During his visits to Uttar Pradesh, former President APJ Abdul Kalam often ensured that his motorcade stopped at ‘dhabas’ so that he could get a cup of piping hot tea and conduct an unusual experiment on rural entrepreneurship.
The dhabas or roadside eateries that he chose to stop at were ordinary ones, serving tea in plastic cups to the great man who sat in a plastic chair alongside others.
So what was it that drew the “Missile Man” to the dhabas of Uttar Pradesh? Kalam, who passed away after suffering a massive cardiac arrest in Shillong on Monday, had calmly told Hindustan Times: “It’s not tea, but the tea-seller!”
Expanding on the issue, he explained, “The whole idea is to discover how one man, let’s say the roadside tea-seller, serves tea to nearly 100 or more people in a day and at the same time cleans utensils, collects money and welcomes customers with a smile.
“It’s this spirit of serving that is so fascinating, one which needs to be inculcated and celebrated.”
And Kalam had responded with a firm “yes” when he was asked if his roadside halts would continue.
That was at the time when Srijan Pal Singh, the Lucknow-born IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus had decided to work with Kalam instead of a multinational, thus starting a trend of IIM students sacrificing plum jobs to intern with the former President.
Singh, who was with Kalam during his visits to dhabas, said: “Those visits on the Moradabad-Rampur highway and Azamgarh were part of the plan to know how micro-entrepreneurs operate in India and what value addition can enhance their earning potential.”
He added: “India needs millions of such micro-entrepreneurs at the grassroots level. And we need to find how technology, marketing and quality management can improve such ventures. It is, in many ways, linked to (Kalam’s) goal of ‘providing urban amenities in rural areas’ or PURA as it is promoting self-sufficed job generators.”
The idea, Singh said, emerged from discussions that Kalam had with his team about how the real flavour of India is in its roadside markets.
Singh said such unscheduled stops at dhabas helped establish that the ‘chaiwallah’ too has a management lesson to teach.
“The lesson here is how a grassroots entrepreneur operates as a tea maker, a server, a cashier and a cleaner, all combined in one. It is a lesson of how, in a scarcely accessible place, one can conduct efficient inventory management. And, using shoestring budgets, one conducts marketing in a reasonably competitive space,” he added.
Alongside his visits to dhabas, Kalam also began meeting grassroots innovators and product designers to discover ways to empower India.
This was a great way of learning and understanding grassroots enterprises, a necessary element for planning to empower millions of rural and suburban people, said members of Kalam’s team.
His staff was instructed to ensure that during his visits to smaller cities and rural areas, some time was set aside for interacting with local innovators and researchers. The dhaba experience was part of this.
Inspired by Kalam’s grounded vision for developing the country, the number of IIM graduates wanting to intern with Kalam had steadily risen – from one in 2009 and 2010 to six in 2011. In 2012, the Dr Kalam Foundation received 36 applications from MBAs, of which eight were accepted.
How IIM grads felt about interning with Kalam
Indranil Hansda, an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate who interned with Kalam, told Hindustan Times the experience was diverse and enriching.
“I personally wanted to gain experience in a proper social development organisation in order to be able to develop and implement initiatives aimed at the social development of the people at my native place,” he said.
“This internship turned out to be all that I had expected and more; I have had the exposure of implementation of the social initiatives designed by the Kalam Foundation, which provided me an understanding of the various issues associated with social development and I also received the opportunity to build on these initiatives. I have met and established networks with many dynamic individuals who are involved in various independent social initiatives.”
The Dr Kalam Foundation launched several initiatives such as “What Can I Give?” and “Make Your Mother Smile”. During their internship, the IIM graduates were sent to villages to study rural life, said Singh, who has been involved with Kalam’s PURA mission.