Bombay — ``There are enterprising people out there capable of extraordinary, innovative public service. The problem is, how do you free them up to do it?'' Bombay attorney Hotchand Advani is referring to a predicament common in the third world. Young professionals in India, as in many developing countries, find themselves under stultifying pressures, he says. More often than not these pressures make careers of innovative public service unthinkable.
``Earnings here are unrealistically low,'' continues this world traveler, entrepreneur, and founder-publisher of the respected magazine Business India. ``People consume what they earn. There's no investable surplus. We've got no welfare state, so pressure from family for subsistence income constantly mounts. This explains the view that talented, innovative people must either leave the country or eventually abandon creative public service and start climbing the ladder of some traditional bureaucracy.''
But this open-collared, sandal-shod attorney thinks he has found a way to make social visionaries survive.
In 1981 he and colleagues in India and the United States applied their own entrepreneurial instincts to reversing the ``brain drain.'' Their solution was a kind of Asian version of the American MacArthur Fellowships: Identify capable young professionals with innovative ideas for social change, give them a living stipend to relieve them from financial pressures, put them in touch with other entrepreneurs who can help them build self-supporting institutions, call them ``Ashoka fellows,'' then turn them loose to do their thing for society.
``There are loads of charitable institutions with money for bricks and mortar, libraries, hospitals; few invest directly in people,'' says Mr. Advani. ``We wanted to invest money where it can have maximum leverage -- in people who will create institutions around themselves and have a broad social impact. That represents a terrific return on investment.''
Here's a look at the typical fare the Ashoka fellows have been serving up for Indian society the past three years:
Vivek Pandit, for instance, has mobilized government support to free hundreds of bonded laborers south of Bombay and started up programs for their employment.
Vasant Savangikar, a botanist working in Aurangabad, has found a way to extract leaf protein to feed humans and cattle and is trying to make the process economical on a large scale.
Lawyer Vasudha Dhagamwar in New Delhi is helping tribal peoples displaced by government dam-building programs to resettle, claim their rightful compensation, and find new livelihoods.
Zoologist S. Shanti is working to preserve the tree cover of southern India, to prevent the kind of tree loss that has left much of western India exposed to erosion and flood.
Since the start of the new fellowship program (called ``Ashoka'' after the ancient Indian king) 20 fellows have been selected. The number will rise to 30 by year's end. The association expands this year to Indonesia and possibly later to Africa and Latin America. And further, in the spirit of internationalism, the selection committee is getting active support from members living in the West -- such as Washington lawyer and environmental activist William Drayton, himself a recent MacArthur fellow.
Advani insists that King Ashoka would have been eager to lend his name to the enterprise. ``After all, he was a man of action, a philosopher, and he deeply believed that ethical means are as important as ends. Those are the qualities we want to see in these fellows.''
In the wider world of India's philanthropic gurus, the Ashoka founders appear to be turning the conventional yoga on its head. Money for groundbreaking ventures has long been available here from various sources -- private, national, international. But to attract that money, the enterpreneur must have an organization with a proven track record. What, then, about the starters, the people with only raw ideas?
``So many of these people go unsupported, and their ideas get buried,'' says Kirtee Shah, a housing and employment planner in Ahmadabad, who is one of the Ashoka board members. ``We want to identify precisely those social entrepreneurs who are starting, not yet successful.''
Once selected, however, Ashoka fellows find themselves with far more than financial support; they also plug into a veritable school of entrepreneurial wisdom -- staffed, of course, by the other fellows and the international selection board.
From the outset, the fellow will need to build a self-supporting institution around her or his work. For this, some learning is required. But the founders -- themselves experienced institution builders and fund-raisers -- take it upon themselves to reduce the ``learning curve'' through shared advice.
Where does all this Ashoka idealism lead? For the founders, it ultimately brings more clout to the global search for ``alternative solutions'' to longstanding social and environmental ills. In India alone, the ``alternatives consciousness'' has taken form over the past decade in thousands of nongovernmental initiatives for community development, according to D. L. Sheth, director of the Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies. The urgency for such initiatives is intensified, he says, by a growing realization that India's national development strategies are not reaching some 150 million impoverished people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
This is why the Ashoka founders themselves pursue replicability of solutions. ``The problems of poverty and environment have grown so large that we will need hundreds of solution-replicators working all over a country like India,'' says lawyer Advani.