Back to the Future

by Benedict Paramanand

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Nagaraja Prakasam’s book Back to Bharat – In Search of a Sustainable Future packs in a lot of tough dilemmas India, the world, entrepreneurs, policymakers, the planet and consumers currently face. He offers native, well-informed and sometimes radical solutions on how to address them. He rightly seeks a sense of urgency in how the world is trying to solve pressing issues and demands that future solutions are fair and inclusive to all stakeholders.  

The 400-plus-page book may well be his autobiography. A corporate maven retires in his early 40s and dedicates a decade after that to solving the problems of underserved rural communities. What he has been able to achieve in such a short time is astounding. He is able to do that simply because of the sharp clarity of his mission aided by a pot of sizable savings, a simple lifestyle, and his love for solving grassroots problems. I may also add his love for books that have shaped developmental economics. Acumen Fund’s founder Jacqueline Novogratz’s book The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World is one of his favourites.

A substantial part of Back to Bharat is about Naga’s social entrepreneurship journeys spread across the country. He brings India’s deep interiors alive to urban readers who have little clue about what is going on beyond 30 kilometres of their habitat. This is timely and important because of the hyperbolic narrative about India emerging as an economic superpower without wondering how it can get there with abysmal access to education, nutrition and health care for three-fourths of the 1.4 billion people. While it is an eye-opener, it is also an opportunity for social entrepreneurs who want to get their hands and feet dirty. 

The title of the book may show Naga as a nationalist but he is clearly patriotic. I learnt to make this distinction when I heard India’s prominent historian Ram Guha at a literature festival. A nationalist’s mission is to unite residents of a particular geographical territory on the basis of a single language, a shared religion, and a common enemy, while a patriot loves his country’s diversity and the values it cherishes. Clearly, Naga’s mission is to rediscover India’s glorious past while it prepares its present for a more prosperous future. Hence the title Back to Bharat.

I feel this title may mislead those who don’t know Naga or his work. They could literally judge the book by its cover and pass it over thinking it to be part of the fringe that gloats about India’s past and has few solutions to tackle its many existential problems. Like them, Naga believes a few historians who say India has had a golden past and quotes ample data to show it. These are mostly GDP figures from a few hundred years ago which many historians dispute. 

The big question to ask is – were common people happier in ancient India which was riddled with wars, disease, a rabid caste system, and steep taxation by all rulers? Countries like India, and many in Europe, which have built massive palaces and forts have had shanties all around them. A narrative around the past is bound to influence how the future is shaped. Leaving the past behind can give India a fresher lens to figure out its future better.    

A Primer on Impact Investing

The heart and the soul of Naga’s book of nearly 100 small and big stories are about how the not-so-smart individuals have been solving big local problems such as access to clean toilets, access to micro-finance, access to micro-energy solutions, access to clean water, and access to better primary healthcare in deep pockets of the country with grit.  

Gramalaya
S. Damodaran is a Swachh Bharat (Grameen)

Most successful social entrepreneurs he has quoted have found ways of working with government agencies in small pockets. The Government of India’s Swach Bharat project was inspired by the Vellore-based clean toilet project of Gramalaya. The size of India’s problems is so massive that they could be solved by replicating these solutions with tweaks to make them relevant to local conditions. Massive projects with big budgets have often shown that not more than ten per cent of benefits reach the most needy. 

Naga is an eclectic blend of many things – a successful ‘ghar wapsi’;  a much-adored resident mentor at IIM Bangalore’s NSRCEL and a shrewd angel investor in more than 20 firms. Much more than that, he is an evangelist – he rarely refuses an invitation to speak about the power of social entrepreneurship in driving change in any corner of the country. He is on the board of a few impact investing companies helping them make strategic and smarter investments. 

Naga asks tough questions to everyone and doesn’t spare even the consumers about their questionable choices; policymakers who hate taking difficult decisions; and corporates who think their responsibility ends with sharing two per cent of their net profits. “What about their responsibility for 98 per cent of the profits they make to society,” he asks. 

As Mukund Rajan, chairperson of Ecube Investment Advisors, notes in his praise for the book, Naga offers clear transformative pathways for India’s future. More than that Naga’s book spearheads his impact thinking mission. Any meaningful and sizable change cannot happen without wearing an impact-thinking hat by everyone – entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers.

Naga believes in Indians’ innate entrepreneurial streak and is hopeful that with a more benign ecosystem, they could draw India out of its current paradoxes – like he sees an Audi showroom on his way back from visiting a poverty-stricken village just 30 kilometres away in Bihar. 

Naga’s first book is racy despite its bulk although it could have been edited better. 

The author edits the Sustainability Next e-magazine; Co-founder of Green Literature Festival and Bangalore Business Literature Festival. www.sustainabilitynext.in

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