“When my wife, Shyama, and I returned to India after living overseas for 22 years, we were looking to bridge the need gap in health care for children,” Nihal Kaviratne, founder of St Jude India ChildCare Centres, said, looking back on the years that gave rise to his chain of centres for cancer-affected children from rural India.
After an exhausting run of non-governmental organisations and hospitals, and long deliberations with friends and family, the Kaviratnes found themselves staring at a thick bunch of intractable problems, but what stood out was the sheer magnitude and corrosive impact that cancer had on the lives of patients and families. A tragedy made doubly deadly for children from rural areas who were felled as much by the disease as by the lack of care and nutrition needed for recuperation. And thus came about the philanthropic venture that has won the 2019 Business Standard award for Social Enterprise.
St Jude India was chosen by a five-member jury, chaired by Tata Institute of Social Sciences Chairman S Ramadorai. The other winners are M R Madhavan, founder of PRS Legislative Research, as the Social Entrepreneur of the Year, and L&T Finance Holdings as the Socially Aware Corporate of the Year. All the winners beat several strong contenders. Madhavan was honoured for doing what every democracy needs, helping build an aware and informed political class and electorate, and laying the framework for a strong Parliament and state legislatures.
L&T Finance Holdings (LTFH) was picked out for the scale and gender-inclusive work of its digital literacy initiative in rural India, Digital Sakhi.
The jury deliberated on a number of parameters before settling on a winner for each of the categories. “The outcome measures (for choosing the winners) were absolutely critical,” Chairman Ramadorai said. In the end, it was the jury’s conviction that the impact must be seen and felt that helped identify the winners of the year, he elaborated.
Ramadorai led a jury made of the strongest names from the social sector: Bain Capital Private Equity Chairman Amit Chandra, GiveIndia Director & CEO Atul Satija, Pratham Co-founder Farida Lambay, and Indian School of Public Policy founder-Director Luis Miranda.
The Business Standard Awards for Social Excellence have been instituted to recognise key initiatives taken up by corporates, enterprises, and individual entrepreneurs to create meaningful changes in society. The Awards have always managed to attract some of the best names in the sector, and this year, competition for the most Socially Aware Corporate was particularly intense. But for the jury, the one that stood tallest in the shortlist was LTFH and its Digital Sakhi project.
Equality is a hard-fought battle in every sphere, making it difficult for governments and corporations to ensure an even spread of their efforts. For the team at LTFH, the big challenge was untangling digital finance for rural communities from gender-discriminatory practices. Their work laid bare the sharp inequalities that mark the sector in rural areas and set the stage for Digital Sakhi.
“In the entire journey of digital finance to empower low-income communities, digital financial inclusion still remains difficult for rural communities, particularly women,” said Dinanath Dubhashi, CEO of LTFH. The Digital Sakhi programme (FY17-18) seeks to empower rural women by training them in digital financial literacy and imparting them with requisite leadership skills, all with the aim of creating a legion of women micro-entrepreneurs and influencers.
Dubhashi pointed out that one of the biggest takeaways from the early years of the programme was that women needed to be trained in much more than financial matters, that it was as important to teach them about the internet and money as it was to impart leadership skills and confidence. As it is with almost every aspect of the social sector, there is a need to adopt a communal approach for maximum impact.
The initiative has not just built confident entrepreneurs, but has also created role models for the community. The programme that started with Maharashtra has since been adapted for Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal.
For the jury, the work done by LTFH stood out for the scale and impact of the project. The jury took a particular note of gender diversity, rural impact, rural presence, and scalability for the future that the Digital Sakhi initiative had achieved, Ramadorai said.
Impact was also one of the big reasons that drew the jury towards St Jude India ChildCare Centres, founded by Nihal and Shyama Kaviratne, that won the Social Enterprise of the year. A St Jude Centre is a home away from home, for families travelling with their children to the big city for cancer treatment. Beginning with eight families in one centre in 2006, today St Jude India operates 39 centres and supports nearly 500 families at any given time in nine cities across India.
“The centres have seen over 20,000 admissions over the past 14 years, giving them (families and children) over 800,000 nights of peaceful sleep,” said Nihal Kaviratne.
The initiative, diligently built up over the years, was born out of a rash promise. “On January 27, 2006, I was called up on the stage at the Children’s Cancer Day function at Tata Memorial Hospital, and a mike was thrust into my hand. I looked down on the sea of little faces, all bald, all wearing masks, all with IV ports stuck in their arms, joyful but expectant. I made a rash promise. No child from a village or small town coming in for treatment at a hospital in a large city like Mumbai, accompanying parents, would have to suffer living on the streets.” He said his friends and family were aghast at what he had called upon himself at first, but soon rallied around to help.
Institutions such as this help battle not just the disease but also the miasma of fear and alarm around it, the jury averred. For Kaviratne, the journey has just begun. He believes that there will come a time when no child from a village or small town coming in for cancer treatment at a hospital in a large city with accompanying parents, will have to suffer living on the streets.
His conviction and commitment to the work at hand is mirrored by M R Madhavan, who won the Social Entrepreneur of the year award for his venture, PRS Legislative Research.
Madhavan is determined to do what it takes to strengthen democracy in the country, by supporting democratic institutions and building awareness among the political class that is entrusted with its care. He recalls with utmost clarity when the bug bit him. “When I worked with ICICI Securities, I had volunteered with Pratham and got interested in contributing to large scale change,” and that is how he, a career finance professional, set about becoming an upholder for democratic values and systems.
Democracy is not just about an electoral process or an institution, it is a knot of invisible strands that need nurturing and care and its lifeblood is an aware and vocal citizenry and political class. Without these, democracy is just a hollowed out version of the real thing. And it is here that PRS Legislative Research has made huge strides, not just as a key aide to Parliamentarians but also through its Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellowship that initiates young Indians to learn law-making and public policy.
It has been a challenging journey thus far and Madhavan recalls how the project nearly ran aground. “We had tied up with a couple of foreign foundations but did not get the government permission to take their funds. This led to a severe cash crunch, but fortunately, several Indian philanthropists stepped in,” whose generosity has carried them through the last nine years, he said.
PRS, Madhavan believes, is delivering a public good and the work must be accessible to everyone and hence has to be sustained through philanthropic funding. It is a tough ask in times such as these, but one that is vital to the functioning of a democracy, the jury felt.
Ramadorai said there was no doubt about the huge impact of Madhavan’s work on the country’s legislative processes and democratic institutions. He also appreciated the work done by Deloitte, partner to the Business Standard Social Excellence Awards, commending the diligence involved in the drawing up of the list of entries and presenting their case to the jury.