Govindraj Ethiraj is former Founder-Editor in Chief of Bloomberg UTV, a 24-hours business news service launched out of Mumbai in 2008. Prior that, he worked with Business Standard newspaper as Editor (New Media). Earlier, he spent five years with television channel CNBC-TV18 where he worked from near start-up point. Before CNBC-TV18, he worked with The Economic Times newspaper as Corporate Editor in Mumbai for five years, looking after the corporate and markets news bureau. He also worked with Business World for three years. He began his career with Business India magazine. He is a Fellow of The Aspen Institute, Colorado. He is presently co-authoring a book on India’s efforts to give over a billion residents a unique, biometric identity - after concluding a short, voluntary stint with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) - before returning to full-time journalism shortly.
I was participating in a somewhat fiery debate on healthcare (helped by the presence of journalist S Gurumurthy) in Chennai a few weeks ago. The venue was Chennai’s eye hospital Sankara Nethralaya and on the panel, among others were Star Insurance (former United India Assurance Chairman) V Jagannathan and Sankara Founder Dr S S Badrinath.
The discussion was about evolving models of healthcare delivery. A key question was: can the Sankara Nethralaya not-for-profit, donor-based model be replicated? If so, how? If you want a one-line conclusion to that question, the answer is yes, but in a severely limited way. The Sankara Nethralayas of the world are driven by powerfully committed, talented people and teams and it’s statistically improbable to find so many of them around.
The debate was more on how it can be done and not on why it can’t be. But as the debate heated up, Jagannathan of Star made an interesting and perhaps moot point on the reason for Sankara's success; it just felt different right from the point one walked in: “When I come to this hospital, I feel like I’m entering a temple,” he said, definitively. That statement got me thinking.
Now I’ve heard the temple or sacred space reference only on a handful of occasions in all the years I’ve reported as a financial journalist. And I’ve visited many hospitals too, including a private one recently where the corporate office could have belonged to a private equity firm or a consumer products company. And no other visual references to the trade whatsoever. I reckon deliberately.
Much as I would like to expound freely on the kinds of organisations whose work spaces could resemble or radiate the energy that one associates with sacred spaces or temples, I will desist. Instead, let me take the safe route and pose some questions and thoughts which might spur a discussion in that direction.
First, a hospital is obviously performing a `sacred’ duty of saving lives, eyes or hearts as the case may be. But the range of feelings you encounter as a patient (visiting or resident) may not necessarily touch upon that. You could surely say a hospital or nursing home is either professional, caring, loving, friendly, attentive, efficient and responsive to your needs. Or you might have a totally opposing view, depending on your experience.
Leading from that, the concept of a sacred space is not restricted to healthcare ? The next logical stop could be education. Do educational institutions feel like temples ? Most would say you do feel something different (as opposed to a factory) when you walk into one. Particularly if it has age and grandeur on its side. And yet, an old building alone will not necessarily impart that feeling. And many educational institutions surely don't. Let me not say what some of them do remind me of.
Another point, maybe somewhat unique to India. Many organisations, including hospitals, have a religious figure either in the form of a statue or a portrait at the enterance. Typically, this is garlanded and prayers offered every morning. Would this give visitors a sense that they were walking into a `temple’ or a `temple-like’ environment. My sense is the answer is no.
So there is education. There might be other pursuits which have a `public service' or even public utility element to it. But once again, they may or may not fit.
So what then are the forces (visible and perceived) that combine to create that powerful feeling that Star’s Jagannathan referred to ?
Here are my guesses: To start with, the organisation must be doing something which is genuinely touching, affecting or changing people’s lives. It could be a medical institution but may not.
Second and more importantly, the people. Each or all of them (from bottom to top) must convey the distinct impression they are engaged in a pursuit that to them is beyond the ordinary. They must look like they are giving this endeavour everything they’ve got, their every ounce of energy, their time, their lives. More often than not, it would appear they have sacrificed something else – for eg, family time, money, fame & comfort - for this pursuit, willingly and happily.
Third, the organisational success. Doing all this but without perceived success and impact on the environment in some ways will negate the first two. The visitor must know the work going on in a institution is making a fundamental difference not just to people’s lives in some way but also innovating and creating new ways of addressing some basic problems. With scale. In the case of Sankara, one factor could be taking affordable eye care to the masses backed with scale and operational efficiency.
I was, for instance, as impressed by Sankara’s smart information technology and processes that ran the walk-in, non-paying patient departments. The smoothness (and gentleness) with which walk-in patients were received, tagged, immediately inspected by a doctor if it was an emergency and then treated in large numbers is a testimony to not just passion but also a desire to serve at a larger level. Over 1,200 patients are treated daily at Sankara’s Chennai hospital. And many more in other Sankara hospitals all over the country.
There could be other factors too. But I’m reckoning these are the three important ones. Maybe there is a fourth force which makes the real difference. And I'm unable to describe it here while others might.
Now I also recognise it's not every organisation’s burning ambition to be compared to a temple or a sacred space. Nor are shareholders going to pay a premium for this tag, if one were to get attached for some good (or not so good) reason. But for the few it matters, the social impact satisfaction would be very high.
I was also reminded of the original temple descriptor. By then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he termed the public sector units (PSUs) the temples of modern India. He also referred to the Bhakra Nangal dam as a temple of modern India. Of course, the term 'temple of modern India ' has been used liberally and in the most non-mystical contexts, like malls and multiplexes. And thus diluting much of its original meaning.
The question: how many of the Nehruvian references hold today, apt as they were in the 1950s and 60s when they were made ? Guess not many. Perhaps time is a better judge.