The CEO of India’s ambulance service was among the first generation of women in her Rajasthan town to receive an education beyond high school. Sweta Mangal received her MBA from the University of Rochester, with the full intention of finding a job and remaining in the US. But less than two years after she graduated, she felt an itch – an India itch – and without telling her family, she flew back to India.
Shortly after she returned, the friend of Ravi Krishna, another US-educated Indian, died in a car accident because he did not receive prompt medical attention. In response to this tragedy, Sweta and a few friends started talking about India’s need for an ambulance system. “In the US,” she said, “we would have just dialed 911. But there wasn’t anything like that here.” In 2003, Sweta and a few friends created an initiative to provide ambulance services for Mumbai residents, buying two ambulances and putting them on the road. As demand grew, they bought eight more ambulances. They also expanded their services to provide a women’s helpline as well as first aid workshops at schools and colleges. Two years ago, Mangal left her day job to become CEO of Dial 1298 for Ambulance. By April 2011, they expect to have 500 ambulances across India.
Mangal is part of a growing trend of young Indians who are increasingly unwilling to accept India’s inequality gap as immutable truth. This gap means that in medical emergencies, the wealthy are rushed to private hospitals in chauffeur-driven cars, while the poor are forced to hope for a run of luck that will save their lives. Indeed, India is (in)famous for its information technology capabilities even though there is no assurance of a constant supply of electricity in most parts of the country. India is renowned for its cardiothoracic surgery facilities even though access to basic sanitation for the majority of the population is non-existent. The wealthy have Ferraris in cities known for clogged roads and cashmere scarves in areas whose temperatures rarely drop below 70 degrees, while slum children burn plastic bottles to keep warm.
This inequality gap has become more apparent in recent years, where in an attempt to address the issue of the scarcity of public services – such as electricity, water and healthcare – the government has encouraged the privatization of these sectors. But rather than alleviating the gap, the inequality has persisted, and in some cases, deepened. This is a democracy of disproportion; and young Indians like Sweta Mangal are looking for a way to relieve this asymmetry.
The work of reducing this imbalance clashes against the predictable troika of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs that India is known for producing. But this professional holy trinity, while still alive culturally, is in the process of being scrambled. Increasingly, young Indians are balancing culturally ordained ideas of success with social change.
“It isn’t like it was before,” said Ms. Mangal. “Before if you were an entrepreneur, all you did was make money, and if you wanted to make this country better, your only option was to be like Mother Teresa. Now, we’re doing both.” Social entrepreneurship is on the rise in India, as young people examine methods of bridging the inequality gap so that India can experience inclusive growth. And as India amasses financial capital, the pool of potential funding sources – from philanthropic organizations to corporate houses – is growing.
While the Indian education system’s business programs have traditionally geared students towards solely making money, universities are recognizing this cultural shift towards social enterprise. The Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Lucknow recently unveiled its Center for Social Entrepreneurship as well as an annual awards ceremony recognizing and promoting innovative ideas for social change.
Irfan Alam is one entrepreneur who has been recognized by a number of institutions and political figures, such as President Obama, for his creative social enterprise. Blending his management background with his desire to uplift the community of his native Bihar – a state infamous for its desperate poverty and rampant corruption – Alam founded Sammaan, a cycle rickshaw-organizing initiative. Calculating that cycle-rickshaw operators support almost 5% of the population but are a disorganized sector, made up of illiterate labourers who rely on the mafia for their rickshaws, Alam created a business model which empowers rickshaw pullers through training, capacity-building, education and financial support. Rather than giving up a large portion of their daily profits in rental, Sammaan sets cycle rickshaw operators up with micro-lending schemes. They are given safety and health workshops, bank accounts and health insurance. The back of the rickshaw is transformed into an advertising board, and the cycle-rickshaw operators sell bottled water and fruit juices to their customers. They keep 50% of the profits.
Mr. Alam went so far as to reach out to the local mafia who had been renting the cycle rickshaws to the pullers, believing that incorporating them into a new system would be more effective than attempting to extricate their involvement. The mafia agreed, and they have worked with Sammaan on their larger goal of making rickshaw-pulling a dignified, sustainable livelihood. Mr. Alam calls this “a holistic means of shifting the system.”
Sweta Mangal and Irfan Alam are two of many young Indian social entrepreneurs who are working towards larger institutional reform as they provide stopgap services for those who need them. They are well aware that the complexity and gravity of the issues that India faces will not be solved by one well-meaning social enterprise. But the promise lies in what is believed to be a generational shift. “There is a revolution happening right now,” Alam says, “where young people want to be involved in India’s future.” Indeed, as India gains prominence on the world stage, young Indians are looking to be involved in this country’s history, and social entrepreneurship is becoming the way to do it.
The National Social Entrepreneurship Forum claims to have seen “an unprecedented surge in the interest level amongst youth in this sector,” as the professional holy trinity of engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs participate in what appears to be a national reckoning; an enumeration that looks not at spreadsheets but souls, an appraisal of a country. For all of India’s leaps and bounds splashed in cashed-out, marigold-strewn glory across the front pages, the needs of many people who energize these leaps and bounds have not been answered. The basic systems their government has promised have been compromised or waylaid entirely. And the explosion of technology and ease of access to information has meant that young Indians have become the eyes and ears of the country, forming the collective conscience of the nation.
Neil Dantas, a 31-year old furniture designer, turned to graphic design to speak out against the tragedies and inequalities by which he was surrounded. Before the terrorist attack on Mumbai commuter trains in 2006, Mr. Dantas was “just a talker.” But following the brutal attacks which ravaged Mumbai, leaving 186 commuters dead, Dantas found himself colonized by a narrative of change that was sweeping the city. He created a design of train handles, with the words “we are still holding on,” underneath and made a t-shirt. The t-shirts were eagerly sought out by youth across the country. Seeking to both educate and inspire young Indians to examine social and political issues, Dantas has since made t-shirts of what he calls “indirect political statements,” addressing issues including safe sex, alcohol abuse and voter turnout. His most recent t-shirt combines the Hindu om symbol with the Muslim crescent moon, speaking to the country’s longstanding tension between many Hindu and Muslim communities.
As India flexes its economic and diplomatic muscles, elbowing its way forward on the global stage, there is another revolution taking place in people’s minds. The professional holy trinity is being undone, aspirations are gaining dimension and the promises of the Constitution are no longer regarded as distant dreams, but as questions, even, challenges. Compared to the energy bills, the trade partnerships, the multi-billion dollar business deals, it is a quieter revolution, but it seems, no less riotous.