You walk into the egovernments office in Bangalore and it’s like any other start-up – a spartan, non-A/C office, with a few cartons lying around, no plush sofas to seat visitors, and a relaxed informal atmosphere.
Srikanth Nadhamuni, the man who set up egovernments, is dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, and is full of passion. Armed with a laptop, he makes his sales pitch about all that egovernments does and wants to achieve over the next five years – a pitch that’s good enough to convince venture capitalists to plonk down their millions.
Unfortunately for venture capitalists, though, Nadhamuni isn’t interested in turning egovernments into a billion-dollar spinning enterprise. His aim, rather, is to use technology to help involve a billion Indians into the process of governance.
Says Nadhamuni, “India produces $12 billion worth of software to solve the world’s problems. I always wondered why we can’t use the same technology and skills to help solve some of India’s problems.”
Nadhamuni is part of a growing breed of people who work in the social sector but, rather than define themselves as NGOs, see themselves as social entrepreneurs. They run their ventures with the same rigorous standards that exist in the private sector, publishing balance sheets, setting ambitious targets and high levels of accountability.
Like any entrepreneur, the men and women who have set up these organisations have started out small – touching a few lives at first, but live in the hope that their organisations will grow and touch more and more lives with every passing year. Their mantra: ‘Is what we are doing sustainable and, more importantly, is it scaleable?’
Ramesh Ramanathan, the founder of Janaagraha sums up the mood when he says, “In India you throw a stone and you will find a problem, so you can either decide to fix a band-aid on small hurts or try and solve the larger disease. To me it was clear that the latter is where I would want to focus my energies on.”
This new breed of social entrepreneurs is clear that there are structural issues, which need to be tackled and therefore all ventures need to be scaleable.
Says Dr GK Jayaram, the first-ever chairman of Infosys, who now runs ILID (Institute for Leadership and Institutional Development), an umbrella organisation of sorts, which works with social entrepreneurs, “This is a new phenomenon we are seeing, which didn’t exist a decade ago. These are no less entrepreneurs than Narayana Murthy.”
Jayaram, who has been involved with the social sector for decades, says that this charge is being led predominantly by professionals, many of who happen to be NRIs. What sets these social entrepreneurs apart from the NGOs of yore, according to Jayaram, is the fact that most of these people have a professional background and therefore they’re able to marry idealism with absolute corporate pragmatism.
Says Jayaram, “These are ambitious, efficient and impatient people who want results. The development sector has always had very good and well-meaning souls, but now we are seeing organisations coming up, which are interested in results.”
Nandan Nilekani, MD, Infosys, who has funded egovernments in his personal capacity, finds the change encouraging. Says Nilekani, “These are the real heroes. People like Srikanth, Krishna (R Srikrishna, COO egovernments) are all in the top 5% of professionals in the world and had cushy lives in the US. They have chucked it all to come and do something they believe in. They bring the much-needed professionalism and result-orientation into this sector.”
The change in approach is evident when you speak to Ashok Kamath who resigned his job as MD of Analog Devices to join and work with Akshara foundation, an organisation that works in the area of child literacy.
Says Kamath, “I don’t see much of a difference between these kinds of organisations and corporate organisations. The work is pretty similar and perhaps, one could even argue that it’s a lot harder out here.” Kamath sees his potential market as 150 million kids and his goal is to try and ensure that they are all learning well.
There may not be any money in it and the book-strewn office of Akshara may be a far cry from the air-conditioned plush corner office at Analog, but Kamath believes that for India, as an economy, to grow, it will need trained manpower and if he, along with his team at Akshara, can help play a part in that, it would be as much of an achievement as creating a billion-dollar company.
Says, Nadhamuni who has worked on the Pentium chip and with Netscape’s Jim Clark on Healtheon and WebMD, “When I was in the US for 12 years, I funded NGOs across India and while many of them were doing exceptional work, they often failed when it came to scaleability. When I decided to come back, I had a burning desire to work with the social sector, yet I was convinced that I had to work in an area where I could do more than touch a few lives, locally.”
Just in case you think that these people have the luxury of being strategy boys while someone else does all the hard work, think again. Most of them are extremely hands-on and are working at the grassroots level.
Says Jayaram, “Perhaps, the best thing about this new breed is they have realised that you can’t be hands off. They realise that the issues are too large for anyone who cares to stay on the sidelines.”
So while Nadhamuni speaks at conferences dealing with the issue of governance, he also spends much time travelling all over the countryside to understand implementation issues that exist.
The other distinguishing factor about these social entrepreneurs is that they believe that part of the goal is to ensure greater public consciousness and participation about the social issues in the country. They insist that there needs to be, as Kamath puts it, “a greater public-private partnership”.
The government, in their eyes, has a crucial role to play and so does the public in order to improve the nation’s social balance sheet. Akshara, for example, recently helped augment the state education system by doing a series of reading workshops.
Says Kamath, “A third of the children in class VII cannot read, and we believed that it was important to address this issue. We did a pilot in two schools to convince both teachers and the government that we could make a difference.”
Post the exercise, Akshara was asked to implement the same in 130 schools and the government paid the bill. Kamath believes that this is something that can be replicated across. Says Kamath, “The way I see it, Akshara looks at an issue, finds a possible solution, test pilots it and then does a technology transfer by training people who can implement the solution.”
Janaagraha, for example, has done a lot of work with the city administration of Bangalore in the area of public financial management. And while this might have helped the city get a better grip on its finances, Ramanathan sees this as only the first step towards the larger goal of public participation in city affairs.
Says Ramanathan, “Fixing the financial management system is actually just plumbing the system for information flows.” Flows that he believes will empower the people who are today being hampered by the lack of information. Says Ramanathan, “Citizens are the cornerstone of our work. The buck ultimately stops with the citizen.”
Nadhamuni echoes Ramanathan saying that while many would like to see egovernments as a technology company helping the government become more efficient in its business – it’s just a smaller part of the story.
According to him, the focus of egovernments is to ensure that the populace at large is more involved with governance. Says Nadhamuni, “While we help governments increase their efficiency in revenue collection through our products, we believe that it’s imperative that the government also share the data with the public.”
Nadhamuni believes that until things become more transparent, citizens cannot take an active part in governance and therefore all the software that egovernments makes ensures that any information processed through it is available to the public at large.
Says Nadhamuni, “This (the sharing of information) is non-negotiable. Either you accept the whole package or nothing at all.”
The underlying philosophy of all these organisations is that for social change to be brought about you need greater involvement from the man on the street. Says Jayaram, “We must realise that islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty cannot last forever. It’s imperative that there’s a greater involvement shown by the haves towards the have-nots to bridge inequality.”
He believes that one of the greatest achievements of these social entrepreneurs is that they have helped the nation take baby steps towards defining a common humanity. Nilekani says it’s commendable that these people have chosen to bring their skills back to solve complex problems.:
“The real impact of the work being done by these organisations today will be felt in the next 10 years. There’s a huge gap between what we desire and where we are. Hopefully these interventions will accelerate the path.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously stated, “Not gold, but only man can make people great and strong.” Now as India stands on the verge of being an economic superpower, there seems to be emerging a set of people who seem to have taken that statement to heart.
One could argue perhaps, that Dr GK Jayaram is, in a manner of speaking, the father of the social entrepreneur movement. ILID (Institute for Leadership and Institutional Development www.ilid.org) is an umbrella organisation that helps social entrepreneurs focus their efforts more sharply and chalk out their long-term strategy.
Says Jayaram, “The sandpit in which we (ILID) play should be all of the sub-continent. The aim of ILID is to develop and enable the present and future leaders of India in three sectors – education, healthcare, and politics (including governance/civil service).
Jayaram believes that until social sector organisations are willing to become more accountable, and think like corporates do when it comes to issues like scaleability and sustainibility, will the good intentions with which they were set up remain good intentions.
Jayaram believes that it’s therefore, imperative that there should be an organisation which can guide social organisations and help them through their growing pains. Says Jayaram, “The infant mortality in this sector is high and, while in the initial phases, one can live off idealism, after a while the harsh realities catch up.”
He says the lack of a route map and benchmarks can often throw social organisations off-track and one of ILID’s aim is to try and ensure that this doesn’t happen. The number of organisations that ILID is involved with is numerous and perhaps, the one challenge that exists is finding more volunteers to work with it, so that the organisation can work with even more organisations.
Srikanth Nadhamuni set up egovernments two years ago. Prior to setting it up, he spent six months scouting around for an opportunity in the social sector where he could marry his professional skills with his passion to do something for the nation.
Says Nadhamuni, “As I talked to more and more people I realised that many of our problems could be traced back to one thing, and that is governance or lack of it.”
Nadhamuni also realised that there was tremendous potential in harnessing the power of IT to address this key issue haunting the nation. Says Nadhamuni, “I thought to myself, as to what could make governance more efficient than IT? And more importantly, the greater the use of technology in governance, the more we can eliminate discretionary powers that exist today.”
He wrote a white paper on the subject, and around the same time happened to be introduced to Nandan Nilekani. A few months down the line Nilekani decided to back Nadhamuni and egovernments were born.
Today, the company makes software in varied areas for state governments and government bodies.
The software is given away free under one condition, and ie the state has to disclose all the information it collects through the software to the public. Nadhamuni believes that while his software helps governments improve their efficiency when it comes to things like collecting property tax, it also ensures that the government shares all the data openly with its citizens.
Says Nadhamuni, “The public apathy we see today is largely because there’s no public disclosure made. The government sector is much larger than the private sector and yet there’s no reporting of data by it.”
Egovernments already has a whole suite of products, which are in the market such as products for property tax, ward works and birth and death certificates (for more details visit www.egovernments.org). They are already working with governments of Karnataka, Delhi and Punjab, to name a few, with some of these governments acknowledging that there has been a remarkable improvement in efficiency since marrying IT with governance.
The motto of Janaagraha is a fairly simple one: ‘Be the change you want to see.’ For Ramesh Ramanathan nothing’s more important than involving with and trying to give a voice to the public at large on issues that affect their lives.
Ramanathan spent many years in the West, and says, that for a while, like most other Indians, he attributed his phenomenal success there to the fact that Indians are smart people.
Says Ramanathan, “It took me a while to realise that there was an invisible system, which really brought out the best in people and explained our success.” Ramanathan also realised that India had no such system, and if as a nation, it was ever to become great, it would be imperative to build this invisible backbone. And so he and his wife, Swati, decided to come back to India to do this.
Having decided to enter the social sector, the Ramanathans decided that they will focus their work on urban India. Says Ramanathan, “We could have chosen to work in rural India, but we chose urban India because both Swati and I have been born and brought up in urban India. This is where our roots are, and there’s so much to be done here as well.”
It took a few months before they came up with the concept of Janaagraha and set up shop. Ramanathan was astonished by the disarray in which the city finances were. He says, “The way the government was handling finances was akin to the way you handle the pocket money for your child.”
Over the past few years, Janaagraha (www.janaagraha.org) has worked closely with the Bangalore city authorities to try and put in place better financial management systems, and simultaneously it has been trying to raise public consciousness. Janaagraha is working hard to make the urban citizen politically more relevant.
It worries him that Karnataka’s population is 33% urban, and yet finds only 18% representation politically, and also that local elections draw a lower voter turnout than national or state elections. Says Ramanathan, “World over, local elections always register the highest turnouts.”
Ramanathan believes that over the next two years, the fruits of all these years of hard work should pay off and then, Janaagraha will be ready to expand beyond Bangalore. He says, “Just like the private sector, we must learn to do things well on a small scale before expanding our horizons. This isn’t about personal salvation, but about trying to ensure that we can deliver value in the areas we have chosen to work in.”