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Philanthropist Shantilal Muttha on empowering the underprivileged

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If necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the mother of empathy. Shantilal Muttha was a little village boy who went on to become an entrepreneur, and then an agent of social change. Despite an impoverished childhood and adversity early in his own life, he has brought light into the lives of the underprivileged. In fact, his nonprofit organisation Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana was chiefly responsible for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Dharavi and Malegaon.
Mr. Muttha lost his mother as an infant. His father sent him to an orphanage-cum-boarding school because he didn’t have the means to raise him. The orphanage was supported financially by prosperous Marwari families, who would often put the boys to work as house help during their lavish functions. He was so appalled to see the extravagance and exploitation at these weddings, he decided to set things right when he grew up.
He worked hard, and by the time he was 31, he already had a successful real estate business. Mr. Muttha eventually stepped down from his business responsibilities to focus entirely on charitable work. He went on to start Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana (BJS) and Shantilal Muttha Foundation (SMF), which turned his childhood dream of doing good for others come true in a bigger way than he ever imagined.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Mr. Shantilal Muttha:

1. You’ve led an interesting life, from humble beginnings to a prolific philanthropist.

The early experiences in my life have shaped my journey and instilled values that are reflected in the work I do. My commitment towards social reform and public welfare is driven by changing lives and empowering the underprivileged.

At a fairly early stage in my life, I witnessed several social issues up close and personal and decided to follow my calling to give back to society. This is what led to the founding of BJS and SMF, and since then we’ve worked closely with causes like dowry, female foeticide and extravagant wedding expenses.

Apart from this, I was always acutely aware that education has the power to change lives, and in order to achieve this, we established Mulyavardhan, a value education system across 68,196 schools and approved by the Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa; constructed 368 semi-permanent schools in 90 days; increased water storage capacity up to 95 million litres in 7 districts; educational rehabilitation of 6,000 children; and other social initiatives in the past four decades.

2. What inspired you to start Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana? What kind of work has the organisation done in four decades?

I’m a firm believer in the power of collective action; that it can bring about social change. With this belief, I started the Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana in 1985. My experiences over the years have made me more determined to work for social causes.
I’ve always looked at the world from a progressive lens and realised that we can all collectively make contributions towards empowering lives. Keeping this as the bedrock, we launched BJS as an NGO that would address the issues related to Disaster Response, Social Development and educational Initiatives.
Over 35 years, we have worked tirelessly to bridge the gap between the needs of grassroots level beneficiaries and policymakers to align agendas. Our initiatives are multi-dimensional in the sectors of education, disaster management, healthcare etc. We are ably supported by our army of volunteers who are spread across 10 states.

3. How is BJS mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Dharavi & Malegaon?

The role of BJS to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and provide relief began much earlier in April 2020 when we began our Mobile Dispensary, SEVA. We assisted Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s (MCGM) efforts in Dharavi, which had turned into a COVID-19 hotspot, making it a critical agenda for the administration.
BJS began relief work in Dharavi in May 2020, when the COVID-19 spread was at its peak. We deployed 11 mobile dispensaries, conducted more than 80,000 health check-ups, distributed medicines and helped in the early detection of coronavirus patients.

MCGM’s dedicated efforts along with BJS’s assistance led to a complete turnaround in Dharavi, and the COVID-19 mitigation efforts were even recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Similarly, BJS helped the Malegaon Municipal Corporation (MMC) to aggressively bring the situation in Malegaon under control and successfully flattened the curve within a record span of two months.

4. Could you throw light on the Mobile Dispensary SEVA?

BJS’s ‘Mission Zero’ was launched in Mumbai on June 22, 2020 to join the global fight against the pandemic. Through our mission, we have successfully launched Mobile Dispensary SEVA (MDS) in Pune-Pimpri-Chinchwad and replicated the model in several other cities.

An impact assessment study was conducted in Pune to analyze the effect of BJS’s intervention and results showed that the Case Fatality Ratio (CFR) can be brought under 0.5% through early detection, which is in sharp contrast to Maharashtra’s CFR which is more than 3% today.

So far, more than 20 lakh citizens across more than 40 cities have been screened through BJS’s Mobile Dispensary SEVA and Mission Zero initiatives. BJS has been working in containment zones and hotspots to conduct antigen tests of citizens and raise public awareness regarding COVID-19.

5. Disaster response is a big component of your social work, from the 1993 Latur earthquake to today.

The impact of Latur earthquake in 1993 was unimaginably high. BJS started on-ground relief operations the very next day along with educational rehabilitation for 1,200 affected children whom were brought from Latur to Wagholi Educational Rehab Centre (WERC) in Pune. The organisation managed their education, lodging, food and other expenses for 11 years.
Similar relief operations were carried out during the earthquakes that hit Jabalpur in 1996 and Gujarat in 2001. In 2004, during the Tsunami in Andaman & Nicobar, BJS constructed 34 primary health centres within a year. In 2005, when J&K was hit by a massive earthquake, BJS in partnership with Central Government and NDMA, provided 870 shelters and additionally, brought 500 children from Jammu to WERC for immediate rehabilitation.
During the Bihar floods in 2008, BJS took the responsibility of medical care and food for 1,50,000 people for 180 days. Similarly, in 2013, BJS initiated the Maharashtra Drought-Free Movement and continued to work towards it till 2018.
From desilting 117 water bodies in 1 month and making 5000 acres of farmland fertile to distributing water in remote villages and supporting over 1500 villages for watershed management, BJS has extensively worked to uplift these areas. In 2018, BJS purchased 134 earth movers to make a district free from drought through its initiative, Sujalam Suphalam Buldhana.
In the aftermath of Nepal earthquake in 2015, we provided health and medical care by setting up camps for the patients, their relatives and staff. In the same year, a huge number of farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra. BJS undertook the initiative of educational rehabilitation of 600 of their children at WERC.

6. You made a historic Shanti Padayatra for peace. How did it come about?

The Babri Masjid incident was a testing time for India as a nation. To promote the message of peace and communal harmony, we held a peace march from Pune to Nagpur covering 708 kms. Anna Hazare had been a part of this movement, and so were several other leaders of different communities. The march was intended to showcase positivity and bring in hope, and was joined by lakhs of people to show their support to the cause.

7. How did the Shantilal Muttha Foundation come into existence?

With BJS, we focussed on initiatives to improve the quality of education and launched various programmes like Educational Quality Improvement Programme (EDUQIP) and Mulyavardhan. Over the years, we’ve addressed the needs of multiple stakeholders that include students, teachers, principals, governing bodies, and authorities.
In an effort to transform the education system, in 2015, we launched the Shantilal Muttha Foundation (SMF), a not-for-profit organization to upscale educational initiatives of BJS and integrate them into the government system.

8. Which corporates does the Foundation partner with for their CSR projects?

In our 35-year-old journey, we have been supported by several national & international organizations. For all our projects, BJS has received support and grants through corporate social responsibility (CSR), philanthropists, trusts and charitable organizations.
Infosys, HDFC, Reliance Foundation, ATE India, Bajaj Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DSP Group, Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP), Shilpa Foundation, Tata Trusts, Force Motors, Desh Apnayen, United Way Bengaluru, MCCIA, HT Parekh Foundation and many others have been valuable partners for our programmes.

9. What are the gaps in CSR that Indian companies should look into?

When it comes to CSR, I personally believe a structured two-step approach can be adopted by companies. The first step is to look at sustainability within the value chain of the company. Be it supplier or sales channels, it is essential to incorporate sustainability, which can be done through a variety of activities.
The second step is to look at impacted and marginalized regions or communities. A structured programme for the same would help focusing either on certain key sectors or on interventions cutting across a variety of sectors. In today’s world, we need a change in the mindset of the companies and their promoters. They need to look at CSR as an opportunity to learn, grow and create a positive image of the company within citizens which includes current and potential customers.
Moving towards a more responsible way of doing business is a positive trend in the global market. CSR done right can actually serve as a sustainable competitive advantage as opposed to simply being a compliance item.

Today’s industry is on the verge of a paradigm shift from philanthropy to strategic CSR. We need to reach a stage wherein companies first invest in making their value chain sustainable and then move towards investing in communities and regions. A synchronised and planned effort would definitely contribute substantially to the cause of nation building.

The United Nations has prescribed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the targets for the same to be achieved by every country by 2030. The SDGs framework is great model to take as a reference and align the sustainability agenda of the company for ease of scalability and impact of the ventures.

10. Value education programme Mulyavardhan takes education beyond mere knowledge. How does it hone responsible citizens for tomorrow?

Mulyavardhan is a value-based school programme that encourages educational curriculums and processes to be guided by the values enshrined in the Constitution of India – equality, liberty, justice and fraternity. The programme was initiated in 2009 with a focus to make it acceptable, scalable and replicable by any state or educational institution. After a pilot in 500 schools for six years, this project was successfully scaled up in 67,000 government schools of Maharashtra and was further replicated in Goa and Gujarat.
Mulyavardhan’s structured value-based quality education and experiential learning are age-specific and appropriate to class and school-levels. They align with curriculum outcomes, include behavioural exercises, and facilitate discussions to nurture the democratic values/attitudes and related competencies among students.