When the Shroffs — Rajju and Sandra — established the first United Phosphorus facility in Vapi way back in the late 1960s, “there weren’t suitable workers, so we brought workers from Bombay. They were the Warlis or tribals; when I met and asked after their families, saying they must be much happier here than in Bombay, they said, no, our families haven’t come. I asked why not? And they said because there is no English medium school here.”
That set Sandra Shroff, Vice Chairman of UPL Ltd, thinking. Her own family hadn’t shifted from Bombay to Vapi because there wasn’t an English medium school at Vapi. “I decided there and then that there would be an English medium school in Vapi. It was the Warlis, or the tribals, who actually set me in motion. In addition, we needed an English medium school to employ many bright engineers and other professionals who’d eventually have their families, so an English school was a must.”
But Vapi required not only a decent school but also a hospital. Sandra recalls that when they went to Vapi, “we were fortunate to have with us somebody all Rotarians hold very dear — (PRIP) Kalyan Banerjee. He is a socially responsible person as you all know, and it’s been a joy to work with him and to argue with him.”
I’ve got a very bad habit. I go around with my eyes open and I actually see things. I know a lot of people who go around with their eyes open but don’t see anything.
One of these arguments pertained to Banerjee saying, “the hospital had to come up first and I saying no the school has to come first. The result was both a school (Gnyan Dham, where Banerjee’s children started their education) and a very small hospital were started within the UPL quarters. Later, in 1977, when we got land, we built a cottage hospital which has grown into a prestigious hospital and is now a big Rotary project, and we are both very proud of it. Banerjee has worked day and night for it. First thing in the morning he’d go to the hospital and last thing at night again … until he became more and more of a globe trotter, but when he is in Vapi he visits the hospital at least once a day, if not twice!”
Looking back, she is grateful that this hospital was established with the vision that it should be as good as any hospital in Mumbai, and it has treated her husband and prevented him from getting a terrible stroke, and stabilising him before his being shifted to Bombay for further treatment. “And the hospital treated Banerjee too, when he injured his head.” It saved him from very serious consequences, which could have resulted from this accident, she adds.
The school couldn’t get a loan and banks were giving Rs 300 donations at that time. So I took a loan of Rs 30,000–40,000, enough to pay two months’ salary.
Apart from the two schools in Vapi, this educationist later got fully involved in setting up a high quality chemical engineering college in Ankleshwar, (Shroff S R Rotary Institute of Chemical Technology) under the leadership of PDG Ashok Panjwani (see Rotary News, September, 2015), as well as a School of Nursing alongside the Vapi hospital.
But before detailing the transformational social service she triggered in Vapi and other areas, let’s look at how an Englishwoman like Sandra ended up in India.
I first ask her if anyone has mentioned her strong resemblance to Hollywood star Meryl Streep. “Yes,” she smiles, adding, “That feels good as she is absolutely wonderful … I’ll watch any film she is in.”
Coming to how she met Rajju Shroff, Sandra says her family had a factory in London, where he too had a factory. “There everybody knew everyone else; my father had a workshop and Rajjubhai asked him to do some work.”
Sandra was an expert in taking her younger siblings to museums and other educational places. The teenager took Shroff sightseeing, and they fell in love. She was all of 16. He went back to India, two years later Sandra came to India, she was “19 and a half.”
Actually, there wasn’t much work for Kalyan Banerjee in the initial years; he is a workaholic and can’t stop working.
With Shroff very certain that he would live in India and work in his own company (then Excel Industries), the only option was to live in India after marriage. “My father said you have to first go and see if you like the place, only then you should get married.”
So on the “ides of March”, the young woman came to Bombay and “survived the hottest season.” She lived in YWCA, where she made many friends and would commute every evening by suburban train to Goregaon where Rajju and his joint family lived. “My mother-in-law used to feed me and I loved her food.”
Didn’t she object to having a foreigner as a daughter-in-law? “Oh, she did ask him what have you brought! And he said: ‘If you don’t like her, I’ll send her back.’ She was taken aback and said: ‘No, no don’t do that … and she loves my cooking too’!” Sandra got married when she was 20.
When Rajju Shroff left Excel to start his own venture, they zeroed in upon Vapi. Sandra recalls that Vapi then was little more than a vast expanse of grassland. After setting up Gnyan Dham, a fine English medium school, she next took over the management of Eklavya, a government school. “When we visited the school, there were children all over the place, washing their clothes next to the river and their toilets were in a terrible condition. We sent our contractor to redo the hostel toilets, trained the children to use them properly and keep them clean. Six months later, some dignitaries visited Eklavya and asked, ‘What is the best thing that has happened since the new management came, and the girls replied: The bathrooms!’ ”
As chemical industries grew in Bharuch district, their was need for setting up a quality institute of chemical technology.
Next came the need for a good chemical technology and engineering institute, as chemical industries were growing in Bharuch district. When she thought of setting up such a quality institute in Ankleshwar, there were many doubting Thomases and nay-sayers. The Chancellor of the Gujarat Technical University said, “you’ll build a great building but you’ll never get good teachers. But we got teachers … a dedicated Principal, Prof Wagh, who worked extremely hard to realise our dream, and Professors came because we paid more and they got a good working environment and the freedom to implement new ideas. I believe if you really want to do something, you can do it anywhere.”
Students who didn’t get admission anywhere “came to us. We have a there are no bad students, only bad teachers policy.” And then there was Panjwani, without whom this project would never have been started, who produced a piece of paper and asked the students to write down what they proposed to achieve by the end of the year. “After 6 months that piece of paper came out to review their progress. This happened every six months urging the students to work harder. Four years later we got a 94 per cent pass rate, with 23 students doing extremely well.”
Supported by Shroff, and helped by Banerjee and Rotarians — she is an Honorary member of RC Vapi — Sandra worked hard on ushering in the much-required development in Vapi. So what motivated her? “For doing such work you need patience; actually I don’t have much patience, but somehow patience comes when I do this work!”
As for support, “of course my husband; he has encouraged me in everything I’ve done. I don’t know if he would have actually done it himself, but he is very happy and proud of all this. He thinks I am extravagant, and I apply my own standards to all projects!”
I talk to the girls and tell them there is nothing that you can’t do, nothing that only the men can do. If you work for it the sky is the limit.
And then there was this “wonderful team of people in this journey; we could go so far thanks to Banerjee and Panjwani, who have borne the brunt of these projects, along with many others.”
Looking back, for a foreigner who’s hardly expected to understand the intricacies and complexities of India’s social structure, the transformation her hard work and focus, doggedness and vision, have brought about in Vapi is impressive. So how difficult were things in the beginning?
“Oh, it was all very overwhelming but there was a need to do things … and I lived in a big compound and we had many families living there and the children were my son’s vaanar sena.” She’d go from house to house, propagating family planning; “I was told by one woman that I am not sending my children to your house to eat, so why do you worry? However, after 6 children, they just couldn’t have any more and slowly it did work.”
But it was not as though she was just a spouse who did social work looking after family and nothing more. In those days of Licence Raj, her husband often had to camp in Delhi for necessary permissions and clearances. She was the first full-time Director in UPL. “From 1972 onwards, I worked full time for UPL, sometimes with 18-hour days,” she says.
The Warlis didn’t bring their families to Vapi because there was no English medium school here.
But she wears her achievement of balancing the two rather lightly. “From the very beginning, even in our earlier company Excel Industries, the family was always involved in welfare of the workers. My husband’s grandmother always made medicines and gave it to the workers … and God help anyone who didn’t send their workers for her medicines! Our first small hospital at the quarters was called Maa’s dispensary. We come from a family which always took part in the welfare of the community, and this continued in Vapi.”
For paying salaries, initially she had to take a personal bank loan. “The school couldn’t get a loan and banks were giving Rs 300 donations! So I took a loan of Rs 30,000–40,000, enough to pay two months’ salary.”
When I quip that she must have had some guts to do all this, she says, “It was more a feeling that I was doing the right thing, or ignorance, I suppose!” When politicians came to Vapi, the canteen at UPL was a big draw, as they could make food for 200 people quite easily. “So all politicians would come to our place, and at meetings I’d get up and say you will have to support the school, the hospital and give us land. I asked for 100 acres of land for educational institutions, saying we’ve paid for infrastructure in the cost of land, so at least give us the land, and they did, though not 100 acres! Just enough for School and Hospitals, for which we had to pay Rs 80,000 — a lot of money then.”
At meetings with politicians I would get up and say you have to support us; give us 100 acres of land for the school and hospital.
From 1960, Rajju Shroff is a member of RC Bombay West “which at that time was the best club in India I think, much better than RC Bombay Main. We had a great bonhomie and spirit of working together and doing things, which RC Vapi had under the leadership of Kalyan. Also, I don’t think the pioneering spirit is there any more … that type of pioneering spirit doesn’t and cannot last for ever. Things get sort of normal. But we are still developing extremely good institutions.”
When I visited SRICT, the girls had told me that they look forward to Sandra’s visits as she “inspires” them with her pep talk. So is she a feminist, I ask her.
“Maybe,” she shrugs, adding, “Yes, I talk to the girls and tell them there is nothing that you can’t do, nothing that only the men can do. If you work for it the sky is the limit. That kind of talk….”
On what role Banerjee played in the social development in and around Vapi, Sandra says, “A tremendous role. From 1970 through to 1990, he was in Vapi looking after our factory. In the beginning there wasn’t enough work for him, because he was and is a workaholic. He just can’t stop working. My husband and Kalyan used to play Battleships … because once you’d seen this shed and that shed, there was nothing else to do!”
Surely long before CSR became a buzzword for corporates, she had practised it in the right spirit. So how would she define real CSR, the one that is not merely used to dress up corporate balance sheets, I ask her. Her response floors me. “Enlightened self interest.”
Bombay 50 years ago
When I first came to Bombay, it was much cleaner; they used to wash the roads in the night around the Fort area … can you believe it? They had machines to do it. The tallest building was the Rajabai Tower, of the Bombay University, and it stood out. Bombay was beautiful.
While India has developed and things are getting much better on many fronts, the big cities, such as Bombay and Delhi, are a real mess, and cities need to be taken care of because they are important. The smaller Indian towns too badly need improvement to take care of local needs. They should be developed without slums. Rented accommodation should be planned and available for those coming to the cities/towns.
In Bombay, what we need is rentable accommodation. You can’t rent anything. I am going to plague (Union Minister) Piyush Goyal (who spoke at the Jaipur Institute where she was interviewed). We have the Bombay Port Trust land which is now free as most of the activities have shifted (to the Jawaharlal Nehru or Nava Sheva Port). It belongs to the Government and provides an excellent opportunity to build rentable accommodation. Another crusade!
Religion and visiting church
My mother was a Catholic who didn’t go to church. My father was a Protestant. We went to Sunday School. I am not religious in a ritualistic way, but I am a very religious person. I think religion is also ethics, the way in which you believe and look at the universe. I respect all religions and that is what my mother-in-law expected from me. She tied my kanthi … tulsi mala. If she hadn’t done that, there would have been a big problem. So do I go to church? No. I never went to church in England either. Now I like to go to church during Christmas. I celebrate Holi, Diwali, Navratri and all Indian festivals.
When I first came to Bombay, it was much cleaner; they used to wash the roads in the night with machines … can you believe it?
I loved my mother-in-law’s food. I love Indian food and its spices. I eat roti, daal, bhaat, shaak every day. I also love Idli, sambar, osaman, farsan, handwa, batata wada, samosas, khandvi (Reels off the delicacies in one breath!). Problem is I eat too much of it. My mother-in-law taught me to cook, and I can cook most things, though I’m out of practice now. The problem is you can’t eat all that you cook. But I used to make Mysore pak, Kopra paak, laddoos and such things.
Gender equity in India
It’s a problem but a problem that women have to solve. It is a problem even abroad, and it comes out in so many different ways. If you don’t look after your children because of work pressure, they go haywire and if you give up your job, you lose out. But it is changing. Men do become adept in taking responsibility in house chores.
(Laughs) Do you really want to know? I’ve done my O-levels, which is equivalent to your Class 10. I didn’t do HSC. At that time, I did a secretarial course-cum-job for two years in England, which was very useful. This, before coming to India. I knew deep down that I would go to India. The type of school I went to is what I’m trying to get here. Even in England today, they don’t teach the kind of things we learned.
Dream for future
I’ve got a very bad habit. I go around with my eyes wide open and I actually see things. I know a lot of people who go around with their eyes open but don’t see anything. I go around my factories and see things that nobody else sees … water coming out of toilets, safety equipment being compromised. As for my dream, we’ll carry on doing what we’re doing. I am working with the supervision of repairs to the buildings of a couple of municipal school projects in Bombay, a job well worth doing, and a project Rotary can take up, especially as we are taking literacy as a project.
Rotary is doing a lot but we also have to ensure Government money is used properly. We’re all paying taxes. Yes, the corporates will contribute money but our money, given as taxes, has to be spent properly. Government has money, but buildings built by it are not repaired and maintained in time. And the correct cement-sand-water ratios are not maintained; washing of sand to remove silt, mud and salt is not done; proper curing doesn’t take place.