Mallika Ghosh is seated behind a beautiful, if somewhat bulky, desk heaped with papers and bric a brac as I arrived for the interview. During the course of our conversation she reveals that her mother Elaine Ghosh, the founder of Parinaam, had made that desk. Elaine passed away in November 2013. Parinaam, which was earlier helmed by the dynamic mother daughter duo, is now headed solely by her. She admits to finding the task daunting, but is too much in love with her work to let it matter.
Mallika Ghosh went to boarding school in England, university in USA and was Head of Films- South India at McCann Erickson before giving it all up to work in the social sector. Her father Samit Ghosh founded the esteemed microfinance organization Ujjivan in 2005. The idea behind Parinaam’s founding was that financial support alone cannot help the poor. Poverty manifests itself in various ways. Parinaam provides ‘services in the areas of healthcare, education, livelihood and community development’ that delivers the critical social support that is so crucial in alleviating poverty. Since then, Parinaam has come a long way and has expanded much beyond the customers of Ujjivan. Specifically their flagship Ultra Poor Program focuses on the urban ultra-poor: the section of people so poor that they are not eligible for microfinance even.
On giving up a successful corporate career to go into social work full time:
I am a TV and movie junkie. So, as a child, I thought film would be the best thing to go about getting a career in. I studied film, came back to India and worked seven years in advertising. Then I got a little disillusioned with the kind of work I was doing. My mom and dad had started Parinaam and Ujjivan. Here we were spending lakhs and crores on thirty second ad films and had clients nagging at us that things didn’t look exactly as they should. When I would go home and hear dad and mom talk about all these women that they were helping, the kids they were educating, the amazing strides in healthcare and finance literacy they were establishing and the great work they were doing in general, all this seemed so small in comparison. I went for a few field visits and saw for myself the positive change that was happening.
I always liked children. My first passion is kids, after animals. I love animals too. So I decided to give it up. My first choice wasn’t Ujjivan or Parinaam. It was to work with children. I took two weeks at a nursery school, but was soon bored by fixed curriculum and felt that I was not adding much value anyway. So I researched a bunch of NGO’s that worked with kids. But nothing was grabbing me. Then my dad said that since your mom has already started this NGO, why don’t you just check it out. My mom hired me as an intern, even though I insisted on calling myself a consultant because I had been working for seven years! I worked with her for about three months. She gave me good projects that she knew would draw me in. I worked on conceptualizing the pilot financial literacy program. She also gave me our first summer camp to handle because she knew how much I loved kids. After that I was hooked. I did not want to go back to advertising at all. I wanted to do something meaningful.
On how Parinaam sustains itself:
We are a section 25 registered NGO. We only work on grants and funding, four specific ones to be exact. Our principle donors are Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, City Foundation, HSBC Bank and warm hearted individual benefactors. Over the years we have built a very good reputation as an NGO. I was very strict about our finances from the beginning. We make sure that the least amount of money goes into the administrative section and most of it be reserved for our beneficiaries. We don’t collect any money from our beneficiaries, like fees or anything like that.
We are partnered with Ujjivan, our sister organization. They do not give us any funding as such, but do give us access to their different departments and their people. By being able to fall back on such quality workforce, even if don’t get grants, we know we are going to be sustainable.
On facing obstacles and challenges since taking charge of Parinaam:
The initial obstacles were centred on registration. Getting our FCRA was a big deal because we were asked to pay a lot of bribes. But Ma never paid a bribe in her life. It took us three years to get our FCRA. So setting up office itself was quite difficult. I had joined Parinaam as a consultant. Six months later Ma asked me to handle the operations, which I have been doing for the past four years. She was in charge of finances, writing reports, getting grants, proposals and the like. Both of us worked together on the design elements. When I first joined, we were only running health camps and a few educational programs. Now we have summer camps, a financial literacy program boasting customer scale of a hundred and thirty thousand. We have opened fifty thousand bank accounts through this program. Our award winning Urban Ultra Poor Program has reached seven hundred families, from a starting point of thirty families. I have been a part of this phenomenal growth.
The challenge came when my mom passed away, last year in November. That’s when I had to take over. It was hard filling her shoes, taking care of the finance aspects, talking to funders and seeing to the grants and donations. For four and a half years we were a team. Now, I have a beautiful staff. But not having here around has been isolating.
Challenges are always hard when you start. Depending on how difficult a challenge is, it is going to take that long to overcome it. But, eventually, when you learn how it goes then you become a much more strong and capable person. That’s how I choose to see it at the moment.
On Diksha, Parinaam’sfinancial literacy program:
What is financial literacy, but the most basic of money training. Opening a bank account, saving money- it is all the stuff your parents teach you as kids. I think one of the reasons why Diksha is so successful is because we go into understanding the basics but teach them practically as well. As children, we learnt them naturally when parents would give us pocket money. When we wanted to buy something, we were told to save that money and buy it. That’s how we learn savings. I remember when I first opened a bank account, I was so afraid. And I am an educated person, I went to boarding school in England. Yet I remember walking into that big glass building and being terrified when they asked for documents. My mom had to come to the bank and teach me. When I first got my ATM card, it took me a month to muster up the courage to go to a machine and try it out. During these baby steps, your parents teach you and guide you.
But the people from the Ultra Poor slums have no such attitude about money. They earn very erratically, do not save at all and don’t set aside money for anything other than the barest of survival necessities. We impart simple numerical skills, train them on how to keep track of their expenses and most importantly- to borrow only within their means. For the ultra-poor, the debt trap is the deadliest trap of all. Today we are functional in sixteen states all over the country and have trained thousands of customers in savvy finance management.
On The Ultra Poor Program:
The Ultra Poor Program is my mother’s brainchild. She was a woman of many skills. During her bachelors, she studied English and psychology and then began her career by working as a financial analyst for Citibank. She took a break after marriage. We moved back to India, from the Middle East, in 1996. My parents had bought some land here in Bangalore and it was Ma’s job to build a house. While overseeing the construction, she witnessed first-hand how contractors exploited the field labourers. These people, the ultra-poor, are the ones she wanted to focus on when she started Parinaam.
In essence, the Ultra Poor are people so poor that they are not even eligible for microfinance. Their per capita income is less than a thousand five hundred rupees a month. Their slums have no electricity or water. In some of our slums, the residents go to nearby buildings and beg for water. The children are barely going to school. When we first entered the slums and asked why the kids aren’t going to school, the parents answered, “Why should they?”
We researched a lot of other Ultra Poor programs. Most of them were based on the rural population. We focused on bettering the quality of life and the livelihood of the urban poor and making them eligible for microfinance. This program was the first of its kind to look at the whole family as a unit holistically. We focused on getting the parents jobs as housekeepers, vegetable vendors, seamstresses and so on. We made sure they did it six or seven days a week, instead of just when they needed the money. Putting the kids in school was a priority. Through livelihood interventions, interspersed with the financial literacy training they received so they learned to manage their finances, improved their living conditions drastically. Most of them were eligible for very cheap or pro bono medical care, in case of sickness or injuries, but did not know how to go about getting it. We spread awareness in these areas, making sure that they did not spend their hard earned savings in a single visit to the doctor’s office.
The Ultra Poor have no documents, no identification or address proofs or birth certificates. We work on getting them these papers. We opened tuition centres because we realized there were such bright kids in the bunch who want to learn, but have no means of getting a quality education. At first the parents were quite against their children getting involved in our education schemes. But once the little ones would go home and proudly recite their A B C D’s, the parents too would get very excited. From the tuition centres, we put the children in really nice schools like Crystal House, Indus Community School, Hope Foundation and Building Blocks. These are really fantastic schools with laptops in classrooms, swimming, horseback riding and other stellar facilities. They provide a wonderful education to the ultra-poor children and charge very low fees. But even those are not affordable for the parents. So we get individual donors to sponsor the education of a child. Most people are so satisfied that they helped educate a child that they readily come forward with funds to help us.
Ma always said that we can do healthcare and financial literacy and all that, but education is the only thing that will life such people out of this misery and help them become middle class. In the first year we had seventeen kids. The next year there were hundred and twenty. This year it’s even more. The Ultra Poor Program is a twelve month program and we are intimately acquainted with the families. We see the progress they are making, how nicely the children are going to school and learning and we feel very heartened that we are making a real difference here.
It’s scary the lack of hygiene awareness that exists in the Ultra Poor slums. We have conducted extensive trainings on cleanliness, all the while trying not to show our alarm. When they did not have electricity even on Diwali night, we conducted a Diwali campaign and got them solar lamps. That is the beauty of this program. There are new problems every day, and we are constantly innovating and ideating ways of overcoming them. I find this very interesting.
On winning their first award:
Ma and I had been resisting applying to awards because we felt that was never our thing. We thought if we concentrated on doing good work, good things would come our way. Then someone sent me an application for the Financial Times and Citibank Ingenuity Award and I applied on a lark. The award is not for NGO’s as such. It rewards urban ingenuity, programs in urban areas that uplift a city. Initially I was filling up for the financial literary program but then felt that the Ultra Poor Program would be a much better fit because it is much more innovative. We were shortlisted and then we won for Asia Pacific. There was press coverage and such wonderful appreciation all around for the work we were doing.
Parinaam was started in 2009. We did not apply for awards earlier because we were so small and still finding our niche. The Ultra Poor program is amazing, but it is slow to build up. So far we have worked with only seven hundred families. Ensuring long term impact takes time. Now that we have established our groove, we will apply for and take advantage of more such opportunities.