Unsung Heroes

Vivek (CA ) (2368 Points)

26 June 2011  
From doctors to corporate executives, people everywhere are stepping out of their comfort zone to make a lasting contribution to the community.

Band Of Docs

Let’s Act

  • The Doctors 25 members, of whom nine are trustees
  • Age Mostly in their 40s
  • Social Work Raising funds to subsidise healthcare for patients
  • Project Location Pune
  • Project Duration Since 2001
  • Prime Occupation Doctors
  • Income Forgone All profits are donated


Normally, their hands are busy wielding scalpels, checking pulses or holding X-rays up to the light. But on February 11 this year, a group of surgeons, cardiologists and radiologists from Pune was busy playing guitars, drums, tabla and the keyboard, among other instruments. The band, called Let’s Act, belted out Bollywood hits at Pune’s Ganesh Kala Krida Manch, much to the delight of the crowd. The event raised over Rs 10 lakh, half of which went towards the doctors’ charity, also called Let’s Act, an acronym for Life Enrichment Through Science, Arts & Charity Trust. The rest was used to meet the event’s expenses.

The band has 25 doctors, with nine core members who are also trustees. Since 2001, the trust has raised Rs 50 lakh and helped many patients suffering from cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, etc. “When we started performing a decade ago, we were all well settled in our practice. We didn’t need the money but we needed to play music,” recalls Dr Dasmit Singh, a paediatric surgeon and the band’s percussionist.

The doctors studied at Pune’s BJ Medical College between 1980 and 1990, and were part of the institute’s orchestra, Swaranjali. After completing their super specialisation and settling into a practice, they felt the need to get back to music.

It started with an event called Nostalgia, staged for BJ Medical College alumni, in 2001. It was a big success and they collected about Rs 45,000. They used the money to help an ayurvedic doctor who was suffering from leukaemia and couldn’t pay for his treatment. Requests for more performances started pouring in and Let’s Act was born.

The charity model is simple. Patients who need financial help send in applications. A patient is entitled to Rs 3,500 in one go. With the doctors’ backing, a lot can be done in that amount. “There is a margin of up to 80% to 90% in many medicines, especially for cancer. When a patient comes with a request, we urge pharmacies not to take that margin. Also, we request doctors to forgo consultation fees,” says Dr Kamlesh Bokil, an oncosurgeon and lead/ bass guitarist. With Let’s Act being a household name in Pune, everyone obliges. When requests for bigger amounts come in, the trustees take a collective call after going through the patient’s medical history and other details.

As we leave, the band is busy tuning up for a practice session. It’s Friday and they have a few weeks to get ready for the next event.

— Rashmi K Pratap

Green Thumb Banker

Mayur Singh

  • Age 46 years
  • Social Work Involved in reforestation efforts
  • Project Location Kemri, Rajasthan
  • Project Duration Since 1999
  • Prime Occupation Senior Vice-President, HSBC India
  • Income Forgone Has taken leave without pay for six months for the last two years to work on the project


Mayur Singh, Senior VP, HSBC India, works for only six months a year. With the bank’s blessings, from October to March, he stays in his hometown Kemri, near Udaipur, planting trees and helping educate poor children.

Singh began this journey about 12 years ago, in an attempt to rejuvenate Kemri’s ecology. He was a full-timer at HSBC then. When reforestation was firmly underway, Singh turned his attention to the children. He adopts students from the seventh or eighth standard and ensures their education is sponsored till they finish higher secondary school. Appreciating Singh’s efforts, HSBC, in 2009, extended support and encouraged employees to join Singh. “The impact of his efforts has been immense,” says Malini Thadani, Head, Group Communications and Corporate Sustainability, HSBC India. And it’s fired up people at the bank. In the last six months alone, 80 people have volunteered to work in Kemri for a week.

The funding for the children’s education comes from friends and volunteers in HSBC. Expenses, for each child, on school fees, uniforms, stationery and textbooks tally up to Rs 10,000 for five years.

At Deutsche Bank, Vikas Shetty is doing something similar. On weekends, the HR manager volunteers with Support, an NGO that provides food and shelter to underprivileged children in Mumbai. Most are drug addicts. Support takes them off the streets and rehabilitates them. In 2008, Shetty was named DB Champion—a title given to an employee who has shown a sustained commitment to a cause. DB has been backing the NGO for over four years now.

While Shetty contributes his spare time, Singh, for the six months he takes off in a year, forgoes his pay. Not only that, for those who would espouse his cause, he says, “I don’t push for any donation. But I do insist on people visiting us and taking a look around before putting down their money.” Talk about commitment.

— Karthik Krishnan

Giving Time

Mamtha Sharma

  • Age 53 years
  • Social Work Fund raising for NGOs in Brazil
  • Project Location Rio de Janeiro
  • Project Duration 4 weeks
  • Prime Occupation Head, Corporate Community Relations, IBM India
  • Income Forgone Nil


Getting a month off, at full salary, for an all-expenses paid trip abroad doesn’t really sound like a social sabbatical. But then, IBM’s corporate services corps (CSC) programme isn’t just a social initiative. It’s also part of Big Blue’s plan to groom its next generation of leaders to work anywhere in the world.

Mamtha Sharma travelled to Rio de Janeiro last year to work with children in the city’s favelas (shanties) as part of the CSC programme. She says the programme is no cakewalk. For instance, she points out, the situation in Rio’s favelas is very different from India because of drug lords and the high crime rate. “Getting these children involved in any social initiative is a huge challenge. Also, how you approach them is different because they mature much faster compared to children in Indian slums,” says Sharma, who heads the corporate community relations function for IBM India.

CSC makes great business sense too. Exposure to different cultures and nuances is important when dealing with a global workforce and doing business globally. Sharma’s colleague Mayank Agarwal says he learnt that making cold-calls to clients in Brazil is a complete no-no!

Sharma, along with other IBMers from across the globe—worked with Instituto da Criança, an NGO that supports grassroots institutions in capacity building and fund raising. The team was tasked with forging arrangements with city hotels wherein guests could donate money, with the amount automatically getting deducted through the billing system. They had to determine how much to charge, what kind of documentation was required, how the front desk had to be trained, etc. “The NGO lacked the requisite skills to do this. We managed to do it because of the multi-disciplinary nature of our team,” notes Sharma.

CSC is an invitation-only programme and open only to top-performers. Selection is a rigorous process. Applicants are grilled on what they hope to achieve from the programme and why they should be chosen. On selection, the employees are pulled out of their regular roles, bunched into groups and made to work on a real-time social project anywhere in the world. IBM bears the entire cost of the programme.

Sharma says it’s not about preparing a project report. The solution has to be practicable and, more often than not, volunteers follow up on projects in their private capacity. On completion of the CSC programme, they head back home. But, Sharma insists, the experience changes them forever.

— Nandita Datta

Grassroot Pull

Thothadri Srinivasan

  • Age 33 years
  • Social Work Education
  • Project Location Tamil Nadu
  • Project Duration 6 months
  • Prime Occupation Senior Project Manager at Infosys
  • Income Forgone 50% reduction in salary


Three years ago, when Infosys Technologies unveiled its community empathy programme, allowing employees to take a sabbatical and work with NGOs, Thothadri Srinivasan was ecstatic. The senior project manager in Infy’s banking and capital markets practice saw this as an excellent opportunity to get hands-on grassroots experience. Srinivasan has been involved in community projects since 1999, when he, along with other Infoscions in the Chennai centre, set up Sneham to help educate less-privileged children. His first grassroots exposure came in 2004, when he volunteered to help the tsunami-affected people of Nagapattinam. “It was my first glimpse of village-level work. Since then I’ve been itching to do more,” he says.

The sabbatical is for a minimum duration of six months and a maximum of one year, at half pay. But taking time off from work and his hectic corporate life wasn’t an easy decision for Srinivasan. For one, the salary cut wasn’t something his family was comfortable with. And it meant moving out of the safe environs of a corporate set-up into chaotic NGO life. In addition, the sabbatical meant being away from his team and clients for a fairly long period—something not many are keen on (and perhaps one of the reasons the programme hasn’t found too many takers).

On the plus side, there was the pull of doing something for the community. He was also happy about the work being done by the organisation he would be working with. AID (Association for India’s Development) works primarily with rural schools to improve the quality of education. It also works on projects in health and livelihood. “It helped that I had worked with them on a different project earlier and was aware of their processes,” says Srinivasan.

After several months of indecision, Srinivasan decided to take the plunge in 2010 and informed his delivery heads. Once they were convinced it was for a good cause and wouldn’t impact business, he got the go-ahead. At AID, Srinivasan has a three-fold agenda: to mentor block-level project managers and share project management best practices; to use his IT skills to improve processes and systems for data collection, analysis and reporting; and to look at ways to start slum-level interventions in Chennai.

It’s been five months since Srinivasan started on the sabbatical and he says it’s been a great learning experience. While he’s sad that it ends next month, the man hopes to take some learning back: “I hope to organise the Chennai CSR team to adopt a few villages and improve the quality of education there.”

— Nandita Datta

Social Engineer

Kartheeban Chandramohan

  • Age 26 years
  • Social Work Education (Outreach Program Management Office)
  • Project Location All-India
  • Project Duration November 2007 to date
  • Prime Occupation Senior Associate with Outreach PMO, Cognizant
  • Income Forgone Not revealed


Kartheeban Chandramohan joined Cognizant in 2006. Soon after, he formed a group called Everest to help school students who needed aid. Everest raised funds to support the children by providing notebooks, uniforms and other items. “I wanted to reach out to school kids,” says the senior associate.

The company realised that many of its employees were interested in community activities—there were about 200 already being undertaken. In order to help Kartheeban and his ilk, Cognizant launched a platform called Outreach in 2007, to focus on education. “We wanted to give our associates a platform to do this work better,” says Archana Raghuram, Senior Program Manager, Outreach.

“Outreach helps us save a lot of time. We can concentrate on core activities now,” says Kartheeban. “Earlier, a lot of our efforts went towards fund-raising.” Today, employees submit proposals to Outreach, which helps them raise the funds and rope in volunteers.

The programme, which covers 115 schools, 26 social organisations and one juvenile home, has impacted over 300,000 lives and 10% of Cognizant’s workforce has volunteered at least once.

Somamangalam Government Higher Secondary School, located in Kancheepuram district, Tamil Nadu, is one of the schools that has benefited from the Outreach programme. Students have received notebooks, footwear, stationery and cutlery for their mid-day meals. Outreach has also provided equipment for the school’s science laboratories, set up computer labs, added new books to the library and strengthened the school’s infrastructure by providing water supply facilities and building toilets.

“They help us in every way possible so that we can study,” says S Nandini, a Class 10 student. Nandini’s mother, S Sathya is happy with the facilities provided to the school. “I studied in the same school, but at that time, we used to sit below the trees and study,” she recalls.

Kartheeban draws immense satisfaction from making a difference to the lives of students like Nandini. He doesn’t regret for a moment opting out of the mainstream. And while the money may be less (he doesn’t say), his smile suggests it is worth it.

— Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan