Copyright 2016, Forbesindia.com

Namma Vaani: Lessons from an unusual social network

We must be aware how sections of our society can leverage (or not) the social systems we develop


g_100627_social_network_sm_280x210.jpgBeing plugged into a network improves access to opportunities and information
Image: Shutterstock


Imagine that you are looking for a new job. Or say, for new business opportunities. Maybe you seek a solution to a pesky problem. What is the first place you would go? For several of us, certainly amongst those of us reading this article, I expect the answer to be some online entity. We are most likely to start our search at a favorite website, platform or app that link those seeking information or opportunities with people who may have the said information or opportunity. The ubiquity of online social networks and the diversity of applications is staggering. They are a large part of life for an increasing many. But for broad swaths of our society, particularly if you are differently-abled, poor, or both, this is still simply not the case.

One of my goals is to understand how best to include and empower persons who are differently-abled, and I have worked with Enable India for many years in this direction. A recent meeting with Shanti Raghavan and Dipesh Sutariya (co-founders of Enable India) gave us a chance to discuss this aspect of life: how being plugged into a network improves access to opportunities and information. During that conversation, I learned about one of their initiatives that is worth writing about.

The initiative, called Namma Vaani in Karnataka and Hamari Vaani in North India, is an Enable India-moderated social network platform aimed at facilitating the sharing of stories, opportunities and ideas for differently-abled persons in rural India. It is simple. It is effective. And for some people, it could change their world.  
When differently-abled people give a missed call to Namma Vaani, they get a call back from an interactive voice response (IVR) system. They can then select through the IVR menu and access information about employment opportunities, disability-specific schemes, ideas submitted by others, among a great deal of other pertinent information. Or they could choose to add content. For example, a person without legs once shared some tricks he uses to organise and access items he sells in his small shop. Another user contributed how making and selling small craft items can be a source of income.  

When the initiative launched, 40 individuals called looking for jobs. To Enable India’s surprise, within a few days, 32 others responded with job opportunities. Today, 18 months since its inception, 93 percent of all content is user-generated and the network boasts of almost 2.5 lakh calls so far.

What is remarkable about this is that unlike other platforms that the urban educated mostly use, these users are generally uneducated, poor and stigmatised in their villages. They are afraid to engage with strangers and sometimes, even worry about giving missed calls. As an aside, “missed calls,” the method of communicating using no money whatsoever, rose to a phenomenon to contend with in developing economies. Called ‘beep’ in Africa, ‘miskol’ in the Philippines, and ‘flashcall’ in Pakistan, they effectively transfer communication costs to the person or entity who calls back. The users we are talking about here, though, come from backgrounds that make them worry about annoying someone with a missed call. These are not proactive social networkers with laptops in their bags and degrees on their walls. They are the ones who are generally neglected, have a low sense of self-esteem and sometimes do not consider themselves worthy of attention. They have internalised their irrelevance in an increasingly networked society that does not always acknowledge them.  

Venkatesh, a 32-year-old blind and uneducated person from Mandya, a small district in Karnataka, has a particularly evocative story. He was born to a poor unskilled laborer, who also had limited vision. Venkatesh’s three brothers are also vision impaired, as is his wife. While they are not educated, they are all keen on music. They subsist through a makeshift roadside ‘music band’. A few months ago, a blind friend encouraged Venkatesh to make that missed call to Namma Vaani. He hesitatingly gathered the courage and made the call. It turned out to be life-changing, according to Venkatesh. He found opportunities for performances during Ganesh Chathurthi and Diwali.

Venkatesh always thought what he wanted most was to make money. He had to get out of poverty after all. Today, while still not exactly out of poverty, the stream of events since the first missed call have clarified to Venkatesh what he really wanted. What he was looking for was a sense of being worthy of respect, a sense of dignity. He still needs the money, but now it is also a means to dignity. The yet poor, uneducated, once-timid, and now not-so-stigmatised Venkatesh has figured out what he was really seeking. He is trying to help others do the same – to live a life with dignity.

Exploring Namma Vani and its members made me think we sometimes row through life with two oars: ignorance and assumption.

We remain unaware of how remarkable some of the things we take for granted really are. The internet, mobility and connectivity have made unparalleled access to information and opportunities seem like something to be expected. Yet they remain almost unsurmountable challenges for people right around us. We must be aware how sections of our society can leverage (or not) the social systems we develop.

We also assume that we have figured out what we really want and that our actions are somehow purposeful. When an employee seeks a promotion, is she seeking more money, more power, more respect, or an escape from her present manager? When an academic researcher seeks to publish a top tier publication, is he seeking rewards, recognition, a way to influence other’s thinking or respect? Our assumptions shape our actions and we must keep them in mind when we make decisions.

I am under no illusion that these are easy things to do. But this particular social network and its members did give me some food for thought.

Mukta Kulkarni is a faculty in the Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management (OBHRM) area and the Mphasis Chair for Digital Accessibility and Inclusion at IIM Bangalore.