The story of SVYM, especially of the last 10 years will be incomplete without mentioning the contribution of Naresh Bala, a person who has silently immersed himself into SVYM and its activities. I met him for the first time in January 1985. I was into the para-clinical program in medicine and was having holidays. I had gone on a tour of temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and on the way back decided to visit Trichy where the Regional College of Engineering (now called National Institute of Technology) is located and my brother was studying. He had just completed his engineering studies and had to fly off to Canada to pursue his doctoral program. He wanted some help to pack up his stuff and return back to Bangalore and I went to help him out. During my stay with him, he introduced me to one of his friends, Naresh who was also flying off to the US for his higher education. That was the first time that I had met him and we had a very brief conversation.
Years later in 2000, I was surprised to hear from him. He had somehow tracked my number down and called to ask me if he could come and meet with me. We met at my parents’ house in Bangalore and he casually mentioned that he had now re-located permanently to India and was keen on getting involved in the social sector. Many friends living abroad had made such statements and I was not too sure how serious he was. From experience, I knew that people speak from the plane of idealism and many of them are genuine about giving back to our country and come fresh with ideas and are looking around for avenues and organizations to get involved. I also knew that many of them feel frustrated with the reality of the Indian context and the constant adaptive challenges that present themselves. My standard response has been to ask them to come and get involved in our work and if things work out to our mutual satisfaction, then we could take it from there.
After a few months of silence, he called to inform me that he was visiting Saragur with a friend and wanted to get to know our projects first hand. He brought along with him another wonderful person called Elango Ramaswamy. In his pursuit of visiting good NGOs, Naresh had visited this young engineer who had quit a promising career and was driven with the passion of bringing in development through the Panchayath System of Governance. He had stood for the local elections and was elected as the President of Kuthambakkam village panchayath near Chennai. Elango was a legend in the world of community driven initiatives and I had heard a lot about his work and had wanted to meet him. We had a long discussion on that day and shared our development views with each other. Naresh and he visited our work and stayed for a day before returning to Bangalore after making a donation to SVYM.
From then on Naresh started to associate himself with SVYM making donations and offering consulting support on technical issues. Slowly our friendship flowered and his visits to SVYM began increasing. Naresh gradually came to befriend all the senior members of the SVYM team and the interactions became more broad-based and constructive. MA Balu also struck a special relationship with him and started picking his brains on helping VILD establish and grow. VILD had just been set up and we needed a new kind of thinking that Naresh had brought. Before long, Naresh was so fully integrated with SVYM that it looked as though he was with us for a long time. He started offering support to the core team on EQ training and in helping us think through our conflicts and differences. He helped bring in a better understanding of how teams work, the professional practices in a work place, the work-life balance issues, and the important issue of emotional health of all the team players. We in the social sector generally deny ourselves the luxury of accepting the emotional realities and the complexities of human relationships, and the role of an impartial facilitator to think through such issues is a major benefit. Naresh fit this bill very well and he was insider enough to know and understand the unspoken undercurrents but outsider enough to maintain objectivity and impartiality. Though many have argued that the EQ workshops that we had then caused quite a stirring within SVYM, I personally feel that such a churning helps in the long run. Many a time, disruption helps bring in more creative thinking into a system and many of my interactions with Naresh helped me understand myself better.
From being a consultant and advising us on key issues, Naresh felt that he needed to associate on a full-time basis with SVYM and its programs. He built on the opportunity of funding that Dell Foundation presented to SVYM and has worked over the last many years in fashioning one of SVYM’s best-run programs. I say best run not merely from a managerial or a monitoring point of view, but from a larger holistic perspective. The Premavidya project that Naresh has conceived and shaped reaches out to thousands of poor school children in rural and urban areas of Karnataka. Apart from aligning with the larger vision of SVYM, it aims to ensure that no child is left out of the education and schooling system merely because it cannot afford to be included. One needs to spend time with the project and the children to understand the passion, creativity and managerial excellence that drive it. I have often remarked that Premavidya needs to be the benchmark for rest of the SVYM projects in terms of monitoring and evaluation, data capture and analysis, and donor engagement. Hopefully, Naresh will find the time to engage himself with the larger issues that are confronting SVYM today. Naresh brings with him a unique combination of knowledge, skills and the ability to move seamlessly between the domain of abstraction and operational detail, and more importantly the humility to observe and state things as they are with no axe to grind. He also brings in the enormous experience of the corporate world in which he rose to high positions and the network of many years of work there. I have always been impressed with his ability to engage with donors, though I am also left wondering why he does not bring in the same intensity when he needs to interact with the Government system.
When the milestones of SVYM are written about, the role and contribution of Naresh will be one of the major ones. But despite everything that he has done and is doing, I feel there is a more compelling role that he now needs to play and his best is yet to come. He now needs to bring in his rich experience into the organizational mainstream and make the standards of our own Governance and Managerial processes a benchmark for the sector itself. SVYM now needs to go beyond looking at mere projects and build on the larger vision of being a platform for positive societal change in which all well-meaning individuals and institutions can participate and work together. And in this, Naresh can not only help shape and refine this vision, but also help everyone involved to translate it into everyday operational tasks.