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Verve People
August 25, 2014

Reaching India!

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Poulomi Dey.

After spending two decades in the glittering world of entertainment, UTV’s Zarina Screwvala found a new calling with her Swades Foundation – an organisation that is working towards empowering one million Indians in rural India. Passionate about partnering with the villagers to enrich their lives, she shares her vision with Verve

A few months ago, in the huge banquet area of a tony hotel in central Mumbai, the A-listers of Mumbai gathered for a ‘by-invitation only’ auction held by the social initiative, Swades Foundation. The evening – that wound up post-midnight – witnessed enthusiastic responses to the various lots that went under the hammer. On stage that night, apart from the ‘rural heroes’ and the celebrities who participated in ‘The Walk for Rural India’, were  also Zarina Screwvala and her husband, Rohinton, who spearhead Swades Foundation and both were visibly moved by the emotion of the moment.

One morning, a few weeks later, I meet Zarina Screwvala in her apartment to listen to the genesis and growth of Swades Foundation. Zarina points out that she and Ronnie have been involved with it for quite a few years, but earlier on it was called Share. She rewinds, “Share was more his baby and whatever we did at that time was mostly in monetary terms. We went to our first village in Raigad with the idea of empowering girls and getting them to go to school. The villagers laughed at us and our naïve vision. They said, ‘We can’t send our eldest girl child to school because she has to go and fetch water with her mother.’ In certain months, when the water dries up, the villagers had to trek for almost two hours both ways to fetch water.”

Faced with the harsh rural realities, this seed of knowledge took immediate root in their minds and the foundation decided to first tackle the issue of water – the focus being the creation of toilets and an infrastructure that would sustain the distribution of water. And, it was not mere social service from the outside, for as Zarina points out, “Our aim is to engage with the community and understand them. We do not impose our views on them.”  With partnerships like the Rotary, Red Cross and more, work started in earnest. “Over the last 15 years,” she states, “we have provided water to over 39,000 people. Our partners have worked repeatedly with us for years. And the one thing that we have learnt is to build up tremendous amounts of trust. That stands us in good stead now.”

One day, as the Screwvalas were sitting in their balcony, chatting with a young student from Harvard, Ronnie spoke enthusiastically about how they wanted to empower a million people! The boy turned around and said, ‘Hey! It sounds like your movie Swades!’  “It was so obvious that we had missed it,” states Zarina. “We decided to change the name and re-brand the whole initiative. I wanted Swades Foundation’s logo to represent the sun because the sun gives light and warmth to all without asking for anything in return.”

Reaching out to the villagers was not easy for the ‘outsiders’. But Zarina emphasises, “It’s not a charity that we are engaged in; it’s a partnership. We are doing philanthropy to empower the people of the community. We engage in peer-to-peer communication. We worked with the women from the self-help groups (Swaraksha Mitra Programme) for five years and now they go and talk to other women.”

In March, this year, Jaya and Amitabh Bachchan went to Raigad at the behest of the Screwvalas. They spent time with several locals – like Rutika and Ravina, two young girls who have taken charge of the library; Vidya Kule, a widow who is now a trained community health worker, Sucheta Nakti, who created a snake and ladder healthcare chart, and more – and returned home deeply touched. In a heartfelt letter, Amitabh Bachchan wrote, ‘Our country needs our time, passion and our money. Let us commit to our country and to those who have taken on the task of transforming it. The destiny of our society is found within the power of our decisions.’

After two decades in the media, Zarina stepped out of her comfort zone to find her metier in a different world. Yet she states, “I have applied all the processes that I learned at UTV while creating something new here – right from understanding the main issues, to the moments of inspiration, the ethos and the philosophy that we believe in. We use the same skills, the same passion, commitment and more. There are clear expectations, transparency and budget sheets for every paisa spent. Our dream is to create a world-class organisation, to create a model for development which is replicable at scale for other people. We are a very critical lot. I teach my people to disagree with me.”

This humongous switch has given her a new satisfaction. She says, “In UTV, I had stopped learning. 25 years ago we started the first show on television, then we started the first daily soap – we started almost everything. And beyond a point what more was there to do? I feel these are the best years of my life. I started here with zero knowledge. Vipassana and New Acropolis – which teaches philosophy in the classical tradition – help me a great deal. It’s living wisdom, knowledge gained through your own experiences. I am deeply grateful to these wonderful teachings.”

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