Saturday, May 31, 2008

Transforming Lives in Varanasi by “Bringing the Capital Market Home to the People”

On March 14th, 2008, the Prime Minister of India pledged $18 million worth of assistance to the impoverished silk weavers of Varanasi. This was part of a larger package of initiatives designed to address the working conditions and living standards of long-neglected workers who provide products and services of both economic value and cultural importance for India. This recognition of the needs and the value of the weavers of Varanasi originated in the work and innovative thinking of two Ashoka Fellows collaborating together for change, Darin Gunesekera and Lenin Raghuvanshi.

Two Remarkable Fellows

Darin and Lenin are social innovators that normally would never have met. Darin is a Yale-educated Sri Lankan economist whose belief in the market had led him to assist the poor of Columbo in acquiring the wealth necessary to participate in the financial marketplace. Lenin is a locally educated Indian human rights activist whose belief in social justice had led him to employ protest, advocacy and information campaigns to change attitudes and behaviors affecting India’s Dalits and other severely disadvantaged citizens. What they shared was an abiding interest in empowering and enfranchising the less fortunate of their respective cities. What brought them together was being Ashoka Fellows. And what they achieved together can serve as an example of international collaboration that enables individuals who have made a difference in their communities to benefit poor people worldwide.

Lenin became an Ashoka Fellow in 2001 some five years after starting a human rights membership organization called the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). PVCHR, which now consists of 50 thousand members, joined together people of diverse backgrounds to promote basic human dignity and equality over caste in Indian society. Though caste discrimination was officially outlawed by the national government decades ago, the practice of unjustly abusing and discriminating against Dalits (formerly known as “Untouchables”) had continued with employers, police forces, and local governments. One of the roles of the PVCHR was to bring this reality to light and inform the public and officials that these injustices were indeed against Indian law. For example, the PVCHR had the distinction of prompting the National Human Rights Commission to award the highest amount in compensation to a Dalit survivor of extreme torture by his upper-caste employer as well as to put 42 police officers behind bars for torturing Dalits and Other backward caste people. PVCHR also championed the rights of impoverished Muslim communities who were being similarly treated.

The highly diverse PVCHR members played many different roles in getting their messages across including taking part in rallies, demonstrations and campaigns coordinated and publicized by the central PVCHR committee. Also among the members were 3 thousand former torture victims who PVCHR helped as well as famous poets and intellectuals that were well known in Uttar Pradesh. Lenin also broadened the scope of PVCHR by working with 40 other human rights groups, such as India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Human Rights Lawyer’s Network, People’s Commission against Assault on Minorities, and NAFRE People’s Movement.

Darin is the founder of the social entrepreneur organization, Wiros Lokh Institute (WLI) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He became an Ashoka Fellow in 2003, after successfully setting up the Colombo Stock Exchange and Securities Council (and serving as its Secretary General), serving as a Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Board of Investment, advising and helping modernize the Nairobi Stock Exchange, and then bringing his capital markets knowledge to bear on Colombo’s housing situation. He originated a concept of sustainable slum and shanty dweller re-housing using capital markets tools, which has enabled 670 families to obtain hygienic housing in Sri Lanka. The following is a description of how it worked:

Darin started what he called his New Idea, i.e. to start a housing stock exchange market, a variant of modern stock exchanges, where the poorest inner-city slum and shanty dwellers could value or trade their main item of wealth, which was the land they occupied, in favor of receiving superior housing and services as well as asset ownership. Darin believed that when people buy homes of a design and type they want, paying from their own assets, they will improve those neighborhoods and be proud of their homes.

In Colombo, the poorest or shanty and slum dwellers occupied 2.18 perches (find easily understood conversion of a perch of land) of ground land per household. A modern middle class apartment occupied slightly over one half perch. So the home trade of the New Idea would release city lands. Secondly, the slum and shanty dwellers constituted over half the city population and occupied central inner zones that had valuable city access. So liberating these lands would yield considerable financial value. As the city was of low density and there was a housing shortage of over 25% nationwide, a planned scheme spreading from nodes or neighborhoods of redevelopment could be seen as clearly beneficial. Utility sale income and municipal rates collections would also increase.

However, realizing an idea like this requires significant buy-in and cooperation from the local housing authority. So the second step for Darin was to take the bureaucratic risk in his own name and form a group under the Authority to implement the new idea. The new organization outsourced the Authority using its own personnel only to do this task. Darin then trained the personnel to convert from welfare officers to social marketers of the New Idea.

The details of the strategy were to photograph every household in a community or land plot who volunteered for the scheme and gain their agreement in principle to the exchange scheme. Then developers were invited to bid to construct the new building. The slum and shanty dwellers first voted on what design they would like. Developers were helped to meet and discuss designs with the people. A secret price ceiling for the developers to bid within was adopted but this could be guessed, as it had to be well below the value of land released by the scheme. The people voted and chose a design. Then they came to the trading floor one household at a time to trade the vacant possession of their home for a home in the new building. Each household got one and it was related to the size of home they gave up and its locality. The people voluntarily signed up for the home they desired.

After construction, the homes were given with full title to the new residents and the released lands made available for up-market regeneration. The new building, which has 675 apartments, has been in occupation for over a year and the show of its residents’ feelings is called “transforming lives”.

Birth of a Collaboration

Darin was interested in finding a partner in India to expand and replicate his housing stock market idea. After going through the Ashoka Fellow profiles, he contacted the North India Representative and expressed an interest in learning more about Lenin’s work. The Representative decided to cover the cost of Darin’s travel to Varanasi in February 2004. The first meeting proved extremely fruitful and the Fellows planned to collaborate to bring Darin’s project to Varanasi. They decided to call it “Bringing the Capital Market Home to the People.” Together they produced a proposal for Ashoka to fund the initial stages of their collaboration including a visit by Lenin to Columbo. This proposal was well received and approved already by April 2004.

Once having made contact and secured funding from Ashoka, Darin and Lenin solidified their collaboration with Lenin’s first visit to Columbo in May 2004. This was a pivotal starting point for what would become the Varanasi Weavers Trust. Lenin brought with him the Authorities’ Master Plan for Varanasi and District map. In consequent discussions, Darin went on to unravel the meaning of these documents and their relevance to the planned action for Varanasi. As for Lenin, the most important need was to understand the context of Sri Lanka and Colombo city vis-à-vis Darin’s work so as to get a picture of its relevance to Varanasi.

As they worked together and planned for those 10 days, it became clear that a program in Varanasi lacked many fallbacks and safety nets that were available to Darin in Sri Lanka owing to his ability to reach all the levels of Government, the largest banks and the leading professionals in the relevant areas. The system of development and of urban housing in Varanasi, and in India generally, differed from Colombo considerably and thus the methodology would have to differ. Most importantly, Darin’s work in Columbo (which the Varanasi program would be partly modeled upon) was applied, in its time, to a situation with iron clad promises of financial returns owing to the very high level of land value in the specific inner city area chosen. In Varanasi, this did not apply and Varanasi did not have a liquid market for assets, credit or loans. For these reasons, Varanasi needed a long-term commitment.

The final result of the trip was that Darin and Lenin decided to join forces in Varanasi and in Colombo and advance projects both places. They exchanged signed letters authorized by their organizations appointing each other to their organizations. They decided on strategies and actions in Colombo and in Varanasi and these constituted a long-term commitment.

For Colombo, Lenin would help drive several WLI projects. He assisted Abheypala De Silva of WLI in convening the WLI’s first action in the human rights area. A campaign for “Globalization of Sensitivities” was launched by way of a “Colombo Declaration” with signatures by WLI and PVCHR as starters. This appeared in the Sri Lankan press.

For Varanasi, it was clear that for a building program to occur involving Lenin’s resources and network, a negotiation with the existing people base of PVCHR would be needed. It was also necessary to show these stakeholders how the program would advance the economic interests of the Varanasi communities. Lenin and Darin consulted experts in Sri Lanka available to Darin before firming on the plan. This resulted in the drafting of a letter to the Authorities in Varanasi District that was delivered upon Lenin’s return to Varanasi. This effectively started the planning negotiations. Lenin then organized and held conventions of the weaving community to create support for the program.

It is also worth noting here that the Colombo meetings between Darin and Lenin did not take place alone. Chandrika Gunesekera, Darin’s co-worker and wife, was present at all meetings with Darin and some of the tour meetings. Having more experience in housing programs, she was able to create a greater explanatory framework so that Lenin could understand the Colombo situation. She was also crucial in bringing divergent lines of thought together. The resultant program of action owes a lot to her intervention. Lenin was also able to benefit from tours with R Pathirana and Kumara Wijeysinghe who work with Darin and WLI.

The Weavers Trust

In the decade leading up to Lenin and Darin’s first meeting, Varanasi had been growing rapidly due to its role as a transportation hub, its agricultural and industrial development and the increase of visitors to its cultural attractions. It was in order to address these growth factors, that the Master Plan for the District (the one that Lenin brought with him to Colombo) was conceived by the Varanasi Authorities. This plan included the relocation of populations away from the crowded city center for the creation of new commercial zones. This crowded city center included the neighborhoods inhabited by the impoverished silk weavers that Lenin intended to assist. Hence, Darin and Lenin saw their opportunity to harmonize the needs of the weavers with the realities of urban planning.

Another circumstance driving the need for solutions for the weavers was the onslaught of market pressures threatening their livelihoods. Though Varanasi had traditionally had the best name in saris in India, it had more recently acquired domestic rivals (i.e. the power loom and industrialized systems of sari producers in other parts of India), had seen some of its master craftsmen lured away to Nepal and China to develop new industries there, and had seen significant cost increases in inputs due to tariff changes on imported raw materials. Thus Darin and Lenin’s plan undertook the multiple challenges of addressing housing reform, social justice, protection of livelihoods and cultural heritage preservation!

After considering various options for structuring their project and for applying Darin’s Colombo project solutions to Varanasi, they came up with the idea of a creating a Trust for the Varanasi weavers, the purpose of which was to act as a cooperative for their work and also as custodian of their property. The idea was to have the weavers pledge the land they lived on to the Trust and accept certificates stating their new beneficial rights under the Trust. The only beneficiaries of the Trust would be these certificate owners. Later in the process certificate owners would also be permitted to enter through cash investment. All of the rights, beneficial interests and responsibilities would be defined fully in the Trust Deed and explained to all.

Thus, the Mission of the Varanasi Weavers Trust (VWT) would be to reach the following objectives:
• Improve and bring to modern development the Varanasi Sari Industry
• Re-house in decent housing the workers and the poor registered as residents of Varanasi
• Enable the craftsmen to become artists in the weaving of silks or skilled workers of the weaving industry
• Establish the Rights of Varanasi Weavers vis-à-vis their homes, workplaces and the economics of their trade or work activity
• Establish share financing or equity financing of the weaving industry through the Trust’s Certificate financing on stock exchange lines
• Develop business specialization and competitive trade in this industry.

The sequence of milestones for setting up and creating the Varanasi Weavers Trust and moving it to self sustained operation would be the following: Trust set up, project team set-up, registration of weavers and their families, registration of lands, registration of workplaces, acquisition of appropriate IT systems, creation of a VWT Center for exchanges, development of a pilot program for weavers, implementation of the pilot program, and then expansion to other weavers beyond pilot group. Darin and Lenin envisaged this entire process as taking five to seven years, and both of them were fully aware of the obstacles and challenges they might face in its implementation. What was needed was a serious effort to create and secure support of all kinds for the program from state and national authorities.

How to Get the Right Kinds of Attention

In the time between those early planning stages and the final success of recognition and funding from the National Government, Lenin and Darin promoted their agenda using their respective strengths. Darin conducted economic analyses of what the silk weavers needed to thrive, made use of his extensive capital markets expertise to plan the Trust, and used his entrepreneurial zeal to persuade high-level government officials to buy into the innovations that the VWT would offer. Lenin in turn, engaged in what he called his “sandwich strategy”, i.e. to mobilize resources from the bottom-up and the top-down socially speaking. He also used his expertise in the creation of bargaining power by identifying issues, ideas and goals that could be bargained over with officials. The idea being that he would show them what they could get in return for helping his causes.

Lenin immediately organized the weavers through a non-political union called Varanasi Silk Weavers, and as part of the bottom-up half of his strategy, he mobilized this union’s 5,000 members to protest, demonstrate, and sign petitions promoting the project and the Weaver’s Trust along with many of the 50,000 members of Lenin’s PVCHR organization). With these sorts of numbers, they were bound to get noticed.

On the top-down part of Lenin’s strategy, he targeted famous entertainment people, regional Asian human rights notables, and national political leaders. For example, in the period 2005-2006, he interacted with Bollywood star Farooq Shaikh, who convinced leaders of other trade unions to join the movement and the case was shown on India’s NDTV (Flight of weavers in Varanasi)

Darin on his side was interacting with high-level officials including one member of the Planning Commission of India that he met personally in November of 2006 and discussed the VWT with him at that time. He later followed that meeting up with a letter informing that same Planning Commission member of a seminar/ meeting held in Varanasi in April 2007 where the leaders of the weavers had finally fully agreed to join such the Trust as it had been planned by Darin and Lenin.

Thus, in the period 2006-2007, Lenin and Darin were engaging in multiple initiatives designed to get high-profile attention and retain it. It worked so well that articles were published about the Varanasi weavers in The Washington Post, by Reuters News Service, and the International Herald Tribune.

One very important initiative was when Lenin went to the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, which is led by Ashoka Fellow Basil Fernando, and got his help in lobbying the Indian government regarding the Varanasi weavers. This resulted in the December 2007 release by The Asian Human Rights Commission of an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed by 20 residents of Varanasi who were seeking immediate action to help tuberculosis patients. The following is an excerpt from the letter:

Mr. Mohmoodul Hassan, son of Mohammad Hassan, residing at Lohta village, Varanasi district, has been suffering from tuberculosis for the past 22 years. Mohmoodul was diagnosed as having tuberculosis by the Banaras Hindu University Hospital in Varanasi.
Mohmoodul is a handloom weaver. Because of abject poverty and the lack of a proper income due to the decline of the handloom weaving industry in Uttar Pradesh, particularly in Varanasi, Mohmoodul’s family is finding it hard to make both ends meet. The family has hardly anything to eat. The entire family is suffering from starvation and resultant malnourishment….Mohmoodul and his family are not alone….In fact, an estimated 70% of the weavers in Varanasi suffer from tuberculosis. Despite the existence of some governmental agencies with sufficient resources, whose specific mandate is to assist tuberculosis patients and to provide treatment, none of them has received any kind of assistance from these agencies.

The doctors in government clinics and hospitals only provide medication for a short period, sometimes for only two days, and then tell their patients to obtain further medication from private medical shops. There have also been situations in which patients diagnosed as having tuberculosis by private doctors were later told by government hospitals that they are not infected with tuberculosis, with a view to denying them treatment.

The right to health is a fundamental right. So far the State or the Central government has not devised any credible plans to identify those weavers who need assistance for health security in Uttar Pradesh. An officer from the State Handloom Department, who participated in a people’s tribunal, jointly organized by the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, Action Aid International – India, Bunkar Dastakar Adhikar Manch and the Asian Human Rights Commission on 18 December 2007, informed the tribunal and the public that the Handloom Department has no mechanism to identify weavers who are in need of assistance….

This was published widely and covered and on blogs and newspapers in India.

Lastly, Lenin contacted the General Secretary of India’s Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi (son of Sonia Gandhi) who then brought the plight of the malnutrition children up in national political discourses. Lenin knew that with elections coming up the following year there would be a good chance of making this issue get even more attention than it otherwise would.

All of these initiatives eventually grabbed the attention of the Planning Commission of India to a sufficient degree that it held a very large event to explore the problem as well as the requests for assistance. Lenin says that because of the pressure at the grassroots and the pressure from the global advocacy, the Varanasi weavers were put on the agendas of both the Planning Commission and the Indian PM and that is what ultimately led to the success of having the Prime Minister make his remarkable pledge of assistance and funding upon visiting Varanasi in March of this year.

The Value to You

The reason why this story should be important to other Ashoka Fellows as well as social entrepreneurs of all kinds is the way that its cross-border, cross-cultural cooperation actually worked in very tangible ways. And Lenin and Darin did not only come from different places and different cultures, but they were individuals with differing temperaments and probably even political beliefs. This seems to have actually benefited their effort. Theirs was a collaboration outside of the normal models for sustainable development. They embraced the challenge, gave it their all, and it worked well. ‘Anyone else want to try this?

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