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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Where Infosys and Iskon meet

When Infosys was looking to plunge their hands into social work, they set up the Akshaya Patra Project that they run out at Iskcon in Bangalore. They had three parameters in mind. One, to cater to the deprived. Two, to provide at least basic needs to this section of society and three, to ensure the model is scalable, which would benefit a large number for a minimum level of investment.

So, they zeroed down on the mid-day meal scheme, where school children in government-run schools are given free lunches. This is one of the largest private initiatives in the world. They are feeding around 86,000 children in about six locations, all over India. Director & CFO, Infosys, Mohandas Pai told CNBC-TV18 that "by March of this year, we hope to reach the number 100,000 and by 2010 we hope to reach a million."

The reason why Infosys chose to fund a mid-day meal for so many children as opposed to setting up a school was as simple as, the fact that food could lure children to attend school. They would get education as well as a nutritous meal. Pai elaborated, "We found that about 40 million children are out of school, the government had a huge educational establishment and if you are able to provide a mid-day meal in government-run schools, then you will attract the child to come. The child will not only get food, the child will also get an education, and by this we will be able to ensure that the child grows mentally and physically."

Just like its business targets, Infosys has lofty targets, for feeding nearly a million children by 2010. Pai explained, "It's just that we want to make an impact on this country and this is a huge country and doing something in a small number, is not going to make an impact. Another reason is that we want to prove to the people in this country and to the government, that you could run a large-scale project, affecting a large number of people in an effective manner, at the lowest cost possible. So, we want this to be a demonstrator for others to come in."

He added, "The challenge essentially is technological, logistic and management. So it is a different kind of challenge because you are scaling up, it's easy to feed 1,000-2,000 people in a single location, but today for instance, we feed more than 300 schools in Bangalore - we go up to 60 kms (in the city). The food has to be delivered hot to all these children in various schools by let's say 11.30 am, so we start the kitchen at about 2 am, we complete the cooking by 8 am and by then the vehicles go out and at 11.30 am they reach schools and by 2.30 pm they come back. We also have people who taste the food. We have tied-up with the government - that they will come once in a while to make sure that the place is hygienic - they will certify the quality of the food and we have also set up a laboratory, where we specify the spices. We wanted a menu which can be done very fast in a very hygienic manner."

The idea was to team up with an organisation that would help with this project, which Pai terms as being "a programme, which is intrinsically secular" and the reason being that the "government has got a very secular policy for admission. Any child in the country can go to the government school, so we made sure that it (food) reaches the largest mass of children."

The organisation Infosys decided to approach was Iskcon. Pai explained, "We met Swami Madhu Pandit in Iskcon Bangalore and when we discussed the matter, he said why don't we look at working together on a project, so when we spoke to him, he said we could work together and we said what about a mid-day meal, because here in the temple he feeds about 10,000-12,000 people every day, so he said 'yes, we are willing to look at feeding children, provided we get some vehicles because we are distributing food,' and I said we will provide vehicles and we asked how many children will you feed, he said 30,000, so immediately it all fitted in, and by God's grace, we are now at 86,000."

This massive humanitarian effort must need finances that almost seems bottomless. So what is the model for raising finances, that he has adopted? He elaborated, "We have come out with a financial model by which we can scale up and the financial model means that we get money from different sources. For example, we have built-up a bank of donors who give us money to feed a child, it costs Rs 2,200 a child, for a year. Then we go to corporate houses and ask them for money, then we tie-up with the municipality. For example, the Banglore Municipal Corporation sponsors 16,000 children in municipal schools - they give Rs 6 a day per child and we do the feeding."

"The Government of Karnataka gives us Rs 1.30 per child and the balance money we bring in. So my role has been to conceptualize. My role has been to work with the design, my role has been to communicate, my role has been to advocate, my role has been to work with Swami Madhu Pandit. So I think, we have brought in some aspect, which is very vital."

All this may have an additional benefit, such as employees may have greater pleasure in knowing their company is giving them an opportunity to do more for the less privileged. So, how does it help in curbing attrition rate? Pai said, "I think there are three things that we need to do. First, make sure that every individual realises that the more they work in a particular corporation, the more value they add to themselves. Two, make sure that their needs/aspirations are taken care of and they feel wanted and they are part of a team. Three, you must create pride in their work."

Like the famous Robert Frost line "And miles to go before I sleep", Pai intends to do a lot more too. He said, "The one thing that I want to do is to influence public policy in the field of primary education. If you look around India today, there are millions of children who are deprived of good, high quality primary education." But in meeting such lofty goals, one comes across moments of sheer frustration as well.

Pai explained, "I think the reason is very clear, the government is used to working in economy, which grows at 5%-6%, earlier it was 3%-4% and we are used to working in an environment, which grows at 30%-40%. Obviously, there is a disconnect, we could double in 2-3 years, whereas for the government in 2-3 years, they have been up 15%-20%. So nothing essentially has changed. We want very rapid pace of growth. We want to make sure that tomorrow's issues are solved today. We should not be solving yesterday's issues and that creates frustration. So, there is a disconnect between the policymakers, who work at a particular pace, and people like us, who grow at a much faster pace."

On the corporate side, he said, "I think some of the frustration that you face in the corporate side has to do with the outside world. We sometimes find that we are alone in a crowd." He further explained, "Well the whole debate about corporate governance standards in India. We started working on corporate governance standards, benchmarking ourselves globally many years ago and we worked with regulators to make sure that standards are enhanced in India."

"But sometimes the feedback that you get - the debate between the family-owned enterprise and the independent directors - the debate between the role of management and the role of investors, the debate between whether we need this kind of corporate governance standards, I mean even now, the debate is going on and now we have people in government saying that, independent directors should be chosen by the promoters. So we are looking backwards and it's very frustrating because if you travel out, the world has gone far ahead. The world is totally different, yet we seem to be trying to go back than go forward, though I must admit a large part of India's corporates have advanced forward."

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