The big story in the small ones

A million pixels make a picture in a digital camera and the millions of small people who go about their work quietly everyday, paying their taxes, fill the coffers of our indifferent and corrupt governments. In the case of our biggies, it is revealing, though not surprising, that Court proceedings show them to be keen to use sleight of hand when it comes to paying taxes.  (See this story of the Madras High Court quashing a clever order passed by some Income Tax officials in a case relating to Ms. Jayalalithaa).

Sometimes, the small people get help from unexpected quarters. Individuals driven by intense motivation and a wholly altruistic yearning to do good come up with powerful ideas. Jessica Flannery is one such public-spirited person from middle America. She told the Global Innovation Outlook for Africa organised in New York City by IBM recently (which I had the opportunity to attend) that she experienced the strong urge to do something on the ground for the small people, after listening to Nobel laureate and micro-banking pioneer Muhammad Yunus.

That something is www.kiva.org, a website run by Jessica and her husband that links the small people in developing countries with equally ordinary people in the developed half of the world, who use their credit or other payment cards to make donations the size of a taxi-ride fare.

Some amount of discretion in highlighting details of loan seekers (particularly women) appears to have overcome the problems of privacy and stalking, given the particularly weak social structures in the countries where these borrowers live.

I live in the State of Tamil Nadu and in more than three and half decades have not come across any sincere or major effort by those in authority to help the small people. This is a state heavily populated by rent seekers in power and there are simply too many of them. The DMK Government started an ambitious scheme to provide housing and agricultural market access to villagers during its previous tenure, but has mysteriously dropped it since returning to power in 2006. After losing the last time, the party got the somewhat strange feeling that good governance does not win a mandate. That is quite obviously a shaky foundation for long-term politics.

When I wanted to see how close anyone here had come to doing something remotely similar to Kiva using the power of the Internet, I found an obscure link on the website of the Tamil Nadu Rural Development Department that points me to an online store that the Government calls Rural Bazaar. This is greatly inspiring at first glance and actually seems to create a virtual marketplace for Self-Help Groups.

Yet, when I tried to place an order for an item, I was informed at the checkout stage that the final price, including shipping, would take 24 hours to calculate! That is so typical.

With some of the weakest institutions for a functional democracy (anarchic in the Galbraithian analysis), credit cards are not an option for Indians. Thus, the Rural Development Department will take only money orders or demand drafts. Someone in the US asked me, why not a PayPal arrangement for India, where pre-paid accounts are debited? That kind of payment mechanism could significantly boost online commerce in India that goes beyond the Ebays and Indiaplazas, although it is unclear whether business is sufficiently mature to deliver on the rest of the deal, and whether the logistics exist.

But how many agencies, including urban and rural local bodies that are clamouring for more powers, are keen to harness the power of information and modern communications technologies to bring about sales innovation for their small people? I fear there are not many. If the local bodies perform their existing functions with greater sincerity, they can reduce poverty, provide good health and a better quality of life to their citizens. They could build day markets where small traders spend a few hours, perhaps even restricted to weekends. Marriage halls could be hired on the less auspicious days and turned into SHG markets.

But all this requires some doing. I have earlier referred to V.Raghunathan’s book “Games Indians Play” in which he says with some scorn, that Indians think talking is the same thing as doing. It is obviously not. Our small people know that only too well.

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