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Need to get youth to work on farms, says Zarina Screwvala

Ajita Shashidhar     May 25, 2015

For the husband and wife duo of Ronnie and Zarina Screwvala, philanthropy does not mean merely signing cheques to support a cause, but creating an entire eco-system for development. In an interview with Ajita Shashidhar, Zarina Screwvala talks about how they have tried to corporatise philanthropy through Swades Foundation, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Q. Can you talk to us about the genesis of Swades?

A. Swades started as Share (Society to Heal, Aid, Restore, Heal and Educate) in a very small way and we have been active on it for about 15 years. We started with a small village in Maharashtra, where we went to try and educate the girl child. When we spoke to the people, they told us it is not that they didn't want to send their girls to school, but the reason they can't is because they have to fetch water. We decided to do water projects and sanitation projects. Once we did that, women had more time in their hands as they were no longer fetching water for two-three hours a day, girls started going to school. We learnt a lot in the process. We learnt that the community is always right. They are smart and we need to work with them as partners, and we need to respect and love them. Those are things we learnt in media also-that the consumer has to be at the centre.

We did water and toilet for about 40,000 people over a decade. We did it in our personal capacity and it is was never UTV (now part of Walt Disney India) that did it.

Q. Can you take us through your model?

A. We have at the moment six verticals like a pizza. In the centre of the circle we have four 'Es' - we engage with our community, we empower by training the community themselves. We have 'Suraksha Mitras' who are community health workers, the gram panchayats are trained in governance. Finally, what we still haven't figured out the exact nuances, is exit. Therefore, a sustainable model of development has to be created. As of now we work with education, health, communication, demand creation and trust creation which is vital for our work. We have agriculture, livelihood, water, sanitation, infrastructure building as well as mindset changing. Poverty is material as well as mental and we deal with both.

Q. Do you work with partners?

A. We have 33 partners and we have gone and even met their beneficiaries and found out if their lives have actually been transformed. We have found the best possible partners and we take six months before we associate with them. So, Teacher Foundation for instance, does training in our schools in Raigadh. As of today, 540 school principals and 10,000 teachers have received training. Teacher Foundation also does training at the best schools in Mumbai and Delhi.

Q. So, how do you convince people to transform?

A. The only way to convince people is if one brave person decides to adopt change. He tries it and will give you stories. A farmer who worked with us is now a really rich man. He bought his first tractor recently. We have ladies who are our suraksha mitras, who have actually saved lives of people. There is a woman, who is a widow, who became a panchayat leader and went on to become a Sarpanch. We met a 84-year-old lady, who told me all this while the Gram Sevak would come to her and order her to give her finger print, but now after our training, she makes her grandson read it to her and if she doesn't agree on something she doesn't give her consent. We all cried.

Q. How long do you think it will take you to exit from this geography and move to the next one?

A. So, a simple thing like toilets and clean drinking water will solve more than 60 per cent of the health problems. If we do everything at the same time in the eco-system, along with the training and the government being on our side and of course our partners, surely in five years we will be able to exit.

Q. How have you planned your exit?

A. We have at least 30 parameters like every house has a toilet, clean drinking water, every child is in school etc. For every vertical, we have written down objectives, the Holy Grail is if we can create the economy of the area. Every family that earns Rs 25,000 per annum, if we can push it up to Rs 2 lakh, that's the Holy Grail for exit. This is our biggest challenge. We have designed a whole measurement system for this. We are planning three methodologies for this - one is agriculture, which is simple new techniques. Once it starts working it will have a spiralling effect. We want the income level to come to Rs 60,000 per acre. We want everyone to have two high yielding cows, that will generate at least Rs 40,000 per annum. We want the farming eco-system to be Rs 480 crore for half a million people. Then, we have to find job opportunities which are not farm driven. The aspiration of the youth is not farming. This is the single biggest challenge we face today: to get them to work on farms.

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