In 2020, a pandemic–hit India and the (Infosys) Foundation became extremely alert. The first agenda for us was to save the medical fraternity and look after patients, especially the underprivileged. We became busy assisting hospitals, providing beds, distributing sanitizers, masks, gloves, dry ration and cooked food. Then came the personal protective equipment (PPE) kits. Even though the medical staff resembled astronauts while wearing them, the kits were crucial in ensuring that the virus did not enter through their noses, eyes or throats. It was critical for us to supply them with more. However, obtaining the PPE kits wasn’t easy. We didn’t want doctors and nurses to face patients without the kits, so we ordered some imported ones. We found out that not only were they expensive, but that they were coming too late. When the government under Modi’s leadership can develop complicated homegrown vaccines at a pace comparable to the West, it gave me new hope, and I also caught the ‘Make in India’ bug! But who would do so efficiently, quickly, and with good quality at a reasonable price? Many hospitals were looking for these kits all over the country.
In the midst of this frantic search, one email caught my eye—it was from a young girl. She wrote, ‘I have a small garment factory that employs 50 workers. We are outstanding in the manufacturing and producing of any design that you give to us. If you can provide us with raw material and an imported PPE kit, we will make comparable ones. I am from a small town and do not have working capital, even though I have the talent and knowledge. I am happy to explain in more detail if you can give me an appointment.’
Something about the email struck a chord and I remembered the time I wrote a letter to J.R.D. Tata 50 years ago, without any connections. I requested him to go through the letter even if it was from a small-town girl who was unknown to him. I saw myself in the girl’s position and I called her to the office. The girl landed in my office with all the relevant documents. She was a simple girl with a no-nonsense attitude, and I drowned her with the questions I had.
‘I can mimic any design you give me,’ she said. ‘I think that skill can be used for a good cause in these times.’
‘Have you done this before?’ I asked.
‘Ma’am, my diploma is in design. If you are familiar with Chandni Chowk in Delhi, you know that plagiarized dresses of famous fashion designers sell there for one-tenth the price.’
‘That is not my area of interest, so I cannot comment on it,’ I responded.
‘I am telling you, Ma’am. Give me a PPE kit, the right raw materials and I will not disappoint you. I will rip open the kit and produce the same quality product. I will even deliver it wherever you want.’
‘But how will you do it? You only have 50 people in your factory currently. We need much more than you can produce,’ I said with complete transparency.
‘Please don’t worry. I can hire more people. That is my problem to address,’ she shot back.
‘What if there is a difference of opinion in the quality you produce?’
‘If the quality is not acceptable to you, then I will return your money in instalments, Ma’am.’
So, I took the risk, and I gave her a cheque for Rs10 lakh (Rs1 million) towards the first prototype and a small order. I said to her, ‘Look, I am giving this money to you personally. I hope you will keep your word and come out with an excellent product at a reasonable price. Any future orders will depend on the outcome of this pilot programme.’
She took the money with grace, thanked me and touched my feet. She said, ‘You will not regret this, Ma’am.’
Confidently, she walked out.
Five days later, she brought in the first prototypes, and I compared it to the imported product. It was comparable and cheaper too. The young girl had delivered it in neat packaging, and I sent the kits to a few hospitals and reliable doctors for genuine feedback. Soon, I received their inputs—the items manufactured by this young lady’s facility were better than the imported products!
Immediately, we handed her a big order from the Foundation, and she became our regular supplier. There were no complaints from the doctors or the hospitals where we donated them.
After a few months, the young girl came to meet me.I asked, ‘What happened? Didn’t you get a cheque for your last shipment?’
She smiled and said, ‘Everything is in order, Ma’am. I wanted to speak to you.’
‘Beta, about what?’
‘I want to give you something.’ She handed me a box and said, ‘This is dates poli specially made for you. Ma’am, if you add liquid ghee on it, the taste will be outstanding.’
‘Did you make this? And how did you know about the trick of adding liquid ghee?’
‘Ma’am, I am not an expert at making this. My mother made this for you.’
‘How does your mother know that I like dates poli?’
‘Twenty years ago, you stayed in a doctors’ house. My mother, Sarala, was a housekeeper there and she made dates poli for you then. She remembered you liked it and sent this for you.’
I was delighted. ‘Are you Sarala’s daughter, that little 5-year-old girl?’
She nodded, ‘Yes, my name is Swapna.’Excerpted from MODI@20: Dreams Meet Delivery, with permission from Rupa Publications India.