Fwd: [karmayog] Talk at IIT SPARK, Mumbai
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From: karmayog - tanya
Talk at IIT SPARK on 28th Sept. 2013
by Vinay Somani, www.karmayog.org
[SPARK's aim is to showcase thought provoking, ingenious and inspiring ideas by IITB alumni who are doing something different or the same thing differently.]
I am really delighted to be back at IIT today. A campus setting and nostalgic memories are a wonderful setting for me. I would like to thank Mahendra Kapadia, Dipak Sheth, Himanshu Arora and Siddharth Verma -- Committee Members, Mumbai Chapter IITBAA for inviting me to speak at SPARK.
Mahendra spoke to me at length explaining the idea and concept behind Spark, and told me that he himself was familiar with Karmayog and that he has been inspired by what we do. He explained that the whole idea of Spark is to motivate people, and felt that the audience would be motivated if I just talk about the Karmayog journey.
Before I tell you about Karmayog, I would like to share some of my experiences and learnings at IIT, as they are linked with what we do at Karmayog.
Some of you’ll may recall that there were only table fans in our rooms. One student got a ceiling fan installed, and as you can expect, this caused quite a ruckus in our hostel, and he was asked to remove it. But some of us realized that it made sense as each new occupant wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of buying a table fan. We took up the issue about installing ceiling fans in all rooms. We got a good discount from a manufacturer and in the next summer vacation, ceiling fans were installed by the institute in all the rooms of our hostel (Hostel 2).
In our Chemical Engineering class, we had to use Slide Rules and Log Tables to solve problems. This was not only frustrating but also reduced the quality of the questions that professors could set in the exams, as a lot of time had to be kept aside for number-crunching. Only a few of us had calculators. The HOD (Head Of the Department) said that only if everyone had calculators, would it be allowed in exams, and he would not force anyone to buy one. I think that the cost of a calculator was around Rs. 200/- then. (This may seem trivial but our entire mess bill for a month was Rs. 160.) A calculator manufacturer came to exhibit in the Convocation Foyer. We negotiated a good bargain from them. From what I recall, they sold each calculator to us at Rs. 50/- -- perhaps hoping to supply calculators to all of IIT. Our entire class bought them. And our exams were easier -- as well as tougher -- thereafter!
Confidence in our abilities to solve problems
I recall a joke that I think all of us have heard. A bright American, Russian, Chinese and Indian were asked how much time they would need to prepare for a complex exam that involved learning a new language and new techniques. Their replies ranged from a few months to a year that they needed. When the Indian, an IITian, was asked the same question, he replied, “Tell me one day before the exam.”
As IITians, we have an innate confidence in our ability to achieve anything, no matter how difficult it may seem. We all remember our IIT days when we knew that we could achieve whatever we wanted – it just depended on how much we wanted to do it.
Once we were out in the real world though, we started facing a daily slow attrition to this sense of confidence – from family, friends, peers at work, our bosses and seniors, and many of us started doubting ourselves. Our spouses married us for our brilliance (or so we like to think) but within less than a month, we could no longer win any argument!
Strengths of IITians
But the reason for this I feel is that most IITians are not very good people-persons and hence strive for discussions that are more logical and less emotional, more rational and less organic and free-flowing. We don’t think that it’s worth our time to convince people about our ideas.
While it would be great to develop people skills, my learning is that when we have clarity on what we are doing and why we are doing that, there are enough people around who will value it and join in our efforts. So therefore we should not look for a support eco-system and for large groups of supporters from only amongst your own set of contacts or people that we know. That support will come automatically once you start doing something.
As an IITian, our strength is that we are able to think more analytically about things and therefore offer better solutions to problems. We should therefore all start walking the path of the solution. Once we do that, people will start joining in with support.
So my strong learning from IIT has been that any problem can be solved, and it doesn’t necessarily take much effort or money to solve them. And this has shaped my attitude in life.
What is important in life?
I think the intense MBA program in USA, made me strongly imbibe the concept that “time is money”. There’s this whole inordinate importance given to time, so much so, that I struggle even today to remind myself that this is a wrong concept.
As a result of this belief that “time is money”, we don’t take up things that we feel will take up more time, as we think that ‘time’ itself is of great value. What is of great value is the activity that you want to do in that time. There is a negative factor in our minds that prevents us from doing what we want to do or like to do.
Another example is where we think that money is very important in our lives. While money is no doubt important, it is basically a means, not a goal.
As we grow older, our lives get weighed down by responsibilities, problems, pulls and pressures, and it becomes difficult to believe that time and money are not such important determining factors.
Life is actually about living. To regain a sense of what this means, we should all mentally go back to our IIT days, when whatever we did was devoid of constraints of time and money. And invariably, every IITian I meet tends to recall their IIT days as the best period in their lives.
I have found that another way to get a sense of this freedom where one can live and work in a relatively unconstrained way is by taking up small issues that interest us, along with everything else that we do. So we are not disturbing our current activities, and in such instances I have found that time makes its own space to fit in such activities, and we get a renewed perspective about money.
I have said all this to emphasize that its quite simple to do meaningful things.
Now let me share some of our initiatives through Karmayog. (I hope all of you’ll have got a copy of our brochure.)
Starting Karmayog from Findstone
The idea for Karmayog came from Findstone.com, a B2B portal founded by me, for the construction stone industry, that puts buyers and sellers in contact with each other. From this it was fairly easy to develop similar software for Karmayog, where NGOs could display their profiles and needs, and people like us could convey our interest in volunteering our time and skills. Within a year of putting up the Karmayog website, we had 1000s of NGOs and Volunteers listed and this became India’s only such online directory. Today, we have 3900 volunteers listed in Mumbai alone, and 25,000 NGOs listed from across India, with 1500 NGOs from Mumbai. Karmayog offers unlimited web-space to NGOs through which they can upload and share information about their work. This was an entirely simple thing to do with no meaningful cost, yet it has been able to achieve so much. For instance, many small NGOs outside of the big cities use the Karmayog platform and web-sections to reach out to potential donors, request for volunteers, create awareness, and work on advocacy issues.
This is fact led to our next initiative, when Mumbai was affected by a cloudburst and floods in 2005. The online NGO database and list of volunteers available enabled us at Karmayog to link NGOs working on rescue and relief at the ground, with volunteers and donors who wanted to help. We also assisted the BMC in setting up an NGO Coordination Committee for the relief and rehabilitation work, where the main role of the Committee was to link government with NGOs and affected persons who need help. Again this role was an absolutely simple one, but with huge life-saving impact.
The NGO Coordination Committee led to discussions with BMC to set up an NGO Council of Mumbai NGOs who would formally engage with government bodies, both in times of disaster as well as throughout the year, so that inputs and contributions of NGOs could assist in government projects and programmes. In Dec. 2005, the NGO Council and MCGM signed an MoU for Good City Governance. The forming of the NGO Council and signing of the MoU again turned out to be a really simple thing to do.
Solid Waste Rules
Under the MoU with BMC, one of the first initiatives that the NGO Council took was to frame a set of Rules for the Management of Solid Waste in Mumbai. 9 years after a Supreme Court order in 1996, Mumbai still had no Rules on how to manage its solid waste, and the NGO Council worked over a period of a few months with BMC and several stakeholders – resident associations, plastic bag manufacturers, recyclers, rag-picker associations, animal welfare NGOs, public health workers -- to give inputs for this law, including suggested fines for littering, spitting, etc. and this was how the Solid Waste Rules for Mumbai came into being. Once again a simple matter of co-ordinating between various stakeholders to benefit from their years of experience and expertise.
After framing the Solid Waste Rules, we saw that the active and formal involvement of citizens in the implementation of government programmes and schemes is necessary for their successful implementation. We hence co-ordinated with BMC and citizen groups in a similar fashion, resultingin the Local Area Citizen Group (LACG) Charter in 2006.
In 2007, Karmayog engaged in a year long programme with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) titled the Mumbai Pact Against Corruption (M-PAC).
One of the simplest and most effective initiatives under M-PAC was a mobile ACB van that was stationed outside government offices across Mumbai to create awareness amongst citizens about not paying a bribe, and explaining the process of lodging a complaint if a bribe was demanded.
Online suggestion and complaint forms
Our interactions with BMC and ACB led us to develop simple online suggestion and complaint forms where citizens could complain (even anonymously) and offer suggestions regarding civic issues in Mumbai, corruption in government offices across India, consumer issues and traffic solutions. All filled forms are posted on our website, circulated to the discussion group, as well as forwarded to the relevant authorities where possible.
It’s again an extremely simple method with far-reaching impact which can be, and we hope will be, replicated by others in their cities or states.
Since 2007, Karmayog has undertaken an annual study and rating of the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives of the largest 500 listed companies in India. The objective of the study was to learn about initiatives being undertaken by corporates in the social sector, and how NGOs could collaborate with corporates in different ways. The rating showed that a large number of corporates were doing no CSR, despite industry associations working to persuade the government that CSR should be voluntary and that corporates would self-regulate re: CSR. The data collected through the Karmayog studies over 4 years showed that without legislation, even many of India’s largest corporates would do no CSR. This data and reports helped the government make the decision to include the clause on CSR in the new Companies Bill that has been recently been enacted.
Donate books, Receive books
We also have an on-going Donate Books, Receive Books initiative where we encourage people to donate all kinds of books. These donated books are delivered to NGOs that need them, such as NGOs working with childrenor senior citizens, NGOs with libraries or running schools, and study centres. The Karmayog office at Fort is a collection centre and over 25,000 books have been donated and distributed in the last 3 years. It’s proven to be a simple ongoing useful project for us.
Message and Conclusion:
So this is my message to all of you -- Each of the initiatives that we do at Karmayog are actually simple but lead to high impact and provide valuable learnings.
Time, Money and People are not the real constraints that are stopping us from getting involved in initiatives that can bring about change in society.
It is very easy for all of us to get involved in one small issue and find a solution for that. And we, at Karmayog, are always there with the eco-system to help out -- to put you in touch with others who can add value to your initiative.
My hope is that everyone present here today will start something; that each of you will say, “I have an idea, I am going to take it up!”
I myself regret that I did not get involved in such initiatives earlier in my life, because I kept looking up at people who had achieved more in life, who had more in life, thinking that once I had reachedthere, then I would start thinking about other things.
Instead of looking up, I should have just looked around me at all the people who could benefit from what I had to offer and could do, at that point only.
I remember a statement made by President, Dr. Abdul Kalam, at the PanIIT event in Mumbai in 2006, where he said that IITians are the best that India has to offer, and exhorted IITians to ensure "there should be little bit of IIT in every Indian!".
If we take up social impact causes, we will be taking a step in that direction!
Thank you for listening.