The Jaipur Foot's Standing Dilemma
Image: Amit Verma
evendra Raj Mehta was a career bureaucrat who rose to the top, advising prime ministers as the deputy governor of RBI and taking on big corporate names during his stint as the Sebi chairman. But as one sits in his ‘office’ of over a decade, at the Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS) in Jaipur, the absence of any trappings of power from that 40-year career is striking. Mehta himself arrives in a modest hatchback and carries his bottle of water as he enters the office, which is also not his alone.
The room has two long tables joined as one, and half-a-dozen chairs around it. Mehta dictates mails to his secretary Khaleel, who types away at a laptop. Soon, his pet dog enters and nonchalantly climbs on to a corner chair and gets comfortable. Khaleel hands over a bunch of envelopes and papers to Mehta. These are cheques from donors, proposals from prospective partners and official communication from the local administration.
Every few minutes, there is a stream of people. They don’t need to knock or ask for permission to enter the room. They are all in need. Mehta addresses each of them and assigns his staff to help the visitors out.
“I’m sorry, we can’t serve you tea. You see, we want to use each rupee for the poor. We don’t even have tea during our board meetings unless a director sponsors it,” says Mehta, the founder and chief patron of BMVSS, which is better known for its product—the Jaipur Foot. One of his associates later added that to cut costs each of them even gets water from home.
Over the past 38 years, parsimony has been one of the reasons why BMVSS has been able to provide limbs to 1.3 million people for free. It has also developed a model that impresses many, entrepreneurs included, with its simplicity. “I have always read in management books that the best way to have an efficient operation is to keep it simple. But, as an entrepreneur, I realised it is very tough. But Mehta has done it very successfully,” says Praveen Kankariya, an NRI businessman from the US and a donor at BMVSS for the past three years.
The accolades continue to pour in. “The Jaipur Foot represents Gandhian or frugal engineering. Along with the Nano car, it shows that the best of technology can be brought to the customers at the bottom of the pyramid,” says eminent scientist RA Mashelkar. “There may be other places in the world where compassion is that tangible; it is just that we had not seen any,” says Armand Neukermans, an American entrepreneur and scientist who has tracked BMVSS through the last decade.
But even for an optimist who habitually looks at the brighter side, Mehta realises that the organisation he nurtured over four decades is today facing key existential issues. Can BMVSS survive after Mehta?
Tasneem Raja of Tata Trusts, the country’s largest philanthropy organisation, says, “One reason why the Jaipur Foot can’t be replicated is because it is driven by the passion of one man.” Adds Neukermans, “They [BMVSS] are not going to find a person with the same charisma and stature.”
The 75-year-old Mehta also has a financial problem. Though BMVSS is able to meet its annual budget of Rs 15 crore thanks to government grants, interest from its corpus and donations, once in a while Mehta has to dip into the organisation’s corpus to cover expenditure. The grants, which help meet almost one-third of the budget, have been erratic in the past and are unpredictable. With the number of patients hovering around 60,000 for the last three years, Mehta now needs more money to take the Jaipur Foot to the interiors of India and also enter more international markets.
This has led well-wishers, like Mashelkar, who is also on BMVSS’ Global Advisory Council, to call for a change in the free-for-all model. The former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) doesn’t see any wrong in “making a business out of doing good”.
Neukermans adds, “The way to develop the company is not by keeping the services free but by setting up a sustainable business.” In other words, Mehta should start charging at least a nominal amount for his product, which costs about Rs 2,500 to produce.
Charging for the product might help Mehta to also fund R&D in improving the Jaipur Foot—despite its collaborations with Stanford University and MIT, which are on a voluntary basis. R&D becomes necessary as the product is still to pass muster internationally, despite there being significant improvement over the years. Past attempts to foster partnerships with international bodies, like USAID and Red Cross, have faltered because of issues with product quality.
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