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Helping Indians access social security benefits

With Aniket Doegar

December, 2023

Aniket Doegar hails from Shimla, a city nestled in the lap of the Himalayas in northern India. His startup venture ‘Haqdarshak’ is an assisted-tech application that uses artificial intelligence to identify welfare schemes people in India can apply for. A person can input their details into the mobile application or get assistance from Haqdarshak’s army of female community-based leaders who help people fill in their details and upload documents on the app. Its unique approach has enabled 4.2 million people in the country to unlock government benefits amounting to 500 million USD.

Aniket has neatly bridged the gap in India’s last-mile delivery of government welfare schemes and the world has taken note of it. The Schwab Foundation and Jubilant Bhartia Foundation awarded Aniket the ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2023’ title and in 2019, Aniket was selected for Forbes 30 under 30 Asia [1].

In September 2023, he became the first investee of the Scaling Programme of HiiL’s Innovating Justice Fund. HiiL’s relationship with Aniket and Haqdarshak can be traced back to 2018 when Aniket competed in the HiiL’s Innovating Justice Challenge and became the only Asian entrepreneur to have won it [2]. Since then, HiiL has been a steadfast supporter of the entrepreneur, helping him mould the start-up for the global investment market for social impact start-ups.

We sat down with Aniket to unpack his journey of becoming a social entrepreneur. He told us about his experience of setting up a social impact startup in India’s emerging economy and what motivates him to continue his efforts in ensuring that all Indians have access to social security benefits.

"I always wanted to do something that would improve the lives of people. I didn’t see myself doing an MBA or any other business course." ~ Aniket Doegar

For his undergraduate studies, Aniket enrolled in India’s prestigious Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in 2007. While his classmates intended on pursuing a career in the corporate world, either through an MBA or chartered accountancy, he knew his heart lay somewhere else. He was keen on studying economics and policymaking and aspired to enrol in an Ivy League programme in the USA. Before diving into social sciences, he wanted to explore socio-economic problems in India from the grassroots level. So after graduating from SRCC, he joined the Teach for India programme (TFI) where he taught underprivileged children in public schools in the city of Pune, Maharashtra. 

"I worked as a teacher in a public school in Pune through Teach for India. This experience became the starting point of my entrepreneurial journey." ~ Aniket Doegar

His two-year stint at TFI laid the foundational stone of his start-up.

”I saw that the parents of the children were not aware of the welfare schemes that they were eligible for, despite the billions of dollars channelised by the Indian government into welfare schemes. Much to my dismay, when I tried to find information on their behalf, despite being from a privileged background with access to a laptop, internet and a smartphone I could not access this information”, shares Aniket.

Witnessing the challenges in accessing information on welfare schemes, Aniket established the ‘Hands for You’ foundation in collaboration with his classmate from SRCC in 2014. This organisation was meant to be a Wikipedia-like platform for welfare schemes. At this point, Aniket’s entrepreneurial spirit was already surfacing. But he was still keen on pursuing his goal of studying economics and policymaking abroad. So, while running Hands for You, he simultaneously worked with several other NGOs and grassroots communities in rural Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi to boost his resume.

In the process of conducting research for the platform and working with grassroots communities in different parts of India, Aniket realised that the problem does not end with an information gap. Most people in the country are unable to verify their eligibility and gather the necessary documents. Knowing that millions of people in India are dependent on welfare schemes and are unable to access them, the compassionate and dynamic entrepreneur kept aside his plans to study abroad and launched his startup in 2016 [3].

"As I set out to launch my start-up, the enabling environment created by the Indian government for start-ups gave me a boost." ~ Aniket Doegar

As the idea of Haqdarshak was taking root in Aniket’s mind, India’s burgeoning economy was paving the way for entrepreneurs like him. In 2016, the Government of India launched a programme called the Start-up India programme which gave entrepreneurs grants and simplified the procedure to set up start-ups. Haqdarshak benefited from this [4]. “Given that social impact start-ups in India find it difficult to raise money for technological development, the Start-up India programme’s financial support gave Haqdarshak the necessary boost at that time”, says Aniket gratefully.

As a part of the programme, the government also partnered with premium business schools in India to organise competitions on entrepreneurship. Courageous and confident, the young entrepreneur submitted his idea of Haqdarshak in several of these competitions which led him to win prize money that helped the entrepreneur in building the app.

"Being a visionary is not enough, you also have to be persistent in your efforts if you want to create impact." ~ Aniket Doegar

Haqdarshak’s research indicates that in India there are 7,500 schemes in the country, including those implemented by the central government and those by state governments. Aniket knew that he needed more tech support and capital to build a repository of 7,500 schemes. So he approached Tata Trust, India’s oldest philanthropic organisation led by Sir Ratan Tata, India’s most trusted business leader. Knowing that he was competing for the attention of the most sought-after philanthropic organisation in the country, he rolled his sleeves up. And after 200 meetings spanning 10 months, he got the Tata Trust on board. Collating funds from a few more angel investors and organisations, Aniket built the digital repository of welfare schemes in 2.5 years.

Overview of the mobile application of Haqdarshak

‘"Entrepreneurs often think that their solution is the best. But it's important to admit that your ideas may not be realistic and you need to pivot." ~ Aniket Doegar

Aniket earnestly believed that if there were an online platform where people could apply for welfare schemes, people would make use of it. “This was me thinking like a typical entrepreneur who thinks his solution is the best. But then common sense prevailed and I realised that the citizens who need social security benefits the most are the ones who are most digitally disadvantaged. Getting them to buy a smartphone and download the app was going to be an expensive proposition. That’s where the assisted tech model came in”, he candidly admits.

Aniket’s previous work with organisations and leaders who work at the grassroots level had demonstrated to him the impact of female community leaders. This led Haqdarshak to enlist the support of women who would help others in their community in using the platform. They provide end-to-end support to people, right from onboarding them to the platform to helping them fill out forms and ensuring that they receive the benefit, in exchange for a small fee. 

Haqdarshaq’s female, community-based leaders interacting with people eligible for welfare schemes

"Covid-19 turned around Haqdarshak’s trajectory from being an early-stage startup to one that reached scale." ~ Aniket Doegar

Between 2017 and 2018, Haqdarshak had perfected the assisted-tech model. But it became apparent that citizens hesitated to pay for Haqdarshak’s services. So the resourceful entrepreneur collaborated with the employers of the people who are eligible to receive the benefits including factory owners and platforms like Uber. The employers were willing to pay Haqdarshak’s fees because it ensured the well-being of their employees, in turn benefitting the company in the form of motivated and loyal employees.

As this new business model was starting to gain traction on the ground, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Businesses and factories that employed unorganised workers and farmers were facing a never-before-seen situation. They wanted to retain their employees but also could not afford to pay them full salaries during the lockdown. This made them realise that perhaps helping employees gain access to social security benefits would help them get through the lockdown. Subsequently, they reached out to Haqdarshak. 

“This turned the tide for the start-up”, says Aniket as he travels down memory lane. As more and more businesses did the same, Haqdarshak scaled by leaps and bounds. It went from having 5 to 10 enterprise-level clients to 100+ clients. Over time, its business model changed such that 10% of its revenue came from individual consumers and the remaining 90% came from businesses that wanted to protect their employees. The female community-based leaders that Haqdarshak mobilised also began earning for themselves a sufficient livelihood. 

Companies that are clients of Haqdarshaq

"Entrepreneurs have this fallacy of thinking that we are superheroes and we can do everything. But this kind of thinking only holds back the growth of the start-up." ~ Aniket Doegar

Today, Haqdarshak has a pan-India presence. It has helped 4.2 million people and 41,000 small and medium-scale enterprises across 29 States and Union Territories gain access to a wide range of social security benefits. This includes crop insurance and direct benefits transfers for farmers, health insurance, life insurance, subsidised as cylinders, cash benefits for pregnant women, scholarships for students, support for victims of natural calamity and many others. 

The application of Haqdarshak offers 11 languages, catering to the needs of India’s diverse population. The start-up has partnered with organisations such as Ujjivan Small Finance Bank and DBS Foundation to implement financial literacy programmes and establish brick-and-mortar centres. 

When asked how he keeps up with the needs of the growing organisation, Aniket responded that he had to pull back and let his colleagues take charge of day-to-day operations and focus more on the macro picture. “Before Covid-19, I used to try and do everything and be everywhere—in the field and attending conferences and meetings. This is because entrepreneurs have this fallacy of thinking that we are superheroes and we can do everything. Covid-19 forced me to buckle down. It made me realise that I don’t need to be everywhere and that not being everywhere is better for the organisation’s health.”

He continues, “Today we are a team of 500 people, out of which 300 are in the field and 200 are in central offices. We have 4,000 active female, community-based leaders. The day-to-day operations are run well by my colleagues, which allows me to look at the macro picture. Plus, I always surround myself with people smarter than me. So the learnings come from listening to my team and my well-wishers, funders, and board of directors.”

"Investors urged me to diversify Haqdarshak’s services during COVID-19. But my firm conviction in my vision kept me from falling prey to mission drift." ~ Aniket Doegar

It’s common for young entrepreneurs to diversify into areas that are outside their core interests. This move is often prompted by funders who want the start-up to remain profitable or respond to the changing needs of the environment in which it operates. Aniket too, faced this pressure. During the Covid-19 pandemic, funders urged Aniket to diversify Haqdarshak’s services into food delivery, vaccination and skill development. But he was crystal clear in his thinking. He wanted to ensure that people had access to social security, scholarships, pensions, insurance and food. His firm conviction in his vision kept him on his course.

The young entrepreneur also shows tremendous wisdom when he says that for him, “The organisation is bigger than the individual. Haqdarshak is trying to solve the problem of last-mile service delivery in India. I keep asking the question to my team—why do we do what we do? What is the kind of institution that we want to build? And even if tomorrow we are not there, how should Haqdarshak be run or remembered? So while we are obsessed with scale, we won’t scale at any cost. And we are okay to let go of opportunities if they don’t align with the organisation’s goals.”

"Seeing people around me overcome struggles and transform their lives keeps me grounded." ~ Aniket Doegar

As Haqdarshak makes its way to becoming one of India’s most impactful social impact startups, we asked Aniket what continues to inspire and ground him. He shares, “In entrepreneurship, there are constant ups and downs. Through this journey, my family has been supportive of me in times of failure and kept me grounded when I achieved success.”

Aniket also gains valuable insights into life through the experiences of people he interacts with. Recalling a conversation with an employee of Haqdarshak who lives in the Pulwama district of Kashmir, he shares, “She told us that she risks getting shot in the crossfire between the army and militants while travelling and interacting with communities. After speaking with her, I reflected on the broader aspects of life. Many of our female community leaders who have limited education and resources, have found empowerment through their work. Some have even contested local elections in their villages. Seeing these women accomplish so much, even in the face of extreme hardship, inspires me. It also reminds me that although my work is important, there is more to life than that.”

Aniket has come a long way since he established the predecessor of Haqdarshak in 2014. At the young age of 34, he has helped millions of people in India live a dignified life. He has turned the social entrepreneurship landscape in India on its head, by achieving one milestone after another. His vision, determination and humble attitude towards his work will help Haqdarshak as it readies itself to help 100 million people get access to their entitlements by 2030.

References

[1] Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship (n.d). Awards – Social Entrepreneur. Retrieved on 8 December 2023: https://www.schwabfound.org/awardees/aniket-doegar/ ; Forbes (n.d). Profile – Aniket Doegar. Retrieved on https://www.forbes.com/profile/aniket-doegar/?sh=17b4bf975edc

[2] HiiL, (2023). Impact investing in justice innovation. Retrieved on December 8, 2023: https://www.hiil.org/news/impact-investing-in-justice-innovation/ ; BRAC, (2018). Innovating justice challenge in Dhaka. Retrieved on December 8, 2023: https://www.brac.net/latest-news/item/1171-innovative-justice-challenge-in-dhaka?tmpl=component&print=1

[3] Ministry of Rural Development, (2022). Year-end review: Ministry of Rural Development. Retrieved on December 8, 2023: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1887438

[4] Press Information Bureau, Government of India, (2016). Start-up India Programme. Retrieved on December 8, 2023: https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=147661

Authorship

This article has been written by Manasi Nikam after interviewing Aniket Doegar on October 10, 2023. 

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