North Stars ft. Raghunathan Narayanan

Raghu learnt his first lessons of cooperation, sharing and inclusion from his grandmother, Lakshmi patti, who received people with respect, dignity, and her filter coffee.

Hailing from a humble home in a small town called Pudukottai, Raghu belongs to a God-fearing Brahmin family of grandparents, parents and three young boys. One of his early memories is of farmers coming into the village to visit weekly markets and sell their produce, walking into his house and spending the night in their backyard, resting their bulls outside. It was a regular weekly occurrence for the family who would receive villagers as easily as we receive our friends.  Imagine what a young child growing up in this environment would grow up to be.

A singular conversation with Raghu, makes a deep impression because of the simplicity and contentment he exudes. His grandmother would explain to the children how all five fingers of our hand are not of the same size, but it takes all five to make a fist.  And a fist would be powerless without all five fingers.  It takes many different people to make a strong society together and society couldn’t be complete without different people.  A beautiful lesson from a beautiful soul.    

Raghu with his mother, Sudhaji and brothers Kannan and Ranga

Raghu’s father was a post-graduate in math and deeply conscious of the privilege his education had gifted him with.  Fondly known as ‘Ji’ or Kodiyathu Narayanan or Cornerhouse Narayanan, he made himself available to any facilitation, help, assistance needed by anyone around him and was widely loved by everyone. 

Deeply influenced by Periyar’s principles of rationalism and eradication of caste, Raghu’s curiosity helped him study the origin and construct of the caste system and understand the context behind reservations for OBCs and Dalits.  He was only in standard 7 then.  The more he understood, the more he was hurt but determined not to follow structures that subjugate people.   

Raghu was one of the early Agricultural engineers (not a popular option then) hoping to apply his education for rural India. Agri-engineering taught him how most problems were not simple and linear and how multiple lenses are needed for solutions to succeed.      

People would tell me that I’m a generalist, because I am not a mechanical engineer and haven’t really specialized in anything.  But my specialty is that I am a problem-solver.  I can look at a problem from many lenses, use the principles of integration and solve it.

He forfeited his admission fees for masters at IIT Kharagpur to enroll himself in the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). He heard the words ‘Rural Management’ and just knew he had to be there. IRMA also offered to him the most profound learnings and interactions with the then Chairman, Dr Kurien.

During tractor training.

Engineering taught us to find solutions for making bigger, better machines and solutions.  Dr. Kurien asked us, “Why don’t you find solutions for people?  What is the point of your work if your solution does not help people?  Put people at the center and find solutions for them.”  It had a huge impact on me - it made me look at problem solving very differently. 

Raghu was very influenced by Dr. Kurien’s call for People Professional Partnership as a must for growth. People’s institutions like co-operatives need the skills of professionals for growth and professions must in turn serve people’s institutions. Scale can come through people, growth will come from professionals hired by these people.

Inspired by the Amul model, Dr. Kurien’s words gave Raghu a shared vision. While engineering taught him to construct solutions, IRMA taught him the importance of designing for people. It also taught him the importance of collectives and scale.

We think scale gives us bargaining power, and it does.  But it can shift purpose too. To ensure people don’t lose their power to scale, we need their voice built in the value chain. We need accountability built into the collective. We need to ensure the interest of the people never gets lost in the ‘scale story.’

Raghu and his friends Shiv and Ashok had been witnessing some great work happening which needed support services to back it. In 1994, they set up Catalyst Management Services, a private company to research, design and develop solutions for people.

Not structured as an NGO they struggled to articulate their identity.  They began first with ‘consultants’, then called it ‘services’, then ‘development enablers’, then ‘professional services’. They kept struggling to convey the deep passion and type of solutions that they worked on. His co-founder Shiv came up with ‘Solvists’  i.e. people with an activist’s anger, passion and urgency to bring change, combined with a ‘solution’ attitude working with any type of people who are relevant to bring that change.

We have taken away context from our people.  Whether it is regional language or understanding of their own histories, we have used our privilege to kill their pride and make them believe they don’t deserve better.  But giving them institutional recognition can give them dignity.  So we build ecosystems for the poor with their context. 

The Catalyst Group specializes in systems change approach with cognizance to social context. I am curious what that looks like and he explains the systems approach to social change.

As a member of society, a person feels the expectation to behave in a certain way is more important than what he thinks he should do for himself.

A poor father is socially expected to get his daughter married by the time she is 12.  But he may not want her to marry till she is 18.  While working to create an intervention to delay the marriage of young girls, we realised that only if we empower the father to stand for his child, can change happen.  He does not usually have the courage to defy society.  And nothing changes if the father doesn’t act to save his daughter.

To enable change, we will have to build a father’s conviction to defy societal pressure and give him a supportive system to make this possible. 

We have to build that system.

Vrutti's team (2018)

The team decided that since their goal is to solve complex problems, they would need to experiment in their own labs and design to serve at scale. This led to the inception of two wonderful organisations. Swasti started with an objective of vulnerability reduction for sex workers and matured into a health resource centre, while Vrutti works for Inclusive Livelihood Promotion and Market based solution to livelihoods. 

With Raghu travelling almost 25 days a month, his wife Subha became the much needed pillar of strength through their journey, raising two wonderful daughters Preeta and Priyanka, as responsible young women carving their own paths. 

Raghu with his wife Subha and daughters Preeta and Priyanka.

Raghu speaks of his family with barely concealed joy - of Preeta taking a 50% cut to leave an investment bank and join an impact investing firm to work for sustainable energy and affordable housing. And about Priyanka studying human rights and international relations. Absolutely chuffed, Raghu finds his daughters carrying forward the legacy his father had left behind.      

If we want to really build resilient communities, then we must institutionalise good governance in their value chain.  Bring Dalits and marginalized groups into committees and subcommittees, give them a voice in governance.  Formalising that inclusive model forces societies to change.  A system without good governance does not bring change.

Even today, the marginalized believe that they are not worthy.  A Dalit telling me that he cannot learn English because he is only a Dalit makes me very angry. 

It should make all of us angry when such mental blocks prevent sustainable development and a better life for all. He leaves me with a quote by Dr Venkataswamy who founded Aravind Eye Hospital and said that every institution for the people must be built on three principles:

- Uncompromising compassion for people by its leaders
- Affordable excellence that can be accessed by people
- Sustenance to survive all conditions

With such strong guiding principles, the contentment that Raghu seems to carry within him comes not from having solved every problem he’s ever encountered, but from giving his all, each time he could and continuously working to serve those who he had hurt for as a 13 year old child. He has done this with a tribe of brilliant people alongside him.

In consultation with farmers in Madhya Pradesh, in 2014.

A reformist engineer and a conscious human being, Raghunathan Narayanan, calls himself a social entrepreneur, an impact accelerator and an integrator.

To me, he is an artist who joins dots, looks for patterns, and designs new ones where there aren’t any - no matter what it takes, as long as people are at the center of his design. 


(all images courtesy Raghu)

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naghma mulla

Owner of the loudest laugh in the room and a development sector professional by day, Naghma is a by-mistake CA, who writes what she feels and feels what she writes.