By George, charity begins at home


BANGALORE: WHAT does becoming the No 2 grower of bananas in South India have to do with running a state-of-the-art, residential school for underprivileged children? In Abraham George's hands, they both become instruments for radical social intervention.

In the first instance, helping landless labourers gain ownership over strips of land. And in the second, unshackling a few hundred kids from grinding poverty and low social status into hopefully sparkling, global careers in science and/or arts.

In pioneering such novel approaches to “break the cycle of poverty and social deprivation” and helping the children turn “into wholesome/productive members of society,” Mr George has spent a whopping Rs 62 crore of his own money, giving a new definition to the term ‘walking the talk'.

This is the first time ever that Mr George has disclosed how much he has spent from his own pocket. He made an exception to ET, simply because he believes it reaches the audience he wants to engage, as he tries to scale his work and get others interested in replicating his ideas.

Though Shanti Bhavan, a school for the truly disadvantaged (untouchables, to be politically incorrect) kids outside Bangalore, captures one's imagination and is the best-known among his various works in progress, Mr George has recently turned a farmer. He strongly believes that ownership of land will help alleviate poverty in rural areas and address the issue of gender justice. He has bought 200 acres of land to cultivate bananas, of which, he grows 20-25 tonnes a day.

This has mushroomed into a Rs 4-5 crore business today, and the profits are used to help landless workers buy land, of about 1/3rd of an acre each. The children of the beneficiaries have to go to school and their wives have to get a medical check-up every two years. “This is the only way to drive social change in rural areas. You cannot wait for others to do it,” Mr George says.

According to him, in the midst of all the talk about IT, globalisation and bridging the digital divide, people are forgetting the basics. “I don't understand this concept of a computer for every school, when in most places, there are hardly two teachers for five grades,” he says. What is needed is basic stuff — land ownership with adequate water, power, education and primary health.

At Shanti Bhavan, the aim is more ambitious — to prepare the children to succeed not just in their immediate community, but in the global marketplace as well. Launched in August 1997, it takes in kids at the age of four and sees them through age 17. Early intervention ensures that problems are fixed before they become perpetuating. Starting with 48 children, the school will eventually have 336 children. Mr George believes that the multiplicative impact of major successes for those who are trained in Shanti Bhavan, and their families, will be permanent for generations to come.

The idea behind the school is the belief that “the deleterious consequences of extreme want can be overcome if the problems are tackled in the early stages of a child's development.” The limited nature of the project is intentional, so that it is clearly “focused, intense and has a high potential for success.”

Shanti Bhavan is one among the various activities that the George Foundation ( runs since its inception in 1995 — the year in which Mr George returned from the US to bring to life something he had dreamt of doing from the time he was in the Indian Army. A graduate from the NDA, his frontier postings exposed him to the lives of tribals and made him feel that he should do something for them. The question was how?

“I left the Army (as a Captain) to pursue a business career,” he says. After amassing a clutch of degrees — an MBA, MS and PhD — from Stern School of Business at New York University, he jokes he “got corrupted and went into a corporate career” — a career which helped him make enough money to give back millions 20 years later.
Being away from India helped him retain his sensitivity towards the social injustices that abound in the country. “When you live here, you see it around you all the time and to some extent, you become used to it and it doesn't bother you so much,” he says. He believes one has to apply “excellence” in dealing with the poor.

On returning from the US, “I had my own ideas on what to do. There is no excitement in copying others. Also, having your own money gives you the freedom to do something your own way,” Mr George says. He doesn't take any money from the government, but has now decided to accept donations from individuals and institutions.

He believes there is a need for 1,000 more Shanti Bhavans to break the back of social evils and inequity in the country. “It will take 15-20 years, but that is not such a large time-frame from a country's perspective,” he says.
As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman says in his best-seller, ‘The World is Flat', “We must have more Abraham Georges — everywhere — by the thousands.”



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