I have the good fortune to be working (and to have worked) in jobs that allow me to meet incredibly committed, and hence, inspiring people. For instance, in my last job, almost all of my colleagues had let go of plush careers to work in difficult circumstances.
Today was another such instance. The afternoon monotony was broken by my colleague calling me in to his cabin to introduce me to a guest. I met and shook hands with a neatly-organized, simply-dressed man who introduced himself as Elango Ramasamy. We were told he wanted to discuss with us for a while, so we led him into the conference room. He requested to be allowed to present his work to us. A simple, non-flashy powerpoint was turned on – hardly of the kind that would be approved by a management consultant. Yet, as Mr. Elango started talking about his work, I sat in awe.
Kuthambakkam, he told us, was his native village, beset with problems that plague any present-day Indian village – livelihood deterioration, poor governance, low self-esteem of the villagers and unacceptable infrastructure. Struck by the poor state of affairs in his own village, he decided to turn his village into a ‘model village’, a village that could serve as a success story for other villages to follow. He packed up his career as a rising Chemical Engineer in a premier research institute and returned to his village of birth. Interestingly, unlike NGOs and CSOs, he started off by becoming a part of the system, rather than trying to cure it from the outside. He began by standing for the Village Panchayat (the lowest unit of recognized governance in India) and got elected as the President. Once elected as a President, he began about his task. This was not an easy thing to do. One major problem Kuthambakkam faced, he told us, was the illicit liquor brewing industry that destroyed many households in the village. Many youth took to this cottage industry as it was the only viable employment option available in the village. So, Mr. Elango very smartly identified skills that could be taught to make the youth employable. Unlike other vocational courses that taught the villager skills that he couldn’t use in the village itself, Mr.Elango identified forward and backward linkages in the farming supply chain that the villagers could involve themselves in. So, for example, he installed a low-cost rice mill in the village itself so that paddy grown there could be converted into rice, ready for consumption. Not only did this provide employment to workers who worked in the rice mill, it also brought about uncalculated savings arising out of consuming produce that’s grown locally – savings in transport costs and reduced prices for the villagers.
The rice-mill was just one example. He and his village committee went about installing numerous other low-cost, small industries involved in producing mud bricks, CFL Lamps, soaps, jute bags etc. I was amazed by the range of innovations this man had thought of. He provided another wonderful insight. A majority of villagers stay in thatched huts that can barely withstand a strong wind, let alone rains and floods. He remarked that the house a family stays in is one of the biggest factors affecting their self-esteem. The housewife, for example, is always worried for her family whenever their is a threat of thunderstorms. An informal research by his group also showed that since the huts were improperly thatched, many insects and flies annoy the children who came home to study. So, studying effectiveness dropped dramatically. So, with the help of the brick-laying unit, he and his team went about building strong, walled houses for all the residents of the huts. He mentioned how this played a huge role in building self-esteem amongst the villagers.
He went on to share his vision for the future. His vision is essentially to establish a cluster of villages that will have a sustainble eco-system of their own – producing and consuimg to each village’s particular strengths and trading within themselves. Whatever is the surplus is sold outside the cluster, while whatever is lacking within the cluster is bought in. He also plans to launch a Panchayat Academy that seeks to train other Village Panchayats on good governance and information-sharing. He sounded absolutely confident, without being cocky, and precise about his plans for the next 12 years. He is also not unaware of the challenges he faces. He realizes finding committed people like himself in all villages is a difficult task.
It was wondeful to meet him and needless to say, a terrific inspiration. It is easy to identify glitches in any plan. It is also easy to dismiss such achievements as ‘one-village wonders’ and how difficult it is to replicate. But, there are no doubts in my mind, that his achievement is a great one just for the fact that he went ahead and did it, unlike me. You can read about more about Mr. Elango here, and watch his presentation here.