How the Tata trusts impact lives

Prince Thomas
Updated: Aug 13, 2012 10:17:06 AM UTC

It is easy to be infected by Kamarul Nisa’s enthusiasm as the 72-year-old freely posses for my photographer colleague Amit Verma. She shows no nervousness before the camera and readily adjusts to Amit’s requests. Behind her sit about 20 of her neighbours and friends. One of them exclaims, “She just became a grandmother, twice over!” As if on cue, Nisa’s smile widens.

We are in the community centre of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, the 700-year-old urban settlement in South Delhi. Close-by is Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb. Nisa and rest of the community here claim to descendants of the original caretakers of the shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin that is in the middle of the Basti.


While becoming grandmother has brought immense happiness to Nisa, what gives her more satisfaction is that her daughters-in-law had trouble-free pregnancies. “I personally took them to doctors for check-ups and got them the right medication,” she says. That might sound a normal thing to do for many of us, but for women of the Basti, it is nothing less than a revolution.

“The Basti might be part of Delhi and close to many well-known hospitals, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, but it is cut off from this development,” says Jyotsna Lall, senior programme officer at Aga Khan Foundation, the philanthropic organisation that has been working in the community since 2007. A combination of factors like low literacy, poor health and apathy has seen women in the community facing various problems, including anaemia and severe complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Though there are no statistics available, many, including mothers and babies, have lost lives. What complicates the situation is the on-going tension with the ‘migrants,’ who make up for almost half of the 12,000-strong community.

In 2006, the state administration set up a polyclinic here. A year later, the Foundation started working with the community and roped in a gynaecologist and a paediatrician for the clinic, which also got a pathology laboratory. While the infrastructure was set, it was important to increase awareness among the families and convince them to use the facilities. That got a fillip when Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT), the largest of the Tata trusts, joined hands with the Aga Khan Foundation in February this year.

A group of women were selected and trained to create a self-help group. “We divided the Basti between ourselves, and are now in the process of mapping each of the families and identifying the vulnerable sections who need medical attention,” says Ruksana, one of the two ‘community coordinators.’ Lall adds, ‘The attempt is to make these women a repository of knowledge.” The two philanthropy bodies are also convincing the government to take on the expense of the health clinic to ensure continuity once their three-year program gets over in 2015. Though it has been only six months since their training began, the impact has been obvious, as Ruksana and rest of the women excitedly tell us how their intervention have helped mothers and children in the community.


Projects similar to these, which focus on maternal health and malnutrition, will get more attention from the Tata trusts from 2013. Leading that change is Ratan Tata, chairman of both Tata Sons and the Tata trusts. He is slated to hand over his duties at the group to Cyrus Mistry in December, but he will continue to remain at the helm of the family trusts. Within the trusts, he has marked out a few areas for special focus. These include nutrition (with focus on material health and malnutrition), water and rural infrastructure. As AN Singh, managing trustee of SDTT, told us, Tata believes that lack of nutrition breeds poverty and there is an urgent need to prevent this. (For more, read the cover story of Forbes India's 17th August 2012 issue)

Collaboration with other philanthropic bodies, like the Aga Khan Foundation, is another area that might get renewed focus once Tata spends more time at the trusts. Apart from the work in the Basti community, the trusts have also aided the Foundation in its restoration of Humayun’s Tomb, an architectural heritage site. The restoration of the monument and the work in the Basti community is part of the urban renewal project, which Lall claims, is among the largest of its kind in the country.

Extraordinarily, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is spearheading the Tomb restoration, has mapped each and every tile of the monument. “Our motive is to bring in best practices of conservation in India,” says project director Ratish Nanda. This included bringing artisans and architects from Uzbekistan to identify and manufacture tiles used in the Tomb. “Though this specific skill had been lost in India, we are training local artisans to make sure that the newly-learned practices are sustained.”

Apart from these new focus areas, the Tata trusts are also taking steps that might bring in new concepts, including market-based philanthropy. In a market-based model, philanthropy is not based on charity but is about delivering services and products at affordable rates to the underprivileged. SDTT is one of the donors for IDE India which, among several other products, also makes treadle pumps to irrigate fields. These pumps are foot-operated and thus save fuel. Plus, as they are suited to smaller tracts of land, they benefit small and marginal farmers. “This has brought down the cost of irrigation to one-fifth the earlier costs,” says Amitabha Sadangi, CEO, IDEI. The organisation has now taken the next step by helping set up a social enterprise that now uses the technology and sells the product to farmers.

The market-based model is a concept that is being closely looked at by the Tata trusts, which might also take a plunge into creating social enterprises under Ratan Tata’s renewed direction. A signal to that direction comes from Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony in the outskirts of Delhi. Through its partner CURE, the Tata trusts have help set up scores of micro-enterprises that sell products like bags, spices and water. Do look out for the story of Bhavri Devi in our current cover story.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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