It is often a cheap dose of medicine that stands between life and death for millions of Indians. For K Anji Reddy, the founder of one of India’s leading pharma companies, the delivery of affordable medicine was a dream that he translated into a reality. Sadly, the man who had a dazzling knowledge of pharmacology could not find the right drug to save his own life.
I first met him in 1998 to discuss his foundation’s work: the plan was to rehabilitate child workers who lived and worked in and around Hyderabad by sending them first to a residential bridge school for a year and then to government schools. The project went off well, and paved the way for his obsession: philanthropy and institution building.
Reddy knew how to combine the principles of science (reasoning and precision) with the principles of business (efficiency and economies of scale) and he used this rare quality to create a framework for philanthropy. The unique blend also led to the creation of simple solutions to old problems that have been dogging the country. The key, he always reminded his employees, was to ask the right questions about a problem. Take the case of safe drinking water: he realised that technology alone cannot solve this enormous challenge and the country needs innovation to create the right service-delivery design. That is how he approached state governments to come up with the capital costs, be it for setting up centralised kitchens for mid-day meals or centralised village-level water treatment plants. Both are examples of pragmatism and innovation.
When Indians were paying R80 per tablet for curing stomach ulcers, Reddy used loopholes in the process patent to make the same drug available to us at 80 paise. When bottled water was available at Rs. 10 per litre, he asked his foundation’s team to charge Rs. 1 for 10 litres. And when it came to children and mid-day meals, he was clear that they would pay nothing. The State had to work out ways to make the meals free. He helped Naandi Foundation, which he founded and I now head, innovate and make meals cost-efficient so that the model could be replicated across India.
It is rare in the country to find someone of his stature having the confidence to delegate work. But Reddy did precisely this; it was his way of empowering people and creating leaders to build institutions. He believed scientists and social workers need space, freedom, dignity and trust to work and perform. He set up the Institute of Life Sciences, one of its kind in the country to get scientists to go into the deepest recesses of life sciences. He even got scientists together to work on Alzheimer’s and cancer.
When he came to know that I lost my first child in 1999 within a day of his birth, he went into the problem and realised that the country needed a world-class neonatal care model to save newborns. It took him no time to find the best neonatologist in the country and set up the Neonatal Intensive Care and Emergencies Foundation (NICE). Today NICE is one of the few places in the world where a newborn can be assured of a safe passage into the world from his or her mother’s womb.
His support for unusual ideas made him different. He realised and executed the notion that saving lives did not require enormous funds and infrastructure. It was as simple as providing a child a hot meal, giving people safe water and affordable medicine. There are no magic bullets to deal with India’s many problems, most of them related to poverty. But if these simple solutions can be executed, then we could be looking at a revolution in the quality of life.
Manoj Kumar is CEO, Naandi Foundation.
The views expressed by the author are personal.