After absorbing the shock of her husband Aditya Birla’s early death, Rajashree Birla took on the challenge of spearheading the Birla legacy of social initiatives.

Rajashree Birla was 10 and Aditya Birla was 14 when they got engaged; she lived in Madurai then. When asked if she had met or seen him before, she smiles: “Not that I can remember!”

But by the time she was about to marry him at 17, in 1965, “my fiancé was taking a lot of interest in my education. I was doing science at Fatima College in Madurai, and he said: ‘What will you do with science?’ So I switched over to arts.”

Rajashree, Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, the Aditya Birla Group’s apex CSR body, addressed a FICCI- FLO meeting on CSR in Chennai last week. Reminiscing on her early years, she said that though she got married halfway through her degree course, her late husband encouraged her to complete her graduation (English and Political Science) from Loreto College in Calcutta.

“My son (Kumar Mangalam Birla) was born in 1967, so I couldn’t write my B.A. exam, but the environment at home was so supportive that I later completed my studies and graduated.”

Her father was a Burmah Shell agent, and she recalls the days she spent in Chennai’s Sowcarpet, where she lived with her uncles whenever she passed through the city.

I ask her how the match was made and, more important, how did it feel for a girl hailing from a middle-class family to marry into an illustrious business family such as G.D. Birla’s. Was it a cultural shock?

“Well, the match was arranged by some common relatives and, no, there was no matching of horoscopes,” she smiles, adding, “Cultural shock? Not really, because having moved and stayed with Gandhiji, our family... my parents-in-law and grandfather-in-law (G.D. Birla) had a very simple lifestyle. There was no glamour or fuss in our home,” she adds.

For many years into her marriage, Rajashree, who is today on the board of all the group companies, was busy bringing up her son and daughter and didn’t have much interest in “the business side”.

A period of deep shock

But in 1995 she faced “the most difficult part” of her life when she lost her husband, who was only 52 then. Recalling that period, she says, “He was quite ill for four months… so your mind is at least prepared. But when he fell ill, I thought… in Hinduism they say that a person is taken away by god only when he has completed all his work. But my husband had a lot of future plans, so I thought nothing can happen to him, because he has so much more to do.”

Her son, Kumar Mangalam, was just 27, “he had to take over the business.”

So, as a mother, how did she steer him through that difficult phase?

“Well, I knew nothing about the business… but yes, I must have given him a lot of moral support in those days,” she says, her eyes clouding. A short pause, then she adds: “But, luckily, he was trained for the role he had to play. He was a qualified chartered accountant and also an MBA from the London School of Business.”

I ask her to name the most endearing quality of Kumar Mangalam Birla. Rajashree is all smiles and says, “I feel he is really humble, if you want me to choose only one quality. But another important quality is that he is very, very balanced…”

“He is very proud of Rajashreeji”, chips in the group’s corporate communications chief, who is present. “And I am very proud of him, actually much more proud of him,” quips the mother!

Pioneered by G.D. Birla

We move over to the group’s CSR activities, which Rajashree heads, and into which the group pumps in Rs 160 crore every year, with Rs 40 crore of it going to educational ventures. “Actually these development activities were started much earlier, by my grandfather-in-law, G.D. Birla. Education was his main passion and he had started BITS Pilani and many schools; and for starting a Montessori school, he invited Ms Montessori to Pilani, and got her to stay for a year and set it up.”

Today, of course, Rajashree oversees the group’s social and welfare activities across 40 companies. She has received a Padma Bhushan for social work. This work is spread across 3,000 villages and touches seven million people. The Aditya Birla Group runs 18 hospitals and 42 schools, two of them modern international schools, for paying students. Of the 42,000 children studying in these schools, 18,000 receive free education.

The schools are concentrated where the group’s business ventures are located, and this includes countries like Thailand and Egypt. So how passionate is she about her role in the Aditya Birla Centre?

“Very much… I think about it all the time. This is my main occupation. At the end of the day, it makes you feel good that you are doing something to help people… farmers, women’s self-help groups,” says Rajashree.

She is particularly focused on schemes to help the girl child and train women in employment skills. “We conduct widow remarriage functions, and have already held two such events in Uttar Pradesh, each time for about 100 women. Some of these women are so young and have long years before them. Our people talk to the parents and parents-in-law and convince them, and also find matches for these women.”

Battling female foeticide

She is also actively engaged with the NGO Population First, where the focus is to save the girl child and spread awareness against female foeticide. “Can you believe that female foeticide happens even in Mumbai? Even though it is much lower here compared to other regions, this is a shame. And it is not as though it doesn’t happen in educated and rich families. We work towards eradicating this evil and give scholarships for girl children,” she adds.

She is proud of the 4,000 self-help groups “we have formed in areas where our rural development work is concentrated. For women it is a huge empowerment… it empowers whole families.”

She is on the board of the Habitat for Humanity’s Asia-Pacific and Global committees, and will attend a conference in Manila this week. With help from M.S. Dhoni and some other cricketers, she recently helped raise £2 million for the organisation to build houses for the poor. Her group has contributed about Rs 10 crore to Habitat.

Rajashree’s reply takes me totally by surprise when asked about her dream for the future: “Actually, I don’t dream; I don’t have any dreams. I believe in doing things and just go with the flow…”

At a glance

Favourite city: London; we have an apartment there and I love the city.

Interest in jewellery: Not particularly… except that it has to match with my clothes!

Favourite food: I am very fond of sweets (giggles) and all kinds of food. I also like spicy chaat.. I like to experiment with different cuisines. I love Ethiopian food, they have a roti called anjira, which looks like a very big dosai and it is a little sour, being fermented. That is eaten with sabji very similar to ours.

Reading: Recently I’ve been reading on Vedanta; Swami Parthasarathy has written on Vedanta and I find it very interesting.

Is she very religious? Not at all; actually I am not a religious person, but I can say I am spiritual. I don’t believe in rituals. As a child, when my mother couldn’t do some pooja or rituals for some reason, I would take over, and I really enjoyed all this then. But now I am not interested.

Fitness: I exercise for two hours everyday; we have a gym at home. I do the cross trainer, sometimes the treadmill and then a yoga teacher makes me do dynamic yoga… fast and more difficult postures. I’ve been on such a routine for 15 years!

Tech tools: I like working on the iPad, where I mostly do my mails, and listening to music on my iPhone.

Music: Mostly bhajans and old Hindi film songs. Kishore Kumar is my favourite.

Hobbies: I love going for holidays with my friends; we are a group of women and every year we take a three-week holiday. We’ve been to China, Russia, Australia…We do lots of sightseeing, that is a priority, and of course shopping!

Slowing economy and India’s future: We have a leadership crisis and decisions are not being taken. So many scams are coming out and there seems to be a feeling of fear amidst politicians who are refraining from taking decisions.

Millions of BPL Indians: I have a lot of hope in the UID scheme; the Government of India has so many schemes for the underprivileged but unfortunately a lot of money gets siphoned off. But with UID in place, the entire amount can go directly to the right beneficiary.

(This article was published on August 23, 2012)
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