“The only people the world tends to remember to a certain degree are the ones who leave an institution behind. So, build it while you can.” – Robin Raina.
On a hot sunny day in June 2003, Ebix Inc’s Atlanta-based CEO, Robin Raina, walked up to the roof of his 5-floor office building in Noida, India. Once there, his eyes fixated on the squalid slums, choked drains, and abject poverty all around him, standing in stark contrast to the sky-rises.
He rushed down back into a meeting room with tears in his eyes. A colleague, who accompanied Robin from Atlanta, enquired, “Robin, why are you crying?”
A tearful Robin said, “I have eyes, John, and yet I have lost my sight.” That day, Robin Raina decided to turn his life around and work for the poorest of the poor.
He set up the Robin Raina Foundation in 2003. In just five years, the foundation has adopted over 3,500 underprivileged children, is running multiple schools across the country, an orphan home in Mumbai, medical ambulances in Delhi, a cancer hospital ward in Pakistan and is building over 6000 concrete homes free of cost for the slum dwellers of Bawana in Delhi!
In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate demolishment of Delhi’s largest and oldest slum – Yamuna Pushta. 40,000 homes and the future of over 1,50,000 people was bulldozed. They moved some 40 kilometres away from the main city onto a barren piece of land in Bawana, with no electricity, employment, medical facilities, proper sanitation or water supply.
At the time, Robin decided to embark on an ambitious project of setting up 6000 homes at a total cost of over $20 million (over Rs 130 crore) for the people of Bawana.
Speaking to The Better India, Robin recalled how his journey, apart from transforming the lives of thousands in the slums of Noida and Bawana, transformed him as well.
Robin shared an incident from the early days when the foundation was working in the slums of Bawana.
“We were shooting a documentary called Dilli, when five-year-old Raghu sat next to me. I had known him for over a year due to my regular visits to Bawana. He sat next to me with a banana in his hand. I grabbed it and hid it to tease him. But he burst into tears and continued to remain angry at me for the better part of the day. What his teacher told me changed my life.
‘You can’t take his banana! Every day I get two bananas for him for breakfast. He eats one and takes the other one home for his mom because he is concerned that she wouldn’t be able to feed herself,’ she said. I had never done that for my own mother in my entire life. It’s funny how much you can learn from a child,” he says.
Education is the key when you want change to have an amplifying effect, believes Robin. From day one, the focus of RRF was education and the upliftment of slums, because that’s where the poorest of the poor live.
Beginning with education, they slowly moved on to building permanent homes for slum dwellers free of cost, which furthered the cause of education.
“While slum dwellers in our country are considered vote givers, in reality, they don’t have an identity. These are people who have never had an address of his own. So, when we started building homes for them, we built a nameplate in marble for each family outside their home stating their name and their address, e.g., Muhammad Rashid Khan, 8/20. It was the proudest moment of their lives.”
Out of a total of 6000 homes, the foundation has finished building and allocating over 2304 homes already.
“We realised when you gave these slum dwellers a permanent home, they could finally stop moving around like nomads, which gave their kids the chance to attend the same school long-term finally. Besides, when we started building homes, there were two conditions they had to follow. Send their kids to school, especially if it was a girl child. Apart from that, the second contractual clause was that the resident could not sell the home for the next seven years. It was a roaring success,” says Raina.
Robin and his team are now trying to create livelihood opportunities for the people of Bawana – who currently have to travel all the way to Chandni Chowk to work as daily wage labourers or rickshaw drivers. They are running vocational training programmes and skill development centres for women too.
I ask Robin, do people walk up to him saying, “You do charity because you have the money, as you run a billion dollar company?”
He laughs saying, “Even if I didn’t have the money, I would do it regardless. The people who have done the best work in charity were people with less or absolutely no money. The Vinoba Bhave’s of the world didn’t have any money, did they? I say this all the time when youngsters say they want to contribute, but don’t have the resources. And I tell them, ‘Charity does not need money.’ It is about giving your time.”
“If you visit the blind school in Delhi, the largest Helen Keller Institute, near the Defense colony flyover, all you have to do is spend a few hours every week with the kids there. Go and hold the hands of a kid there. It is your warmth they need, the sense of touch, not your money. They don’t have eyes, but they see a lot more clearly than we do because having somebody pay attention to them or lend a listening ear is everything to them. ”
In a message to young people who want to impact change, he says, “Go educate somebody. You don’t need to find an NGO for it. Do it in your neighbourhood. Figure out a way to fund an underprivileged student’s education, especially if he/she goes to a public or govt school.”
“Try to do what you can to bring smiles to the underprivileged. When you start giving, it eventually comes back to you. Giving is the only thing that nobody can take away from you,” he says bidding adieu.
This article was authored with support and inputs from RRF