New Delhi: Odds are you would have hardly heard about this public sector undertaking (PSU). References and mention of this particular state-owned company — ALIMCO (Artificial Limbs Manufacturing Corporation of India) — in the mainstream media is sparse. This is despite the fact that it has six Guinness world records to its credit. The organisation works towards making aids, assisting devices and prosthetics affordable to differently-abled people in India.In this freewheeling conversation with PSU Watch, ALIMCO Chairman and Managing Director DR Sarin touches upon the nitty-gritty of his job. He talks about how ALIMCO has brought down the cost of one of the most expensive surgeries that eradicates hearing impairment — Cochlear implant. And he also weighs on the massive challenge that India faces in terms of making assisted living devices affordable or available free of cost to a humongous number of people who can't afford them. Also, ALIMCO has just inaugurated a new project — APOC (ALIMCO Orthotics and Prosthetic Centre). It is aimed at modernising and expanding ALIMCO’s production facilities. The centre has been built at a cost of Rs 115 crores as against the sanctioned/estimated cost of Rs 338 crores and has been completed on schedule. Here are the excerpts:
How has your journey with ALIMCO been since you took charge as CMD in 2014?
The first thing that contributes to the longevity of any company is technology up-gradation. That is the first step towards syncing your growth with future. The second is the integrity of the person who occupies the topmost position. The values are cultivated and practised at the top. It then trickles down to the bottom of the hierarchy chain. For me, what you give back to society...that is very important. And keeping that ideal in mind, I have kept my material needs to a minimum. I never put up in 5-star hotels when I am travelling. The third thing that I think is important for the survival of a company is diversification.
"One of the first things that I did during my tenure was bringing in transparency. If you look at the recruitment process followed by ALIMCO, you would see that it is one of the most transparent processes in the entire public sector."
For instance, ALIMCO is now the nodal agency for Rashtriya Vayoshri Yojana (a scheme that aims to physical aids and assisted living devices to senior citizens belonging to BPL category. This, in essence, widened the horizon of our workspace.
As an organisation, what are the values that form the core of ALIMCO?
One of the first things that I did during my tenure was bringing in transparency. If you look at the recruitment process followed by ALIMCO, you would see that it is one of the most transparent processes in the entire public sector. For each post that’s advertised, we have a list on our website of people who have been shortlisted and also people who have not made it to the list, along with the reason why their application was rejected. (Claim was verified by PSU Watch to be true.) In cases where applications have been rejected because candidates failed to produce the required documents, candidates are given a week’s time to respond.
In terms of meeting world-class technology standards when providing/designing aids for specially-abled people, do you think ALIMCO still has a lot of ground to cover?
It is not like we do not aspire to make these advanced technologies available to people here in India, but the issue pertains to the number of people we have to cater to. This sector can be divided into two categories — high volume and low value, high value and low volume. In India, we are catering to 2.68 crore people who are specially-abled, as per Census 2011. And I roughly estimate the number to have grown to 6 crore now.
"Very recently, ALIMCO made a hearing aid available to this 75-year-old poor, hearing impaired man who had not been able to afford the device all his life. Can you imagine? At the age of 75, this man experienced hearing for the first time."
Now the question before me is: should I give one person a hearing aid, which is at par with international standards, of Rs 15,000 or I should give a person a hearing aid costing Rs 2,000 which is reasonably good. The latter will allow me to extend this facility to maybe, say, five people because it’s cost-effective. So, we have chosen a middle path.
What has ALIMCO done to address this?
For example, we have signed a ToT (transfer of technology) with German prosthetics company Ottobock. They make prosthetics whose cost could go up to Rs 25 lakhs each. If these devices are say third-generation, what we have done is we have got a ToT on the first generation of prosthetics. Now, this is a low-end technology that is not available to people here right now and therefore, it is going to be cheaper to manufacture devices based on it. Very recently, ALIMCO made a hearing aid available to this 75-year-old poor, hearing impaired man who had not been able to afford the device all his life. Can you imagine? At the age of 75, this man experienced hearing for the first time. This is the situation we are dealing with. There are several like this man who cannot afford prosthetic or assisted living devices. And we need to cater to as many as we can.
What has been your learning about the kind of approach that this sector needs?
Working in this sector, I have realised that for any initiative to succeed in this sector, one has to follow a three-tiered approach. One, you need to provide mobility to your beneficiaries. Once they are mobile, their aspirations grow. The second step consists of skilling. And skilling needs to be done in a profession which has prospects and requires them to be stationary. For example, mobile repair work. We skill 25,000 people every year. ALIMCO has also held meetings with restaurants in Delhi and convinced them to hire physically challenged people who can meet the bare minimum requirements as employees. You must have seen signs outside restaurants saying that the waiters there are hearing-impaired, so please be patient. The last and third aspect of the programme is providing people with soft loans, which is taken care of by NHFCDC.
The current government coined the word Divyangjan. What is your view of the sensibility of this dispensation towards specially-abled people?
I think the present dispensation has been quite sensitive towards empowering specially-abled people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been there at four health camps and at these camps, ALIMCO created six Guinness world records. Barring Daman and Diu, Port Blair and Lakshadweep, there are no other states in the whole country that have not received aids and assisted devices from ALIMCO.
Before the matter had been taken up by the ministry, people were making money to the tune of Rs 13-15 lakh. Then, ALIMCO entered the market and there was competition. The whole package (Cochlear implant) now costs Rs 6 lakh.
And I think apart from the funds dispensed by the government towards this cause, a lot of corporates have also joined in under their Corporate Social Responsibility Scheme (CSR). For instance, we have been working with PFC, RITES and Honda under the purview of CSR. And this has happened because awareness about Divyangjan has grown.
Looking back at your career, what do you think was a major contribution made by you?
After I took charge in 2014, we started a Cochlear implant scheme. And this is something that I consider to be a major contribution made by me. In India, around 30,000 kids are born with hearing impairment. Those who are deaf also come to be mute. This Cochlear implant surgery has come like a boon for such people. For children aged 0-5, hearing impairment can be fixed with a Cochlear implant surgery. This surgery and the implant costs Rs 6 lakh. Apart from whatever came from the government for this scheme, the rest was mobilised by me. Before the matter had been taken up by the ministry, people were making money to the tune of Rs 13-15 lakh. Then, ALIMCO entered the market and there was competition. The whole package now costs Rs 6 lakh.