Atonement: Indian Microfinance Looks Inward — My article in this week’s Sunday Guardian

I recently gave my two cents on the microfinance industry in India, with reference to Microfinance India: State of the Sector Report 2012 by Venugopalan Puhazhendhi and The Social Performance Report 2012 by Girija Srinivasan, released by ACCESS Development Services. The piece is the cover story for The Sunday Guardian to be published tomorrow:

Atonement: Indian Microfinance Looks Inward

“The good stories of ‘Doing Good and Doing Well’ of a model that was touted as a miraculous mechanism of reaching the poor, seemingly have started to dry out and are replaced by scathing details of wrongdoings by MFIs, client abuse, high profiteering, investor greed, manipulations within Board Rooms and are grabbing headlines.” Vipin Sharma of ACCESS Development Services sets the tone for Microfinance India: State of the Sector Report 2012, or the SOS, as it is often referred to with an element of poetic justice. The SOS, now in its seventh edition, is seen as a valuable reference document not only for practitioners and researchers in the field, but for informing and influencing policy as well.Continue reading →

Looking Back at the Decade of Africa, from 2022

“The Lion, the Giraffe and the Cellphone: Reflections on the Decade of Africa” was an essay featured at the conference: “Africa’s Turn? The Promise and Reality of the Global Economy’s ‘Final Frontier’,” organised by the Institute for Business in the Global Context at the Fletcher School, Tufts University in 2012, based on the following statement:

“Imagine you are writing an article for The Economist in the year 2022. Paint a picture of Africa and its place in the world.”

AfricaThe piece is a hopeful and bold look at the continent over the coming decade. The title is a reference to Shashi Tharoor’s The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone: Reflections on India in the Twenty-first Century.

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Have a SenseDrink in Brussels

Are you in Brussels? Or nearby? Are you into Social Business? Do you like beer? (And we’re talking Belgian beer!)

I’ll be in Europe over the next couple of weeks for a couple of engagements. Firstly, I am to attend the Global Social Business Summit organised by the Grameen Creative Lab and the Yunus Centre in Vienna as a Young Challenger. A week later, I’ll be at the Global Peter Drucker Forum as a Peter Drucker Challenge awardee, once again in the Social Ecologist’s own city, Vienna!

I’m very excited about both of these events, and its no surprise that Vienna is the world’s number one destination for international congresses and conventions. The city of dreams, of music, of mystery.

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The Good Son

An anecdote from one of my field visits to the rural Marathawada region for First Energy (Formerly BP Oorja).

Chit-chatting with a Villager in Bavi (A remote hamlet in Osmanabad district, Maharashtra) in Marathi and Hindi:

She: My elder son was always the smartest in the house, and is now a priest at the local temple. He earns well, spends time with the family, is respected in the community, and our improved reputation brings more customers too. (Note: She sells D.Light solar lamps, Oorja stoves, Godrej Chhotukool Refrigerators, PureIt etc. in Bavi and neighbouring villages.) He’ll surely become the head priest some day.

Me: What about your younger son? They tell me he was the local class 10th (high school) topper.

She: Yes, and he’ll finish school soon. He’s not that smart or clever though, and not really good enough to work on the business either.

Me: Oh!

She: Yeah. We don’t expect much. He’ll probably become a software engineer and settle down in Pune or Bangalore.

The King’s Speech

Sometimes, when I ride through the streets and see, you know, the common man staring at me, I’m struck by how little I know of his life, and how little he knows of mine.

King George VI, The King’s Speech (2010)


When his brother David – who has ascended to the throne reigning over a quarter of the planet’s residents, and soon going to war with the rest, as Edward VIII – abdicates it in 1936, the Duke of York must reluctantly accept the crown, taking his father’s name to become King George VI. And with the advent of radio and newsreels, and the tense times, it is vital that the nation’s figurehead can speak with firmness. And clarity. And resolve. And NOT stammers punctuated with tortured silences..

“If I am to be king… where is my power? May I form a government, levy a tax or declare a war? No! Yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes when I speak, I speak for them. Yet I cannot speak!”

So what does our King, portrayed by the oh-so-brilliant and oh-so-Brit Colin Firth, do? We have Lionel Logue, self-taught speech therapist, to the rescue, played appealingly by Geoffrey Rush.

The movie touches a number of interesting themes. A sucker for British royalty as I am, I see the film continue with the post-Diana mode à la The Queen, reminiscent that despite being subject to very human emotions, desires and limitations, the royals are not like you and me, or at least they aren’t supposed to be. Even stammering royals, and royals wishing for the beloved common man’s privilege of being able to marry a divorced woman, cannot withstand a commoner’s treatment. Not because of arrogance, just because that’s the bell jar they’ve been raised in. A divine right. The tension is ever more visible with the Australian Logue’s dismissal of protocol, calling His Majesty The King Albert Frederick Arthur George, “Bertie”.

Once over these hurdles, we begin to see the real reasons why Bertie was the way he was. The pressures of a royal childhood, a strict father, the repression of his natural left-handedness, a painful treatment with metal splints for his knock-knees; and a nanny who favoured his elder brother, deliberately pinching Albert at the daily presentations, unsettling him and making him cry, so his parents would allot less time to him and more of their attention to David. “You know, Lionel, you’re the first ordinary Englishman… [Lionel whispers, Australian.] …I’ve ever really talked to.”

If only a few more people had been able to call him Bertie, if only he hadn’t had his childhood fears and failings so brutally criticised by his father… Lionel is not merely a medical practitioner (which in fact he isn’t at all), but a friend, a confidant!

With 14 BAFTA and 12 Academy Award nominations, a lot many more speeches need to be prepared for.

The Two Matches

One day there was a traveller in the woods in California, in the dry season, when the Trades were blowing strong. He had ridden a long way, and he was tired and hungry, and dismounted from his horse to smoke a pipe. But when he felt in his pocket he found but two matches. He struck the first, and it would not light.

‘Here is a pretty state of things!’ said the traveller. ‘Dying for a smoke; only one match left; and that certain to miss fire! Was there ever a creature so unfortunate? And yet,’ thought the traveller, ‘suppose I light this match, and smoke my pipe, and shake out the dottle here in the grass – the grass might catch on fire, for it is dry like tinder; and while I snatch out the flames in front, they might evade and run behind me, and seize upon yon bush of poison oak; before I could reach it, that would have blazed up; over the bush I see a pine tree hung with moss; that too would fly in fire upon the instant to its topmost bough; and the flame of that long torch – how would the trade wind take and brandish that through the inflammable forest! I hear this dell roar in a moment with the joint voice of wind and fire, I see myself gallop for my soul, and the flying conflagration chase and outflank me through the hills; I see this pleasant forest burn for days, and the cattle roasted, and the springs dried up, and the farmer ruined, and his children cast upon the world. What a world hangs upon this moment!’

With that he struck the match, and it missed fire.

‘Thank God!’ said the traveller, and put his pipe in his pocket.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, “Fables,” Longman’s Magazine, August 1895

Thanks to Greg Ross for allowing me to reproduce the post Philosophy, from Futility Closet – An idler’s miscellany, of compendious amusements: anecdotes, epigrams, illusions and wonders; puzzles, prodigies, sublimities and horrors.

We’re here!


We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. In other words, it is overwhelmingly probable that you are dead.

In spite of these odds, you will notice that you are, as a matter of fact, alive. People whom the spotlight has already passed over, and people whom the spotlight has not reached, are in no position to read a book.

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Excerpt from

4 days left for E4SI, so apply NOW

If you’ve been planning to apply for E4SI – the Engineers for Social Impact fellowship-cum-internship program – it’s time!

You have 10 companies to choose from, and in case you’re confused, you could pick up any three immersion experiences you find closest to your heart, and apply …

  • iDiscoveri– Unleash Your MindFounded by alumni of Harvard University, INSEAD, IIT and XLRI, iDiscoveri is a social enterprise with a vision of reviving education in India.

    Internship Location: Hyderabad/Chennai/Mumbai or Gurgaon

  • Intellecap– Shaping OutcomesFocused on the multiple bottom-line investment industry, Intellecap offers services to various players within this space including investors, enterprises, entrepreneurs, multi-lateral development agencies, policy makers, and many others.

    Internship Location: Hyderabad

  • Ujjivan– Enabling a ‘Better Life’Founded by Wharton alumnus Samit Ghosh, Ujjivan is one of the fastest growing Microfinance institutions. It has provided financial services to over 1,00,000 of India’s poorest women

    Internship Location: Bangalore

  • Vaatsalya– New Face of HealthcareWinner of the BiD Challenge (India) for its business plan “Bridging the Gap in Healthcare Access”, Vaatsalya is set to drive a new paradigm of healthcare in rural and semi-urban areas of the country.

    Internship Location: Bangalore/Hubli

  • D.Light Design– Affordable Light and PowerFounded by Stanford alumni, with a mission to provide everyone access to safe and bright light

    Internship Location: New Delhi

  • SELCO India– Sustainable Energy SolutionsSelco, with 13 years of innovations in bringing sustainable energy solutions to under-served households and businesses

    Internship Location: Bangalore/Ahmedabad or Sirsi

  • GEWP India– Low Cost Irrigation SolutionsGEWP sources micro irrigation equipments from local manufactures, and sells the same using network of supply chain which includes dealers/distributors and retailers.

    Internship Location: Aurangabad

  • DhanaX– Let’s Multiply WealthAn award winning platform for person-to-person lending that supports the entrepreneurial spirit of thousands of small farmers, underprivileged women across the globe

    Internship Location:Bangalore

  • EthosEthos is a multi-family office servicing ultra high net worth families across Asia providing them wealth management services, philanthropy services, lifestyle services, education and training services and other support services.

    Internship Location:Mumbai/Bangalore

  • A Little WorldA Little World (ALW) is an innovative social enterprise creating India’s first domestic payment platform focused on serving low income customer segments in rural India.

While you’re at it, well, hurry up! Do make sure the complete application is submitted on or before the 22nd of February.


What connects Isaac Asimov, Asia Carrera, Buckminster Fuller, Geena Davis, Martin Cooper, Julie Peterson, Alfred Hinds, and Bobby Czyz .


Well, the connection here is that all those described above are, or have been, members of Mensa .

I came across Mensa during my days as a young trivia hunter, and gave it a go when I saw the phone number for an India chapter. I thus became a member a few years ago, falling within the 99th percentile of the standardised IQ test, the Cattell Culture Fair Intelligence Test. It should be noted that Mensa traditionally doesn’t give absolute IQ scores, though it’s usually stated that the 98th percentile on Cattell corresponds to 148. Any numbers beyond are fairly arbitrary anyway, given the standard deviation.

Mensa is the largest, oldest, and best known high-IQ society in the world. It is a non-profit organisation open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardised, supervised intelligence test.

Mensa’s constitution lists three purposes: to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.

Mensans come from all walks of life and almost every job and profession, representing almost every age group. The most interesting member I have come across is Isaac Asimov. Perhaps the most prolific author of all time, he wrote/co-authored more than 500 books, and has been published in nine of the ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System. This novelist/ short-story writer/ essayist/ historian/ biochemist/ textbook writer/ humorist was a long time member and vice-president of Mensa International.

Perhaps I’ll come back to this post when I explore this community further in the future.