An NGO in Bangalore

To think I heard about Reap Benefit from Amy Serafin, an editor in America.  Small world

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Teaching kids to sow and reap

Shoba Narayan
At Reap Benefit’s charming office in an old bungalow in Bangalore is a quote by Mozart, written with chalk at the entrance: “Be silent if you choose but when it is necessary, speak—and speak in such a way that people will remember it.”

It is an apt model for the environmental work that this quiet Bangalore-based social enterprise has done since 2012, motivating schoolchildren aged 12-17 to initiate innovative, actionable solutions to India’s water, sanitation and environmental problems.

Reap Benefit approaches (rich) private schools and (poor) government schools and works with their students year after year to build what they call “an ecosystem of ownership” toward problems.

Solutions aren’t cookie-cutter. Students at the Murphy Town government school started a biogas plant, while a brainstorming session with another group of kids led to a low cost grey water harvesting device that saves the Muthur government school 60 liters a day. Water used by students to wash their hands and plates after lunch is filtered and drained in a specially fitted-out barrel, then recycled for purposes such as gardening. “Human centered design” is key to this type of solution, according to Kuldeep Dantewadia, 27, Reap Benefit’s co-founder. On his desk is the cult book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman.

Reap Benefit helps students investigate local problems in the local context and come up with answers. “Each child has a unique way of experiencing the environment,” said Gautam Prakash, 30, the other co-founder and hands-on project coordinator who works with students to develop and implement solutions.

Dantewadia calls himself the behavior change ninja. “There are four types of students,” he said of the gamification approach he uses to enthuse his wards. “Some play to win, some seek social standing, some do it for fun, and some for the larger good. Through incentives and points, we try to get them all to do it for the larger good.” Many participating students go on to instigate change at home and in their communities, such as a 9th grade student at DPS Bangalore East School who convinced his parents to install LED lightbulbs, or an 11th grade girl from Sri Kumaran school who organized a clean-up in her neighborhood after the Diwali festival.

With government schools, it is about managing students’ enthusiasm and expectations while navigating authorizations from principals and school boards. The challenges are different in private schools, where children tend to have a lot of book knowledge but less experience with practical applications. For example, they might have theories about solid waste management without knowing on what days the garbage is collected from their apartment building.

Garbage was actually the starting point for the Reap Benefit project. In 2009, armed with a business degree and a heart full of idealism, Dantewadia spent eight months collecting garbage from around his neighborhood. “Garbage is visual in nature,” he said. “It is in your face and therefore people believe that it can be easily solved. But it is actually a behavioral problem rather than a physical or technical issue.” Prakash, meanwhile, was working for the Ashoka Foundation. The two became friends when Dantewadia was inducted as an Ashoka Fellow.

In 2011, they created Reap Benefit. Today, nine employees work full time. The enterprise receives financing from foundations, private schools and the sale of proprietary products such as an organic enzyme that converts waste into compost. Since 2012, Reap Benefit claims to have impacted 11,500 students in 240 schools with more than 500 initiatives, saving 33 tonnes of waste, 19 million liters of water and 1,450 kilo units of electricity.

The organization gathers both qualitative and quantitative data. For example, it discovered that one reason teenage girls weren’t using school toilets was because there were no hooks for them to hang their dupattas (long scarves worn over the chest). It also tracked water use across Bangalore to find out where there was the most waste. In many instances, students collecting the data come up with solutions.

Typically, Prakash begins by showing the kids a pencil. “How much water do you think gets wasted if it drips out of a hole about the size of this pencil?” he asks.

In general, nobody replies. Nobody has a clue.

“1,440 liters,” Prakash answers. “How can we change this?” And the brainstorming begins.

“The ‘aha’ moment is powerful,” Prakash explained, sitting in Reap Benefit’s office. “And it leads to applied empathy,” added Dantewadia. “Students go and talk to the janitors in their school, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to find out where the water leaks are.”

One 14-year-old girl started a petition. Two other girls wanted to track water waste, and Reap Benefit helped them create an algorithm that won them awards at science competitions. One high school boy championed the waterless urinal made from discarded PET bottles that Reap Benefit invented with students, campaigning to have them installed in all the government schools in his town.

Hoping to scale up and reach one million young people across the country, Reap Benefit is preparing to launch a free mobile app. It will help users to identify local problems, tackle them with DIY tools, and communicate data and solutions with others.

Reap Benefit works in the belief that India’s most pressing problems require human capital—people wanting to tackle everyday issues and capable of coming up with solutions. As Dantewadia likes to say, “We want to make solving big problems child’s play.”
For more information



How to give

Loved writing this piece

How to give (or how to clear out your closet)

Give gifts, get things done. Shoba Narayan on essential barter


Last night, my 84-year-old father called me at 9:45 PM. The lateness of the call told me that he was mulling over something serious.

“I have reached a momentous decision,” he said. “I have decided to sell my NSS policy, which is worth about six lakhs.”

My father got his National Savings Scheme (NSS) policy from the post office about 20 years ago. I was the beneficiary. He wanted me to accompany him to the post office to “do the needful,” he said.

“Do you have one of your books to spare?” he asked meaningfully.

I nodded with a sigh.

Ten years ago, in a fit of authorly pride, I bought over 100 hardcover copies of my first book, “Monsoon Diary.” I regretted the decision within a year.

I began complaining to my parents– rashly in retrospect– about how these books were taking up space in my tiny storage area. I couldn’t keep extra provisions because boxes of books lined every available space.

My parents—as parents do– came to my rescue. Or so they thought. Every time somebody did them a favor, they decided to hand out one copy of my book as a reward, much like the princesses of yore handed out pearl necklaces; or Paari, a Tamil king giving up his chariot to a creeper that was struggling for a place to climb, so much so that he became known throughout Tamil Nadu as “Paari-Vallal” or “Generous Paari.” Well, my parents were going to be generous book-dispensers.

I first learned about their scheme in Chennai when we visited my father’s old haunt, Mercy Electronics, where he bought everything from a splitter to a slide rule. The proprietor was usually clad in a resplendent red shirt that stretched tightly over his paunch and a matching red cap.

One day, when I accompanied my Dad, the proprietor beamed at me genially. “Your father gave me a copy of your book…ummmm….Moore Market Dairies, isn’t it? I gave it to my granddaughter. She is trying to read English.”

“Moore Market burned down years ago, uncle,” I replied, glaring at my Dad. Why was he giving my book to a man who didn’t want to read?

My dad coughed apologetically. “He helped us so much when the toilet at home overflowed,” he said.

This became a pattern. Some months later, my parents’s ophthalmologist peered at me from behind his magnifying glass and said, “I was very happy to get your book, “Monsoon Wedding,” even though I am not much into cookbooks.”

I started to say that it wasn’t a cookbook and then kept my mouth shut.

“He helped us so much with my cataract removal,” said my dad.

When the local Chettiar store proprietor made an exception and home delivered all their provisions, my parents handed them a copy of my book as thanks.

A few weeks later, I discovered the book with my inscription to “Chettiar,”at Blossom Books, Bangalore’s famous secondhand bookstore.

I decided to put a moratorium on their habit. What was the point of giving away my books to people that didn’t appreciate them, I asked.

My parents point was simple. “Wherever we go, people put us old folks at the bottom of the pyramid. When somebody does us a favor or helps us, how else can we thank them without having them misunderstand it?” asked my dad.

Put that way, my books were doing more than their job. They were helping my parents get things done.

IMG_1639This time, I didn’t protest when my father told me to carry along a copy of my book to the post office. There was a pleasant young woman behind the metal desk. Behind her was a Godrej almirah with a pile of files inside. On the metal desk was a stapler with a string attached so that nobody would swipe it. Two calendars hung on the wall. One contained an image of Gandhi with the caption: “Truth Laboratories: India’s first independent forensic science laboratory.” The other was a calendar from the Nagamma Temple across the street. A man named Doddayya–literally Big Boss– now that’s a name– stood in attendance.

The procedure was actually painless even if it took two hours. The woman walked us through all the forms that we needed to fill and sign. My father had brought his PAN card and other documents in triplicate. Once the procedure was done; once the lady assured us that my dad’s money would be returned to his bank, it was time for the thank you gift.

“My daughter is an author,” my father began. He had told me in advance that he wanted me to do the deed; to offer the book. “Tell her that the book is Saraswati Kataksham: a gift from the goddess of learning,” he said.

“We would like you to have a copy of my book,” I said, handing it out.

“Thank you very much, Madame,” said the post office lady.

“We live down the road,” said my father. “If you pass by our house, why don’t you drop in? You have our address.”

Was this what my father was doing? Was he inviting strangers to his house simply because they had given him good service? We spent the rest of the time with me lecturing him about how old people were getting their throats slit by strangersand then feeling bad about the whole thing later.

While my dad’s arsenal of choice was books, my Mom preferred clothes. She handed her old saris to the fruit vendor, cobbler, knife-sharpener, garbage-cleaner, gardener, and the lady who sold fresh greens every morning. When she accompanied me to renew my driver’s license, one of the clerks was very kind and helpful to us (which by the way is not so uncommon as people think—the much maligned Indian bureaucracy works and people do go out of their way to help hapless strangers).

On the way back, after renewing my license, my mother asked, “Remember those free pajamas that you used to get in airlines? Why don’t we give them to the man who helped us? He is large and that large size one that is sitting around the house will fit him.”

“Ma, the job is done. The license is renewed. Why would you go all the way to Yeshwanthpura to give a clerk a pair of pyjamas?”

“You never know,” said my mother. “It is best to have a good relationship with everyone.”

This then is the long view of life. I view interactions as transactions. My parents view interactions as relationships. Post office personnel get invited home for festivals; and the man at the RTO gets new night-wear because he complained that his joints were aching in Bangalore’s cold weather. As for me, I have a lot of spare room in my storage closet these days.

Shoba Narayan has stopped complaining about her books occupying space in her house.

In the spirit of global philanthropy

In the spirit of global philanthropy
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Well-endowed: Wealthy Indians often donate to alma mater overseas, such as Harvard University. Wikipedia
Updated: Thu, Oct 07 2010. 08 34 PM IST

So Anand Mahindra has given $10 million (around Rs44.3 crore) to Harvard. I know, I know. I saw the emails too. “Why do India’s rich make large donations to foreign universities?” His money; his prerogative. And others have done it before him. The Murthys have donated $5.2 million to Harvard to establish the Murty Classical Library of India; the Nilekanis have donated $5 million for the Yale India Initiative; Ratan Tata gave $50 million to Cornell. Both the Ambani brothers have given to Stanford and Wharton respectively, for a fund and an auditorium named after their father. And now Mahindra has given his alma mater money it doesn’t need to establish a humanities programme in honour of his mother. Is this sincere or philanthropic social climbing? Methinks it is both.

Mahindra went to the film studies programme in Harvard and has spoken in forums about the value of a humanities education. Harvard had probably been hitting him for a donation for a while now; and boy, these foreign universities are persistent. The Boston Brahmins probably cultivated Mahindra for years. What was smart was the way Mahindra carefully calibrated this large gift so that he got the most bang for the buck. Had he given $10 million to the Harvard Business School, which he also attended, they would have said, “Gee, thanks,” and poured him a champagne toast, if that. Humanities programmes on the other hand are so poorly funded that even Harvard lapped up his donation like a hungry puppy; and gave him a centre for it. If Mahindra had to give to a foreign university, the way he did it was maximum paisa vasool (bang for the buck), as we Indians call it. Should he have given to a foreign university? That’s a different matter.

Let’s assume this: India’s rich, whether it be Mahindra or Murthy, are Indophiles. Most of them want to give back to India. They balance donating their money abroad by donating as much, if not more, to Indian causes. Even if they do give to foreign universities, they don’t do so disingenuously—to get a honorary degree for instance. Usually, there is a personal connection. Now we come to the crux of the issue. Put yourself in Mahindra’s shoes. Say you wanted to donate $10 million, either to get your name noticed in the global philanthropy world; or to get a building at Harvard—no less—named after you; or because you were simply fed up of the smooth arm-twisting; or because Warren Buffett dared you to; what would you do? Giving to a university is better than giving to, say, Lincoln Center, isn’t it? At least the money goes towards education and you could make your peace with that.

In that sense, for a wealthy Indian, writing a large cheque to a foreign university is like the Commonwealth Games are for India. You can argue, as Azim Premji did, that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Premji is fundamentally right but that’s not really the point. The Commonwealth Games are not about substance; they are about style. Donating to a foreign university too is about style; Rajini style if you wish. It is about throwing your hat in the ring and telling the world—not just India—that you have arrived.

Mahindra has done terrific work with Nanhi Kali—the NGO dedicated to providing primary education to underprivileged Indian girls—but do you think Charlie Rose or Jon Stewart are going to ask him about Nanhi Kali (if they can even pronounce it) or the Harvard donation? The only guy who will view Nanhi Kali higher than Harvard is Nicholas Kristof but then, you win some; you lose some.

Let’s take the other side now. Bill Gates gives; as does Prince Charles. A fair chunk of their money comes to India. Are Indians being parochial in suggesting that India’s super-rich should give only to India? Absolutely. In politicizing Mahindra’s gift, I am ignoring his strong and genuine ties to his alma mater. I went to Mount Holyoke College for my undergraduate degree. It changed my life. I went from being a psychology major to becoming a sculptor. When I lived in New York, I got invited to lunch with the president of the college because they had somehow found out that my husband worked for Wall Street and wanted a big cheque. We got wined and dined, at the Harvard Club, ironically enough, and donations with a lot of zeros were suggested. I owe my feminism to Mount Holyoke; I owe my love of art to that college. I haven’t given it a penny. Why? Because I am a parochial Indophile Indian; because I think India needs the money more than Mount Holyoke; and because I don’t have enough money to get a centre named after my mother.

When we lived in New York, there was a blow-out between the Tisches and the Everetts, both prominent families, over their donations to the Central Park Zoo. Both families wanted the zoo to be named after them. The Tisches eventually won. It was hilarious. I guess my point is that when we Indians gripe about our rich giving globally, we fail to realize that in the high-stake world of global philanthropy, that’s how it’s done. Mahindra’s donation, in a sense, will open doors for India.

Nanhi Kali is a terrific effort. I downloaded its latest annual report to find out how much Mahindra has given to this cause that he founded and which is clearly close to his heart. I couldn’t get all the numbers so I don’t know for sure. Again, it’s his money, but may I respectfully suggest to Mr Mahindra that he should consider a matching and very public donation to Nanhi Kali? A $10 million cheque will catapult its efforts. If nothing else, it will silence wags like me.

Also read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns at

Shoba Narayan is considering following Mahindra’s example and donating to her alma mater. Write to her at

Indian Philanthropy

Thanks, Vidya, for pointing out that this wasn’t there in my website.

The big idea: Indian philanthropy
Shoba Narayan
Comment E-mail Print First Published: Sat, Aug 04 2007. 11 05 AM IST

Vanaja Ramprasad wants to usher in a green revolution
Updated: Tue, Aug 14 2007. 04 30 PM IST

Philanthropy is a funny thing. All of us, and by that I mean the readership of this newspaper, have the urge to do good, give back, and effect change. Yet, each of us is bound by quirks and nostalgia. Many give to religious charities: Why do Amitabh Bachchan and the Ambanis give to the already-rich Tirupati temple, especially when rumour has it that the Lord has left the premises?

Legacy is another turn-on: Witness the number of donors who give so that buildings and airports are named after them. Parochial passion is a powerful thing, one that is hard to dislodge: Why do so many people set up schools in their native village, for instance? Why not choose any deserving village? I have a Sindhi friend who refuses to give money to Sindhi charities, saying that it is the “basest” and, in her mind, narrowest form of charity. I tell her that the fact that she refuses to give to a Sindhi charity indicates a regional hold just as strong as if she did give.

The point is that all of us are bound by our roots. Like most educated Indians, I fight against this urge. I rarely give to regional charities and I never give to charities on the basis of birth factors (we will only educate Hindu children). The surprising thing for some people is that we Indians “give” at all. You would think that the average Indian, with his pressing problems, power outages, failed infrastructure, family and work stresses wouldn’t have the time or the inclination to give to charities. Wrong. Indians donate money in droves—to temples, schools and other charities. Not enough to change a culture (female infanticide still persists) or institutionalize a value. But we still give of ourselves and not just to indulge our regional, parochial or religious instincts. Sometimes, a simple idea takes over; it becomes larger than life, larger than affiliations, and becomes the binding factor. The idea seduces.

This piece is about seductive ideas that aspire to change the world. This isn’t a complete, Top 50, or even an objective, list.
Goonj is one such idea. Its propagator is Anshu Gupta, a New Delhi-based social activist, Ashoka Fellow and all-round do-gooder ( I met Anshu while living in Singapore. I was part of a group called Focus India Forum that donated money to Indian charities. The group did it smartly. It chose charities across India—one in Assam, one in Tamil Nadu, one in Mumbai and the other in (if I remember right) Gujarat—thus appealing to regional affiliations. In our Singapore charity club meeting, Goonj was thrown in as an afterthought. “Friends, we have Assam, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai. And oh, there is this organization called Goonj. They redistribute clothes, school stationery and other supplies from rich people to poor people. They tie up with rich urban schools in Mumbai and donate the leftover uniforms, backpacks, pencils, books and notebooks to poor schoolchildren in Bihar and Orissa.”

I was blown away by the idea. Here, finally, was a group that wasn’t trying to “raise” or create anything. No new material; simply redistributing the old. I am naturally attracted to logistics and O.R (operational research). I am the type of person who approaches the immigration counter plotting which queue will take the shortest time to reach the official. The fact that Goonj specializes in massive logistical exercises excited me. Talk to Anshu and he will tell you about using army trucks to get winter woollens to Kashmir; about using IIT Madras as a base while getting supplies out to interior Tamil Nadu during the tsunami; and the school-to-school programme which links schools in Mumbai to those in Madhya Pradesh. The problem in many cases is not the fact that there are not enough goods; it is the fact that nobody knows how to get the goods to people in need. That’s where Goonj steps in.

America’s spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy will put any nation to shame. That said, we Indians, too, are no laggards. The IT revolution has spawned an era of wealth creation and thankfully, many of its beneficiaries use their moolah to single-handedly change the world. Rohini Nilekani’s Arghyam ( ) intends to bring “safe sustainable water for all”. Arghyam, which means “sacred water” in Sanskrit, is part of every pundit’s recitation of the different “courtesies” for God (“padhyam, arghyam, aachamanam”). Rohini, however, has taken Arghyam out of the realm of religion and turned it into a secular mission. This ain’t easy. Unlike children, water isn’t “sexy” in terms of attracting funds. It, however, is India’s pressing need. Just ask any slum child who stands in line with a colourful plastic container for her day’s supply of drinking water.

Recently, however, a happy trend is gaining momentum across India and, indeed, the world. Philanthropy is not just about rich people writing large Buffett-esque cheques. It is about middle-class professionals who juggle their jobs with their charity work and who, in some cases, make charity their life’s work, often taking on the most obscure causes. It is the people actually doing the grunt work. What motivates an Anshu Gupta to spend his life trying to figure out how to transport school bags from Bandra to Bhojpur? What makes a Ramesh Swamy go to different people and talk about Unnati (, which provides vocational training to 18-year-olds? Swamy makes a comfortable living. He has a nice home, a pretty wife, grown sons. He doesn’t need to mess with Unnati. He can take a world tour or buy his wife a diamond ring. Instead, he screens slum children and lectures beggars. Whenever a beggar approaches him, he hands out his visiting card and says, “Come and get trained at Unnati and I’ll take care of your life.” Fortunately for us, the people running these charities are dogged; they never give up. Their perseverance is humbling and inspiring.

Vanaja Ramprasad has seen two generations grow up eating food from chemical-intensive agriculture. Her interest in sustainable foods started three decades ago when she asked a simple question: Why were there so many malnourished children in India when the granaries were overflowing? She became a founding member of the Green Foundation with one important goal: to save the heritage of diversity in our country’s agriculture.

Diversity means cultivating grains such as jowar, bajra and ragi that are in danger of dying out because few eat them. I spent a day with Srikanth, one of the directors. He teaches farmers techniques to make them self-sufficient: composting, soil reclamation, crop rotation and simplest of all, growing a kitchen garden so that if all else fails, the farmer-family will have food to eat. Compare this with the farmer suicides that have been making headlines.

Vanaja and her colleagues are passionate about educating consumers who are blissfully unaware of the thousands of rice varieties that have been lost. Today, much of urban India eats two, maybe three, varieties: sona masoori and basmati. Buying organic foods and grains such as those marketed by the Green Foundation’s Nisarga foods will incentivize farmers to cultivate rare varieties which, after all, are the spice of life.

There are many ways of contributing. Simplest of all is to do what the Quran preaches: allocating a portion of your income to good causes. That is my method. I love my job. I assuage my guilt by contributing a small portion of my income to causes I believe in. Nobler still is taking on one area and trying to effect change. Setting up a school in one’s ancestral village and educating generations of children is laudable. Noblest of all is embracing another person’s pain or need and making that your life’s work. My college mate Vidya Reddy was a bouncy, fun-loving senior at Women’s Christian College. She comes from a pretty wealthy family and was known for her infectious laugh and irreverent ways. Today, she has taken on an area where most of us fear to tread: child sexual abuse. She runs Tulir, a Chennai-based non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse ( Vidya told me that she has rescued children from as far away as Afghanistan. What motivates the partying Vidya that I remember to wade through the grunge of human depravity? What keeps her sane? Why does she do this?
Tulir, Goonj, Unnati and the Green Foundation are not charity as the socialites would have it. They are not about fund-raising feel-good glamour. They are about wading through mud, sweat and tears; about grunt work and never giving up. But in the end, they offer the highest reward that I can fathom: They uplift lives; sometimes forever. And in the end, isn’t that what we all aspire to—in our jobs, relationships and life? We want to influence; we want to effect change. Screw the politicians. For my money, I’d bet on these organizations.

(Write to

Power Partnerships

This weeks Mint Lounge is a quirky take on Power Couples.  It includes parent-child partnerships along with the usual spouses one.  When my editors told me to write on “Power Couples,” I wrote a sneering, snarky one that was (again) at attempt at humor.  Thankfully, this meeting happened and I attended.  So I asked if I could refile and substitute that one for this.  Here is the piece on Mint’s website and below.  I hope BPAC flourishes.


The future belongs to power partnerships

You need a mascot, power broker, driver, doer and bridge-builder to start a movement
Shoba Narayan

N.R. Narayana Murthy. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Last Sunday, at 11am, about a hundred Bangaloreans filed into the compact auditorium of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in Domlur. I went because ace swimmer Nisha Millet and epicureanStanley Pinto had invited me. My husband came because co-hostT.V. Mohandas Pai had invited him. We scrambled to reach on time because N.R. Narayana Murthy was the chief guest and he is known for his punctuality. Sure enough, at 11.01am Murthy asked, “Why aren’t we starting?”
It was the launch of B.PAC—the Bangalore Political Action Committee, India’s first and possibly only effort by private, influential elites to influence public policy. On stage was Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, B.PAC’s president; Pai, its vice-president and trustee; former state additional chief secretary, K. Jairaj; political candidate Ashwin Mahesh; and in the centre, Murthy.
How to start a movement? You need a mascot, power broker, driver, doer and bridge-builder. B.PAC has them all and you can figure out who plays what role from the above list. Pai said they have enough funds to last five years, always a good sign and one that is necessary to sustain a movement. Mazumdar-Shaw is a long-time Bangalore advocate and activist. She is at the stage in her career where she seems to be moving increasingly into philanthropy. Pai is trying new things: venture capitalist, influencer and backer of projects. B.PAC fits right into his current portfolio.
Act two: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint.

They all made speeches outlining what B.PAC was about. Most impressive of all were the speeches by Jairaj and Mahesh, which carried the charismatic ring of natural politicians. Both began in the vernacular, “Ellaruge Namaskara”, and switched to English. Jairaj treads many paths. I have seen him at the Ramaseva Mandali Carnatic music concerts in Chamarajpet. A well-respected IAS officer who also takes risks, he has done stints in Princeton and Harvard, US. Mahesh is an ex-Nasa (the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scientist who wants to run for elected office. Together they know the workings of the Karnataka government and have the political savvy to get things done.

The other smart thing about B.PAC is the alliances it has forged with existing urban reform agencies, all listed under “Friends of B.PAC” on its website . There is SmartVote, co-founded by Prithvi Reddy, that aims to improve voter registration and the election process. Reddy stood on stage and fed bytes of information to Pai during the event. Other “Friends of B.PAC” include Daksh, Imagine Bangalore, OneBengaluru, and Prajalytics. This subjugation of ego is a strength in Bangalore where countless reform agencies and NGOs function in silos, all thinking that they are masters of their domain. Bangalore, with the possible exception of Mumbai, has one of the most well-intentioned citizenry in all of India. Waste management: check. Solid waste expert Kalpana Kar is on it, as are countless other building committees. Kar is part of B.PAC too. Other core B.PAC members include danseuse Vani Ganapathy; fashion choreographer Prasad Bidapa; sportspeople Ashwini Nachappa, Millet, and Charu Sharma (Prakash Padukone was in the audience); Inventure Academy founder Nooraine Fazal; brand expert Harish Bijoor; theatre-people Prakash Belawadi and Stanley Pinto; lawyer Harish Narasappa; and R.K. Mishra, who was listed as a “doer”. The spectrum of people involved in this initiative is a huge plus. Typically, activism tends to attract like-minded individuals whose approach towards doing things is clonal. B.PAC will have to find consensus amid its creative modes. Put a fashion type, a dancer, a CEO and a lawyer in the same room and see what ensues.
After the launch, I stood outside in the sun-warmed lawns of Teri, chatting with V. Ravichandar, possibly one of Bangalore’s least egotistical do-gooders. Ravichandar works behind the scenes of many of Bangalore’s initiatives including the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival (its co-founders were in the audience for B.PAC’s launch too). We spent a good 20 minutes gossiping about ego and social initiatives.

There are three types of good samaritan initiatives in Bangalore. Most common are the small, quiet do-gooders who work in their church or community to make this city a better place to live. They have a deep footprint like Cheshire Homes or a relatively new one like Head Held High. Some seek scale; many don’t. The second kind includes large, well-funded social initiatives that are branded or associated with either one or two people. These are well-known social initiatives that get press footage and have worked in one area for years. The only complaint that could be made against them has to do with silos and hubris. They work alone and they are loath to share the limelight. But they are effective. Bangalore has a few dozen of these. B.PAC’s challenge will be to figure out a way to get them on board. The last kind is the informal and occasionally transient citizen networking groups, neighbourhood RWAs (resident welfare associations) and social media networks. These can be harnessed and taught to become more effective.

Bangalore, like Chennai, does not do well with ego. It likes self-effacement in its celebrities. Delhi has a larger appetite for flamboyance and grandstanding. B.PAC’s immediate agenda is to support (suitable) political candidates in the coming elections: a fantastic goal. In order to succeed long term, B.PAC’s founders have to get two things right: figure out how to include a widening array of citizens while keeping the intimate nature of a community (the book, The Dragonfly Effect, should help); and more interestingly, figure out how to keep individual egos in check.
Power couples are so yesterday. Power partnerships are the future.
Shoba Narayan will likely join B.PAC. She is looking forward to a hybrid between a fashion show, a Bharatanatyam performance and a Million Man March from its founders. Write to her at

Are Foundations neccessary?

The hundi model – or writing significant cheques in an ad hoc and anonymous fashion – is the worst way to donate your money

Shoba Narayan

Posted: Thu, Sep 6 2012. 8:47 PM IST


I blame it on the hundi; and the Bible.


“But when thou doest alms,” says the Bible in Matthew 6:3, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” This was before the Indian Revenue Service invented the 80G tax exemption; incentivising donors not just to give with both hands but also announce the size of their donation.


Still, secret giving or gupt daan is embedded in our culture; and indeed most ancient cultures. When Hindus put money into the hundi—that metal repository outside the temple—they do it quietly and often hurriedly, suffused with hope and guilt. Their donation becomes part of the great white whole, to be used (or misused) by temple-based charities.


Given our tradition of secret giving, why are more and more philanthropists setting up their own foundations instead of simply writing large cheques—quietly and anonymously?


I called Vidya Shah, the head and executive director of EdelGive Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Edelweiss, and asked her why she set up a foundation with her husband Rashesh. I knew she had given significant chunks of money quietly and anonymously before she started EdelGive. I knew this because Shah had routed some of her donations through Caring Friends, a Mumbai-based catalyst group that operates along the lines of catalyst group Dasra Giving Circle. Was her foundation a brand-enhancing exercise—not, as Seinfeld says, that there’s anything wrong with that.




Pot luck: The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangapatna. Photo:


Pot luck: The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangapatna. Photo:



Shah says she started EdelGive for two reasons: to embed a culture of giving into Edelweiss. She didn’t want giving to be a “CSR (corporate social responsibility) exercise with two people going off and doing their thing without connection to the rest of the firm”. But what she really wants is for EdelGive to become a platform “through which large institutional donors can leverage off our skills and expertise”. The dream is “to influence the public sector; to influence policy. And if you want to influence policy, you need a platform.”



The next few years are going to be interesting for philanthropy in India. Ratan Tata’s announcement that he will continue to oversee the Tata trusts after his retirement promises to be a game changer. Other philanthropists too are talking about creating shared platforms that will broaden the base of funding and leverage expertise. Given this scenario, what is the new kid on the block to do?


Say you are an entrepreneur whose company has seen a substantial rise in valuation. You team is in place and duties are delegated. You want to do the proverbial “giving back to society”, but are not sure how. I recently met the founder of a Mumbai-based private equity fund who was at this stage. He said that he was spending a larger chunk of his time figuring out how his firm could give back to society. So far, this young founder-CEO was doing it quietly and privately. What next? Should he piggyback on existing groups and organizations or set up something on his own?


Anuja Master Bose is a member of a book club that I am part of. She also has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and has worked for Indian and international social enterprises. She says young philanthropists need to answer three questions: Do I want attribution, what are my values, and how will I structure it? “It cannot look like something that was decided on a whim in a cocktail party,” she says.


The biggest disadvantage of my hundi model of secret giving, says Bose, is that it tends to be erratic. Beneficiaries will not know how much they will get, when they will get it, and cannot plan for the future. Over lunch at Monkey Bar, a new gastro-pub in Bangalore, we discuss her approach to philanthropy, which I summarize in three words: professionalizing the sector, scaling it up, and if you are a donor, donating consistently to the same organization.


Viewed this way, the hundi model—or writing significant cheques in an ad hoc and anonymous fashion—is the worst way to donate your money. Maybe this is why rich people set up foundations. I am still not convinced though if philanthropic organizations or foundations are the way to go if your philanthropic budget is, say, Rs. 1 crore a year. EdelGive’s annual budget is Rs. 6 crore and is tied to the mother firm’s profits (1% of the pre-tax profits are invested in non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, through the foundation). What if you are a wealthy entrepreneur whose annual giving budget is lower than Rs. 5 crore? Do you write five large cheques and route it through Caring Friends or Dasra? Or do you simply bypass these routes and write it directly to deserving NGOs in your city and neighbourhood? Are foundations necessary?


There is one other thing that Indian philanthropy could use: a bit of fun. There is a wonderful scene in the movie Love Actually in which Bill Nighy plays an ageing rock star. He promises to sing a new song he has composed—naked—if it tops the charts. It does; and he does too. Clearly, philanthropy is different from rock music and the mores that work for a rock star will not work for a donor or NGO. But there has got to be some way for NGOs to connect to donors in a way that is lighthearted, fun and different from the usual benefit dinners and lunches.


Shoba Narayan would definitely give if a shirtless Ryan Gosling asked her to donate to a charity. Write to her at




Succession Wipro

When succession becomes a major family concern

Shoba Narayan

Jan 30, 2011
Azim Premji, the founder of Wipro.

Azim Premji, the founder of Wipro.




“Save for the public sector and multinationals, India is full of family businesses,” says Professor K Ramachandran of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

In India, the Tatas, Godrejs, and Mahindras are large business families whose progeny run the conglomerates. While this looms large in the public consciousness, it does not seem to have impacted their earnings in any significant way.

Wipro is an anomaly, mostly because it operates in the IT environment where professionally run firms are the norm. The software giant’s founder, Azim Premji, has had to periodically defend the entrance and elevation of his son Rishad within the company.

Wipro’s rival Infosys, by contrast, does not allow children of its founders to work at the company. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), while partly owned by Tata Sons, is a fully professional organisation. Neither its current chief executive, nor the previous holders of that office had a family connection to the Tata name.

A relatively young firm, Cognizant, is now among the top five companies in IT services. Founded in 1994 as the Indian arm of Dun & Bradstreet, it is recognised as a “fully professional IT firm with not even a whiff of a family name to taint it”, as one analyst says. Cognizant, the analyst adds, might overtake Wipro as the third-largest Indian software firm in a few years – after TCS and Infosys.

This is the baggage Mr Premji has to battle. In the past few months, I have come to admire him. He seems like a man who marches to his own drumbeat.

Indian tycoons have been engaging recently in what I call philanthropic social climbing – giving large amounts of money to a university that doesn’t need it, just to get their names on the world stage.

Anand Mahindra, the managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, last October gave US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to Harvard to establish a humanities centre bearing his name.

Tata gave $50m to Harvard Business School in November to institute a Tata Hall. Mr Premji, who went to Stanford, had not gone down that route until last month, when he gave $2 billion to improve school education in India, the largest single act of philanthropy by an Indian citizen.

Usually circumspect, he is outspoken when he needs to be. In Davos for the World Economic Forum, Mr Premji told the western press that emerging economies are “fed up” with being lectured to by the West about opening up their economies without adequate reciprocity.

Also this week, he condemned the Indian government for being tainted by large corruption scandals, even as he learnt that he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour. Famously frugal, Mr Premji travels economy class, drives a Toyota Corolla, and does not flaunt his wealth or his faith. In fact, when The Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page profile with the title “How a Muslim billionaire thrives in Hindu India,” friends and colleagues of Mr Premji bristled because, they said, that is not how he sees himself.



Can this secular Indian billionaire with an estimated net worth of $17 billion put a succession plan in place, particularly one that the market will buy?

Questions about succession have always dogged Wipro, and Mr Premji, who is seen as the heart, soul and face of the company. Part of the reason is because Wipro seems unable to retain top management.

Vivek Paul, who played a key role in turning the company into a global billion-dollar business and led its listing in the New York Stock Exchange, quit to join a private equity firm. Other executives such as Subroto Bagchi and Ashok Soota left to start MindTree a decade ago.

Wipro, based in Bangalore, last week shocked the business world by announcing that its two joint chief executives were quitting their jobs to make way for TK Kurien, a relatively unknown but senior manager.

The explanation put out by Wipro was that the joint chief executive model was no longer working, something that was reflected in its lacklustre third-quarter performance.

Wipro posted a 10 per cent growth, which compared poorly with 14.2 per cent by Infosys Technologies, and 30 per cent by Tata Consultancy Services.

“Firing the business heads because the quarterly performance hasn’t been good is unprofessional. It sends a message that this is my company and this is what I want to do,” says Prof Ramachandran.

He adds that globally, family-run businesses tend to perform better because the owners in general take long-term views instead of reacting to the short-term performance numbers, as Wipro just did.

Rishad Premji, 33, is tall and sports fashionably long hair. After a stint at the management consultancy Bain, he joined Wipro in June 2007 and was fast-tracked to become the chief strategy officer last year.

After the two joint chief executives were shown the door, Rishad has also taken over the company’s mergers and acquisitions business.

“Clearly, Rishad is getting groomed for the top slot,” says Prof Ramachandran. “The advantage of that strategy is that you get a bird’s eye view of the business without having top-line or bottom-line responsibility. It is found to be a fast track to get to the top without getting into operations.”

In a television interview from Davos, the elder Mr Premji maintained the shuffle of jobs among top management had nothing to do with promoting his son, stating instead that there was a difference between ownership and management.

“He (Rishad) represents ownership if I am not there,” said Mr Premji. “That is a very august responsibility … he is much too young and has much to experience.

“We have a very systematic process of succession, and it will be foolish on my part to have in succession someone who is not ready for the job – who may never be ready for the job.”

Whether or not Rishad Premji succeeds his father, Wipro has its job cut out for the next several months and years.

The good news is that, unlike the Macau gaming tycoon, Stanley Ho, whose numerous children are involved in a dispute over their inheritance, there is only one Premji son in the business.


Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based columnist and author of Monsoon Diary