The Grand Dame Of Indian Charity
Naazneen Karmali, Forbes Staff
At 6 a.m. one day last month Rajashree Birla stepped out of the family’s South Mumbai mansion with two of her closest friends. The three women, all dressed in elegant saris, headed not for a leisurely breakfast but to Chinchwad, an industrial hub near Pune, a two-hour drive away. There, on a 16-acre site, stands Rajashree’s labor of love: the six-year-old Aditya Birla Memorial Hospital, named after her late husband and funded by her family’s foundation.
From the outside it looks more like a hotel, with water fountains and a neatly landscaped garden. The building features a 25-foot-high atrium where the centerpiece is a marble statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha. Visitors are seen removing their shoes and bowing in front of the idol before proceeding inside. “While we were debating whether to have such a huge atrium, I felt hospitals in India tend to be so cramped and crowded, ours should be open and spacious,” says Rajashree, a youthful-looking 65-year-old who’s the mother of billionaire Kumar Birla. “It’s turned out better than I imagined.” She visits the 325-bed hospital every other month, often staying overnight nearby. Sparing no effort for her dream project, she spent a year touring a dozen hospitals in the U.S. before construction began.
It took two years and $30 million to build. But for a while after it opened in 2006, it barely attracted a trickle of patients. “Looking at it, people thought it would be too expensive,” she smiles. Then word spread. Patients pay $2 as a one-time registration charge and under $10 for a doctor’s consultation. About 15% of the beds are reserved for the poor, who are treated largely for free. Last year the nonprofit hospital treated 140,000 patients.
The Pune hospital is one of 18 set up across the country by the Birla family and overseen by the Aditya Birla Center for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, chaired by Rajashree. The center is the philanthropy arm of the Aditya Birla Group, a commodities conglomerate largely owned by the Birlas and run by her son, Kumar. A member of the Birla clan’s fourth generation, Kumar inherited it when his father died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52. FORBES ASIA ranked Kumar No. 116 among the world’s richest people in March, with a fortune estimated at $8 billion.
Apart from hospitals, the center runs 3,500 medical camps annually, where 3 million patients are treated and surgeries for ailments such as cataracts and cleft lip are performed. It also operates 20,000 booths providing polio vaccines to children. The World Health Organization recently declared India as almost polio free because no cases have been reported in more than a year. Rajashree recently donated $1 million to Rotary International for polio eradication.
Another big focus for the center is education; it runs 42 schools near the group’s factories, mostly in the rural hinterland. More than a third of the 45,000 children studying in the Birla schools get a free education. Rajashree says their aim is to work with the poorest of the poor in communities where the group has operations; it has 53 factories in India.
The center’s reach across India is enormous—it has a presence in 3,700 villages and claims to have made an impact on 7 million lives. Some 250 Birla executives help oversee a network of 3,000 staff in the field.
Having an ear to the ground helps. For example, executives at aluminum maker Hindalco’s unit in Renukoot in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh noticed the plight of young widows in villages around the plant who were treated as social outcasts. The center took up the cause of widow remarriage, which is considered taboo, especially among the rural poor. Birla’s social workers approached the village chiefs to convince them that it was a good idea. Prospective husbands were given loans to start small businesses. So far 500 widows have remarried under the scheme. “This project,” admits Rajashree, “is closest to my heart.”
The center is not averse to collaborating with the government. In Rajasthan, where Birla’s cement plants are situated, the center helped build a massive kitchen. It now prepares 30,000 meals daily as part of the state government’s free lunch program for poor kids in public schools. Two more kitchens are being built in Odisha in eastern India at a cost of $1 million to provide meals to 60,000 children daily.
These activities are scrupulously monitored, with reports prepared quarterly. The annual report of every Birla company has a section highlighting the charitable work done during the year. “We take our social projects very seriously,” says Rajashree.
The Birlas’ charitable drive dates back to founder Ghanshyam Das Birla, who was a close supporter of Mahatma Gandhi and helped fund the freedom struggle against the British. Gandhi was staying at Birla House in New Delhi when he was assassinated in 1948. The Birlas later donated this property, and it’s now a Gandhi memorial. It houses the Eternal Gandhi Museum, which, too, was funded by the center.
Rajashree’s late husband continued the Birla tradition of giving. The family’s charitable activities involved building temples and schools. But in 1976 Aditya went in a new direction, building an orphanage in suburban Mumbai that today houses 250 children. A decade later he decided to scale up the effort substantially, but it was only after his death that the center was started, in 1998. “Aditya wanted the group companies to take up social responsibility in a more structured way and be accountable,” reminisces Ashwin Kothari, the late industrialist’s college pal, who is a trustee of the Pune hospital. “Today, with Kumar’s backing, Rajashree has made this happen.”
Rajashree grew up in the southern India temple town of Madurai, where her father was an agent for the then Burmah-Shell. As was the custom in traditional Marwari families, she was engaged to Aditya at the age of 10, and they married when she was 17 in 1965. While she earned a college degree after marriage, becoming the first Birla daughter-in-law to do so, she was content to remain in the background and look after her family; in addition to Kumar, she also has a daughter. Her husband’s death propelled Rajashree into the spotlight. As she acknowledges, “Work helped me to overcome my pain and grief.”
Today Rajashree’s transformation from a shy and soft-spoken Birla wife to one of India’s top philanthropists is complete. At the group’s Mumbai headquarters her office is right beside Kumar’s, separated by a glass partition. She also sits on the boards of all major group companies. “Rajashree’s emerged as a strong individual with her own identity. She’s not tied to the past,” says her decades-old friend Geeta Loyalka, who often travels with her and accompanied her on the hospital visit.
Those who work with Rajashree note her quest for new ideas. “I like to take up a new project every year,” she says. Last year she opened a memorial to her husband in Pilani in Rajasthan, known for its Birla-funded engineering school and a white marble Birla temple dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of learning. The center is also funding a theater in Mumbai that will be named after him. Future projects include starting a vocational institute in Kerala that will train masons, plumbers and nurses whom the group can hire. But traditional causes still have a place: She’s scouting for land to build a temple near the Pune hospital.
Among the many accolades she’s collected, Rajashree cherishes the Padma Bhushan, one of the nation’s top civilian honors, which she received last year. She’s become a role model within the family; Kumar’s wife, Neerja, is involved in some of the center’s education-related activities. Rajashree notes proudly that her grandson recently organized a photo exhibition and donated the proceeds to a nonprofit for animal welfare.
While she reads the Bhagavad Gita three times a week with a guru, she insists that she’s more spiritual than ritualistic and believes in karma: “This is not about me. God has made me an instrument to help people.”
Here's a well written , terrific story about an amazing woman, written by one of India's best business journos ( and a good friend), Naazneen Karmali. What struck me about the piece is that I have known Rajashree Birla for over twenty years. Have met her at her magnificent home ( close to Ántilia'), and run into her on several social occasions. And yet, I wasn't aware of even half the good work she has been busy with all this while! That's what makes this story remarkable. Unlike most other Mrs. Billionaires, whose charity activities are expertly handled by their P.R. machinery, Rajashree has walked the talk, and done so with utmost grace and modesty. She remains an unassuming, simple person, who smiles a lot, but rarely speaks. Those smiles must come from the countless blessings she receives... especially from the grateful widows whose lives she has transformed.