‘Listen to rural communities to understand their needs’

This is the lesson Zarina Screwvala learned after she co-founded Swades Foundation

SWADES Foundation believes that India will never achieve its true growth story until its rural communities – about 70% of the country’s population – are empowered. With an aim to provide holistic social reforms, Swades has empowered millions by giving them access to healthcare, education, implementing water and sanitation projects, and supporting economic development. 

Originally founded 15 years ago as SHARE ((Society to Heal Aid Restore Educate), Swades Foundation is now backed by a strong team of 300+ workers and 1,000+ volunteers, all striving to transform rural India.

Co-founders of Swades Foundation with rural communities

In this Lead Read (quick catch-ups with thought leaders in the social sector), we spoke to its co-founder Zarina Screwvala about her continued dedication towards the rural communities of India, the message she wants to convey to all the young changemakers out there and how the pandemic has affected her.

Q. Share one of your first experiences of being involved in the social sector? A moment that is significant to you in some way.

It was the time in 2000 when we went to one of our first villages in Raigad wanting to help with child education. The villagers politely listened to us and then said, “what we really need is water, our wives and eldest daughters have to walk daily, upto 2-4 hours a day for water, if you help us with that, we can send them to school.”

From that day we learnt to listen to our rural communities, understand their real needs. But the work was in a very humble way with a few villages. In 2013 when we became Swades Foundation with the ability to scale, we did not forget this lesson and we designed our ‘Swades 4-E Model’: Engage: Empower: Execute: Exit, which we have been perfecting ever since.

Q. What is the most heart-touching thing that has happened to you through your NGO?

There are so many, but one that comes to mind is when we were celebrating one year of implementation in Sudhagad. Over 1,000 members of our 120 VDC’s came together to celebrate their experience and learnings. The event was managed by young boys and girls from the village themselves. I remember that students from the tribal and non-tribal community shared a stage and danced together, for the first time

A group of tribal women from Kumbarshet village, who had never left their village before, performed a beautiful traditional dance to celebrate their success in transforming their village. We were so happy to see their confidence and joy. Another group of women from Navghar were walking back home with their trophy after winning it for their dance, one woman was carrying it on her head. They said, “We are used to the drudgery of carrying home water on our heads, today thanks to Swades, we carry home this trophy.” This transformation of rural communities into confident, self -reliant, courageous people with a ‘can-do attitude’ is our dream, and that day I felt we are close to achieving that. 

Q. Who is Zarina outside the Swades Foundation? 

Well the two passions of my life are Philosophy and Philanthropy! Both have given meaning and direction to my life. But I think without philosophy, the philanthropic efforts would lack some direction. I have been a student at New Acropolis, a school of philosophy in the classical manner where we study in order to practically apply what we learn in the day to day of our lives. 

It’s not about debates and discussion but about working to change ourselves into slightly better human beings and thus perhaps doing a small service to bring about a better world.

My work at Swades and at Acropolis have brought me real joy and I’m deeply grateful to both.

Zarina with school children of the rural communities

Q. What word of advice would you like to give to someone who wants to join the social sector?

Just do it! these years with Swades have been so fulfilling and the pay is pretty good too! At Swades our top management including our CEO Mangesh are largely from the corporate sector.

Q. Can you tell us of 3 changes you will make to your life because of the pandemic.

First, Simplify it, there is so much we have that we don’t need. Second, spend my time with care, it’s precious and can be cut short anytime. Third, be as kind, good and generous as you can.

Q. If you had to choose between listening to music, watching a film or reading a book – what would it be? What would you listen to/ watch/ or read?

No doubt it would be a book first, then music and then TV/film. Reading is a real pleasure. Your imagination and concentration build, unlike the visual mediums which feeds you everything and you are left to imagine nothing. The written word allows you to build a world around the words. Also there are such amazing classics that they would be a pity to miss. Of late I’m enjoying poetry as well.

Here is an excerpt of Tagore’s Gitanjali section 12, with which I would like to end:

The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.

 I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said, ‘Here art thou!’

The question and the cry ‘Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluge the world with the blood of the assurance, ‘’I am!’

Interviewed by Abhishek Pde.


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