His motherís plight prodded UK businessman Raj Loomba to move mountains and make society a better place for widows
Lord Raj Loomba
Award: Distinguished non-resident Philanthropist
Why He Won: He created the Loomba Foundation, conducted a global research study on widows that led the UN to designate June 23 as the International Widows Day.
His Trigger: He was shocked at the inhuman treatment meted out to his widowed mother by his grandmother and other society ‘seniors’. He decided then and there that he would help widows to regain their status and respect in society.
His Mission: To promote the fundamental freedom and human rights of widows and their children around the world.
His Action Plan: To empower widows and educate their children.
His Next Move: He wants at least 5 percent of the reserved quota for women proposed by the Indian government to be for widows. He also wants to set up help centres for widows through panchayats in India.
It was something he noticed as a young boy of 10 that turned Lord Raj Loomba into a man with a mission. His father, successful businessman Shri Jagiri Lal Loomba, had just died of tuberculosis. His body was still in the house, not yet cremated, when the young Raj found his grandmother, also a widow, telling his mother Pushpa Wati to remove her bindi, her bangles, and wear only white clothes from that day on. Lord Loomba says he was “too young to apprehend”. “I couldn’t do anything at the time. I just saw it happen. It made me sad; because she had done no wrong,” he said.
A defining moment came when he got married. The priest who was conducting the wedding ceremony asked his mother to move away from the altar because, being a widow, she could bring bad luck to the newly-weds.
“I was shocked, and very angry. How could a mother who gave me birth, a mother who educated me, a mother who always wished me well, how could she bring me bad luck? Why are widows being treated in this inhuman way? I decided I wanted to help widows regain their status and respect in society,” he explained.
Lord Loomba was the fifth of seven children whom Pushpa Wati single-handedly educated. She sent him to the University of Iowa in 1960, but two years into his degree, her money ran out. So he came to London “to start from scratch”. This meant working in a factory, making motor car parts, selling ice-cream and ladies’ stockings on a market stall.
One of Lord Loomba’s abiding memories of his entrepreneur-philanthropist father is how he would neatly stack coins on a table by his bedside, carefully noting down all expenditure. Like Jagiri Lal, Lord Loomba is organised and a perfectionist. These virtues stood him in good stead as he saw his business, which started from a market stall, blossom into 280 concession retail outlets with a presence in most major UK departmental stores, offices in China and India, with over 300 employees. With corporate headquarters at the Loomba House in London, the Rinku Group of companies specialises in the design, sourcing and retailing of smart and casual ladies’ wear for the mature market. It produces the Tigi Wear and Viz A Viz brands which are distributed wholesale, and supplies major high street multiples with their own label product.
Along the path to success, Raj has received many accolades and awards, including Asian of the Year in 1997, a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) from the British Government and a Liberal Democrat Party peerage in the House of Lords.
When his mother passed away in 1992, Lord Loomba decided to honour her memory, but not in the traditional way of building a school, hospital, or an ashram. “My mother gave me an education. If I had not had that education, god knows where I would be today. She had the resources. If she had not had them, she would not have been able to achieve her vision. With that in mind, I set up a charity named after her—The Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba Memorial Foundation—to educate the children of poor widows in India and developing countries in South Asia and Africa.”
The foundation was launched in 1998 in London in the presence of the then British PM, Tony Blair, and his wife Cherie. The latter accompanied Raj on many of his missions to different countries, visiting India every year since 2004. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated the Loomba Foundation at his official residence in Delhi, and the first programme supported the children of 100 widows in the state. “My wife Veena and I set up a corpus of Rs 1.25 crore in 1999 so that the interest income would educate those children,” Lord Loomba said.
Realising that widows and their children suffered discrimination all over the country, he covered all the Indian states, something none of the then top international charities even attempted. The late Dr LM Singhvi, former high commissioner to Britain, became the Indian chair of trustees and asked Lord Navnit Dholakia, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, to become a trustee in the UK.
Lord Dholakia says: “Raj is an acceptable face of Indian entrepreneurship. He has overcome many adversities in life to make a success of his business and his charity. He is a pioneer in the field of widow’s rights and we all owe a debt of gratitude to him.”
With the charity working for the education and the empowerment of widows, Lord Loomba eyed his next goal—to get widows onto the agenda at the United Nations. Systematically and tenaciously, he set about creating awareness. As Lord Dholakia says: “His [Lord Loomba’s] only weakness is his inability to pause and take a rest.”
Lord Loomba organised fund-raising events and conferences in the UK, USA, India and Africa, with senior politicians and high-profile guests like HRH The Princess Royal; Hillary Clinton, then a New York senator; musician and peace activist Yoko Ono and senior businessmen. The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also attended the International Widows Day launch at the UN in 2005.
Lord Loomba funded research into the plight of widows, publishing a report, ‘Invisible Forgotten Sufferers’, which is now being used as an authoritative handbook by the UN. It revealed that of the 245 million widows around the world, 100 million live in poverty. In Africa, their plight is multiplied manifold by HIV and “customary laws”. There, widows have to “return” possessions to their late husband’s family. In Nigeria, poor widows are forced to walk around their homes to “look for their husbands’ souls”.
When Lord Loomba presented Ban Ki-moon with the first edition of the research study in 2010, the UN chief told him: “If it were not for your vision and efforts, we would not be talking about widows at the UN today.”
Lord Loomba’s hour of glory came that year when, after five years of tireless campaigning by the Loomba Foundation, the UN General Assembly declared June 23 International Widows Day on a motion moved by the government of Gabon. The date holds a special significance in Lord Loomba’s life as it was on this day in 1954 that his mother became a widow. Lord Dholakia says, “I do not recall a single charity from the subcontinent which has received such recognition.” In 2012, the Economic and Social Council of the UN granted Special Consultative Status to the Loomba Foundation. The status is conferred upon those NGOs that demonstrate a special competence in a select field of concern. It allows the Foundation to send official representatives to participate in events and conferences at the UN, which enables it to make important contributions to conversations about the rights of widows worldwide.
The Foundation is a registered charity in the UK, USA and India. To date, it has raised over £4 million by organising fund-raising events in various countries. All donations go to beneficiaries as Lord Loomba’s business bears all the administration costs. It has also provided educational scholarships for a minimum of five years, often longer, to 6,500 children of poor widows in India, and supported over 27,000 family members. At present, 3,000 children across 16 states are being schooled.
The charity is going to start vocational and skills training for some of the children who have finished their schooling. Lord Loomba has just launched a programme to empower 10,000 poor widows by providing sewing machines and training them, at a total cost of £500,000. He has already raised most of the funds. The Delhi and Punjab governments have agreed to provide £125,000 each as matching grants. The project will be completed by 2013.
As part of the Foundation’s international activities, it works in Kenya, Uganda, Syria, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as a global partner with Youth Business International, a charity of HRH Prince Charles. It empowers over 300 genocide widows in Rwanda in association with Oxfam. The Foundation worked with Sir Richard Branson’s charity, Virgin Unite, in South Africa from 2006 to 2008 to support 1,500 HIV orphans.
Away from his hectic public profile, what is Lord Raj Loomba like in his private life? His friend and ally Lord Dholakia says he is a family man to the core. “His great joy is to be with his grandchildren on Sundays. He is also a very honest man. He doesn’t take risks. He will seek advice from those close to him. He is gifted with an analytical mind. He is at his best when he shares jokes at the dinner table. He epitomises the slogan that there is joy in giving rather than taking.”
Image: Chip East / Reuters
Cherie Blair is the president of the Loomba Foundation
Raj brought global focus to the plight of widows
By Cherie Blair
When Lord Loomba approached me in 1998 to tell me about the plight of widows in India, I was shocked and horrified. I had no idea that the widows of India suffered so badly, that if a woman loses her husband, she also loses her position in society.
Often marginalised and ostracised by her husband’s family, she is frequently poor, uneducated and unable to work to support herself. She cannot re-marry but instead has to depend on her children, who become the breadwinners for the family. These children often end up on the streets or working in factories where child labour abuse is common practice.
It is astonishing that the plight of widows had remained unidentified and unaddressed until Raj was inspired by the plight of his own mother, who became a widow at the early age of 37 and found herself immediately a non-person. Since the issues relating to women, children and education are close to my heart, I readily agreed to support Raj. So I became the Loomba Foundation’s first patron in 1998, and its president in 2004.
I have worked closely with Raj over the years and travelled to India, New York, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and Gabon to raise awareness of the plight of widows and their children.
In 2005, at the House of Lords in London, the Loomba Foundation launched the campaign for the United Nations formally to recognise a specific day in the year on which to focus attention and help for widows around the world. June 23 has a special significance for Raj, as it was on this day that his mother became a widow in Punjab in India in 1954.
Raj is now widely recognised as a pioneer and instigator of International Widows Day.
(Cherie Blair is the president of the Loomba Foundation)