250 rupees well spent

Born in poverty, Suresh Vazarani set out to transform healthcare in India. The new President of Initiatives of Change International talks to Mary Lean.

Suresh Vazarani is the founder and Managing Director of Transasia, India’s largest medical diagnostics company, which employs 1,500 people, a third of them outside India. Last year he became the President of Initiatives of Change (IofC) International.

The two roles are linked. The values of honesty and service which drive Transasia stem from decisions Suresh made in his 20s, when he worked for nine years with IofC.

When Suresh founded the company in 1979 he had just 250 rupees in his pocket and a huge vision in his heart: to transform healthcare in Asia and to do this with integrity. From day one, he refused to pay bribes – risking contracts and spending thousands on court cases. He insists on paying his taxes in full, in spite of blandishments from tax agents hoping for a rake-off.
Born in a refugee camp in Nagpur, to parents who had fled Karachi at the time of Partition in 1947, Suresh only realised he was poor when he went to university. He and his six siblings had grown up in a two-room house, with communal toilets, and, for the first 10 years, no electricity or water.

When he saw how other people lived, he says, he became selfish. ‘I felt I had a right to do whatever I could to obtain things. Why should I pay for a book or a bus ticket? The world had everything and we had nothing.’

There was a great community spirit in the camp, where everyone had come from Karachi. Suresh joined a right-wing nationalist movement, drawn in by its youth activities, fellowship and idealism. ‘We talked of creating a new world, dominated by the values of Hinduism,’ he says. ‘Because our families had suffered in Pakistan, the camp was a strong breeding ground for anti-Muslim feelings.’

After graduation, he moved to Mumbai to work in a petrochemicals firm. There he encountered IofC. Its commitment to creating a better world based on moral values appealed to his idealism, while its emphasis on starting with oneself challenged him to look more closely at his own behaviour. ‘When I put things right, I began to feel that I was a part of the solution and not the problem,’ he says.

His plan was to go to the US to do his Masters and make a career, like most of his generation of Indian engineers. Instead, in 1971 he decided to volunteer for a year on the building of Asia Plateau, IofC’s new conference centre in Panchgani. As he was a volunteer, he could not continue to help his family financially. His parents, supportive at first, grew more and more distressed as one year stretched into nine.

These years working alongside people of many nationalities, faiths and backgrounds stretched Suresh’s horizons and undermined his prejudices. They also gave him a belief that ‘following the still small voice inside us can help us become better human beings’.

In 1975 Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi placed the country under a state of emergency, curbing civil liberties and press freedom. This hit IofC’s news magazine, Himmat, edited by Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma. When he refused to submit to censorship, the government leaned on the printers. Soon no press would print the magazine.

Gandhi asked Suresh to find a solution in time to print the next week’s magazine. Thousands of readers responded to an appeal for donations, ‘but when we added it up it wasn’t so much’. He found a press, persuaded its seller to hand it over ahead of final payment, took over the operation and brought Himmat out on time.

Four years later, Suresh set up Transasia in the same ‘faith that where God guides, he provides’. He was convinced that the way to improve health in India was through prevention and early diagnosis. He points out that 70 per cent of treatment decisions around the world are based on blood tests: but that, even now, only 30 per cent of Indians have ever had their blood tested.

Transasia started out by importing and distributing blood analysers made overseas, but found that these expensive imported machines were beyond the reach of most Indian health providers. So they started to make them in India and sell them at affordable prices, exporting to over 100 developing countries.

What has he taken into business from IofC? First, he says, a strong belief in inner guidance. All his meetings end with two minutes of silent reflection and, according to the Financial Times, he considers this ‘a fundamental part of his company’s success’.

Secondly, IofC taught him to see challenges as opportunities: a mantra which has served him well in his battles against corruption. Is he never tempted to pay a bribe to speed things up? ‘I wouldn’t say I am never tempted,’ he replies, ‘but the temptation goes away the moment my inner voice reminds me that business is not an end for me, it is a means of achieving a just and fair world.’

He says that IofC’s values played a major role in Transasia’s success as a company which is ‘helping millions of Indians remain healthy’. He is now developing an Institute of Leadership at Asia Plateau, to train future leaders in values of service, integrity and responsibility.

Photo: Yee Liu Williams

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