2nd September 2009

I have always had a distinct disdain for NGOs. Most of it comes from my previous experiences with people and organisations. Also, I am not in favour of thoughtless philanthropy. Hence, I have always believed that entrepreneurship is the more appropriate way to make a difference. I still stick by it but after meeting Dr. Bhushan Punani today, I have known the power of a good NGO.

Not often do you get to meet such people. Once in a while they come to IIM on some professor’s request to try and share their experiences. Out of a total of 500 students on campus, 20-25 turned up. Here, things like social entrepreneurship are not very popular though people use it for every GD they go to and every presentation they make. Anyway, Dr. Punani initially talked about the present day India and its achievements. Like everyone else he also believes that we stay in exciting times in this country. However, he then shifted focus to things about India which are so often talked about that we instantly lose interest when anyone talks about them. The talk seems clichéd and preachy. But here was a man who had not only spoken about it but also done something about it. Here was a man of action and not merely words.

Dr. Punani was talking about the state of rural India and its people. “Sometimes”, he said “It is difficult to imagine that we share the same country with these people. Even the state of animals is better.” He pointed out a few states like West Bengal and Orissa where the condition is particularly deplorable. He also talked about the issue of female foeticides and rigid customs which still plague this country. You may think you have heard and read about it umpteen times before. So what’s new? I can only tell you that one must hear it from someone who has travelled extensively in these interiors wanting to ameliorate conditions. It will hit you harder. (Of course, if you have not been completely de-sensitized already)

Coming back to the main point of discussion, Mr. Punani works for B.P.A - as Executive director, Blind People's Association. Mr. Punani has given blind people skills and enabled them to live a life of dignity. Today they have touched over a million lives across the world. This is what I call power! To make a difference to so many people in one lifetime! I think it’s an amazing achievement.

The most striking feature about B.P.A is that it does not depend on donations or charity for survival. It is a completely self-sustainable organisation. They generate millions out of systems they have set in place. Another interesting thing is that accounts of the organisation are available for public scrutiny. They have got a 100% clean sheet from the Gujarat government auditors too. N.R.Is seem to have a lot of trust in the transparency of the organisation. Also, the organisation claims to have never used any influence or bribe to get its projects implemented. In fact, Mr. Punani is ready to challenge to anyone who says nothing in India can be done without engaging in corruption at some level. The organisation also creates revenue out of portfolio management. B.P.A boasts of having one of the best PM systems as far as NGOs are concerned. B.P.A openly trades in the stock market and makes the most of other investment avenues. I think it is an excellent strategy. They have 4 websites, main one being www.bpaindia.org. They also get a lot of online donations.

It was the story of Kamlesh and Sonal that really made me sit up. Kamlesh was found when he was a small kid in a gutter abandoned by some gang which forced children to beg. Kamlesh was blinded by them (yes, a la Slumdog Millionaire). BPA found him and adopted him. There was a long process to get his custody. But, the organisation fought hard and won it. He now studies in the 10th Std. He wants to become a doctor (but he may not be allowed) just so that he can give something to people which he was robbed of in early childhood. Vision.

I felt really small when I heard Sonal’s story. Sonal would have never got out of a corner in her house had it not been for BPA. Blind girls and women in India spend their entire life being called a burden on their parents and relatives. Sonal has been a ranker throughout. School, 12th, Graduation, Post graduation. She is a teacher. She has won the award for the best teacher at the Gujarat University. You should have heard the pride in Mr. Punani’s voice when he talked about Sonal. I wish, some day someone talks about me with the same pride.

I hope BPA grows bigger and touches more lives. Mr.Punani said he just hoped to sensitise today’s youth. He neither wanted people to join NGOs nor did he want people to feel sorry for anyone. This talk was mainly to show people the opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid. After the talk, I thought to myself - the first step in being able to serve the bottom of the pyramid is to be sensitised about their problems, needs and aspirations. Learning for me was the fact that so many people are doing so many things. It is no fun sitting and thinking about it. The fun is almost always in DOING.

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