I developed a keen interest in the cause of the girl child in the mid-1980s. I had returned from the US after my studies there and this was the period immediately after the restoration of democracy following the brief spell of Emergency in India. Though I was in agreement in principle with the idea of population control, I was deeply disturbed by the measures used to enforce this decision. Besides population control, I realized that there was a strong co-relation between most societal ills and no education for the girl child. By empowering her with education, we could begin to put an end to ailments such as the spiralling population rate, caste system and dowry deaths. In that sense, one of the foundations of a secular, modern society is the education of its women.
On a more emotive level, I come from a family where women are very strong personalities. I am the father of two daughters and the son of a feminist, who is also an author, and was, therefore, naturally inclined towards the girl child.
This concern for the upliftment of the girl child translated into Nanhi Kali. My stay in the US had revealed to me that the US is one of the most charitable societies in the world, and an average citizen gives 5-10% of his earning to charity. On the contrary, for most of us in India, charity begins and ends with our gods and religions. So my next thought was: How could I play a role in encouraging others to begin that very worthwhile individual habit of “giving”?
At this time, the yuppie boom had just commenced with the onset of the leasing industry in the mid-1980s and it brought wealth to a large number of young finance professionals. This generation of newly affluent young people yearned to give back to society, but was unable to locate an appropriate medium. They had little knowledge of the NGOs that existed at that time and these existing bodies were unable to demonstrate a direct consequence of individual contributions.
(Left) Anand Mahindra. (Right) Nanhi Kali students at GSM, Kulsumpura, a primary school in Hyderabad. Bharath Sai/Mint
So I started to think about putting together a system where people had a direct connect with who they were helping, where they could see the results of their contributions. I borrowed the Nanhi Kali model from a couple of charity organizations I had seen abroad. We adopted from the best practices of several NGOs. A Nanhi Kali’s sponsor is sent progress reports on the child, which also has her photograph, but is not given her contact details. I believe that this helps develop a personal bond with the child, which is difficult to break, and which also ensures that the sponsorship continues.
I suppose I could have chosen to donate money directly to NGOs, which in turn could have passed it on to needy girls. The other choice was to create an avenue for more interested young people such as myself to donate for the cause of the girl child. I chose to do the latter. I gave a corpus to the KC Mahindra Education Trust, which has been in existence since 1953, and asked them to manage this programme. This money was used to create the infrastructure to solicit donations. I funded the ads, the staff and the infrastructure.
When Sheetal Mehta, the present trustee and executive director of the KC Mahindra Education Trust, took over in 2005, Nanhi Kali was catapulted into another orbit. We tied up with Naandi Foundation, who are the implementation partners for the project. Nanhi Kali is now present in seven states across the country, and if Sheetal’s vision for Nanhi Kali comes true, we will be able to educate 100,000 girls by 2010.
Interestingly, we did not face any initial hurdles when setting up this programme. Nanhi Kali commenced operations with an ad, which featured a little girl with the tag line, “I am Shreya”. We still use that ad as it has tremendous mass appeal.
Among all the girls that Nanhi Kali has supported, I distinctly remember three girls from our programme in Udaipur (Rajasthan) who braved floods to go to school. My daughters have forgotten how many times I’ve shown this photo to them and exhorted them to understand “…what people have to go through to get an education that you take for granted!”
Nanhi Kali girls braving floods to go to school in Udaipur — it is one of Mahindra’s favourite photographs. Courtesy KC Mahindra Education Trust
I understand that my effort for this cause is a drop in the ocean, but I am optimistic that it does make a difference in the overall scheme of things. We have a long way to traverse before we eliminate all the roadblocks in the way of the girl child. In India, the discrimination and injustice often begins even before birth.
Though I cannot offer a simplistic solution to the ills that plague the girl child, it is my firm belief that the key to this problem lies in the economic empowerment of women. An independent source of income seems to have a magical effect on women. Their confidence soars, they can take the right decisions and say no to abuses such as infanticide, female foeticide and abusive spouses. Education and economic empowerment also lead to political power, and sometimes, power is the only language that some men seem to understand.
As a culture, Indians are prone towards philanthropy, though historically, this has been linked to religion, for instance, giving of alms to beggars. However, I believe that as our society evolves and our sense of civic duty evolves, we will witness a rapid acceleration of philanthropic behaviour. Like in the West, it will soon be fashionable to start “giving”.
And as far as I am concerned, so long as we are able to contribute to make a difference in the lives of those who need it the most, that is all that matters.
Anand Mahindra is the vice-chairman and managing director of the Mahindra Group.
As told to Sanjukta Sharma
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