As India watched the grief and pain of many of its less advantaged citizens as the COVID pandemic gripped the country in March 2020, many high net worth individuals, institutions and foundations offered financial help to tide over the immediate crisis.
One of the largest efforts was coordinated by the Nudge Foundation, headquartered in Bengaluru, by effectively raising Rs 220 crore and putting it to good use through a vast network of NGOs and civil society organisations it worked in tandem with. In the second wave – a crippling one for the country – the amount raised and disbursed for relief work by Nudge shot up to Rs 1,100 crore.
Now, the Foundation has raised its ambitions even higher and is in fact metamorphosing into the Nudge Institute.
In a recent meeting with Nudge Institute’s founder and Give India’s CEO Atul Satija (45), over Zoom, he explained to me how and why the institute – with the support of nearly 600 private individuals who engage directly or indirectly – is aiming to aid in the effort of making India poverty-free by 2047.
His argument goes like this:
“At Independence, 70% of India’s population was classified as ‘poor’. In 75-odd years, those below the poverty line are now 30%. 273 million people were pulled out of poverty over a 10-year period or so. The number of extreme or ultra-poor fell from 22.5% to 10.2% between 2011 and 2019, as per a recent World Bank report. Pre-COVID, the absolute number of extreme poor in the country was estimated at around 65 million. Post COVID, most experts expect it to have touched 100-120 million.
Yet in absolute numbers, the total number of poor, including ultra-poor, in India is jaw-droppingly high at 400 million. We still have the second largest number of extreme poor in the world. We are ranked 131 in terms of human development indicators. One-third of under five children in the country are stunted. The demographic of youth and unemployment also remain an issue, and so on. The list of problems remains daunting and we cannot rest.”
He further argued that with India’s expenditure budget tripling in the last decade and the philanthropy landscape finding its feet with rapid wealth creation, India, as a country, is not poor anymore.
“Hence, we should, at least, aspire to eradicate poverty by the time we are a 100-year-old nation,” he said.
It is to eliminate poverty by 2047 – one hundred years after India’s Independence – that the Nudge Foundation is transforming itself into an institute and drawing up a detailed game plan on how to go about it.
Pooling of resources
It all sounds so good in theory that the Indian in me is excited, hanging on to his every word. A poverty-free India in his lifetime will coincide at least partially with my lifetime too.
But the journalist in me is far more skeptical. How does one even begin to tackle something of this magnitude? Why am I even listening to this? Can this fairly young and idealistic social sector leader pull off what many Cabinet ministers and successive governments have failed to? As an aspiration, it sounds rather bold, even bordering on absurd.
But I listen on and it sounds more and more credible as the minutes tick on. The biggest redeeming feature of Satija’s plans, which would otherwise be dismissed as fanciful, is that he’s not exactly doing all this alone: everybody, and his uncle so to speak, has jumped in. As he speaks, I think to myself, that the private sector appears to have completely lost faith in the establishment’s ability to deliver on this count.
I learn from him that there are 350 plus full-time ‘nudge-sters’ (the team), just over 35 new founding supporters and donors, over 50 existing corporates, foundations and high net worth individuals (HNIs) including the Indira Nooyis and Sundar Pichais of the world already vested and a board of over 10 members and advisors.
A total of at least 600-odd people are already vested. If one includes the 100-plus incubatee NGOs, the numbers run into thousands. The new funders include several new-age millionaires and billionaires. Thirty-plus founders have committed over Rs 10 crore to the cause. HCL’s founder member Ajai Chowdhry, Flipkart’s Binny Bansal, Meesho’s Vidit Aatrey, Big Basket’s Hari Menon are among the many who are supporting the institute at an individual level.
Institutional support as patrons is coming from Omidyar, Mphasis and the Zee group, among others. SEWA’s Renana Jhabvala and Ujjivan’s Samit Ghosh have joined the board in advisory capacity. The institute is raising Rs 1,500 crore on an ongoing basis over the next five years to support its activities over the next eight years, and Satija assures me that they are not “funding constrained”.
I have closely seen the involvement of many individuals in the first fundraise Nudge did in 2020 and then 2021. In 2020, a 16-member advisory board (most of whom donated and gave their time) – with Arun Seth, former chairman of British Telecom; Kiran Shaw Mazumdar; Devi Shetty; Sanjiv Mehta; Binny Bansal; V. Vaidyanathan; among other equally well-known industry representatives – was set up. And, a three-member steering committee – Govind Iyer, Egon Zehnder partner and board member of GiveIndia; Ingrid Srinath, director at Ashoka University; and Shailesh Haribhakti, independent director and chartered accountant – was set up in 2020.
Both advisory board and steering committee were requested to fast-track and clear proposals for funding relief that would be vetted and tabled by the GiveIndia team. This fundraiser brought in donors from every corner, including big contributions from Vinod Khosla, Indira Nooyi and Sundar Pichai. Indian HNIs like Ajay Piramal, Anu Aga, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Binny Bansal, Amit Chandra were some of the big Indian donors. The Google Pay leadership team (five individuals from the team contributed Rs 5 crore), Google.org, and the Nilekanis all contributed generously.
So how does Nudge Institute plan to achieve its lofty goal?
To begin with, the Nudge Institute will produce a yearly report on the status of the ultra-poor report, a bit along the lines of ASER by Pratham. The latter (ASER report) almost everyone in the education sector will agree that it has been a huge success by any yardstick.
To tackle any problem, one needs to both acknowledge it and estimate it accurately. This report will provide data so that the stakeholders understand the problem before beginning to deal with it. This is much needed since two recent papers on the subject (of the World Bank and the IMF) have led to much inconclusive debate in the absence of hard, high-quality data on the subject among experts and economists just in the last few days. Since it will be yearly, it will also be a good indicator of how much impact the institute’s work is making.
Second, the institute will launch programmes – akin to its Jharkhand programme where it is working to uplift 1200 ultra-poor families in the tribal districts through the “graduation” approach endorsed by Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – to prove that this approach works in different geographies, contexts, environments and differently endowed regions.
For a start, the Nudge Institute is looking at launching similar programmes in districts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Northern Karnataka where similar ultra-poor families reside.
In addition, the new institute will put together a “graduation fund”, which will allow other NGOs to replicate and improve upon the graduation approach in their areas of operation. The money will be a corpus on which such NGOs can lean to launch similar programmes in their areas of operation.
To ensure that all the action happens on the ground, Nudge Foundation is being transformed into an action-oriented institute, with a few specific features.
One, it will be a doer, instead of a facilitator or funder. It will be collaborative in nature, instead of functioning solo; actively working with CSOs, government and market players.
Two, it will not spread itself too thin. The focus will not be on education, health, nutrition and the entire gamut of problems that afflict the communities, but only on resilient livelihoods for the rural and urban poor.
There will be various centres – like the Center for Skill Development or for Social Innovation – under which various programmes will be housed and executed across states. In addition to this, there will be a few “hubs” that act as muscles for all the centers and provide essential inputs to build capacity. For instance, the data hub will provide data to all centers, technology hub, innovative financing hub, impact hub and public policy hub, amongst others.
Despite all the ifs and buts in my mind, what strikes me as encouraging is the fact that the institute is working on a vision paper on eradicating extreme poverty with the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). Nita Kejriwal, junior secretary in the ministry of rural development (MoRD) is working closely with them on it. It is also working to bring various states on board.
A recent MoU signed with the Jharkhand government is going to expand the reach of the graduation approach to a few additional districts in the state, a partnership where Nudge will work closely with state government machinery. This strikes me as key to the effort: eradicating poverty at such a scale is not something that any organisation in India can achieve without both state and Union government involvement.
Satija seems to appreciate this too, as he told me that the “player and do-er at scale” for the 2047 goal can be “governments in partnership with Nudge”. I am skeptical about governments in general – given my 25-odd years of closely observing their work – but their involvement gives me hope that the government will perhaps not “kill” the attempt.
Satija and I spoke for over an hour. I listened and interrupted with questions all through our chat while oscillating on an emotional plane from extreme joy and hope to extreme hopelessness and cynicism as we grappled with the problem of India’s ultra-poor. Yet, as we decided to conclude our chat, I realised that I am every bit a resilient Indian: never willing to give up or lose hope even when all the odds may seem against this 75-year-old nation of ours.
Anjuli Bhargava is a senior business journalist.
Featured image: File photo of a volunteer distributing food to migrant workers travelling home at a Kanyakumari railway station. Photo: PTI
This article was first published on The Wire.