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FEATURES/Beyond Business | Feb 28, 2013 | 11464 views

The Jaipur Foot's Standing Dilemma

The Jaipur Foot has pulled millions of disabled people out of their plight. But do its makers need a course correction to carry on?
The Jaipur Foot's Standing Dilemma
Image: Amit Verma
GIVING A LEG-UP Thriftiness and compassion guide Devendra Raj Mehta (left)

D

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.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 08 March, 2013
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Comments (8)
Amit Lunia Mar 13, 2013
Touched by the truly inspiring story of Mr Mehta, his efforts to cater to the needy and thereafter help them stand on their own feets.
Manoj Kumar Mar 6, 2013
their's no doubt that's a very inspirational story.it's amulgum of modern as weel as old technology.his work is appreciable.
Dr.a.jagadeesh Mar 6, 2013
Excellent story on JAIPUR FOOT and the need to adopt modern Management methods.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
Rupesh Kumar Mar 5, 2013
AN EFFORT OF SELFMOTIVATED DONATION IS THE ONLY ORNAMENT WHICH CAN GLORIFY YOUR DEEDS OTHERWISE IN THIS AGE OF MEDICAL BUSINESS YOU ARE AT THE PEAK OF YOUR EFFORET BY MAN MACHINE AND MATERIAL IN THIS AGE. MY ULTIMATE WORD IS MAY YOU LONG LIVE AND YOUR EFFORT
Gvraghaviah/ Brisbane. Mar 4, 2013
The rigidity of Mehtaji about his basic policy may be owing to the major poor people requiring cheap foot or limbs. Apparently such people may be majority in number than others. The former may victims of incidents that would have made them to seek help. The Government should make a provision in the associated Compensation statute for levy of certain percentage on the amount award due owing to cause of such disBbility payable by the paying agency. The paing Agency,in majority are insurance/assurance Agencies whose main revenue may be only owing to theory of probability which may or not happen despite which premiums
are payable. In addition incumbencies of sources of owning the responsibility of payment is also shared as adjudicated by the concerned authority which may include Compensation Court, or associated authority determining in favour of the aggrieved or victim. If the Statute itself provides such levy there can be no choice to deny as it will have legislative sanctity
Prince Thomas Mar 2, 2013
Hi Yogiraj,
Thanks for writing.
Following is the link to Jaipur Foot's website. It has all the information you need.

http://www.jaipurfoot.org/donations/make_donation.html#.UTGmYjcwCoA

Regards,
Prince Thomas.
Yogiraj Mudholkar Mar 2, 2013
As a responsible citizens how can we support Mr. Mehta -- It will be helpful if Forbes provided the details on giving Donations to the trust
M G Warrier Mar 1, 2013
From whatever has been revealed in this article and what little I now about D R Mehta (I was in RBI when he was Deputy Governor) and this cause he has been promoting for the last 3 decades or more, I would pray for his wishes being supported. According to one estimate more than 5 lakh crore is the annual ˜concessions™ corporates and the rich get from government. 42,800 is the number of persons declaring annual income exceeding 1 crore. The real number should be in six digits. Why the government, these corporates or rich individuals should not volunteer to provide adequate support to this effort to provide limbs to people who many a time lose their limbs due to bad maintenance of transport systems and roads/rails, rash driving by those who own '€˜posh'€™ vehicles and so on? There may be compelling reasons. But, I am not convinced about any of those so far told to me.
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