“The poor are not the raw material for salvation”, warned the very wise Liam Black in this wonderful letter to the fictitious, aspiring social entrepreneur Jude. I recalled these words during my meeting with Ram Subramanian, activist and head of Sustainable Development of a rather prominent organisation. Ram was amused how people wear the garb of being the saviours of the world’s downtrodden and go about collecting awards and other recognition along the way.
Ram bemoaned how the solutions that are offered by these well-meaning social entrepreneurs are piecemeal and do not really consider the whole picture. For instance, some social enterprises offer revenue streams for those that need them but do not address how to keep the money in circulation within the economy. Instead, the monies earned by the beneficiaries are often frittered away leading to a cycle of dependence.
He spoke passionately about the plight of women in villages around Vellore town who roll agarbattis (incense sticks) for 16 hours a day and got paid for pittance for it. He anguished over how the companies employing them are flagrantly flouting the minimum wages set by the Tamilnadu government and how the women sadly remain unaware of what they are entitled to.
Yet, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Ram’s eyes lit up while talking about a friend who has found innovative solutions to appalling healthcare issues which were costing newborns their lives. He spoke with pride about a recent initiative where community groups of women grew herbs, made oils and sold them at local markets. They built rapport with their client base and used intuitive abilities to market their products.
Ram and his team are on a mission to make the Indian rural economy sustainable. As he talks of his plans, Ram bristles with restless energy. He is a benevolent brigand with daring imagination to change the system from within. His enthusiasm is contagious and I came away feeling infinitely hopeful for India.