Philanthropist and Padma Shri Awardee, Anita Reddy is padding up for new innings in 2014. After successfully establishing Viveka, the free residential learning and training centre for rural children in Chikkaballapur, Karnataka, she plans to replicate the model in Sri Kalahasthi, Andhra Pradesh
Ashwini, a young girl had fallen on a rock. She was epileptic and her body had turned black and blue. Though she was epileptic, nothing much was done as Mekalavaripalli in the Madanapalle district of Andhra Pradesh where she lived was shrouded in superstition. To worsen things, Mekalavaripalli’s hilly terrain did not have proper road connectivity because of which accessing medical aid was almost impossible. At the most, all that could be done was to drive through wilderness for about 13 km to reach the nearest hospital.
Anita Reddy, Managing Trustee of The Dwaraknath Reddy Ramanarpanam Trust (DRRT) and Ranjini Dwaraknath Reddy Trust (RDRT) watched this agonizing scene as she traveled through Mekalavaripalli.
Instinctively, Anita knew that the region required her attention. The answer lay in getting better connectivity between the remote villages like Mekalvaripalli and the hospitals of Madanapalle. Without wasting much time, the philanthropist mobilized the communities for collective action and approached the Andhra Pradesh (AP) government to sanction a road that would connect the villages and town. A sum of Rs 3.59 crore was sanctioned, and construction of the road commenced.
Connectivity opened out a window of opportunity, while Ashwini leads a better life today. Read on…
The newly built road became a metaphor for change, where caste oppression, gender discrimination, class distinction and neglected children dissolved. The rural communities were made responsible to oversee their own development as every one kilometer they came together and regrouped themselves into new responsible clusters. “In the process of aligning themselves, the village folk began to identify the hill as theirs. It created a sense of belonging and this became my entry point into the villages around Madanapalle,” said Anita, a Bangalore-based philanthropist.
The hill came to be known as ‘Ma Konda’ or ‘My Hill’ in Telugu. Once the villagers came under the Ma Konda umbrella, it became easier for Anita to introduce DRRT’s education and income generating activities.
DRRT’s DRIK Foundation (Dwaraknath Reddy Institutes for Knowledge) which provides slum and village children access to education was another experience which came in handy here. The DRIK stint resulted in the Satsang Rural School for the children of Mekalavaripalli and the surrounding hamlets of Siriguntalapalli.
The initiative which carries the vision of spiritual leader Sri Mumtaz Ali is now a growing educational intervention.
DRRT and Satsang Foundation’s initial work included the setting up of SWECHA (Satsang Women Empowerment Collective for Holistic Advancement) where Anita first began to organise the Sugali tribal women to revive their skills in hand embroidery. “Those efforts led to more women from the villages joining and learning other skills that would strengthen their livelihood. This became a link to the larger movement in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The movement is DWARAKA, which empowers rural artisans,” explained the activist.
DRIK Foundation had already initiated programmes like the DRISHYA Schooling Program for Bangalore’s slum children (now under DRISHYA Foundation), the DRIK Patashala for children of Chittoor and the DRIK Nacoldev for the tribal children of Nakkala Colony in Tiruchannur, AP. “These schools and learning centres create an environment for children to enhance their thinking and discerning capacities,” said Anita. Children are taught in open spaces and the curriculum is flexible, it evolves depending on the needs of the children who come from less privileged backgrounds.
The model clicked well and eventually the children entered main stream education, wrote the state board exam and made it to college. It changed many lives. Take the case of Rehana, whose parents wanted to get her married. Timely intervention from Anita ensured that the child was enrolled into school and not forced into marriage. “DRIK Patashala is like a family to me, the teachers are our facilitators,” recalled Rehana with gratitude.
Anita knew that along with education a platform of cultural empowerment would give children an opportunity for artistic and creative expression.
A cultural platform would enable them to hone creative energies, besides inculcating in them humane values of compassion, non violence, harmony and love. This led to the formation of a massive network called DRIK-Jeevanotsava, where the medium of dance, drama and music help sensitize children. “Children from the slums of Bangalore and Tiruvannamalai, villages in and around Chikkaballapur and Chittoor District have been coming together to synergize their talent and learning,” she added.
Simultaneously she built up a free residential learning and training centre for rural children called DRIK-Viveka near Chikkaballapur.
The proposed DRIK DWARAKA Institute at Sri Kalahasthi is modeled on the lines of DRIK-Viveka. A 2014 plan, the Institute will include a residential school and an art-culture-heritage centre. Her vision is to establish learning and knowledge centres along with training and resource centres there. “The Institute will include a residential school and an art-culture-heritage centre, so that the rural youth can develop skill-sets and earn a living,” she said, sharing her forthcoming plans.
Anita is born to an industrialist family and incidentally married an industrialist, yet there’s a down-to-earth quality in her.
Probably it’s got to do with her upbringing. Anita’s formative years were shaped by her alma mater, the Rishi Valley School near Madanapalle. Its leafy surroundings became a backdrop for her development. She became sensitive to the environment and learnt to appreciate what usually goes unnoticed, be it a bird or whispering meadows. The thought of school days brought memories of people who kept her grounded, be it potter Narayan or bell keeper Venkatesh.
At a personal level, her father Dwaraknath Reddy established the Nutrine Confectionery Company in Chittoor. By sheer circumstances, the children of the factory workers were her friends. This was her social circle, with no hierarchy or caste difference.
She grew up in this manner and in 1970; she joined the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, where she was guided by Christian teachings of love and forgiveness. Married in 1975 to Pratap Reddy, she spent few years in the US, before returning to Bangalore in 1978. Marriage and motherhood (she’s a mother of three) didn’t alter her decision to improve the lives of the under privileged.
All this became possible because of a supportive family. That’s also the reason why Anita tries to make family occasions as an income generating activity for the poor.
A case in point was her son’s marriage in December 2013. It became a give-back mechanism for the artisans of DWARAKA who made the wedding invitation; while the song and dance performances event supported the village youth and women.
All through Anita’s guiding force has been her father Dwaraknath Reddy, who belongs to an agricultural family from the Pulicherla village in Chittoor. As the founding chairman of Nutrine Confectionery, Dwaraknath ensured that Nutrine grew as the largest company in the confectionaries segment in the country. “In 1983, when the younger generation seemed equipped to take over the management of the factory and family, I quietly sought retreat near Arunachala at Tiruvanamalai, in Tamil Nadu,” said Dwaraknath. From then on, he made this place his home, living near Sri Ramanasramam in the shade of the sacred hill ‘Arunachala,’ because his spiritual guru Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi had spent most of his life there.
Being a spiritual seeker, self introspection led him towards a philanthropic world. “The growth of business had enhanced the value of my residual wealth, the share left as mine, after I had done my duty towards members of my family,” he reminisced. At that point, it didn’t make much sense to continue the act of distributing resources among his family members, who were by then gainfully employed. His vision led him on and he took his early steps into philanthropy. It was a new beginning.
He established The Dwaraknath Reddy Ramanarpanam Trust (DRRT) in 1996 to support the poor, marginalized, oppressed, landless and homeless in villages and slums. “I made a Trust out of my personal funds,” he explained. The Trust is dedicated as an Arpanam or Offering to his Guru Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi and to the deprived children, youth and women of India.
Each nutrine toffee sold over the past 50 years went towards the DRRT Trust fund that Dwaraknath formed in 1996.
Over a decade ago, DRRT founded the weavers and rural artisans of Srikalahasthi region in dire circumstances, exploited by money lenders, caught in debt traps, socially alienated, economically oppressed, and culturally marginalized. “DWARAKA was formed to give a new hope and vision that would alter the destinies of hundreds of families and the history of the region by rejuvenating the artisans talent, skills and potential art form of hand painted Kalamkari art,” added the activist.
Many young women got trained in hand painted Kalamkari art by DWARAKA and began to earn their livelihoods.
“Handloom weavers were losing their traditional livelihoods. Globalization had taken its toll on many families. Women, daughters and wives of these weavers, were looking for alternate means of survival to supplement their families’ depleting incomes,” she explained.
DWARAKA recognized this need and taught the once male dominated art form of Kalamkari to the women. DWARAKA works with the weaver families of Sri Kalahasthi. Derived from the words ‘kalam’ meaning pen and ‘kari’ meaning work, the art of hand-painted kalamkari is done on textiles using combinations of plant materials and natural dyes. To the artists, DWARAKA was not just a mere entity but a movement, echoing stories of their lives, struggles and success. “It grew into a globally recognized effort, motivating us to establish DWARAKA Global, a 501C3 in California,” she highlighted.
A new phase began in 2009 as DWARAKA PLUS (People’s Livelihoods Upliftment Society) got registered as a society, with its first democratically elected committee of artisans. The artists in the Board and its members are today the proud owners of the organization.
DWARAKA PLUS opened exclusive hand painted Kalamkari art showrooms in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Participating in different exhibitions, executing individual orders, spreading into international markets have helped in stabilizing the artists’ incomes, and in evolving a self managed community development fund resulting in economic sustainability of the artisans’ families.
Anita wears many hats but what she’s best known for is AVAS or Association for Voluntary Action and Service, an organization which she initiated along with three other city architects. It was registered as a trust in Bangalore in 1980.
What started off as an endeavour to improve the lives of slum dwellers, made her understand the critical issues of urban poverty, lack of land for the poor and the need to evolve proper and sustainable human settlement model.
Her work began one evening at a slum in Lakshmipuram in Bangalore. As the evening progressed, all the invisible cogs in the wheel came to light. “In 1978 I walked into the slums, seeking an opportunity to serve the downtrodden. Living conditions were horrible, exploitation and oppression were rampant, and the poor had no space to live in dignity or work with security. The resolve to join their struggle for a society that is just, equal and humane got etched within me,” recalled Anita, AVAS’ founding trustee.
It may have been the most undesirable circumstance, yet the slum dwellers had learnt to co-exist with the system that oppressed them. Then a situation came when the slums had to be demolished as the elite neighbourhood residential locality began to develop and expand. “I had to liaison between the slum dwellers and those who wanted to demolish the slums,” convincing the authority on the rights of the slum community to stay where they were,” she said and added, “Each passing day in the slum communities helped strengthen the resolve within me. It was a resolve to struggle with them for their rights. Every day with the poor brought a new understanding of life itself, and an inner drive to strive for change.”
Prevailing circumstances compelled her to take the role of a grassroots activist. “I have been threatened with cycle chains and stoned,” she smiled and added ‘it did not deter me as I had to continue to ensure that the voices of the slum dwellers were heard for their own rights. It is these very people who are our informal work force, who work productively helping us in our homes, as domestic help and drivers. They are an indispensible part of our lives and we must respect them.”
AVAS has addressed crisis situations like demolitions and evictions through ‘Insitu’ model re-housing project for slum dwellers. Through Insitu housing, individuals were given the right to execute the construction of their own houses. In some cases, a group of people were allowed to take on the job of execution on behalf of the rest of the community leading the self help or mutual help housing program.
For the first time, people had scope to make their own decisions, constructed their own houses, thereby eliminating a middleman contractor, reducing incidental costs and controlling risks associated with poor quality and lack of workmanship. “Once these houses were constructed, making the four walls a secured home, there was a dramatic change in children’s education, health and women’s status” she observed.
Along with AVAS, each community got professional support from N P Sami of KKNSS (Karnataka Kolageri Nivasigala Samyukta Sanghatane), Dr Ruth Manorama of Women’s Voice and Kirtee Shah of ASAG (Ahmedabad Study Action Group). “I had the opportunity to work with Anita when she was formulating the Lakshmipuram Slum Redevelopment Project. It was a small project and those were her early days in treating housing as an entry point for the empowerment of the poor and a launch pad for a comprehensive development of a community. From that early beginning she has come a long way as a development activist,” added Shah.
After establishing different model in the rehousing slum community in Bangalore, AVAS began to use tools like health programmes, education, skills and income generation activities, savings and credit programmes for forming self-reliant communities in the slums. During the process Anita saw that given an opportunity the urban slum communities have potential to develop their own resources and solve their own social and economic problems. This firm belief led her on. “AVAS has adopted an integrated and participatory approach towards problem solving, by placing the individuals of slum communities at the centre of commanding their own empowerment and social transformation,” she explained.
This happens through community participation where youth and women get involved in all processes including assessment, planning and formulating strategy, implementation and maintenance.
AVAS has tapped the existing budgetary allocations within government agencies like the Bangalore City Corporation (BBMP), Karnataka Slum Clearance Board (Karnataka Slum Development Board) and the Bangalore Development Authority. Other than that, AVAS has succeeded in facilitating loans or grants for housing and infrastructure in slum communities through organizations like HUDCO and HDFC.
As a thumb rule, every family is encouraged to put aside some savings each month. These savings are utilized in different communities to meet various requirements ranging from housing to income generation to emergencies; self-help groups are formed long before a housing loan is availed, which works as social collateral for repayment.
All this field work helped AVAS influence government policies like the VAMBAY (Valmiki Ambedkar Aawas Yojan is a central governtment sponsored scheme for the slum dwellers) housing policy of the past and the present RAY or ‘Rajeev AWAS Yojana’ (It envisages a “Slum Free India” with inclusive and equitable cities in which every citizen has access to basic civic infrastructure and social amenities and decent shelter) in some aspects such as participatory, gender sensitive, people centre Insitu housing.
It’s no surprise that Anita was nominated by the Government of India as a member of the task force to prepare the country’s report for the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in 1996. She was also the member of the Housing Task Force set up by the Government of Karnataka and has worked on a report titled “Housing the Urban Poor”.
As the member of the Government of India committee on affordable housing for all, Anita initiated constructive discussions and gave relevant input trying to influence a policy to be proper in its approach, under the chairmanship of Deepak Parekh of HDFC. All this led to her being nominated as the Bengalurean Citizen of the year award – Namma Bengaluru Foundation – for 2010 and the Padma Shri Award was conferred on her in 2011.
Anita who set out to do service for the poor over three decades ago, began in a spontaneous and informal manner, with an ideology to establish a just and equitable society. “My work’s journey remains an open book with no full stops, any co-traveller can pen his or her name down to continue the story of service,” she summed up.
This article appeared in the Lion India Magazine in February 2014