28 April 2012

Running for Literacy

Foreword: My friend Shreerang is back to running for literacy, and while I lament my absolute physical inability to follow suit, I still got inspired to think. The thoughts have been distilled into this article.

Almost every year this time, Shreerang puts on his running shoes and hits the training regimen to prepare for his run. He is part of a relay team of 12 runners who aim to cover 199 miles and raise funds for India Literacy Project. At the outset, I will align the reader with some necessary inputs. My friend does not do this for the sake of it. He is genuinely interested in the end literacy goal rather than just the fun element, he trains hard, reaches out to his network assiduously in order to raise awareness and most importantly digs out a sum from his own pocket which equals all the funds he raises. He does this every year, since 3 years now. I admire him and his devotion, but still, somewhere I have a problem with the scheme that is working here

Running for Literacy. My chief argument is – Why do people have to run to increase cancer awareness, to reduce child labor, to protect wildlife and in this case, to improve literacy in India. It has caught on undoubtedly and off course it is working. Isn’t running a serious business? Isn’t literacy an even more serious, almost critical business? So what is this invisible co relation between the two? I think I know the answer

I have been a spectator to at least 4 cases in the last 1 year of people taking part in this or that marathon in this or that part of the world for this or that cause. Given my moribund social network, if a person like me gets 4 requests for donations in a span of 1 year, I can safely assume this to be a trend dangerously bordering a fad. I am afraid for every genuine Shreerang out there, there must be a compensating charlatan who is really just interested in that elusive one line to add in his resume. I went to the relay’s website and saw there were 7 or 8 teams of 12 members each running under the banner India for Literacy. These are people who might never return to their home country. Are all of them as dedicated as my friend? The question I am trying to answer is are they really interested in the running or are they interested in literacy in India. Even after murdering the cynic in me, I just cannot convince myself of the latter proposition

Then there is another diversion my thoughts take. If I assume that running for literacy is indeed positively co related, then why haven’t Indians here in India taking en masse to the streets? If Indians in the US can run for literacy in India why don’t Indians in India do this in the same scale? Surely running is not that difficult. It is a national tragedy if a billion plus people have missed this

Coming to the co relation part, when I was thinking about this article a thought had struck. I later cancelled my own thought after some clarity dawned. I wrote down two sentences and compared them
“When I run and raise funds, I am contributing to improving literacy in India” vs. “When I pay tax, I am contributing to the GDP growth of India”. My original hypothesis was just like it’s impossible to trace how the tax I pay directly impacts India’s growth story it’s equally impossible to trace how the funds raised from running could impact literacy. The reason why the funds-from-running-led-to-a-child-more-literate train of events looses steam is this – the funds collected would flow into a corpus of ‘donations’ and that’s the end of their lifecycle. Very similar to the direct tax receipts the Revenue Secretary feeds on! Figuratively speaking, this is akin to donating a few more drops of water to make the lake swell a fraction more. This corpus would then be used to fund individual projects some 3-6 months duration, some bigger. Let’s take a project as an example. One such project could be bringing children who have simply stopped coming to school in the 10 most backward villages of drought struck Boppal district in Karnataka. For executing this project, money would be required to pay the on field expenses of volunteers, affiliated NGOs etc. Maybe some one can come up with an idea of awarding a bicycle to children who return, stay for 2 years and show satisfactory progress. Here, there would be capex involved in buying second hand bicycles from towns and cities and transporting them to Boppal. So in summary, strictly technically speaking, the money collected from relay runs in the US only funds ILP’s donation corpus and not literacy in India. Runners are basically pinning their hopes on the existence of a functional, efficient bridge from ILP’s donation corpus to literacy in India. Probably, it does exist but who knows!

But thinking deeper, I rejected this analogy of fund raising from running with paying income tax because of a fundamental difference. When I pay tax, I do not influence or energize or mobilize others to do so. On the other hand, when someone runs for a noble cause, he catalyzes non interested dormant individuals into activism. That then circles me back to the original question with which I began. Why do people run for noble causes and why does this scheme exist at all in the first place? To answer in short – it appears to me that it is a good marketing channel, that’s just about it.

ILP needs funds. Period. So there is a significant ‘demand’ for funds. There are people who are genuinely or otherwise interested in helping ILP with money, since most do not have the time to visit Boppal themselves as a field volunteer. So there is ‘supply’. Throw in the relay race or marathon in the picture now. What we have is a public event which attracts one and all from near and far. Why not use this as a platform for the supply to meet the demand and Voila! so it happens. The runner is happy. He/She enjoys the run part and the feel good part of helping a noble cause. The relay organizers are happy. ILP is more than happy, it gets funds which would have been near impossible to channelize otherwise by any other medium.

It just remains to be hoped that Sandhya who ran away from school in Boppal is also happy after coming back to school.


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