In Conversation With Sandeep Srivastava of Shohratgarh Environmental Society
With almost 30 years of experience in the field, Uttar Pradesh based NGO, Shohratgarh Environmental Society (SES), knows development. Founded in 1985 to address the issue of clean drinking water, a few years on the ground exposed SES to a wider range of issues that needed attention. They began to branch their operations out into other realms of development, including agriculture, food security, livelihood, health, education, disaster mitigation, and environmental issues. Now having developed into a comprehensive development NGO, SES channels there programs to address marginalized demographics such as children, women, and the underprivileged, and incorporates community, gender participation, and ecological values into all of the work it does.Beginning as an organization to spread citizen awareness on important issues, SES has evolved its approach into one of rights and advocacy. Through this approach, they focus on catalyzing development from the ground up by engaging community members, informing them of their legal rights and available programs, and spreading awareness through partnerships with other NGOs. They have also conducted various capacity building programs, and publish a quarterly newsletter, “ECHO SES,” which discusses a broad range of social and development issues.
SES bases its operations on the core values of trust, honesty and teamwork adopted from its founders, and uses the ten principles of the UN Global Compact to inform and support their positions on human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption issues. With these values guiding over 25 years of experience in development, the work of SES was recognized in 2011 by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations when it received Special Consultative Status.
We connected with Acting Secretary of SES, Sandeep Srivastava, for an exclusive SocialStory interview to understand the journey his organization has taken over the past 25-plus years.
Q: As you have evolved you have moved into several different sectors including education, healthcare, water & environment. What do you think have been the most interesting trends in these sectors throughout the years?
In 1985, when SES started its journey, our Founders did not have a planned roadmap and they did not know our destination. They have passion for social & developmental issues. Their firm belief was, in this journey, that they will explore new areas and it will lead SES to success. In all those years, SES has gained rich experience on diverse issues and skills. We started with one issue & touched several others with various approaches. As you mentioned we moved into education, healthcare and the environment. Our approach has varied from creating awareness, implementation, and advocacy.
The trend has changed over the years. Earlier, organizations like SES were engaged in awareness only. Now the approach has changed from awareness to right-based. Most organizations are working in that approach presently, but as they are termed as “Non -Profit”, they are mostly dependent for resources from other partners. Sometimes the decisions of those organizations are dictated by those resource partners, even if they and their partners know more about ground situation than their resource partner. There are 3.3 million NGOs working in India, but only a few are secured or sustainable.Project driven models for the voluntary sector are not going to improve social issues. For example: if we have a project that we are planning to run for three years, the staff is already starting to look for another job in the second year because his is insecure. We need a model where social issues can be integrated with the business model. There are several successful examples of a social enterprise type of NGO. NGOs have to develop a model where they can generate revenue and make the organization and staff secure and sustainable. The government and corporates can play a major role in the development of this model. If it is not done now, talking about sustainable development is just myth, nothing else.
As for the issues, improving education and health service will certainly determine the shape of the future in India. 70 % of population still lives in rural areas. Most of them are devoid of safe drinking water and proper electricity supply. For me, water and renewable energy are two sectors which will decide the direction of India’s future.
Q: Social entrepreneurs have an opportunity to flourish in India as there are a large number of gaps that the government has not been able to fill in terms of assisting the poor, the environment, education, etc. Could you elaborate on some of the issues that social entrepreneurs can effectively address and make an impact on?
Of course, India offers lot of scope for social entrepreneurship. Actually, we are living in the era that has produced the largest number of social entrepreneurs in India. Social entrepreneurship can play a big role in bringing growth to the rural masses in India. Social entrepreneurship can be seen in two ways. First, as a place where one can work with the government and work as a catalyst of work for people who are living in poverty. For example, the government launches several schemes but people are unaware about the nitty gritty of the scheme because they do not have any reliable source of information. Here, acts like the right to information (RTI) can play an important role. SES has started an initiative where people can get basic information on the Mahtma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). You can send a message on a number and get basic information about your job card, wages etc.The second way people view social enterprise is as providing services which are available but not delivered properly. As, I mentioned above, renewable energy is one sector that can play an important role for rural India. In recent times I have seen there are several social entrepreneurs who are eager to provide solar lamps to rural areas. However, some of them failed because they were running their business on the assumption that there is a need for solar lamps only. I have seen rural people that have demanded solar inverters, cookers etc. Entrepreneurs must understand the real needs of their customers rather than of working on assumption.
Q: What are some other initiatives that the policymakers should implement to promote the development of sustainable social enterprises?
As I have already mentioned, most NGOs are unsustainable due to their “non-profit” label. The time has come where we need to open the social sector up for investors, capital, and make it more business friendly. It is not right to relate social entrepreneurs to non-profits.
Q: Why do you think more and more young people in the country are taking up social entrepreneurship? What spurred the trend in the last 5 years?
First thing, the number of youth in India is unprecedented. Most of them have grown up seeing social problems. They read and hear about the country’s progress in last six decades and yet find that we are still lagging behind on human development index and they see the development of the country is measured by the growing number of flyovers, malls or booming Sensex. Actually, they are more aware and conscious about social issues, though most of Indian parents are not ready to support entrepreneurship because of the risk involved in kind of venture. Yet, youth are ready to take that risk to improve the condition of society vis-à-vis himself. They think if they can work for a company and contribute to the success of that particular company, then they can initiate a venture which can reduce social problems and still earn them a large cut of the revenue.
Q: Do you have any advice for our readers or aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Running a NGO or social enterprise is not easy. Youth who are thinking to come into this field first need to assess their skills and knowledge, because most of the time they will have to take the path that is never or less travelled. SES can offer counsel and advice to those interested through our online venture, http://kabilaa.com which was developed with the youth in mind.