M. B. Nirmal

Ashoka Fellow
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Fellow Since 1990


This profile was prepared when M. B. Nirmal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
As Nirmal's own life has repeatedly demonstrated, an idea, if refined and made practical and then applied, is extraordinarily powerful. Over the last five years he learned how to stimulate and then help refine such applied creativity from his clients and all levels of his staff. Increasingly delighted with the results, he's now launching a movement, armed with analogous tools, to enable and stimulate others, ranging from local neighborhoods to returning overseas Indians to imagine better neighborhoods and cities and then to do what's needed to make the idea a reality. The power of his new organization, Exnora, rests first on a burgeoning number of street-level chapters. They bring neighbors together both to solve local problems, initially usually the cleanup of their chronically littered street, but also to build community communication and joint problem-solving. Nirmal hopes these local groups will be catalysts in the erection of a caring community as well as the sources of practical ideas in a generally disconnected, indifferent urban environment. These local groups grew out of one of Nirmal's ideas as a local bank manager. He saw two chronic urban ills he could resolve simultaneously: (1) the growing number of rag-picking street children and (2) the cluttered, unsightly-to-unhealthy condition of many roadsides. By getting most families along a road to pay a nominal monthly fee of 60 cents, the neighborhood suddenly obtains the ability to hire a ragpicker, renamed a "street beautifier," to keep the road clean and to beautify it. The street beautifiers are equipped with uniforms, shoes, gloves, and a reasonable $32-a-month salary. Nirmal's bank provides loans to these new neighborhood officials with which to purchase cycle carts, and Exnora tries also to arrange basic literacy classes. The second half of Nirmal's idea is to draw ideas out from some of India's most talented people, the overseas Indians and, especially, overseas Indians who have returned enriched by what they have seen and learned from Hong Kong to Glasgow. For example, he's helped Tamil Nadu design new towns by drawing on the insights of an Indian returned from helping Malaysia with its new towns. This is not a passive process. Nirmal and his Exnora colleagues work over possible ideas intensively with one another, trying chiefly to adapt them to Indian realities. They then use their relationships with public officials, reinforced by their growing network of citizen street committees, to get the ideas a hearing.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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