Swasti is one of the accomplished NGOs in India who is not restricted by boundaries or barriers to ensure health and wellbeing of people all around the world. During the summer break of 2018 I was given the opportunity to intern at the social protection area of the company. My first day at work I was introduced to the CEO of Swasti, Ms. Shama Karkal.She greeted me and make sure I settled in. During my course of work, I had learnt a lot about the work Swasti does and this inspired me, and I was eager to know more about their journey to success. We recently met at the Swasti head office in Bangalore and had a long discussion about the work done by Swasti and her life as a social reformer. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Mridula: At Swasti, being at the helm of affairs yet you are so friendly and approachable could you please highlight your management mantra?
Ms. Shama: I have always been a people’s person which is really why I am in this sector. I like to use it as my strength. I really don’t think that CEOs are necessarily unfriendly. It’s just an impression created. For management it is all about being a supportive leader, finding what people are good at, allowing them to blossom without necessarily for you to instruct them, But I don’t really think I have a bigger mantra than this.
Mridula: Could you please talk about your life journey so far particularly as a social reformer?
Ms. Shama: It is an interesting question, but I would not call myself a social reformer
because I really believe that we are all agents of change. I did my schooling and college in Bangalore. My parents impressed me to take up medicine, but I did not do well in the entrance exam. I decided to take a year’s break during which I had volunteered extensively. During that period, I realized that this was what I enjoyed more. I then did my bachelor’s in social work. I finished my master’s in management in community organization from University of Maryland at Baltimore. I then moved back to India and ran an outpatient program for few years and joined Swasti after.
Mridula: What are the challenging facets of your job?
Ms. Shama: I think right now the challenging aspects are mainly two:
- Firstly, we are a well-known organization in public health. We are 16 years old. I have recently taken over from the founder. I see that as an opportunity and a privilege, but I also recognize that there are challenges that come with the job as there are great expectations to meet.
- Secondly, we are turning around the kind of work that we are going to be doing over the next 5 years. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and we are still in the baking phase.
Mridula: What are the challenges that you face as an organization?
Ms. Shama: Currently, we are trying to transform the way things are done. If you are challenging the status quotient, sometimes you are talking and doing things that everybody is not doing, and it seems new. The challenge is convincing somebody that this is new. The other big challenge is resourcing people and money. The main concern is that you require the best from each field but where are they? Even if you find them they should be willing to work in this sector. We meet a lot of people who say “Oh! You are an NGO it must be so easy! “but in reality, this is way harder than other companies. We have global goals in 2020,2030 and these are all 2 and 12years away and time will fly if we don’t get our act together.
Mridula: In your opinion what is the unique thing about Swasti that differentiates it from other such organization?
Ms. Shama: I do think it is the fact that we have remained focused on communities mainly on health and wellbeing not just on a specific condition. We marry a combination of things to achieve wellbeing. We work on technology, sanitation, social protection. We don’t think that getting into wellbeing is only about one thing as there are many things that need to get married for example medical science, social science, technology, behavior all of that has to come together then the constant effort of how do we do it better? How do we it differently? I think this is what differentiates us from the other organizations.
Mridula: What are the plans and programs that you wish to implement in the coming days?
Ms. Shama: The biggest program that we have currently is the invest4wellness program. That is the only implementation program we are looking at over the next five years. We believe it is a model that can transform the way health is delivered in India. We are working with a number of communities in different states, currently we have our hands full with the invest4wellness program.
Mridula: How do you think students like me can integrate better with the cause? What can we do?
Ms. Shama: For students, Volunteering is one of the best things to do. Not just in terms of understanding the cause but understanding the real world itself and getting your own perspective and opinions on the issues. There are so many areas in which you can volunteer not only NGOs. The question really is do you have the time and inclination because it is not a one-time thing. The biggest thing is to say I would like to do it weekly or monthly and I would spend my weekend. As you learn you learn more you would eventually figure out what to do. So, don’t limit yourself to what is currently happening you can always do things differently and come up with new ideas.
By Mridula Jaishankar