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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Social entrepreneurs make it their business to change India

They call themselves social entrepreneurs, and their 'business' is to make the world a better place. Using various roles, these men and women across India are getting there, and gaining praise for their innovativeness.

A social entrepreneur recognises a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organise, create, and manage a venture to make social change. Unlike business entrepreneurs, they don't measure performance in profit and returns, but assess success by the impact they have on society and often work through nonprofits and citizen groups.

Pioneering Indian names like Stan Thekaekara, Milind Ranade, Vishal Talreja, Sunil Abraham, Anand Shah, Rahul Barkatky and Shalabh Sahai, among others, are building and sharing ideas for how entrepreneurs can help re-engineer society.

Recently, the first international conference on social entrepreneurship was held in India, at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). It was coordinated by a Britain-based organisation called, not without a touch of irony, UnLtd.

UnLtd's development consultant Pooja Warier told this writer: "As the first in a planned series of annual gatherings, the conference aimed to celebrate social entrepreneurship as a tool for social change, encourage the development of social entrepreneurship in India, and create mutually beneficial links between social entrepreneurs and institutions."

It brought together 85 individuals and organisations from India and Europe, including social entrepreneurs, organisations that support them, and academics. UnLtd's director of ventures Sarah Dodds says this organisation "strongly believes in the power of individuals to change the community and eventually the world." After working in the UK, UnLtd says it is now looking at social entrepreneurs in India.

Institutions like the UK-based Oxford University 's Skoll Centre, Prof Anil Gupta's Honey Bee Network, Ashoka, UnLtd and NMIMS (Narsee Monjee Institute of Management and Higher Studies) have been supporting the work of such individuals.

Stan Thekaekara of Just Change attempted a deconstruction of the concept of Social Entrepreneurship from the perspective of people who struggle to live everyday. He shared his experiences of working with the adivasis of the Niligiris.

For over two decades, Stan and his wife Mari, worked alongside the adivasis for their social, political and land rights. They began with helping the adivasis to reclaim the land that had been usurped by the non-tribals. Soon they had to begin working on issues of health, education, livelihoods -- issues that were critical to the growth of the adivasi community.

Stan then talked about his latest venture, Just Change, that expands the concept of fair trade and is working towards a system of production for the common man and by the common man.

Vishal Talreja of Dream a Dream gave up his career as a successful investment banker in Mumbai to transform the dream of his 12 young friends, all hailing from diverse backgrounds and united towards a common cause. Dream a Dream today builds life skills of over 500 children in Bangalore.

Shalabh Sahai and Rahul Barkatky, of Mitra Technology Foundation, have given up a lot of high-paying jobs to pursue their dream of bringing about social change by leveraging on the very skills that help businesses succeed.

MITRA Technology Foundation owns and manages India's largest volunteer placement initiative, iVolunteer .

Milind Ranade of KVSS, the Waste Collectors and Transporters Union, began his journey while travelling in a bus, happening happened to notice a garbage truck that was smelling awfully, with workers eating their food sitting on the same garbage dump.

Sunil Abraham, of MAHITI in Bangalore, aims to help voluntary organisations with IT solutions. He feels though that social entrepreneurship is a western concept, a concept that is market-friendly and places too much spotlight on the social entrepreneurs.

Change Loom is an awards programme to encourage and support social action by young people across India. The awards have been jointly launched by Pravah and Ashoka Foundation with support from the Youth and Civil Society Initiative of the Sir Ratan Tata Trust in 2005.

Anand Shah, co-founder of Indicorps, explains that the organisation was created with the aim of leveraging Non Resident Indians (NRIs), India's immigrant diaspora, for India's development. The organisation provided opportunities for NRIs to dedicate one to two years volunteering with organisations in India.

The 2007-formed UnLtd is a charitable organisation set up by seven leading organisations that promote social entrepreneurship.Silver Innings,Massom,Grassroots,Blind with Camera,Toy Bank are some of the investees of Unltd India

Following the meet, participants decided to create a network of social entrepreneurs "to share stories and experiences, to provide a learning platform for young social entrepreneurs, to pool information on various resources, and to connect peers internationally."

Tata Institute of Social Sciences director Dr S Parasuraman has argued that India is in a paradoxical state, with a few individuals accumulating wealth whereas a vast majority are losing livelihoods, are landless and are continuously marginalised. From this, he said, arises the need for entrepreneurial approaches towards social change.

Some examples from India are already being pointed to as successful models of social entrepreneurship -- SEWA, Just Change, Chidline, Fair Trade Forum, Barefoot College, and Aravind Eye Care. dings of the interior.

Scholars like Prof Anil Gupta, of the HoneyBee network (which works to pick up and promote innovation from the grassroots and rural areas) argue that besides the 'natural capital' of natural resources, what is also important is social capital, intellectual capital, and ethical capital or "the guiding forces from within us".

Brazil's Constitution provides the right to health. But what rights do people have if their definition of "health" lies outside that of biomedicine? How are different knowledges negotiated as health policy defined? And what happens when policies designed to implement the principle of universality that underpins the national health system contradicts the expressed needs of a particular group?

He points to amazing stories of grassroots innovators, such as Mohammed Saidullah who invented a cycle that can be used in water and on the road, Dhanjibhai Karai who was behind a scooter for the handicapped, Ramya Jose who invented a pedal operated washing machine, and Appachan who created an instrument to climb coconut trees.

By Frederick Noronha,a Goa-based writer and researcher


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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