India has a vibrant democracy that positions the country well for integrating the voice of its citizens into decisions at the local, district, state, and national levels. However, to make greater strides towards inclusiveness, India should embark on creating holistic ecosystems that allow the poor – especially the rural poor – to tap into the momentum and growth of the country. Social enterprises are doing just that – focusing and collaborating on solutions that are not merely one-off acts of charity. In fact, their work is adding up to a vast array of sustainable services across sectors and industries to help people at the base of the pyramid lift themselves out of poverty in a dignified way. These services build upon each other to ensure that the poor do not remain poor, but have the opportunity to actively contribute to and benefit from the economic progress of the country.
Since year 2001, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has been selecting leading social enterprises in India and globally. The result is a tight community of social innovators who are not only made aware of each other’s work, but are encouraged to break out of their working silos, and partner together in mainstreaming the social enterprise movement, thereby, accelerating poverty alleviation.
Broadly, our Indian social entrepreneurs fall into three general categories that are helping the socioeconomically disadvantaged to have inclusive access to:
- Basic services, such as housing, healthcare, and education
- Employment opportunities, especially from the informal to the formal sector
- Financial services that go beyond credit
It’s easy to take for granted certain necessities, such as housing, healthcare, and education. For the poor, proper housing, quality healthcare, and basic education are oftentimes luxuries. The rural poor usually lack sanitation systems in villages; the urban poor live in fear of eviction from their meager squatter settlements in city slums. Moreover, five years of primary education in public schools are hardly enough to gaurantee a child is literate upon finishing, given high teacher absenteeism and chaotic classrooms with usually one instructor teaching multiple grade levels simultaneously. Finally, in a country where the majority of the people do not have health insurance, amidst the rising cost of healthcare, basic treatments are virtually out of reach for the poor. Here, Aravind Eye Hospital has pioneered in the rapid scaling of eyecare services to all people, regardless of their ability to pay, through an innovative cross-subsidization model. PlanetRead and RIVER (Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources) have engaged government in drastically improving the quality of public education – at both the grassroots and policy-making levels. In the area of building inclusive cities, Saath and SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) are at the forefront of empowering the urban poor with much improved housing, electricity access, and other basic infrastructure through public private partnerships; Gram Vikas works likewise in rural villages.
The poor don’t just need jobs – they need stable employment, fair wages, social security entitlements, opportunities to run their own businesses, as well as market linkages so that they are plugged into the formal economy. India has upward of 100 milllion rural seasonal labourers who are unable to break the cycle of poverty, no matter how much they work. Because of their migratory status, these workers are especially vulnerable to wages that go unpaid, labour malpractices and other safety hazards. Organizations like Aajeevika Bureau and Nidan undertake the difficult work of organizing these labourers, issuing them identification cards, collectivizing them into trade professions, equipping them with job placements and additional training, as well as giving them voice through legal counseling and other specialized services. The working poor also need income generating opportunities that reward their hard work and independence. Oftentimes, this is focus of social enterprises, such as Selco, Development Alternatives, and IDE India, that design and distribute affordable, appropriate technologies in the area of solar lighting, clean cookstoves, farming/irrigation tools, and other devices.
Finally, once the poor have the means to generate income in a more stable fashion, they will also need a suite of financial services, including savings, credit, as well as simple banking services that allow for deposits, withdrawals, and remittances. Given a world of increasingly complex financial products, these people will also require education in financial literacy and business training so that their hard-earned money is wisely managed and/or invested. Microfinance organizations, such as BASIX, have this holistic end-customer focus that goes beyond simply lending money. And as market linkages and information access become more important in empowering people to make informed decisions, this is where the marriage of mobile technology and financial services can make an even bigger impact.
In summary, social entrepreneurship is pioneering in making India more inclusive for those who are often neglected or left behind in a fast-developing society. India is a participatory nation, and through social entrepreneurs and others who champion this movement, India is also quickly becoming an inclusively particpatory economy.