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Aspiring polymath since 1982

Back To Work

Well, am now back to the world of the living and the gainfully employed. I have taken up an opportunity to work with a startup microfinance organization based in Mumbai For me, the attraction is two fold:

  • I get the opportunity to work in a startup organization in a pivotal role and help in shaping its future prospects, its culture and its success
  • I get to continue working in the field of social ventures even though this time round it is as an employee rather than as a potential entrepreneur

Urban microfinance is quite a nascent field in India because the focus of the government and the NGO sector has traditionally been on the less developed hinterland. The fact that is conveniently ignored is that migration to urban areas has intensified over the past decade of liberalization and that urban poverty is as omnipresent a problem as rural poverty. Interestingly, last year it was declared that for the first time in the history of the world, urban population had exceeded the rural. It just shows the increasing urbanization of the world is a process that is not going to end any time soon.

In India, the population in cities is increasing so rapidly that the average population of an Indian metro today begins to rival that of small European and African countries. There is a study which shows that Delhi adds on an average 665 migrants daily and Mumbai around 236. Thats over 300,000 people annually added to the Delhi population and over 200,000 to Mumbai’s. It is no wonder it is projected that by 2015, Mumbai and Delhi will rank as the 2nd and 3rd largest urban agglomerations in the world. Thats just another 7 years away.

There are a smattering of organizations, mainly in the NGO sector that are working in the urban microfinance space but none of them have actually been able to create a model that is self-sustaining and that achieves exponential growth. Its obvious that this is because they have not been able to understand what the consumer for urban microfinance services requires and actually, the problem might actually be even more fundamental, that these organizations do not view people accessing these services as customers in the first place.

This is the reason why there are no urban microfinance organizations that have reached the scale of players in the rural microfinance space like Spandana, Share Microfin, BASIX and others. Of course, one hears frequently of microfinance organizations that have been successful in setting up rural projects talk about entering the urban space, but it still remains to be seen how many of them will be able to successfully translate their learnings and in-house processes to reflect the realities of urban India.

In the end, urban poverty is something that requires as much attention from the policy makers, civil society and other institutions as rural poverty. There is an interesting UN-HABITAT report that urban slum dwellers are actually worse off than their rural counterparts. As usual, any such report should be taken with a pinch of salt but it does corroborate my own experience in both urban and rural settings of poverty. Of course, my experience is as sketchy as they come and should be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt.

At the end of the day, the success and viability of our society depends on how well we can patch together the disparities in its fabric created due to economic and social circumstances. Microfinance in all its avatars is definitely an important tool at addressing these disparities and bridging the gulf between them. In the packed slums and chawls of urban India, the financial returns, security and social validation that microfinance can bring to the people living in them will go a long way forward into bringing people out of the vicious circle of poverty of opportunities that afflicts them now.

And in the course of doing that, if urban microfinance in India is also able to create a microfinance praxis that can be easily translated to urban third-world settings across the world and do so in a financially and socially sustainable manner, it would do no less than change the world. Let’s see how this innings goes then.

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Filed under: India, , ,

The Indian Trinity

A few weeks back I got my hands on a book that shook my perspective on how engaging non-fiction could be. That book happened to be Richard Rhodes‘ “Making of the Atomic Bomb“. A 900-odd page look into the genesis of the idea of the bomb and its actual birth in the parched womb of New Mexico as Trinity, the first atomic bomb to ever be set off on the face of the planet. Its a fascinating look also into the lives of the bombs’ midwives, from Teller, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and a host of others.

I have always been a fan of the genre called “historical reimagined fiction”, a genre that blurs the line between fiction and reality to an extent where you start accepting the author’s account of historical events and narratives. One of my favorite authors and series in this genre happens to be Neal Stephenson‘s “The Baroque Cycle” trilogy. Another favorite was Patrick O’Brian‘s “Master and Commander” series, starting from the eponymous book to the final one in the series.

To actually then read a work like “Making of the Atomic Bomb”, where you know that there is no line to be blurred, that what is actually being narrated is reality, transcribed and collated from thousands of hours of interviews and research, is to take a look into the mind of genius. I also happen to have Richard Rhodes’ book on writing called, well, “How To Write“, where he mentions taking five years to pen this work. If you were to take a look at the bibliography at the end of the book, you would have a pretty good picture of where those five years went.

I am yet to come across any work taking the erudition and detail present in Richard Rhodes’ work to the subject of the Indian nuclear-military-space complex. As an Indian, its a fascinating topic which few people have ever explored, in terms of matter for books as well as for personal exploration. For a newly-independent nation to develop a competent nuclear power and associated research sector, create a whole military complex based on the principle of self-sufficiency, and also setup a space research organization that is one of the cheapest space launch providers out there, is a laudable feat.

So where are the books then? Now, I’m aware that there are biographies/hagiographies of the people who fathered and sustained these complexes, people like Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, APJ Abdul Kalam, MGK Menon and others. There obviously is a reason that most people have not read any of these (excepting numerous ones on Kalam that must have got publicity during his stint as President). Some reasons that come to mind are poor or dry writing, little or no publicity, and little or no availability.

I’ve gone ferreting around in some of the biggest bookstores in India but have yet to come across any book on this topic. There are one or two writen by foreign authors though but available only through Amazon. It’s sad that some of the most inventive and self-sufficient stories to come out of Independent India are out of sight and out of mind of the Indian public because there aren’t authors talented or interested enough to take this chapter in our nation’s history and convert into a compelling narrative that would interest readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Of course, a criticism that most people would aim at me for shortlisting Indian achievements in the nuclear, space and military sciences is that it totally neglects the work done by our agricultural scientists such as MS Swaminathan and supporters like C Subramaniam. What of the achievements of Indian scientists in radio astronomy, neutrino detection and other esoteric fields? In my defence, all I can say is that these are the three areas that I’ve followed closely and am most able to say something about which won’t be moronic. It’s times like these when I really wish I had the gift and more importantly the patience required to write.

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