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30 Apr 2011
“You can do constructive social work without having to sacrifice everything….” -- Mahesh Bhansali

Maheshbai Bhansali at a village project

With over 700 full-time and nearly 2,000 part-time employees, the Bhansali Trust is perhaps bigger than many mid-sized corporates in India. Its projects are supported by governments, organisations and individuals from across the country.

But more than its sheer size, what is significant is that the Trust has today become a household name in poor villages and tribal hamlets in some of the most backward areas of the country. This is thanks to the vision, commitment and hard work put in by a dedicated team of workers over the last four decades and more.

The Bhansali family members have been at the core of this gigantic endeavour, contributing different amounts of time and effort to running educational and health projects that have benefitted millions of rural poor. Editor, Palanpur Online, Stephen Rego had the privilege of spending time with a representative of the family, Mahesh Bhansali, one of those most closely involved in the day-to-day activities, and got a clear insight into the type of work and the philosophy that drives the Trust.

How did you get so completely involved in Social Work?
While I was always interested in doing Social Work, earlier my involvement was alongside my studies and business. In fact I had enrolled for a PhD from the VJTI and had even helped the family business in the setting up of our first diamond factory in the mid 1960s.
Then there was a massive famine in Bihar and I took time off to go and help with relief work – the four months I spent there was a real eye-opener. It changed my life; I gave up my PhD and decided to devote myself to do social work for the next five years.
In that short span of time there were a number of other natural calamities – cyclones and floods in various part of the country and my involvement in the relief work there soon developed into a lifelong commitment. Other family members were also involved and in 1969 we set up the Bhansali Trust.
In the years that followed, we set up relief camps during the massive drought and famine in Gujarat and to aid the victims of the Morbi disaster.  

The Bodh Gaya Eye Camp

Tell about the early years of the Bhansali Trust.

We quickly realised that it was not sufficient to do relief work, and that we must develop projects that have a long term impact. Thus the Trust began work in the health and educational spheres.

For example, in 1979 we took a big leap forward and conducted our first Eye Camp in Bihar. After 1984, these camps have continued uninterrupted and grown in strength.
In 1981 we set up the Gandhi Lincoln Hospital in Deesa and soon after another hospital in Radhanpur, both of which have emerged as important medical institutions in the area. We also started a community health programme which has grown significantly.
Realising that Income generation projects and self-help schemes were also important we set up the Sarva Seva Trust where nearly 500 ladies were employed in weaving khadi. Another activity that we took up was the carpet weaving programme at Naroli near Tharad which employed about 80-90 women.
The Trust slowly grew into a massive organisation. From 1988 we ran cattle camps for three consecutive years during the drought in Gujarat. In the first year we looked after one lakh animals which later rose to three lakh cattle across 280 camps. While the bulk of the funds required – about Rs 36 crore – came from the government, we also received substantial donations from the diamond industry and other businessmen in the state. It was such a large project that we even set up a small operation for manufacturing cattle feed!

The Bodh Gaya Eye Camps are among the most well known of your projects. Can you share a few details about them.
The Bodh Gaya Eye Camp has been conducted without interruption since 1984, and today we do about 30-35,000 eye operations each year over a three-month period after conducting eye check-ups for nearly 1.5-2 lakh people in the area. The pre-camp village surveys alone take more than a month. None of this would have been possible without the support of other well known Palanpuri diamantaires – Mahendra Brothers, P.D. Kothari and Gitanjali Group.
Formally the camps are conducted under the banner of a local Trust – the Bodh Gaya Ashram Trust where I am also a trustee.
Recently we have begun conducting camps in North Bihar as well – about 3,000 operations were carried out last year.
An interesting development was when we were invited by a group of Gujarati Indian businessmen to do a similar camp in Burundy, Africa. This part of the continent is very backward and we have conducted about 1,500 eye operations there. Local supporters help with sponsoring the travel and stay for our team. In June this year we will be holding our fourth camp in that country. 

Children at a school run by the Bhansali Trust

Which are some of the other successful projects?

Among the five schools we first set up, the one at Naroli near Tharad has grown to have about 2,000 students though the village has a population of just 1,500! We have also added a HSC section, and do not charge fees for those enrolled for the Science course. There are boys and girls hostels that accommodate 800 students including 150-200 girls. The project is only partly funded by the government, with the Trust covering the other expenses including the costs of teams that visit the villages each year to identify good students and needy ones.

We are also running the Santool Shiksha programme with government aid across four talukas – Tharad, Vav, Radhanpur and Deesa. It has 56 teachers to cater to the mentally challenged and the speech and hearing impaired.
Our hospitals too are now major medical centres. Today we have 138 staff and 600 other extension workers covering virtually all the major branches of medicine -- medicine, surgery, gynaecology, radiology, skin, psychiatric care, pathology etc.
As many as 25 per cent of the patients are treated absolutely free, and another 25 per cent are subsidised. And for the others, the charges are very reasonable – in the indoor general ward a patient has to pay Rs 30 per day inclusive of all meals and services; to consult a specialist they are charged Rs 20, a first visit to the eye doctor or a surgeon is charged at Rs 20 and follow ups at Rs 5. A patient’s attendant can also get meals at Rs 5.
We also believe in paying the workers a good salary so they can be happy and enjoy a decent living – some get as much as Rs 10,000 per year.
The Trust employs nearly 600 extension workers in an immunisation programme that covers six talukas in association with our network of over 500 para-medical centres and over 1,100 aanganwadis across the region.
The self-help and income generation projects are also doing well, including a diamond manufacturing project covering 600-700 women across 12 centres.

You are also associated with other organisations…..
On many projects we work closely with another organisation set up and supported by Palanpuri diamantaires – Tribal Integrated Development and Educational Trust (TIDE). The activities include income generation and self-help programmes, setting up of Mahila Mandals and cultural regeneration by spreading social messages like de-addiction, anti-liquor and family planning through Bhajan Mandalis. Our aim is to help people realise that they should not be dependent on aid forever, but learn to stand on their own feet, and not waste money on vices.
Lately we have also been associated with the Sanali Ashramshala which is run by the Mehta family of Rosy Blue group. I am a trustee and now visit the school regularly and am involved in its running.
We also spend time on GJNRF relief work and are involved in running and executing some ongoing projects.

What are future plans for the Trust…….
We are building an independent team to run the projects and will only maintain financial control within the family to ensure that there is a proper system and accountability. We don’t want money to be wasted in the name of Social Work. Thus we already have a team of honest and trusted workers to deal with purchases and other activities where large amounts of money are involved. I am proud to say that we have rarely had problems on this front – money is accounted for very rigorously.
We have also developed a proper reporting system and a structure for managing the activities. This is very important – for social work should leave us satisfied, not stressed and it must have a real impact. Some people do activity for show only, but we are keen to ensure that it actually helps the people at the grassroots.
Your approach and philosophy to helping others…
Many people live for themselves, or because jindagi jeena hain. But I believe we need to think of others also. Be Happy, Make Others Happy -- that is my philosophy in life.
When you set out to address larger social problems, you should do so with all your heart. A project you have taken up should never become a burden. If you approach the work like that, then money will never be an obstacle, it can be raised from anywhere, somehow.
Of course, you have to think and plan properly before taking up a project, but once it is begun, there is no use losing hope in the face of difficulties. I believe that if we work sincerely and put in a lot of effort, all obstacles can be overcome.
In the 70s and 80s I have been on my feet for 15-16 hours a day, and do so even now whenever there is a need.

What is your message for others in the community?
Doing something for society does not necessarily involve giving up every comfort or making very large sacrifices -- you can enjoy your luxuries and still be concerned about others.
Actually if you think deeply, once your earnings run into hundreds of crores, you will always have more than you need. You cannot carry your wealth away from this world. How much can you save? And how much can the next generation spend? So it is not very difficult to divert some very substantial sums of money to society without depriving yourself or your family.
We have very good examples of how this can be done – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and even our own Azim Premji.
Also devote some time to be in touch with your projects – maybe one week in a month and develop a system that will run; make the trust function in the same way that you run your business; open schools and colleges, medical institutions that will help society in general.
Spend wisely. We must think about the generous donations towards lavish religious functions and ceremonies – yes religion is necessary and so are rituals and functions, but we also have a responsibility to do things that bring long term benefits to society.
Don’t spend only to make a name for yourself. Do good for others and spend some money for their needs; if you do this well, you will always be respected and loved.  

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