wadhwani foundation

Tech entrepreneur Romesh Wadhwani is donating Rs. 200 crore — about $34 million — to the Wadhwani Foundation’s Sahayata initiative in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India. “India is facing a very difficult time of health and economic distress. Each of us has an obligation to do what we can to help our fellow citizens get through this crisis,” Wadhwani told India-West. (photo courtesy of the Wadhwani Foundation)

The Wadhwani Foundation July 7 announced the launch of its Sahayata Initiative, a project aimed at mitigating the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.

The Rs. 200 crore — about $34 million — initiative is funded solely by Indian American tech entrepreneur Romesh Wadhwani, founder and chairman of the Symphony Technology Group.

In an interview with India-West, Wadhwani said the Sahayata Initiative would focus on aiding small and medium enterprises in India through cash and consulting; creating a pipeline of up to one million skilled health workers to aid villages and smaller cities; and supporting innovations in public health, including telemedicine. The three programs will begin their deployments this August.

“India is facing a very difficult time of health and economic distress. Each of us has an obligation to do what we can to help our fellow citizens get through this crisis,” said the billionaire businessman, adding that cash management and supply chains have been severely disrupted due to the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Modi Government in March to curb the spread of COVID. The government eased its restrictions in June, leading to a surge of new infections.

India has the third highest rate of infections globally, with almost 821,000 infections and 22,123 deaths as of July 11, according to World Health Organization data.

India’s entrepreneurs have created an estimated 63 million MSMEs, according to 2019 data from the Government of India’s Ministry for Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises. MSMEs employ 40 percent of India’s workforce, about 106 million people.

The All India Manufacturers’ Organization in June released its survey of 42,000 SMEs. About 37 percent said they were shutting down due to the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Narendra Modi government to curb the spread of COVID infections, which effectively decimated their businesses. About 32 percent said it would take at least six months for their businesses to recover. In mid-May, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced an SME loan program, offering Rs. 3 lakhs — roughly $4,000 — which can be paid back over a period of four years.

Wadhwani told India-West he had been in India in January, ahead of COVID’s hit in India, and had conversed with the heads of many SMEs to understand the challenges they faced for survival, stability, and growth.

“They needed two things: additional lines of credit and consulting expertise,” he said.

The Sahayata Initiative will start with 50 small businesses in India in August, increasing progressively to 500 small businesses per month. The program’s goal is to engage with 10,000 SMEs. The Wadhwani Foundation will provide 100 consultants pro bono; several partner organizations will provide 250 consultants on a heavily-subsidized fee basis.

In a press statement, Arun Kumar, chairman and CEO, KPMG in India, said: “We are pleased to put our shoulder to the wheel with Wadhwani Foundation’s Sahayata Initiative to help SMEs that have been severely impacted by COVID-19. We are proud to partner with the Foundation and Mr. Romesh Wadhwani in their visionary intervention to help this section of the industry that accounts for a disproportionate number of jobs and livelihoods.”

Wadhwani told India-West he hoped the Business Stability program would help thousands of workers retain their jobs, including those in the informal sector, who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

The skilled nursing program will train a pipeline of workers through their mobile phones. Wadhwani explained that many health workers have not studied past high school, but almost all have mobile phones through which skilling knowledge can be delivered. The program will begin with 5-6 minute long videos on YouTube. Trainees can then engage in interactive discussions via WhatsApp.

The latter app will also be used to test workers to make sure the skilling knowledge is fully understood, said Wadhwani. At some point, the COVID-19 skilling program will be able to provide certification to its trainees.

The skilling program will focus entirely on rural areas and Tier 1 and 2 cities. Going into the pandemic, an estimated 900 million people in India lacked access to health care.

The Sahayata Public Health Innovation Program will provide grants to 50 start-ups and early-stage companies in India who are engaged in public health technology, including telemedicine, real-time diagnostics and testing, and patient monitoring and care. Wadhwani noted to India-West that most countries underfund in public health infrastructure, which the COVID crisis has laid bare.

The Sahayata Initiative will simultaneously launch in Mexico this year. The initiative will be launched in Brazil in early 2021, and in countries in Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh by mid-2021.

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