Champion of compassion

APJ Abdul Kalam PHOTO: AFP   | Photo Credit: SAM PANTHAKY

Is it possible to bring about equitable and inclusive development across rural and urban India — its mindscape scarred with caste-and class-based divisions, its citizens seemingly always ready to withdraw into groups differentiated by education, language, religion, wealth — using the entrepreneurship and cooperative model? Former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam and Srijan Pal Singh offer this idea in a book just brought out by Penguin, “Target 3 Billion — PURA: Innovative Solutions towards Sustainable Development”.

At his New Delhi residence, his co-author by his side, the ace nuclear scientist who turned into king of hearts when he became the President, and retains that status with millions of Indians despite having moved out of Rashtrapati Bhawan, is brimming with bonhomie and a boundless but focused energy. The book notes that “the implementation of sustainable development will be complete only when prosperity comes with peace.” That peace has its basis in love among human beings. It is an ideal image, but when untouchability, despite the laws and a constitution ratified nearly 62 years ago, is still practiced by some, how is it possible to create an environment for inclusive progress?

Kalam explains, “It's true we have a society with differences. Differences arise from (inequality of) capacity. Building capacity dissolves differences. It irons out the differences.”

He begins by outlining the concept of a PURA, the acronym for Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas. Considered among his pet concepts that came under the Ministry of Rural Development some time ago, it is however, not a government scheme that works from the top down.

The former President says it is based on a study of successful social movements across the country. The book mentions his many experiences meeting social reformers, tribal leaders, members of cooperative movements, and offers these as sustainable development models. So PURA works where such leaders have already prepared the ground. “Yes, yes,” he agrees. “We are trying to gain their experience.” Such leaders, called “PURA champions,” were all invited to IIMs to share their thoughts, he says, adding that he developed the concept of PURA along with his friend, Professor Indiresan.

The statistics are at his fingertips: “We have 600,000 villages, with 750 million people living in rural areas. The rest of the 300 million live in urban areas. We have 200,000 panchayats….” The prosperity of a fishing village, for example, can be increased by capacity building: providing technology (like cold chambers to increase the shelf life of the catch) and knowledge (how to process the fish, repair equipment, market the products, etc).

“Warana PURA,” he refers to a case study of a PURA in Maharashtra's Kohlapur district, “is successful because of the cooperative movement. A cooperative is successful because they have price control. Once they start earning, they think of educating their children, about health care…. Earning capacity is the leveller. Once you are independent, irrespective of what product you make, then you can play a role in society.”

But as the book points out, the Warana PURA's cooperative movement began in the 1950s under the visionary Tatyasaheb Kore. Effective leadership is vital, Singh puts in. Once there is a leadership the problematic issues tend to dissolve, he observes.

However, the prevailing notion is that in India we are short of such visionaries who lead by example. The wealthy in some cases don't even want their children to study alongside economically underprivileged students. Kalam readily recalls an incident he resolved while President, when some children in Kerala were infected with HIV, and parents of other children didn't want them in the same school. “I brought in religious leaders to talk to them.”

In this context, he mentions a mission related to PURA not outlined in the book. “We have started a movement called ‘What Can I Give?' which has 250,000 members.”

This is one of the initiatives through which he is attempting to mould society's mindset. Launched in November, it does not require leaders but relies on individual interest. “For example they can plant trees,” says Kalam, and the scientist in him tells us how many kgs of oxygen a tree exchanges for 20 kgs of carbon dioxide.

“Then, hospitals. In the evenings at hospitals you will see a crowd around the beds, but there are some beds where no one goes. I tell them to take some fruits and flowers and visit such people.” Another of his suggestions is to make one's mother happy, since mothers are pillars of society. “It's a very simple movement but it changes society.”

As for the PURA mission, Singh says they have already taken six interns “who will work with us and learn from us.” While the book is meant to inspire and guide, adds Kalam, “If someone has a question they can contact me. Or they can approach any champion of a PURA.”

The PURA mission also contains capitalist terminology. It has to run as an enterprise, explain the authors. There is a chapter on the PURA corporation. “Our idea is Public-Private-Community Partnership,” says Singh. He also talks of the concept of “social stocks”.

A profit-making enterprise, to bring prosperity to all with sustainability, not only requires a high level of personal integrity from everyone involved but perhaps also an absence of capitalist greed. Kalam says he has always believed where there is righteousness, whether one is an entrepreneur or in any other profession, it leads to beauty of character. Beauty of character leads to harmony in the house; that leads to order in the nation, and thence to peace in the world, he says.

“Only three people can give righteousness in the heart: Father, mother and teacher. That is why I have promoted education with value system up to the age of 17. The second thing is the Youth Brigade.”

This is a programme through which he exhorts the youth to oppose their own parents if they indulge in corrupt practices. The Youth Brigade has not been formally launched like “What Can I Give” but Kalam notes that he meets a lakh people every month and they are asked to pledge, “I will work with integrity and I will succeed with integrity”.

Singh underlines the ‘Kalam effect' when he reiterates, “What Can I Give has got a quarter of a million members in a month.”

These three movements will together bring change across India, feels Kalam. “The Lokpal is going to punish people who are corrupt,” he chuckles. “But I am saying, we don't want to make a big crowd there!”

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 7:54:41 PM |

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