Saluting Best Practices, People & Institutions

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January 23, 2008: It was a day to remember - the highest independently instituted civilian honours that salute people, projects and institutions which went the extra mile to make India a better country. Over the past seven years that the Skoch Challenger Awards have been conferred, the mighty and the ordinary have shared this platform for their extraordinary achievements in contributing to society.

The Skoch Challenger Awards cover the best of efforts in the area of digital inclusion, financial inclusion and social inclusion. They encompass the best of e-governance, look at excellence in academics, capacity building, empowerment and other such softer issues that get normally get lost in the glamour and the glitz of industry sponsored or advertising focused jamborees. This year again, the awardees came with inspiring stories that others can learn from.  

The Skoch Challenger Awards were conferred at the culmination of the 19th Skoch Summit, which sought to highlight the criticality of dovetailing security and emergency responses into the economic and development growth scenarios, specially as the nation recovered from the horrors of Mumbai.

The Skoch Challenger Awards are coveted for their independence, primary research and a distinguished jury based approach. No industry or government support or endorsement is either expected or accepted for the Skoch Challenger Awards and they remain independently instituted and conferred as a third party perspective. The Roll of Honour of the Skoch Challenger Awards over the years is a testimony to this.

The Skoch Challenger Lifetime Achievement Award for 2009 was conferred on Sam Pitroda for ushering in the telecom and IT revolution in India. The telecom czar received the award from Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner of India, at the glittering function during the 19th Skoch Summit in New Delhi.  Pitroda was instrumental in helping kick-start software exports from India and providing economies of scale to computer manufacturing in India. 

Through his mantra of indigenous manufacturing, shared access, rural telephony and using the power of young talent, he made the rural telephone exchange and the Public Call Office (PCO) at every nook and corner of India happen.  

On the occasion, a biographical film “Sam Pitroda - A Dreamer”, which was produced by Skoch was screened. The film brought together a galaxy of personalities who knew and had worked with Sam Pitroda over the years. Each recounted a special experience or anecdote. 

A visibly moved Pitroda acknowledged and thanked all those who had supported him over the years and detailed how his return to India was a dream come true. In fact, the film recounted how  Pitroda had given up a reasonably successful business in the US to serve his country.   

The Person of the Year Award was conferred on Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner of India, for strengthening the Right to Information through the institution of the Central Information Commission and bringing about a new era of transparency, accountability and disclosures in all public works.  Just a few years ago, it was unimaginable for the common man to inspect public works or records; take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; or take certified samples of material. Habibullah’s pro-active role has altered the situation altogether and his efforts have, amongst other things, changed the perception in the bureaucracy that RTI is a hindrance. 

The award for National Significance in the Governance category went to Subas Pani, Secretary, Planning Commission, who is credited with computerising the electoral rolls of India and connecting all electoral counting centres in India. He also did pioneering work in introducing Electronic Voting Machines in the Indian Electoral System and designed and set up one of the largest electoral website at Election Commission. This has since altered the entire process of conducting elections in India. His role in instituting e-democracy through election ID cards and electronic voting machines was considered immeasurable by the jury. 

Pani had in his earlier capacities set up the Bhubaneswar Software Technology Park, promoted use of Indian languages in ICT applications and chaired an expert group of the National Portal of India – a single window system for accessing all government services. 

The e-Governance award went to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), which has set an example for other urban local bodies by introducing IT initiatives that focus on providing best civic services to its citizens. Its canvas caters to the needs of its 12.7 million citizens with the help of a network of 24-decentralised Ward Administrations. 

Its citizen portal is enabled by solutions, consulting, and services by a consortium of global companies for delivering Government-to-Citizen and Government-to-Business benefits. It has enabled single window service across multiple departments, avoiding repetitive data gathering and is available anytime, anywhere. MCGM has applied change management and resistance management techniques to make this transition smooth. 

This year’s awards had a new category in Security and Disaster Management. Shailesh Nayak, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, was recognised for setting up a state-of-the-art Tsunami Warning Centre and developing an entire tsunami warning system suited for India. Among the other firsts to his credit is the development of marine GIS for the country, generation of database for coastal zone management and development of techniques and algorithms for identifying various coastal landforms, mangrove plant communities as well as high-tide line and low-tide line. Once fully implemented, it would significantly improve India’s response to natural disasters and calamities.  

The award for Exemplary Service went to Prabhat Rahangdale of the Mumbai Fire Brigade. One of the very few search and rescue experts in India, Rahangdale was recognised for his exemplary courage in the face of adversity, be it floods in Orissa and Bihar or terrorist attack in Mumbai. Perhaps for the first time in its 122-year-old history, the Mumbai Fire Brigade was called upon to respond to a terror attack call on 26/11. Rahangdale led from the front fighting fire in the face of grenade attacks from the terrorists and succeeded in saving several lives.

The Skoch awards not only acknowledge exceptional achievers but also inspirational guidance and motivational leadership. Punjab National Bank Chairman and Managing Director KC Chakrabarty received the Inclusion Champion of the Year Award for demonstrating how the rural poor can be pulled into the mainstream by a little innovation. Partnering with the Panchayat of Tineri village in Bihar, PNB’s branchless banking facility has liberated the people from the clutches of local moneylenders while inculcating a banking habit. The Tineri initiative is hailed as a ''holistic approach'' towards providing basic banking facilities to the poorest of the poor leading to enhanced financial inclusion. Tineri is just one of the soon-to-be launched 27 pilot projects across 13 states in the Indo-Gangetic basin.  

Bimalendu Chakrabarti, Chairman and Managing Director, New India Assurance Co Ltd, was awarded the Skoch Challenger Award for Change Management in recognition of the multifarious change initiatives unleashed by him in the company, which infused a new dynamism and changed the very way the company functions.  New India Assurance has embarked on a Business Process Re-engine-ering exercise with short, medium and long-term goals with focus on 3Cs – cost of processing; claims pay-out; and, customer servicing. Amongst major initiatives taken up are setting up of specialised offices, catering to claims servicing and distribution channels.

Oriental Insurance Co Ltd was recognised for Innovation in Financial Inclusion and the award was received by CMD M Ramadoss. Oriental Insurance has taken a lead in insuring the un-insured – providing Universal Health Insurance cover for cashless mediclaim to the underprivileged in rural areas and urban slums. The Oriental Insurance has engaged Self- Help Groups and micro-finance companies at the grassroots level to serve customers as diverse as NREGA wage seekers, migrant labourers, pavement hawkers and rickshaw pullers. 

Civil society too came in for accolades. 

SEWA Bank was recognised for financial inclusion and livelihood initiatives. Today, SEWA Bank has an all-India membership of 800,000 members, 21 saving products ranging from daily savings to savings for the house, marriage or contingencies such as disasters and illness and 15 loan products ranging from daily loans to loans for working capital or release of mortgaged land and education. 

Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy, SEWA Bank has become an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers that gives inspiration to other underprivileged people - largely women - to organise themselves. 

The Aarogyasri Health Care Trust was awarded for its health insurance model in Andhra Pradesh which has covered more than 65 million people below the poverty line. The scheme is being run by the Trust under a public-private-partnership that includes a private insurer, public and private hospitals, women’s Self-Help Groups and the state government. Behind the model is a holistic approach to healthcare, ensuring that people are given free check-ups by network hospitals and a 24-hour helpline, manned by 100 doctors and 1,600 paramedics that handles about 53,000 calls a day. There are strict protocols on treatment, with around 800 packages listed and the costs fixed by the trust’s panel of doctors. 

The Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK) was awarded in the field of education for its unique adult literacy programme among the nomadic Van Gujjar community in the Himalayan foothills. The model became self-sustainable within three years through the continuous support of individuals and the community. Initially, about 350-trained volunteer teachers of RLEK travelled with the community during their transmigratory cycle from the foothills of the Himalayas to the higher alpines in order to ensure continuity of the education programme. The uniqueness of the programme lies in community participation and holding of classes under the canopy of trees by barefoot teachers. 

The Intel Education Initiative was hailed as a model Public-Private Partnership. Launched in 2004, Intel’s Teach and Learn Program has reached more than 88,000 learners across 24 states and four Union Territories in India. The Intel Education Initiative believes that a student must develop key 21st century skills such as familiarity with information and communications technologies, prob-lem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. 

The Passport Control & Issuance System, an indigenous, robust and low-cost application developed and implemented by National Informatics Centre, bagged the award for Exemplary Use of Technology. Decentralisation of acceptance of passport applications is a major initiative and is being introduced at over 500 offices to take passport services to a citizen’s doorstep.  The success of the initiative is evident from a recent pendency clearance drive conducted in Delhi. The drive demonstrated that about 60 officials could produce over 35,000 passports in just 10 days by using the existing IT infrastructure. 

The passport application has even connected all the foreign missions and the data resides in a central database hosted locally. Overseas requests like renewal, lost passports or even visa applications are routinely monitored and disposed off on daily basis. 

The packed auditorium was also treated to a Kathak dance ballet, “Sarey Jahan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara” and “Vande Mataram”, choreographed by Gitanjali Lal. Symbolic of the co-existence between tradition and modernity, the ballet sought to evoke commitment to the nation and a re-dedication of efforts towards making India better. A welcome participation was of young boys and girls belonging to the Van Gujjar community from Uttarakhand who have benefitted from RLEK initiative and are now seeing the fruits of development reach them.

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