Zarina Screwvala is on a mission to transform rural India, here's how

By Tanvi Dubey|6th Feb 2016
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Empowering people and enabling them to transform their life and fulfil their dreams is what fuels Zarina Screwvala, the Founder Trustee of Swades Foundation that works towards empowering rural India ‘through best practices, modern technology, and values.’

Zarina and her husband Ronnie Screwvala founded the Swades Foundation, initially named SHARE (Society to Heal Aid Restore Educate). Ninety percent of the funds for the foundation come from Ronnie and the rest from donors, which include individuals and companies such as Tata Trusts, HSBC, and IDBI Bank.

Swades is associated with 2,000 hamlets and Zarina has travelled extensively to many of them, met the people, heard their concerns, and understood their problems.


HerStory had spoken with Zarina in 2013, about her life, challenges, and her plans with the Swades Foundation. This time round, we got to know more about her journey with Swades, the impact it has created, and what keeps her going. Here are some excerpts:

Swa’ se bane desh

“Our goal is to remove 1 million people from poverty every five years. To achieve this goal, we first spent a year on extensive travel and research. We spoke with hundreds of NGOs, philanthropists, and experts to find out what has been done and to really learn what was happening. This helped us formulate what we wanted going forward and to formulate our own philosophy.”

They were clear that they wanted people to move out of poverty permanently via a strategy of empowerment rather than creating a community dependent on charity. Swades empowers people to stand on their own feet, develop the right attitude and fulfill their aspirations.

“An important part of removing people from poverty is to encourage them to dream and aspire. We want people to have dreams, and aspire to fulfill those dreams. We want to make it possible for them to live the life they chose to live, and not just for themselves, but for their families too. They should be able to educate their children and ensure they have a job. Poverty is when you can’t even meet those basic aspirations. So, we are trying to change their mindset and the physical reality around them,” says Zarina.

The 360º approach

The foundation has adopted a holistic and broad approach to address their goal of rural empowerment. It is called the 360º approach where all aspects of development for an individual and community occur through their five verticals – community mobilisation, water and sanitation, agriculture and livelihood, education, and health and nutrition.

Poverty is of two kinds explains Zarina – “One is mental, the other material.” The first one can be removed if people can be empowered and their mindsets changed. Here, a person with a changed mindset understands that she or he has the power to dream or aspire to a better life for herself/himself and their families.

This is possible by empowering people to dream. This is where the 360º approach has come in handy as it has helped to impact life at different levels such as health and education.

“A lot of people told us to keep our focus on one thing or one aspect,” says Zarina. But, after a year of research and their understanding of the problem, they realised that they required a holistic approach and hence, set out with the 360º approach.

Zarina with the SRMs in a meeting

The team has 1,600+ members, comprising 1,300+ community volunteers and 300+ full-time specialists, of whom 90 per cent work at the grassroots level in Raigarh district.

Accountability has been an integral part of Swades. The people have to be a part of whatever the foundation does. For example, when toilets are built, the community contributes to their construction. Their monetary contribution may be minimal, but it helps to make them accountable and ensure that they take care of it as their own.

Measuring impact

Zarina with school kids

One of the big challenges, according to Zarina, is to measure impact and that is what they have been monitoring through baseline studies and aspiration studies. For example – under the Principal and Teacher Training Program, they have trained 6,175 teachers and principals till date impacting 85,324 students. Zarina adds, “ We will train a total of 12,500 principals and teachers impacting approximate 2,00,000 students in the next three years.”

However, not everything can be measured instantly. Some plans take time to mature and bear fruit. Herein, comes the belief in one’s plan. Zarina says, “We are clear that we are here to make a difference and make fundamental changes. We have an excellent team that continuously works to make things better. We believe in ourselves and believe that what we are doing will have impact. However, we are aware and ready to acknowledge when things are not working and pivot very fast.”

Important learning’s

Zarina, along with Ronnie, founded UTV in 1990. The company had a great run and was acquired by The Walt Disney Company. Zarina exited the company in 2011, and for the last decade has been putting all her learning from UTV to good use at the Swades Foundation. She says,” there is a tremendous amount of learning between what we learnt at UTV and philanthropy.” She shares some of the learning’s with us:

You have to love and respect your community– You have to know your community really well. If you don’t love them, then you can’t serve them and you can’t love them if you don’t know and respect them. And for that you need to spend more time with them.

Set your standards high– Be it yourself, your partner, your staff or your community, you have to have a high standard. You have to make everyone accountable, and we ensure everyone is accountable and delivers results on time.

Collaboration– Nothing is more collaborative than the media given that it combines sales, camera, edit and other teams together. Similarly, the community, staff, and partners have to work together to create impact.


“We started when people didn’t know the word startups, but today the world is gravitating towards startups and they have become a part of who we are,” she says on the subject of stating up.

According to her. startups are solving problems, providing a solution, generating self-employment, and is one of the ways to alleviate poverty in our country. She roots for chasing your dreams and following your heart.


Zarina is a cautious optimist and does not indulge cynics or cynicism. Talking about issues pertaining to women and their safety in our country, she says that things have changed- more and more women come out in the open and lodge complaints and this is because they have received the support of their families. This is a step forward and we have to be positive about the gradual change that we can see around us.

However, she also points that the rights of men too should be looked into. The legal system is very harsh towards men and we need to relook into it as well.

Having fun is essential

At 50, she is very grateful for her family and friends, with whom she spends time. For the past nine years, she has been practicing vipassana- a form of meditation that is very transformative.

She signs off with this- “Have fun- as much fun as possible and laugh a lot, otherwise doing what you are doing is not worth it.”