A Midas touch for a corporate head honcho will usually translate into new business verticals. But this genius of ideas, who is known to have built two multi billion dollar businesses in the mobile internet and Sport, notably the Indian Premier League (IPL), from scratch, has had his eye not on the sensex, but on an alarming statistic – the acute shortage of 3 million units of blood a year in India. That explains why a super achiever, with a brilliant IIT-IIM academic background and leadership roles in Rediffusion, Ogilvy & Mather, Star TV, Hutchison,Yahoo and IMG, turned his attention to combating a silent killer with a hyper local free marketplace of this elixir.
With blood as a currency of help, Mumbai based Balu Nayar started the largest network of strangers in 2008 through @BloodDonorsIndia, a twitter handle with 1.2 million followers, that he prefers to call “contributors”. It was not just the shortage of blood but also “commercialisation” through an unholy “nexus between brokers and hospitals”, the quality of donors that could be “suspect” and donation camps with an “NGO facade” that end up “selling blood.”
Although this initiative was started in 2007 on facebook, the “couch potato syndrome” didn’t quite lend itself to actual live donation, sans an inevitable “return loop of gratitude”. Balu was quick to sniff out the activist streak on twitter as a faster word of ‘mouse’ to strangers and performed a “course correction” in 2008, making a seamless transition to the micro blogging site. The initial traction was painfully slow, notching up barely 5000 followers in 5 years. But soon enough, coinciding with the smartphone revolution and lower data costs, this twitter handle shot up like the proverbial Jack’s beanstalk, growing 110 times, crossing the 1 million milestone and emerging as a veritable “mother network with multiple offspring platforms of volunteers.” The team is open to tie-ups with government agencies like the police and health departments to give this effort a bigger shot in the arm.
A turning point, as it were, was the tagging of celebrities in blood donor requests. The sheer ‘force multiplier’ nature of the platform ensured the widest coverage and requests from not just urban centres but also some of the most remote corners of the country like Mecheda, Tonk, Bagalkot, Dras, Barnala,Silchar or Ongole, being met. “Everyone helps in spreading the word – actors, journalists, politicians, sportspersons.” Balu singles out cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and political leaders for their interface. Interestingly, when strangers help strangers,without any quid pro quo, “the Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex of the brain is known to be stimulated, leading to a feel good factor.”
What started with 2 blood donor requests a week, is now the first SOS button to press. More than 50 appeals a day, which has shot up to even 175 during the Covid pandemic, including the hunt for blood plasma, result in at least half being met,of which about 8 interventions are absolute life savers.
Contrary to popular belief, sickness can be a great leveller. So whether it was an industrialist in the top end Breach Candy or a labourer at a Government Hospital in Hazaribagh or 12 year old twins battling cancer at AIIMS, @blooddonorsindia has been quite a Guardian Angel. What keeps this small band of volunteers like Balu’s trusted lieutenant Gaurav Malhotra, of this largest “many to many” ‘digital community of kindness’ going are messages like “Thanks for saving my mother’s life.”
The obvious gratitude aside, @blooddonorsindia has come in for global recognition. It has been featured in the Mary Meeker Internet Trends Reports. Small wonder that a glowing endorsement came from twitter CEO Jack Dorsey himself who declared that “this is the most powerful reason for anyone to join twitter.”
Despite creating this amazing network of selflessness on a platform that is often synonymous with trolling, Balu has tried to remain anonymous, as he is “conscious of the fact that many good causes get subsumed by the founder’s identity.” Contentment stems from drawing ‘first blood’ on a medium accused of ‘bad blood’.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)