that remain are ugly looking stumps, though some of them are stubbornly refusing to fade away and are slowly rejuvenating. Organizations are also like these trees – the old has to make way for the new or at least the ‘old’ has to grow and re-discover themselves and come back rejuvenated and fresh or they will end up only as ugly looking remnants. Otherwise SVYM will lose its relevance and all that will remain will be memories.

The stumps on one side and the rejuvenation on the other…

Memories that I fondly continue to cherish. Of how we had to drive out the ‘spirits’ from the Hosahalli campus to make it acceptable and safe for our tribal children. How Javaraiah and Jadiya had to have their share of daily battles with us. Or how Thimmaiah would work tirelessly to guard the campus on his own initiative. The teachers who came and went, but some of them still remain in my memory. The extraordinary and silent contributions of so many wonderful people. Just naming all of them will require a book. Of the enormous support that we have been receiving from hundreds of people in the Government, in the private sector, in the communities that we work with and from other well-meaning individuals and Institutions. All this has what made the experiment called SVYM see reasonable success. And all this is what I will take home with me – the stories, the adventures and the memories to reflect on and continue to grow from the energy that SVYM has been giving me.

So many of our donors and friends have appreciated my stand and endorsed it. Many of them feel that the timing could not have been better while some of them feel that I should have waited a few more years for the dust of the enormous change and churning happening by the SDG process to settle down. Whatever it is, the satisfaction and happiness that one feels on seeing that so much has happened and so many have now come together to steer the ship forward makes me believe that there could be no better time than now.

But along with all this, there still remains the question that many have asked me. What next for me? Everyone seems to believe that I will now move and seek other pastures. All that I can honestly say is that I have not applied my mind to anything else at this point of time. The activist in me will never stop doing what it has been doing or retire from any active social engagement. What platform I will now operate from is something that I am confident will reveal itself to me. For the moment, I intend to continue to teach, to train, to write and to focus on building up GRAAM, another great Institution waiting to happen.

I would also like to use this opportunity to thank each one of you for believing in me and for being a part of my adventurous journey of the last three decades and more. Life will go on, memories will fade, some stories may sound stale; but what is priceless is the enormous learning and personal evolution that happened to me, only because I am a part of SVYM. And that is something that will continue forever.



The Joy of giving…

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.


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

Joy of Giving SOM

Most memorable moments for me…

Something wonderful happened today as I was interacting with 3 students from the University of Iowa – Ashley, Isha and Sarah who were here for a program at our Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies.  Sarah wanted to know what was the most fulfilling achievement in the last 33 years since I founded SVYM.  Till yesterday, I had always thought that my most memorable achievement was taking the issue of improper rehabilitation of tribals to the National Human Rights Commission and getting the Government of Karnataka to rehabilitate these 154-aggrieved indigenous tribals families on 500 acres of land at Basavanagiri in HD Kote taluk.   But two very touching events happened yesterday that has left me overwhelmed and has made me revise my opinion.

                  With the Entrepreneurs                               The busy sales counter

I had gone to Jaganakotehadi to participate in the inauguration of Prakruthi Food Products.  This is a micro-enterprise that is part of the Social Business experiment that GRAAM is undertaking.  In association and with the support of SVYM, 20 women were locally mobilized and trained over the last 1 year in enterprise building, food technology and producing ragi-based food items.  They were also given inputs in basic accounting and working together as a team.  All these indigenous tribal women are in the age group of 20-35 and many of them are alumni of our tribal school at Hosahalli.  This unit has been registered as a separate independent company owned by these 20 women and the food products will be sold under the Health-Enrich brand.  What makes it special is that this unit is situated in a tribal colony and will be wholly owned and run by these women.  Much water has actually flowed under the bridge in our attempt at engaging women in economically productive activities.  We had earlier set up a bakery at Hosahalli and around 5 kadukuruba women from Kempanahadi led by Kali were employed here.  The moment we insisted on transferring the ownership of this unit to the women, they stopped coming to work and the unit collapsed.  A few years later, we made another attempt by setting up a garment unit.  This unit did very well as long as SVYM was running it.  It too collapsed the moment we transferred the responsibility of running it to the women themselves.  Having been bitten twice, I was unsure of indulging myself again till I could understand how to make such activities a success.  The last 20 years has also seen me evolve and my understanding of development has also matured. Today, I am confident that building human and social capital of people can lead to economic consequences.  The last many years has seen us do exactly this.  Slowly and deliberately the human and social capital of hundreds of tribal women was built and these chosen twenty women are from this cohort.  While SVYM took on the responsibility of mobilizing the women, GRAAM undertook setting up the actual business and building the entrepreneurial spirit in these women.  Despite all the challenges faced and negotiating the harsh realities of rural India and the barriers to business that it poses, we finally managed to have the unit inaugurated in the presence of hundreds of women representing several self-help groups.  Watching these confident women market their tasty and well packaged products left me inspired and overwhelmed.

With VTCL Mahadevi

With young Mahadevi, the proud Karnataka forest department employee

As I was processing all these emotions and thoughts, Puttamma mentioned to me that Mahadevi, a forest guard at the forest gate nearby was waiting to meet me.  I walked with her to meet Mahadevi who rushed out to greet me and gave me a very loving hug.  My mind raced several years into the past and I was reminded of how her father had come running to my residence at Brahmagiri and asked me to come help Mahadevamma, a local mid-wife to attend to the labour of his pregnant wife.  Taking this cute little bundle of joy in my arms and handing it to the nervous father is a sight that I can never forget.  This little child who literally grew in front of my eyes was today explaining proudly to me that her work was widely appreciated in the forest department and that she was now due for promotion.  She also told me how she was getting her sister trained in a beautician course in Mysore and how her younger brother was learning to drive a car.  And she proudly showed me the scooter that she owned and was driving around. As I wished her well and bid her goodbye, Mahadevi asked me in her own childish way if she could give me another hug.  That moment is something that I will cherish and remember for a long time

Development is indeed a long drawn and complex process and manifests itself in many ways.   On one side, the Prakruthi Food Products unit was the culmination of a 2-decade effort and the beginning of something extraordinary.  If this unit could survive and thrive, it could very well be the model that the Nation is looking for.  I believe that India’s growth need not necessarily be driven by large urban based corporates, but should be by small micro economic clusters in rural India.  Feeding the urban craze for millet based food products could very well be the driver of economic progress for rural India.  On the personal level, it is people like Mahadevi who symbolize the growing empowerment of rural women.  Not only was she moving up the socio-economic ladder, but was quietly participating in the larger construct of building a resurgent India.  What more could somebody like me ask for and what could be more memorable and fulfilling than this!


The transformation of Chikkaputti

Many years ago, I ran chasing young Manjula (whom I used to fondly call Chikkaputti), a 7-year-old Jenukuruba tribal girl. She was determined to escape being caught and was trying her desperate best to avoid coming to our school.  Not someone who would give up easily, I went after her as she took flight into the forest by jumping over the shallow trench separating the school form the neighbouring Bandipur National Park. After 15 minutes of this cat and mouse game, Chikkaputti finally decided that she had troubled me enough and allowed herself to be caught and brought back to the school. I still vividly remember the many times we enacted this drama that would leave me bleeding from the many scratches and bruises that the local shrubs left me with.  Chikkaputti did go on to finish her schooling and outdid herself.  She was one of the first Jenukuruba (considered a Primitive and Vulnerable Tribal Group in India) persons to complete her 10th standard and was a natural artist.  She could paint and sketch astounding images, all from her memory. She decided to put on hold her studies for a few years and asked to work in our own school as a teacher.  I still remember her trying to convince me why it was important for her to work now rather than go on and study.  She wanted to take care of her single mother and her family and also save some money for her future educational needs.  After a few years, she wanted to study and we got her into a good art school in Mysore.  Dr Vasantha, one of SVYM’s friend and well-wisher agreed to play host and asked Chikkaputti to stay with her during her studies.  Chikkaputti not only went to acquire a professional qualification in art and painting but also did very well in her final exams at the state level.

Unlike many of her contemporaries who still sought the support and network of SVYM to find jobs, Chikkaputti went on to find a job as a teacher in a school in Mysuru city.  She also married a person of her choice and settled down in Mysuru itself.  It was a few days ago that she called me asking me for help. I was happy to learn that she now had 2 little children and was keen on getting her first child aged 6 years admitted to a good school in Mysuru.  Here was this young woman lecturing me on the importance of education and what a good school would mean to her child.  When I asked her to use the RTE and apply to neighborhood schools for free education, her spontaneous response was that she did not need any support or subsidy for her children and could afford to send them to school on her own. What a long way she had come indeed from her life as a rebellious young girl wanting to avoid school at any cost to finding a good school for her children, whatever the price it entailed. As I sat reflecting on her and how she had shaped her life, I was left wondering what had actually changed – was it her social and economic mobility that had changed her focus towards schooling and education? Or was it the peer pressure of her neighbors and friends who all lived in Mysore and for whom schooling was a natural step in the phase of growing up.  Or was she seeking a sense of security for her children that schooling usually brings along. Whatever the reasons may be, Chikkaputti is part of the new India that is rising.  She belongs to a generation that is no longer satisfied with the status quo and are constantly seeking to better their lives.  All people like her need are opportunities and not doles that the state thinks the poor and marginalized need.


This article appeared in the Star of Mysore dated 24 05 17

Transf of Chikkaputti

Being moved…

Many of us use the phrase ‘being moved’…. It could be by a event or a person or a book that we read or a movie that we see…The impact of this phrase hit me fully a few days ago when I was in Hosahalli to attend the 27th Annual School day of Viveka Tribal Center for Learning (VTCL).  I had woken up that morning with a bad viral flu and was unsure if I could make the 2-hour drive from Mysore. Dr Ramkumar, the head of the education program at Hosahalli was keen that I come.  This was also because the students and teachers were together staging a play based on the history of the school.  The play was based on chosen anecdotes from my book ‘Hosa Kanasu’ in Kannada.  Pumping myself with an assortment of pharmaceutical agents, I reached the school in time for the evening event.

VTCL and Hosahalli has always had a special place in my heart. This was the place that I spent most of my time from 1988 to 2000.  I still carry fond memories of not just building the infrastructure but also filling the school with its soul along with close colleagues whose friendship I cherish till this date.  This was also the time when we faced our adversities with the greatest amount of bonding amongst the SVYM team.  As I sat nostalgically recollecting the days, I must mention that I was totally unprepared for the drama that the children enacted.  Over 40 minutes they literally relived my life of those days.  From setting up the school based on the Kanchi Shankaracharya’s suggestion, to the cow gifted by Swami Sureshanandaji – the play had everything.  Anecdotes of little Manju sharing his afternoon meal with his sister Sunanda; of Jadiya’s argument with me; to Muddiah convincing me to offer the traditional appeasements of tobacco and country liquor to the ‘spirits’ – so much was told in so little time.  As I sat watching the play, I was transported in time…. all the events of those days came rushing in. The people I had befriended, the elderly ‘yajamanas’ (tribal chieftains) who had become my friends and guides and the colleagues who had given so much of their lives for this cause.  Though I was forewarned that I would have to join the children on stage for the final climax, I was completely unprepared for the same.  The full import of the emotions of the movement descended on me and I found myself moved beyond belief.  Tears flowed freely down my cheeks and I just could not fathom how much inside me was getting moved.  I could hardly speak on stage and I quickly left after mumbling a few sentences on what the school meant to me.

I forced myself to have small talk with people in the vehicle on the journey back home hoping that it would somehow reduce the heightened emotions with me.  But this is not to be. Two days down the line, it seems very clear to me.  Amongst the many things that I have done in my life and with my life, the Hosahalli school will remain special.  It is here that I was truly schooled in the understanding of human development and the nuances of educating the educated indigenous tribal children.  It was here that l learnt that giving love was the surest way of receiving it in plenty. And it was here that I made some life long friends.  Hosahalli is not just a school to me…it is a place of pilgrimage which taught me how to be human and how to go beyond it too.