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India's new social entrepreneurs: making an impact where government fails

Tuesday November 22, 2011 03:34:48 PM, James Jose, IANS

New Delhi: Some merely debate on the great Indian urban-rural divide. But there are others who have resolved to do something about it and meeting with success in areas where even large government-funded programmes have failed to make an impact.

Indian professionals, many of whom led comfortable lives abroad, are increasingly giving up their well-paid jobs to become social entrepreneurs, bringing in the process modern-age management and perspective to solve basic problems like reaching power, water, education and healthcare to the millions.

Take the case of Gyanesh Pandey. A native of Baithania village in Bihar's West Champaran district, he was making mega bucks in Los Angeles in the semiconductor industry. But a chance conversation with a childhood friend persuaded him to return to his home state.

Pandey came back and with the help of friends to start Husk Power Systems, a company that provides electricity at dirt-cheap rates to villagers, using rice husk: A clean, simple solution, as the raw material is available in ample quantity.

"I had been trying for many years to do some work in rural electrification. But nothing worked out," Pandey, an electrical engineer from Benaras Hindu University, told IANS over phone from Patna.

But in 2007, the idea of producing inexpensive green power using husk struck Pandey who set up the first plant in Tamkuha, a remote village in West Champaran. Soon he was able to light up Tamkuha, which literally means fog of darkness in the local lingo.

Today, Husk Power runs 84 plants, lighting up the lives of over 350 villages and hamlets in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. They charge around Rs,.100 for 50 watt of power per month to a village household.

People like Pandey feel social entrepreneurs should not to be misunderstood with those doing philanthropy. They understand that a one-off dole or an odd project is not going to help the less privileged in a meaningful way.

"It is not about philanthropy," says Neelam Chhiber, co-founder of Industree, a social enterprise out of Bangalore that not only facilitates artisans to sell their wares in urban markets and earn more but also help them upgrade their skills.

"We look for market-led solutions, not for the corporate social responsibility type of solutions, because that is not going to be sustainable," said Chhiber, who also runs Mother Earth, a sustainable brand for food and fashion that is part producer-owned.

"We regularly conduct social audits. We found we can triple the incomes of artisans once they start working with us. We also use design as a tool to push producers up the value chain," said Chhiber, who even has funding from Kishore Biyani's Future Group.

Sudesh Menon, co-founder of Waterlife, has a similar story to share. Before coming back to India, he was the country head of General Electric in Malaysia. But Anji Reddy of Dr. Reddy's Lab persuaded him to join his mission on drinking water in rural India.

Peturbed by a UN finding that India ranked 120 out 122 nations on potable water quality, Menon toured the country-side and launched pioneering water purification systems. They charge Rs.3-5 for 20 litres of drinking water across 1,500 villages in six states.

"When we started this model, we were ridiculed by everybody -- government, bureaucracy. They said village people will never pay for water. But we proved all of them wrong," said Menon. "Our next target is urban slums."

(James Jose can be contacted at or





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