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[We are delighted to share that a hindi transcript of this talk is also available here]
Guest: Venkat Krishnan
Host/Moderator: Nipun Mehta
Nipun: Welcome everyone to Awakin Talks. The purpose of these calls is to hold conversations and explore ideas at the intersection of Social Change and Inner Transformation. We have a very special guest today that many people are very excited about, Venkat Krishnan.
The hour is slated to be an open-ended conversation. Venkat and I have been friends for a long time and have explored similar ideas for a while as well. If at any point in our conversation, if you have comments or questions, you just have to submit the form on the live stream page. We have an entire crew of inspired volunteers and they are going to make sure that we are in harmony with the technology because you never know how this is going to go.
Before we get started though, we want to anchor ourselves in a minute of silence as we always do. A minute of silence before we introduce Venkat and we begin our conversation. Thank you. Thank you again.
My name is Nipun Mehta and today I am delighted to moderate a conversation with a dear friend and an inspiration, Venkat Krishnan. As most of you know, he is most known as the founder of Give India that has facilitated crores of rupees of donations for the NGO sector. He has also pioneered mass movements like the Mumbai marathon and Daan Utsav, called the Joy of Giving week in its early days. And it has been really to inspire generosity, whether money or time. His work has impacted directly or indirectly, millions of lives. He is a hero to the entire non-profit sector in India. He doesn’t care much if you know his name; what he does care is that you engage with the values and the work he has initiated. He is the kind of guy -- he will donate blood, he will take the rickshaw over a cab, or eat at home and save the money, so he can give it to others.
In his early years, I don’t know if it is still true, Venkat -- in his early years, he was known to live just out of 2 bags. He is a simple person. Yet what is most impressive for me, having known him for a couple of decades, is the longevity of service. He has been at it for a long time now -- in one way, shape, or form. Given his credentials, he could have done anything but he is choosing to do this really remarkable work with an untiring mind. So it’s a real joy and honor to know Venkat and have him in this conversation.
And I should add, before I get to the first question here, of the infamous story that I was reminded of. We just got a comment from Jayeshbhai in Singapore and I think the first time Venkat and I got to know each other, maybe we met once before, I don’t know, but this was close to 20 years ago, maybe. Both of us were invited to speak to this very influential group of trustees, of a non-profit. Jaya Bachchan was one of their trustees. We were both going from Mumbai to Matheran, so we thought let us car pool. We were sitting in the car. We started chatting and I think that was our first deep conversation and what we figured out, and it has always been the case since then, we figured out that Venkat was an outcome guy, and I was a process guy. At least that’s how everybody put it. Now that we have spent many years doing this, both of us would say of course, it is not an Either/Or, it is a Yes/And. You need the process to get good outcomes and you need the outcomes to ensure you are following the right process. But we have always teased each other about it over the years and my claim to fame -- (Venkat, this is true!) -- I say that, “Look, Venkat is willing to have an agenda-less meeting with me!” I don’t think he has that with too many people, but I am delighted that we have these no-reason conversations. And Venkat, I am delighted to welcome you to another agenda-less conversation. Thank you for joining in, and being here and for your life long work.
Venkat: Thanks Nipun. Am wondering whether you are actually using a virtual screen because I can not see the halo around your head.
Nipun: Yes! Venkat, before we start firing each other with questions, I want to lead off with a question. And the question is really about the current state of the world we are in. And you know we are in the pandemic, in a lockdown, its effects are disproportionately distributed. And I think I want to start there. And ask you, this is clearly a game changer, but which game is it changing and which direction is it changing from? And there are lots of question marks around there. You are tuned into so many data points on the ground as well as at the systems level. So from your lens of India, what do you see? What are the challenges but also where do you think there are opportunities? Howzat for a “nice to see you, Venkat” conversation?
Venkat: Sure! You know, I think the impact is at so many different levels and in so many different areas, that I will try and stick to the areas we know a little more about. On the downside, the big impact is about how many millions of people it is going to push back into poverty in a country like India. In one swoop. I think, no government policy had the capability of causing as much harm as this pandemic and the estimates vary between 100 to 300 million people getting pushed back into poverty, which is roughly 8 years of good work that it takes -- to bring that many people out of poverty, that is going to go back. So it is like one step forward, 8 steps back kind of a thing. So that is a big, big challenge that I think we see here.
But also on the positive side, if you ask me, every time there is a large scale natural disaster, you can always see human generosity coming forward. I have seen that in the last 20 years, through various earthquakes, cyclones, disasters. I almost have a cynical joke that every time there is a disaster, the non-profits will thrive kind-of-a-thing because there is a huge outpouring of generosity out there.
But this time, it has been a lot more different than it has been in a traditional disaster, in the sense that the generosity has not just been with people going out and giving money, which they always do in any disaster, but in unprecedented ways, people have volunteered their time. And there is a sheer large number of communities and groups of people going out on the streets and doing their own bit, and forming into groups and engaging in service to alleviate the suffering of those impacted. And that to me is really, really good.
For the first time in decades, the average Indian middle class has looked at the people who make our lives possible, whether it is a maid, driver, or security guard, etc. For the first time, they looked at them I would think, at a scale, as human beings, as opposed to just service-providers. Many many people have had the sense to continue paying their maids though they were not able to come to work over a long period of time. Of course, it is different in different parts of the country.
At the overall level, we have flipped a certain momentum switch in terms of increasing the kindness and generosity in people. And I think it is now incumbent on people like you and Yogesh and a bunch of others to see, and I can play a small part in supporting you guys, how we can collectively use that momentum and not lose it. People are moving in the direction towards greater kindness and goodness. How do we celebrate that, how do we encourage that to let people stay on that path and not regress back to where they were earlier?
Nipun: But this is a unique disaster in the sense that there is no end line. Usually, there is a disaster, there is a cyclone, there is an earthquake, there is a tsunami, and we can see the end in sight. With this, we cannot. And when you have that kind of vacuum, you see a lot of people who are in positions of power, solidifying their power. So you see how the big tech has made trillions of dollars since the pandemic so their profits are skyrocketing. And even in India you have Jio getting unprecedented amounts of investments. So I am also thinking from a systems level... I have also seen so much. We started a whole portal called Karuna Virus to highlight the stories of good. I am also curious what you are seeing from the systemic lens?
Venkat: You are right. I completely agree with you on this thing about solidifying power. And you can see that world over with politicians. You see a few countries declaring emergency and you see the world scenario and what Trump had done there. In India, both at the national and state government levels, we have seen more concentration of power by the authorities. In India for example, the National Disaster Management Act has been implemented. And authorities at all levels, central, state government or municipal corporation level are able to get away with the use of the pandemic as the reason to get away with travesties on civil liberties, that you could otherwise never have seen.
Nipun: How do you think that the bottom up swelling of generosity in people’s hearts..how can it not get co-opted by these kinds of systemic levers? Of course, you do so much of this, and particularly with Daan Utsav where you have everybody giving... But if they are giving and the container has certain biases, that giving has a very low ceiling, at some level.
Even as a technological sort of metaphor, you share on Facebook and think that, “Oh I am connected to friends,” but in the larger context of monetizing your conversations and relationships -- so there is a real ceiling of what Facebook can do in terms of deepening relationships. So in that same way, what are the larger systems that you feel... I guess what should be the relationship between the bottom-up and the top-down to balance this out?
Venkat: Good question and maybe you can answer it yourself as well. What is your perspective? I would love to hear your thoughts on these as well, Nipun. I think there are 2 ways to look at it. One is that yes, these strings of vices play a boundary on what kind of generosity can be practiced. And you know, the only way you can break a boundary is when you get close to the boundary.
My way of looking at it is that there are so many people who are so content being at the center of the plot so far, that they have never even ventured anywhere close to the boundary. And the good thing that's happening right now with this ‘Karunavirus’, as you call it, that's been spreading, is it is at least getting people to venture out from that complete comfort zone, into little spaces like that.
And I think as people engage in more generosity and as they encounter the blocks, which is where they hit the boundaries, they will gradually start changing. I think we have to give people opportunities to go and encounter the boundary as much as they can. And if more and more people encounter the boundary, then they will start questioning the boundary itself.
So I think that is definitely one way to look at it. The second is, I also think people are at different stages of evolution. So, you know, in the larger microcosm of people, I mean, there are some people who are, like I said, always content being at the center; there are some people in the next circle outside. And we've always had the activists and champions who always deal at the boundary, banging against it, trying their best to push it. And so I think we will need to look towards those people, and see how some of us can support those people, to help break those boundaries as well.
I think it will have to be a combination of both of these: one is pushing as many people out, to get closer to the boundary. The second is to continue supporting the people at the edges who can help us, you know, break the walls.
Nipun: Yeah. And so just one follow-up thought and a question maybe, before, you know, I want to get into some of your personal stories as well, because that's so inspiring. But you know, this idea of breaking boundaries or reaching for them, there's so many ways to do that.
And I think one of the things that I admire most, we both admire Gandhi, Vinoba is that they didn't really hate the enemy, right? They didn't think...in order to build this one bridge, they didn't burn five other bridges! Or they tried actually not to burn any bridges! Right? So even if it's slower, they went for that route.
I don't know how it is in India, but certainly, yeah, there is a global, and particularly in America, there's this “cancel culture”, right? There's this very reactionary approach. And that applies to all people who are trying to break through the boundaries, which you can understand because the boundaries are not serving them or others well.
But I think that, how we break the boundaries makes a big difference. And like, how do we go about that? And so to me, I think leading with nonviolence, leading with compassion, making sure we're not creating more barriers in the name of progress, feels to be skillful.
But you know, particularly in the Indian context, how are you seeing that boundary dissolution? Because if that boundary dissolution ends up just changing the face of the problem, that's not progress, right? Like, so how do we make sure that we're not just changing the face of the problem?
Venkat: I agree. No, I agree with you. And I think again, you will need both. See, I do think we live in different times now. You know, while one can have endless arguments about what it could have been and what it should have been, I think there are times, for example, during Hitler's Germany, etc., where one, it cannot be sure whether a completely nonviolent process would necessarily, on its own, work.
I wonder whether you need both? And I would not ever advocate violence. But the more aggressive, let's say, the ‘othering of the enemy approach’ of a lot of activists, of saying that I decry you, I treat you as a bad person, and therefore the problem is we have to overcome you. You know, the more nonviolent and longer term approach of saying that I see you as yet another person just like me, and like me there is good in you and there is bad in you. And my fight is against the bad in you.
I think you might probably need a little bit of both. And, you know, sometimes you need that aggressive activist kind of thing to unsettle a person who is otherwise in power and completely oblivious to anything else, and believes that everything you're doing is right. So sometimes you need to shake them out of that. Maybe a little bit of that is useful. Once shaken, perhaps it is a better time to engage them in the longer conversation of saying you and I are the same. I mean, there are behaviors in you that are wrong. There are behaviors in me that are wrong, and let's sit together, build bridges and figure out how we can work together to overcome it.
I think a little bit of both might just be needed. I fully wish that it was possible completely to bring about change without any of the aggression. But, I mean, honest, hand on heart, I'm not sure whether it's possible?! Maybe that's a defeatist thought in my mind, but I do feel that...
Nipun: I mean, there is actually a lot of data on how nonviolent movements end up succeeding over the longer term and violent movements don't, and there's very exhaustive data.
Venkat: True, but what is not available is whether there has ever been a movement that was nonviolent in an atmosphere where nobody else was supporting them with violence! If you look at the Indian freedom struggle, so while we did have the nonviolence of Gandhi, we did also have the aggression of Subhash Chandra Bose and the aggression of Bhagat Singh, you know, the Sepoy mutiny and all of that kind of stuff.
So we don't, we will never, ever know with certainty, mathematical certainty of any kind, whether we could have got that same independence only on Gandhian principles.
Nipun: Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, at that level, it is very hard to even figure out, where you have to find out where you stand and work in that way. But what I find amongst very...
Venkat: I know where I stand, Nipun. I stand very close to Gandhi. I cannot get into that kind of aggregation, etc etc mode. But what I've come to learn over the last few years is perhaps one need not be dismissive of them and one can be respectful of that approach also. One can say, “No, that is not the approach I will believe in and follow”, but one can be sympathetic towards that.
Nipun: I think that's actually what Gandhi would do as well -- build bridges... just because you don't agree with people's methods, Gandhi did that even with people that tried to assassinate him.
But I think the challenge and it is essentially a personal challenge, with people who, I actually even admire, there are many parts of them that I admire, that are working to push these boundaries, perhaps with means that I personally am not called to adopt. But I think the challenge is that whenever you have a spectrum and when you are moderate, when you're not binary, when you're not just this or that, the challenges we face is that when our anger gets high, we, instead of going on the side of nonviolence and compassion, we say, “Oh no, this is justified.” And then, when we should be doing the other, we conveniently flip-flop. And I think the challenge, and in that sense, you can end up justifying anything. And so it's, I think, this is sort of the systemic challenge.
But without breaking that down any further, yeah, I want to ask you about -- if you look at your journey, it's very interesting for multiple reasons. You started at Times of India, I don't know how many people know that, but you're very familiar with the corporate world even after that. Then you did “Give India” which is not the private sector, but the public sector. And working with so many people and so many other non-profits. And then you did this “Daan Utsav”, which is, I would say, largely in the voluntary sector. And so these are three major sectors, and if you look at your arc over the last thirty years, you have, of course, done so many other things as well. But if you look at that arc, it's a very unique lens that you have, of the private, public and the voluntary sector.
Can you share a little bit of, let's say I'm a young kid and I'm looking and saying, I want to create, I want to alleviate some suffering in the world and I have some of my talents, I want to do something. Is the private sector the lever that I wanna, kind of, tweak? Is it the public sector, where I have the greatest bang for the buck? Or is it the voluntary sector? How would you respond to holding those three sectors? Because they're very unique, all of them.
Venkat: Good question, and I'm not sure I know the answer. I'm not even sure there is one answer for everybody. I think it will vary depending on the circumstances of the individual, the kind of talents they have, the kind of impact, or not impact, the kind of work they would like to do.
So, for example, I mean, if you're looking at farmers in India, agricultural farmers, and you want to do something, for example, for them, there are various things you could do. One of those areas, of course, is increasing the ratio of the consumer price of crops to the farmer price of the crops. So today, typically if you buy a kilo of tomatoes for say Rs 42 a kilo, in a city, the farmer probably gets between 2 and 10 rupees a kilo very often. And, if the problem you want to solve is -- how can I increase that ratio from 4:1? How can I bring it down to say 1.5 or 2:1 -- where the farmer gets at least half of the end-consumer-price or something like that? Right? What has the best solution for something like that is, either the private sector, because you could build a business that will actually deliver that. Or the public sector, where you create a FPC, as they are called, or Farmer Producer Cooperatives and through that to a more organized thing with a structured business plan in place, all of that stuff, that's the best way to bring about that change, right?
But there are things that cannot be done through organizational structures, whether it's corporate or non-profit. And I think for those, you will often have to rely more on the voluntary sector. And what are those things? I think, for example, behavioural change -- very, very, very difficult to do through organizational structures, which is why Daan Utsav has never been done as an organization, there's no organization behind it. Similarly, I think a lot of the work that you do in the space of trying to increase the level of kindness in human beings, you can't build an organization who is going to try and create kindness!
It has to be a movement, it has to be something that moves from person to person, and grows on its own. And so I think there's a lot of those that are much better done through voluntary space. So I think there'll be, and there are other things like, you know, what are your own financial considerations in that whole thing? And a lot of those things also make a difference in terms of which path you choose to go down.
What I can say from my experience in all the three spaces is, if you really want the purest of intent to be visible to you, then it's obviously in the voluntary sector. You will not have purity of intent in either the corporate sector And you will occasionally get a few people who have purity of intent everywhere. But I'm saying as a larger thread, in general, purity of intent is far, far, far higher in the voluntary sector. Followed, you know, way behind by the public sector.
So the public sector does have some purity of intent, but more often than not, I've seen there that once you build an organization, 90% of the time, the organization becomes more important than the goal or the social change that was originally the purpose of the organization. So you see organizations beginning to build corpuses, you know, worrying about their own sustainability, a lot of other things which actually detracts from the larger purpose of solving the social problem that you were out to address necessarily. And of course, in business, you know, personal goals, financial goals, et cetera, often tend to override even the stated business objective.
So I think purity of intent-wise, the voluntary sector is really, really the space to be.
Nipun: But impact-wise, because a lot of people will say, you know, like that famous Ivan Illich quote -- “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!” There is this gap...
Venkat: That I completely agree. That's what I said when I said that it depends a lot on what your intention is when you start out. So I, for example, don't think a completely voluntary movement, as yet, in our society has the ability to help, providing the kind of -- if I can took that earlier example of improving the ratio of income for farmers from the consumer price ratio -- I think it would be much, much more difficult to do that completely voluntarily. It’s far easier to do that through a structured organization, either in the private or in the public sector.
Nipun: Well, but I mean... so I think what you're saying, and of course that makes sense that you use different sectors to solve different problems. But the question... and you were also saying that if you care about your purity of intent, that you would lean more towards the voluntary sector.
But, if you care also for creating external impact, I can't believe I'm asking you an ‘impact’ question. (Both laugh). But if you care also for manifesting that, because there is a gap, like we said, even with intention, of translating into action, and I'm not even talking theoretically.
I'm asking you, Venkat. Now, at this age, you have this experience. Right now. Let's say you have three options open in front of you, right? You have somebody saying -- here's an unlimited amount of money. Go create change. Here is all kinds of political power in the public sector that you can leverage to create policy and have that ripple effect. And you have the voluntary sector option. Which do you think, for you personally, which would you prioritize, in terms of having at least a cascading effect?
I mean, granted that you may not be able to solve the farmer ratio problem, right. But if you're able to solve more upstream problems, the farmers will also be taken care of. So given that hierarchy of upstream solutions, where do you, where would you put your chips in your basket? In which basket would you put them in?
Venkat: So in that sense, I have already put the bulk of my chips in the voluntary sector. So I have a small set of chips in the public sector. I have no chips left in the private sector now, whatsoever. Although maybe it might be a good idea, in future to go back, if I see a need to. But, yeah, I mean, you know, I think that, at a broad level, the root cause of all problems, is us, as people, right?
I mean, all the problems in the society are our own behavioral manifestations. We wouldn't have these problems. I mean, in one fell swoop if you do 2X of Thanos, and, if you just remove humanity from here, most of the problems would cease to exist. It's when we come, we bring the problems with us.
And therefore, I think if you really want to do that complete root-cause analysis, I think the root cause is that we as human beings are not good people, or at least not as good as we should be, or as we have the potential to be. Therefore, if you really are trying to solve a root cause problem, that is the only root cause problem to solve -- how do we make better human beings out of all of ourselves? And, that cannot be done through the public or the private sectors.
Nipun: I love that answer. I could not have predicted that 20 years after our Matheran drive that we would be here. I agree. I also see merit in the private sector and I also see a lot of merit in the public sector to solve very concrete problems, especially if you have very quick feedback loops. If somebody needs something built urgently, I would choose the private sector levers.
But, if you put all that on a canvas, the place where you would want to intervene, at least for me, I think I would go to the voluntary sector, for the purity of intent. The reason why I would choose purity of intent is because I think there's toxicity when you compromise intent. There is an internal toxicity that gets created and we may not be able to map how that plays out into the world. Maybe we just have bad relationships with people around us, but you know, we're doing glorious work outside. I think that ends up playing a pretty critical role and so, yeah go ahead....
Venkat: Nipun, it's pretty much like taking Western medicine or allopathic medicine as we call it today. It's known that every allopathic medicine has side effects. Yet, right now there are times where for example you know that an allopathic medicine treats a particular disease, and if you did not use it, there is a 99.99% chance that you will just die.
Therefore, you will make those compromises. You will take that allopathic medicine; you have taken it, I've taken it, we've all taken it when we needed to, and then, once you are slightly better off, you will go back to purifying your body, to detoxify it from that impurity that entered the system. So I think there are times where you will have to. Actually, in all honesty, this is making the private and public sector sound like there are some really bad things, which they aren't necessarily, at all.
My limited point is different strokes for different situations. So for example, I think if the goal is to pull billions of people out of poverty, I think you do definitely need the private sector. I think there is a lot of value in encouraging entrepreneurship and encouraging wealth creation and, doing it in a way that will help pull a lot of people out of poverty, and empowering people to do that and stuff like that.
Likewise, for large scale impact for example, when you look at the Covid crisis right now, in a much smaller microcosm of Mumbai city, you need equipment, PPE kits, you need masks, etc., and you need them delivered quickly, so you'd either go to the private sector. But, if you need money and since the government moves very slowly in generating money because of its processes, then you need the social sector. They can move much more rapidly, with much greater agility than the government. However, since it involves money having to flow, it cannot completely be done by the voluntary sector because then the risks are too high.
Nipun: In Service Space, we often use this story of the five monks sitting down meditating by the river and all of a sudden they see a baby in a basket flowing along. So, they help the baby and there's value to helping; if you were that child, you would hope that the monk would help you. The second monk says, "I'm going to see why we're having a continuous flow of these babies" then goes and says, "Oh, I'm going to set up an orphanage." The third monk says, "Well, why do they need an orphanage? We need to have family planning”. And so he sets that up. The fourth monk says, "Well, why do we even need family planning, what we need is more political change." But even that goes away.
And so then the question is what is the fifth monk going to do? You can endlessly debate whether you're monk number four or monk number one. Should you be doing what the first monk did? You can't just let that child go, of course you have to help, but at the same time should you be going upstream? And if you're going more upstream, what is that fifth monk going to do?
And, to me, I think this is where like Gandhi writes in Hind Swaraj, of his vision of a decentralized, distributed, resilient ecosystem; he's trying to respond at the first monk level to the urgent needs, all the way up to the second, third, fourth, but he's also holding that fifth monk possibility and that vision. In so many ways, I think we lack that now.
And so, I sort of want to pivot to another area of expertise that you have around education, because a lot of it is the minds and the hearts of a generation. And education, in some sense, is the field in which those seeds can be planted. So, for those of you that don't know, Venkat has started a school called Eklavya, he started a curriculum-based organization. I'm probably not describing it right, but it's called Educational Initiatives.
And also, I think if I'm not mistaken, Venkat, one of your earliest inspirations was a couple of your classmates having to drop out of your school, because of poverty. And so there is this nature and nurture kind of a situation, where you have nature and you can't control all the factors, like where you are born or even what kind of name you had, or even what year you were born in? Like, there's a lot of data on how the kind of year -- Steve jobs, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, all those guys were born in a cluster of a time -- when they were in college, the Information Technology boom happened. And, so all those things are nature, you can't control those, but yet you have to hold them in a way that allows the nurture to be most skillful, and the education system at its ideal should be doing that, but it's not.
And I think the pandemic is also dramatically changing that conversation, but also perhaps, opening avenues for dramatic changes as well. So, I know you think a lot about this -- you're immersed in this world, but particularly from the India lens and education, and planting these seeds, and the context of the pandemic, where do you land with education right now and the greatest opportunities there?
Venkat: Hmm. Well, there are two things, education of the heart and education of the mind. One is building that attitude, values, culture and habits, and the other is, of course [building] the more technical skills, the math, the language, the history and knowledge-based systems. Schools in India have historically never done much on the first kind of thing, i.e., the education of the heart. There have just been miserable failures in our education system with few exceptions, for example, the spiritual or Missionary Schools - the Christian Missionary Schools, as well as the Hindu Missionary Schools, like the Chinmaya Mission and stuff like that, DAV, and some of those schools, they've tried to do a bit of that -- values building and stuff like that. But otherwise the large majority of Indian schools have not.
They seem to have just left the issue of building values and building ethos to the family. It is a family's problem and not the school's problem. So, schools have traditionally been focused more as skill-building institutions where our job is to teach you language, math, science, etcetera -- so that's been their focus in any case in India.
Right now, in the context of the pandemic, the biggest challenge we are facing is the digital divide because everybody who can afford a device is able to go online and get some skill-building happening through that process. And, there are millions of kids out there who don't have access -- which is close to 70% of kids going to government schools and low cost schools -- who do not have a smart device at home or an internet connection at home. Actually that's higher, more than 70%, close to 70% is actually the people who don't even have normal phone access in their homes. Because it's usually one phone at home and it's with the father or the mother, and they're out in the field or wherever, at work, and therefore there's no device left at home.
So, there is a slight fear in some sections that if this drags on for a long time, then it might start impacting and it will increase the divide between the people who have, and the people who don't have in terms of the gaps in skills, etcetera. I think that's one of the worries.
We are seeing a bunch of initiatives being started by different people. One of my friends Osama Manzar has just day-before-yesterday, started an initiative to try and collect a million digital devices donated by people to help reach them to those who need them. It's a need, but the reality is a million is nothing in a country like India. We probably have 180 million kids who do not have these devices.
So that's going to be an issue. There are a bunch of other people who, of course, will look at it and say, "You know what, we are overestimating the importance of skills in our lives, and a year lost in a child's life is not going to make too much difference." I partly agree with those people, and to some extent, that is true. The reality is one year lost in a 60-year lifetime on average, or 70 years, is like nothing, right? It's 5% or not even 5%, 3% of your life, or even less than 1% of your life. It's not much loss, but the problem is when a kid comes back to school and meets another kid who is way ahead of him or her.
So, if you're using this one year to help build in that child the confidence -- that don't worry about what you're missing out on. And if you're able to use this intervening time to help build the rest of what school doesn't do, build the character, build the confidence, build the spirit of the child, build the sense of curiosity, the sense of kindness, the sense of wanting to do good. If we could do that, then these children would be much better equipped to go back to school, even if they are behind in their academics. But unfortunately, I don't know whether we are doing even that.
Nipun: You have so many 'ins' in that sector. Where do you feel is the point of intervention there?
Venkat: Well, it's going to require a lot of people to doing a lot of things of course. Organizations like Teach-For-India [https://www.teachforindia.org/], organizations like Kaivalya [https://kaivalyaeducation.org/] etcetera, who have large scale reach into the education system will probably try and figure out institutional solutions to some of these issues.
We must keep in mind that even these apparently big organizations will reach only a few hundred thousand children at best. And, you know, we are talking about 280 million kids going to school in India, and 200 out of those 280, not having access to these devices. So, I actually don't know the answer to this problem. To be very honest, it's not a problem that I've been able to get my arms around and figure out what one can do.
In our own small way, we've been trying to do a bunch of things in this space. One of my fellow trustees, in this trust that I've set up, India Welfare Trust, Aarti - I don't know if you've met her, Aarti Madhusudhan -- she lives in Chennai, an incredible woman. She's done two things during this disaster. First, she started a very simple initiative called 'Call-And-Connect' where the ask was very simple - she reached out to women saying, "Are you willing to do three calls with a girl child who's coming from an underprivileged background" It's an agenda-less three calls. Just be a friend to them, because we don't know what these kids are going through, we don't know what struggles they're coping with and just having an adult outside of their home for them to talk to, might be of use.
And she signed up a thousand plus women in a month and got them to actually do these calls. Many of them, more than 30-40% of them continue with these calls, even three months down the line on a regular, weekly-kind-of-basis. And we've seen a lot of messages coming back from both those who were calling, the well-to-do people, as well as from the children, sharing how important and how useful this conversation has been for all of them. Just having somebody to talk to, kind of thing.
The second thing that she did with a bunch of other volunteers together, both of these, all of these ideas of work, purely in the voluntary sector, not in the public sector, right, was the simple concept of: 'Can we help kids - who have phones - learn English?' So, even if you have an ordinary phone, not a smartphone, the best way to learn languages is by talking. Right? So, can we get people who agreed to, say spend half an hour or 45 minutes every day, for 13 weeks just talking to a child and helping them learn English -- because English is an extremely valuable skill in India.
She started this about three weeks ago and she's already got 1,200 people who are actually doing these calls every day with a child somewhere, talking to them in English for half-an-hour every day and helping them pick up the language, which I think will bolster confidence for these children, once they get back to school.
So they may not have done their math or science or whatever else, but they will at least go back to school saying I've learned 200 words in English, which I think is incredibly important. She is now, of course, trying to figure out how we can take this English teaching idea and expand it to security guards, auto drivers, Ola, and Uber drivers who have been out of jobs for a long period of time. How do we help these people pick up these language skills and so on. One thing which we are now trying to do, which is completely again in the voluntary sector, but trying to build a framework around it, is we're trying to create a hundred percent volunteer-driven mentoring program, which is basically similar to the “Call and Connect,” but it's a longer term thing.
So the idea is, people sign up to mentor a child for a year, at least, and it can be longer than that, by doing a one hour weekly conversation with the child. And, it's a hundred percent. We've already kick-started yesterday two or three groups. And, in the next 10 days, I think we will see at least 10 groups of 25 to 30 volunteers, who are each engaging 25 to 30 children, for a one year period.
But, what we've tried to do is design this in such a way that it is completely volunteer-run, managed, driven, and maintained. So each of these 20 pilots are being owned and championed by people who are themselves volunteers. They do not necessarily own or run organizations. And the idea is to see these as, I mean, you could call it ‘Amway’ or whatever, but scalable in that sense.
So the idea is, you now have these 20 people becoming mentors for a year, but four or five months down the line, some of those people might be willing to become leaders to create their own groups of 20 people. And so each 20 becomes 400, becomes 8000 and so on. And the idea is can we use this to create a million strong, completely volunteer-driven movement in the next two or three years?
Nipun Mehta: Yeah, no, it's beautiful. And actually, if we had more time, I would ping you on this idea of scale. And like, intervention-based approach to change, or a ripple-effect-based approach to change. But we have actually a lot of questions that I do want to get to. If you have extra questions maybe Venkat will post-call also, respond on some Google doc or something.
Venkat Krishnan: Yeah, Nipun my email id is email@example.com. So anybody who wants to write questions they can write.
Nipun Mehta: Okay. There you have it.
Venkat Krishnan: So if Rohit or somebody could at the closing slide just post my email ID there for people to write to me.
Nipun Mehta: We have a way to email everyone after the call, since you're okay with it, we'll do that.
Venkat Krishnan: Yeah, please do.
Nipun Mehta: Not everyone is okay with it. But we have a few questions. Do you want me to just read them out? Should I read out three of them and then have you respond -- they're sort of related, but sort of not. Or do you want to go one at a time?
Venkat Krishnan: No, you can read them all. I'll take notes and then...
Nipun Mehta: (Laughs). There it is. So the first one is from Karan. He says, you know, you say that organizations eventually tend to focus more on the sustenance of the organization itself, instead of the goal of the organization. So how do you keep a balance on that? So that's a question, right?
We actually have a lot of them. We won't be able to get to all of them right now, but like Venkat said, we'll get to it afterwards.
The second, the question is: “Compassion is, and by compassion, I think -- this is Sonal, she's saying, “compassion sometimes is perceived to be a weakness and this can be said of, of all kinds of different virtues like giving. And she says… Sorry, I'm just a… I have to refind it here. “Compassion sometimes is perceived to be a weakness in the corporate world, that you're unable to take tough decisions such as downsizing. So how has Venkat been able to balance the goal of maintaining his inner core, while achieving his outer goals?” So that's the second one.
And I'll leave you with the third one, just to present these voices. Hmm, it's that -- “Even for targeted changes, like farmer price…” -- this is Krishnan -- “Even for targeted changes, like farmer price, or alleviating poverty, an example that Venkat quoted, that are not direct behavioral shifts, for these changes to actually succeed at scale, don't you think behavioral shifts are required to get there? In such instances, it becomes a little hard to decide whether to take the voluntary path or the private or the public sector path. Are there examples of organizations that have taken a mixed path that you have seen work?”
So, sorry, that's a lot. I don't know how you'll take it.
Venkat Krishnan: Yeah, also once again Nipun, I think I'll be grateful if you can just forward me all the questions with the email ids of the people who asked them and you know, I'm happy to respond to all of them and I will copy one of you on it. So you can post all the answers in the public domain or whatever you think is the right way to do it.
So Karan, sustenance versus goal. I actually think they are three distinct questions in slightly different ways, although there might be an overlap.
It's a tough one, right? you know, how do you, because I don't think it's completely wrong to worry about the sustenance of the organization. It shouldn't be that, you know, because if you, as an organism, I mean, let's look at ourselves as individuals. If we see ourselves as vehicles for, depending on whether you're religious or not, if you see yourself as an instrument to bring good into society, or if you see yourself as a vehicle for God to manifest its goodness on the earth, whichever way you look at it, we do have to take care of ourselves, right?
We do have to make sure that we, the vehicles are in good shape in order to deliver what it wants to deliver, goodness that we seek to deliver people. So, pretty much, I think even organizations therefore have to do the same. They do need to ensure that the organization is in good shape. Because if it is not, then it will fail to deliver what it is trying to deliver.
So I don't think, per se, organizations worrying about their own sustenance is bad. I think the challenge is, you know, the classic ‘tail wags the dog’ problem -- the larger the organizations become, the more they tend to get more obsessed about their own sustenance.
Nipun Mehta: Yeah.
Venkat Krishnan: And that is when it becomes a problem. Now, how do you strike the balance between the two? I think the best way to do it is through periodic deep inner reflections, whether it is at the board level of the organization, at the level of the founder of an organization, the managing team, the volunteers -- various levels. If one can institute a culture of deep periodic reflection and just keep asking yourself that, "Are we in our day to day actions and in our strategies and our longer term work, holding the goal higher than our organization?"And then individually, "Are we holding the organization higher than ourselves?" Right?
And I think if each of us can answer that to ourselves in honesty, it doesn't even have to be a group reflection. It can be individual. I think we tend to be the most honest when we're reflecting alone. The moment there is a second person, your image perception, your ego start coming into play. So I think if we can build that culture of deep introspection and reflection, that itself is a good way to try and handle that.
Of course the bigger question is what is the starting motivation? Well, if an organization has been founded with the intent of making money or the intent of being successful… I, one of the reasons I prefer the voluntary sector, and you know, you said this, I like my name to not be visible, more and more. I actually think I find many instances where success hinders change. The greed to be successful makes you compromise on real impact or real change that you want to do. So you will see organization after organization that are more hungry for awards, or recognition, for credit. So you will have organizations claiming we impacted so many lives or we raised so many millions of dollars. And if you actually probe into the reality, you will find that a lot of those dollars were going to be donated anyway. It's just the vehicle through which it got routed, but you claim that you raised that many dollars or whatever it is. Right? I think you will find many organizations going through this.
So it's also a question of what was the original intent, because if the original intent itself wasn't pure, there's not much you can do to bring that balance, because there was no intended balance in the first place. Sorry -- long answers!
Nipun Mehta: If, are you able to stay 5-10 minutes more? Or do you have a hard stop at...
Venkat Krishnan: I can stay till about 5 and then you know, I have a hard stop, I have a call.
Nipun Mehta: No, otherwise I was going to say that you can skip the other two questions, but maybe you can respond to them quickly, since we presenced them because we have a closing thing too.
Venkat Krishnan: Sure. Yeah, so Sonal, the question about, you know, I agree with you and not just in the corporate sector is compassion and a lot of positive values seen as weakness, but I also think in the political space today. In India and in many other parts of the world, that's exactly what is happening. If any of you has ever met, and I know this is a politically-biased thing to say, but that is my personal political view, there is a gentleman called Harsh Mander. If any of you has ever met him, you cannot meet a softer, milder, sweeter, and more compassionate human than Harsh Mander. He is right now being prosecuted in India for being anti-national and for provoking violence. I cannot understand this.
Look, this is a problem that will happen everywhere. And I'm sorry if you do not agree or subscribe to his political views. That may be a different issue. I don't want to get into that. But this is the sweetest-possible human being who is not capable of violence. To consider him as provoking violence is -- I just cannot understand. So that happens.
So that is, I think when people are scared of you, and this is what happened with Gandhi, right? That people did not understand his approach. And when you don't understand, it creates fear. Fear comes from the unknown, from the uncertainty. So a lot of times a corporate reaction to compassion is fear because they've never encountered it. So it's natural. We have to expect that it will happen. And the only way to tackle that is to keep being compassionate.
So we face this a lot of times in Daan Utsav, when we reach out to organizations, to corporates, to other people, to encourage them to celebrate, and when we talk to them and they say, "Okay, can you tell us how we can do it?" And we give them a lot of ideas and their first question is, "Okay, so why are you doing this? What's in it for you?" And we said, "No, there's nothing in it." And they say, "So then, what do you want from us?" And we said, "Nothing. We don't want anything from you. In fact, we are here to ask you whether there's anything you want from us and if there's anything we can do to help you." And, for years we have found that the corporate world struggled to understand this. They just cannot understand that somebody can come and meet you and say, "I don't want anything, but is there something I can do to help you?" But we've just stuck with it.
And I think people will start with distrust, but once they experience that your compassion came out of a genuinely good place; over a period of time, then gradually, you are able to... I think you need to wrap up, right? So I'll hand it over to you and I'll respond to your question, Krishnan, by mail. And I'm happy to respond to everybody else's.
Nipun: We'll put up a Google doc. There's also a bunch of questions, Venkat, around the project you mentioned with Aarti. People want to participate. There's one question from America on -- how do we, can you document that so we can try to do that in other places?
Venkat: Yes. We have documented that already. Yes. We'd be happy to share it.
Nipun: Well, all of those kinds of things. We will have a way to interact with everyone after the call as well. So we want to definitely keep the conversation going. I want to ask you one last question. It's something to the tune of what I would ask you, but since Sridhar from Mumbai has asked this, I'll go with that. He says, "What keeps you optimistic especially in these times when so many hurricanes across most aspects of human life are erupting?" So, if you were to look at the larger landscape, so many problems, so many challenges even compounded, what is it that keeps you optimistic through these times?
Venkat: I think just the goodness that I've seen in so many people in the last three months, the extraordinary acts of kindness that people have displayed, the kindness and courage. Whether it is just, we've already spoken a lot about doctors, but Mumbai has this public bus passport system called BEST and, for the last three months, nearly 20,000 of these drivers and conductors have been going out every day and doing their jobs. They have not said, "I am at risk of contracting the disease and I'm going to stay home." Or if you look at all the sanitation workers, all the public-health workers that we've lost.
While it's all nice to criticize the government, we've had many government officials dying of COVID because they were out there in the line of duty. I think there's a large number of people out there who have shown enormous amounts of courage in doing what they have done. A lot of them have done it, not because they needed the money, but because they thought it was the right thing to do. And that's courage. And I think a lot of people have done it out of compassion and kindness. I mean, including volunteers, including many of these people. And I think as long as we can see that, I get the confidence and the hope that if we can just focus on that and if we can find a way of helping that grow, then together we shall overcome.
Nipun: Beautiful. Before we go, there's a bunch of appreciative comments as well, Venkat, but, prior to it, you know that a bunch of your fans are also volunteers with Service Space and are volunteers here. So they did some fishing around and we...
Venkat: Oh no, no, no.
Venkat: Can you do this after I'm gone?
Nipun: Yes. (laughter) I'm just going to read one small thing. I think it's just very emblematic of who you are. This is from Narayanan Vaghul who, of course, was a Padma Bhushan Awardee in the Banking and Finance sector and he wanted to leave Venkat a comment. He's one of the many people tuned in right now into this conversation.
And here's what he says about Venkat. He says,"He looks ordinary, but in fact, he's an extraordinary individual devoted to and working for the betterment of society. He looks ordinary, but he's a missionary who single-handedly created a movement for spreading the principles of philanthropy in the length and breadth of India. He looks ordinary, but he is a sage who has transcended greed and works for a cause and not for applause. He looks ordinary, but he embodies all the virtues I aspired for, but never could fully achieve in my life. May he continue to be blessed."
And I think Venkat, we all, even those who don't know you, would certainly double-down on that last comment, that "may you continue to stay blessed" and keep creating ripples, of whichever ‘monk’ you feel called to do. I'm sure it's going to create these wonderful ripples.
So thank you so much for this conversation, for your friendship, and most importantly, for what you have facilitated for the world. So thank you. And I'll give it to you for closing remarks here, and then after that, we'll do a minute of silence. So I know you have to go in 60 seconds, but thank you.
Venkat: Thanks. Thanks, Nipun. Thanks for... I'm a little emotionally overwhelmed. Mr. Vaghul is like God to me. And, I'm deeply touched by his comments. Now, grateful for the opportunity for this conversation. I enjoyed every interaction with you. It stimulates. It provokes in different ways, and I think that's really wonderful. And a big thanks to everybody out there who decided to spend an hour of their time listening to two friends just chat. I hope it was of some use to you at least. And thank you. Please keep doing the amazing stuff that each one of you does.
Nipun: Thank you. We'll just do a minute of silence in the spirit of gratitude for all the forces that have allowed for so many blessings to be created. So just maybe 60 seconds in silence here.
Thank you all for joining and we look forward to staying in touch.
Thank you for listening to a recording of Awakin calls. To access archives, visit us at www.awakin.org and to get more involved, volunteer at www.servicespace.org.