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Dr R.Balasubramaniam – Development Activist and Founder, Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement

5 August 2012 10 Comments

Hi All,

I have been really busy for the last couple of months and hence I couldnt post the interviews.

Continuing with the quest for the role models for Indian Youth, today we have Dr R.Balasubramaniam.

Dr R.Balasubramaniam (Balu) is a development activist, social innovator, writer and a leadership trainer. After getting his degree in Medicine, he earned his M.Phil from the Birla Institute of Technology & Sciences, Pilani. He has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University.

His living habits were greatly influenced by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the great Indian monk who lived in the 19th century. At the age of 19, he founded the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, based on the principles of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (Truth), Seva (Service) and Tyaga (Sacrifice). He has spent the last 28 years of his life in the service of the rural and tribal poor in the forests of India.

Dr R. Balu writes at http://rbalu.wordpress.com/


Me: Sundar Rajan G S
RB: R Balausbramaniam – Development Activist and Founder, SVYM

Me: Hello Sir, Welcome to the show on CWS. Can you please talk about yourself, your background, education and childhood days.

RB: I belong to a typical middle class family. The aspirations were the same with dreams of settling abroad. We are three of us. I have an older brother and sister, both abroad. I completed my medical education and started Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement.

Me: What is the story of SVYM? How did you start knowing about vivekananda.. Please share your story.

RB: Knowing Vivekananda was an accident. He was just a photograph for me. I had just completed my 2nd PUC and having scored very high marks, was confident of getting into a college and course of my choice. Little was I to realize that fate had other plans for me. I settled for an engineering seat in BMS College in Bangalore and very hesitatingly attended the first day of college. I was subjected to very bad ragging on that day. It was so demotivating that I lost all courage to go to the college the next day. To my good fortune, the Ramakrishna Ashrama at Basavanagudi was next door to this college and it became my home for the next 2 months. I started visiting the library to be seen to be busy and serious, and also justify the love and food that the monks at the center showered on me. These two months was the time that I managed to read the complete works of Swami Vivekananda. Two of his books – ‘His call to the Nation’ and ‘To the youth of India’ changed my life and were instrumental in me starting the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, two years later in 1984 as a medical student.Even now, with each passing day, I continue to interpret what he ways and acquire new meanings. Knowing Vivekananda and his principles is an on going journey for me.

Me: What is SVYM all about? What are the activities they are involved in?

RB: It started as a personal desire of serving society when I was 19 years.
It is based on the ideals of Gandhi and Vivekananda. From Gandhi, we follow ahimsa and satya. From Vivekananda, we follow thyaga and seva. We started with health as entry point as I was from a medical background. Today the activities fall into 4 major sectors – Health, Education, Socio-Economic Empowerment and TRAC (Training, Research, Advocacy & Consultancy), with Health being the largest in terms of number of people reached out to. Today I have let go of the office and Now I oversee the Mysore center. (More details can be found at: http://www.svym.org/whatwedo.html)

Health: The key focus areas are – tribal and rural health, ayurveda (the Indian system of medicine), reproductive and child health, hygiene and sanitation, care and control of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and blindness through institution and community based services.

Education: The focus is on educating children in tribal hamlets, rural areas and urban slums. The services are provided through two schools – the Viveka Tribal Center for Learning at Hosahalli (semi-residential, formal school recognized by the Government of Karnataka) and the CBSE-affiliated Viveka School of Excellence at Saragur, and four community based initiatives – Shikshanavahini, Prerepana, Vidyakiran and Premavidya.

Socio-Economic Empowerment: Through programs in tribal development, public transparency, and community radio, SEEP expands social and economic opportunities for rural and tribal communities, works with communities to eradicate corruption in local government, and spreads information and awareness on local issues to promote real and lasting change.

TRAC: The TRAC sector was conceptualized to consolidate the learnings of our 25-plus years of work in the community and share them with like-minded organizations. It aims to serve India by building the potential of individuals & institutions for the development sector (Govt, NGOs and Corporates) and synergize their efforts for better, collective gain. It also strives to develop innovative programmatic models for the development sector and influence public policy.

Me: Who were your role models, mentors, guides in your journey with SVYM?

RB: Ofcourse. To start with Vivekanada himself. My thoughts and beliefs were shaped by reading the works of Swami Vivekananda.

My spiritual mentor was Achalananda who was a chief engineer in Madras. Infact he built IIT Madras. He took up sanyasa in 54. He was a very learned monk. When he was 79 (in 1985) he spent some time in Mysore. For the next 5 years he shaped my thinking as well. Then there are tribal chieftains, who shaped my thinking with traditional wisdom.
Someone who fine tunes my thinking – eg, wife has also played a significant role. She clarifies my thinking and moulded my thoughts as well.

Me: In your website you talk about 3 levels of service – Physical, Educational & Spiritual. Can you elaborate a bit on that? At what level is SVYM operating?

RB: Swami Vivekananda laid down in clear and simple terms the three levels of service that one can do. The first is that of the Physical service – taking care of the human body and undertaking activities to ameliorate human physical suffering. Running hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes and various income generation programs would qualify for this level. The next higher level is that of Intellectual service. Running schools, colleges and awareness and empowerment programs would operate at this level. This will empower people to take care of themselves. And finally for the evolved, he prescribed the highest level of Spiritual service. The Spritiual service transcends the above two. This service focuses on contentment.

Inner spiritual growth is necessary. I believe it is extremely difficult to do. Doing the first two properly, you end up doing a lot of spiritual and inner development. At SVYM, we are certainly doing level 1 and 2. While each person might embark on a spiritual journey, as an organization we have a long way to go at level 3.

Me: Poverty means different things to different people. You have worked with a number of poor people. What does poverty mean to you? What does poverty mean to the poor themselves?

RB: Poverty is an expression. An economic tool states that it is a monetary measure around $1 to $1.25 per day. The other way of measuring it is based on per capita consumption of 2800 Kcals. Committee after committee has been constituted with no clarity thrown on this matter. Recently, Oxford University came up with the Multi Dimension Indicators (MDI) of poverty that reveals that more than 645 million Indians are poor.

To me poverty would simplistically mean the ‘denial of opportunity’. Opportunity in all spheres of life such as social, economic, educational, political etc. Development means constant expansion of human capability. By creating an enabling environment, instead of spoon feeding, is the real solution to poverty.

Me: You have been working with Public Distribution Systems where there is a lot of corruption. There are so many scams in the country that we read in the news paper. Do you think we can over come corruption?

RB: I am an eternal optimist. If you understand the problem, it can be fought. Corruption is of two kinds – Collusive Corruption and Coercive Corruption. In collusive corruption, there is really no victim. It is the system that can be said to be victimized and exploited. Here both the bribe giver and the taker collude together to short-circuit the system. The 2G scam is a case in point. Telecom companies were said to have colluded with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and achieved their ends. A young man paying off the policeman for being caught not wearing his helmet is also collusive corruption.

In the case of coercive corruption, there is a defined victim. The bribe giver is forced or coerced to pay out in order to get his work done. A simple example would be a farmer having to bribe the village accountant in order to get his land records.Most of the corruption that you see today are collusive corruption. About 70% of the cases. Here is also the opportunity.

Be the change that you want to see in others. The goodness spreads. And once a sizeable number of people stop participating in collusive corruption, coercive corruption also will reduce.

Me: What is your message for Indian youth aspiring to change the society?

The power of the 3 P’s – Purity, Patience and Perseverance. These three words in my opinion are the qualities that every young person desiring to do social work needs to possess. Purity in thought word and deed. Patience to understand the dynamics of any community development activity and the fact that Society is always slow to understand and quick to label all such efforts. One also needs great perseverance to work in the complex settings of Indian society. Working with the realities of social, economic and political diversity needs enormous perseverance. Otherwise one could easily get fatigued and demotivated.


Readers, hope you enjoyed this edition of Coffee With Experts.

Previous Interview with Vidya Subramaniam can be found here- http://coffeewithsundar.com/vidya-subramanian-carnatic-vocalist-and-entrepreneur/

All interviews can be found here – http://coffeewithsundar.com/category/coffee-with-experts/

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