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Rajvi Mariwala: ‘Interest in animal advocacy stems from feminism’

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Rajvi Mariwala
 
CSR should hold the end-user at the centre of any work, believes Rajvi Mariwala. The daughter of Marico chairman Harsh Mariwala, Rajvi is a serious feminist and passionate animal rights advocate. Find out how the interests of next-gen philanthropist Rajvi Mariwala reinforce each other in an exclusive interview for The CSR Journal print issue. Excerpts:

As a next-generation philanthropist, what is the approach of Rajvi Mariwala to philanthropy?

I see philanthropy as an exercise in redistribution of wealth and working towards social justice. Explicitly, I want to be careful about doing philanthropy in a way that uses problematic frameworks or reinforces the same power dynamics that enable accumulation of privilege.
To do this, one must examine who is gatekeeping the philanthropic wealth — is the team representative of the communities we wish to serve? Are we funding only organizations who we find through our own social networks? It is important to centre our own accountability and to fund in a way that we don’t end up perpetuating the current systems and frameworks that have led to inequality. So, for Rajvi Mariwala, values of transparency, inclusivity, accessibility and conscious plans to avoid replicating structural power dynamics should lead philanthropic endeavours.

What drew Rajvi Mariwala to work in the area of mental health?

Mental health has always been a personal interest area. I’ve had the privilege of being able to access mental health resources when needed, including its discourse in terms of language and scholarship. From the outset, mental health was, for me, a feminist issue, given that it is an area riddled with stigma, invisibility, marginalization, discrimination, as well as lack of access to knowledge and treatment.
No less striking is the silence surrounding mental health concerns, despite these being part of almost everyone’s lived reality. Silence that becomes―in this as in many other contexts―violence. Mental health is also an intersectional as well as intersectoral issue – it affects childhoods, livelihoods, family life, human rights.
It was, then, the first sector I considered when we were discussing a larger philanthropic engagement as a family. So, we did some initial research which revealed glaring lacks, dauntingly urgent and complex needs, and grossly underserved communities.
In 2015 Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI) emerged from an easy meshing together of the values that drove my father [Harsh Mariwala, Chairman, Marico] and me, Rajvi Mariwala. For him, it was the concept of innovations in service delivery and capacity-building, so as to reach a vast number of people; for me, it was the idea of accessible mental health, grounded in an approach based on rights and agency.

Tell us about the vision and goals of Mariwala Health Initiative which you founded.

At MHI, we believe in a psychosocial approach to mental health – that mental health is a spectrum, and that we must situate lived experiences of people at the core of any capacity building work, or intervention.
We fund initiatives that are user-centred, shifting mental health dialogue from the old welfare-based model to a human rights-based one. In our view, a paradigm shift in the conversation is called for: from a biomedical model ruled by doctors and experts to a perspective-oriented and intersectional method that centres people who use mental health services.
Our goal is to work with our partners to create, build and nurture a mental health ecosystem with multiple stakeholders – individuals, communities, organisations, and – not least – policy makers and the government.

Who are the implementing partners for the programmes?

MHI’s partners include iCALL, which provides telephone, email and chat counseling and Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, which provides rural services in Mehsana, Gujarat. The Bapu Trust and Anubhuti Trust work on mental wellness, inclusion and advocacy in urban bastis in Pune and Mumbai. Anjali, in West Bengal works in government mental hospitals and runs mental healthcare kiosks in urban areas.

What is your personal vision for corporate social responsibility?

CSR should hold the end-user at the centre of any work. This means that one changes approaches and commits to “nothing about us, without us” approach so as to fund programmes and initiatives that are run by or through beneficiaries. Or better still, representatives within CSR teams.
CSR can leverage various privileges organisations hold through their social and cultural networks, and access to resources other than money to fill the skill and capacity gap that CBOs (community-based organisations) face. CSR efforts should not be limited to money but extend to human resources advice, marketing support and other technical competencies. Overall, I’d
want to see more accountability, advocacy enabling and bolder steps in CSR.

How important is it for philanthropy to be sustainable and collaborative?

It is integral for philanthropy to be sustainable and collaborative both. Social justice-related goals require relentless allyship, intersectionality and unflagging pursuit. It is also unethical not to be sustainable ― as one is accountable to the communities one wants to work with as well as the organisations one works with. As a first step towards this, any exit strategy from MHI will mandate our support to a partner organisation to find new sources of funding.

As an ardent animal lover, do you feel India Inc is invested enough in animal welfare compared to other CSR sectors like education and health?

I do feel that animal advocacy is not given enough attention but the problem extends beyond less funding. I tend to view this as a whole – animal rights, environmental conservation and forest conversation suffer from the lack of a truly intersectional approach. Forest dwellers have been consistently displaced from their land in independent India. We can only do conservation and animal advocacy in partnership with communities that have been living with and sustaining the ecosystem they live in.
My interest in animal advocacy stems from my overall identification as a feminist. This is not limited to dogs but also to heavily commercialised interests like animal performance centres such as Sea World, large scale industrialised fishing done unethically, or for that matter, domestic violence in a household that may also affect a pet. I have spoken up in support of various initiatives as long as they are also feminist i.e. not classist, misogynistic, casteist, communal, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic in any way, and have an intersectional perspective.
If I have to talk about dogs specifically, so many stray animal welfare campaigns are centred on the middle class or upper class. But if you take a careful look, it is the people who spend the most time on the streets―the neighbourhood paan shop owner, homeless persons with pets or those who feed animals, people who are employed as security guards in buildings, cab drivers―who routinely step in and take care of stray animals.

As a qualified canine behaviourist, what is your involvement in the welfare of strays?

As a canine behaviour professional, I help pro bono, families interested in adopting or after they have adopted, as long as the family and the dog are a good fit for each other. Adoption has to be undertaken very carefully and families should know all their options. I also work pro bono on dogs who live on the street with their carers and feeders as there are human-animal conflicts quite often. I am part of a wonderful WhatsApp group in my locality that vaccinates, sterilizes, feeds and medicates all the animals who live in the area. I do love fostering animals and have fostered over 30 cats but also kites, eagles, herons and a monkey. Of course, all my own pets (7 cats and 2 dogs) are adopted.

Which government measures would soften the rampant animal cruelty in India?

Currently, the laws around animal cruelty are a farce due to extremely low fines and no enforcement. The whole system needs to be revamped. Violence and cruelty are intersectional, so measures to end it should be as well. So many animals are abused, just as so many women are sexually abused because we have allowed a rape culture to flourish.
A husband beating or raping a wife is not looked upon as grave injustice, thus along the same spectrum, neither is such cruelty towards animals. Because it is not a zerosum game, we need this change collectively in our justice systems which range from clear laws to training police officers, doctors, mental health professionals and students.
Standards for animal husbandry with support for the people who earn their livelihood through that would be a great help. This is also connected to large scale commercialised dairy practices that compel farmers or workers to cut corners on their animal care because they don’t have choices anymore.

Do you feel next-generation philanthropists have a legacy to live up to?

I do feel next-generation philanthropists have a legacy to live up to. Generations before us―particularly during the Indian freedom struggle―funded dissent, funded revolt and the fight for independent India. I find the commitment to civil rights, justice and human rights missing from the current philanthropic agenda. I hope to keep on pushing the envelope where rights and social justice are concerned.
Excerpts from an interview with Rajvi Mariwala published in the current edition of our print magazine. To grab a copy, click here

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