In Conversation: Srinivasa Raju, Chairman Unnathi Construction and Vyasa Educational Trust

Giving has been a way for you. What got you interested in the first place and how has it evolved?

It all started in 2000, when I met Mr. Munshi who was the champion of planting trees in Karnataka and was also the founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. He invited me to join the green revolution he was planning and lit the green agenda in me. Together we started the “Vana swanvandana Trust”. Under this trust, for the first time in Karnataka we got pontiffs from 39 different mutts across the state to be a part of the movement. Balagangadhara swamiji was one of our key supporters in this trust. The trust approached the then Chief Minister (CM) S.M.Krishna on greening Karnataka – both urban and rural. The chief minister approved the proposal, and we were given the go-ahead. The CM wanted to donate rupees 5 crore towards this project. I told Mr. Munshi and the other pontiffs that the project would never succeed if we take the money. So instead we got the project passed to plant 5 crore saplings across Karnataka in 5 years. With this order, we could take the saplings from any forest department across the state. We gave saplings to people who had the means and the wherewithal to maintain it. At the end of the 4th year, we distributed over 1 crore 49 Lakhs saplings from our office – Unnathi Constructions. The end of the 4th year, the project was disbanded.

But by then, around 2005-06, we had gathered enough momentum, that we started a movement around Chintamani. We got 5000 people from the villages in and around Chintamani and volunteers from Bangalore to spray the hills around Chintamani with seeds. This project experienced minimum success, but some parts of Chintamani is green even today. But this project, got us the support of then District Commissioner (DC) of Chitradurga. We sprayed the hills and the barren land around Chitradurga with seeds and it is a green belt today. Post this initial project, the DC and our trust – “Chethana Trust “jointly conceived a new initiative called “Koti Naati” (meaning 1 crore saplings). Under this initiative we got all the NGOs focused around Green and sustainability across Karnataka together. 169 new nurseries were created thanks to this initiative. But with the changing Governments in the state, the initiative did not receive the required support. “Chetana Trust”, wrote cheques for Rupees 42 lakhs to the farmers, as we had offered to help them. The farmers greatly benefitted from this campaign. My opinion is that, we can create a yellow revolution similar to the white revolution if, all NGOs come together and start working with the common man on getting them involved in the tree planting projects. It starts with you!!

“We can create a yellow revolution similar to the white revolution if, all NGOs come together and start working with the common man on getting them involved in the tree planting projects. It starts with you!!”

“My philosophy in life is to design and resign. I have never clamored for name and fame.”

How does your experience as a successful entrepreneur influence your work as a philanthropist?

To be a successful businessman running a large education and hospitality group requires discipline and also follow principles like, Achara (thought), Vichara (our speech and actions) and Ahara (food we consume). These three have been my beacons. With the need to hasten green revolution, I felt that it’s not sufficient to plant the trees, but how can we use that to change the mindset of the people around us and the community. For this I realized we needed to start young. So the trust decided to start a school – The Vyasa International which looks to create well-rounded young leaders of tomorrow. “Vyasa” means, an idea and an ideal. Vyasa International is a happy confluence of the Best from the West, Values from the East, to make Learning a Feast. Our world-class teaching pedagogy along with the best teachers and emphasis on green, sustainability, art, and physical training creates, holistically developed youngsters. In such an environment, I feel we can mold the children to view green and sustainability as a natural thought process.

Who have you looked for guidance and inspiration as a fellow philanthropist

There are a few people who have made a big dent on my personality. Apart from Mr. Munshi, Dr. H.K. Ranganath, was one of them. He was one of the leaders at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan whom I worked with. He was involved with the Bhavan for over two decades. Ranganath was involved in promoting Kannada literature and performing arts through the length and breadth of the state. Ranganath was also the Chairman and Professor of Department of Performing Arts of Bangalore University. Under his leadership, we executed many activities at Bhavan, “Course beyond Discourse”. This meant culling out the essence from our religious texts and giving it to people in byte sized content, for them to adopt the best practices in every day life. He was also the person behind Kalabharathi, the cultural wing of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bangalore, which gives systematic training to aspiring students in visual and performing arts. Kalabharathi is still a successful program at Bhavan. He passed away in 2003. I was involved in publishing his biography.

The other person who has made a big impression on me, is Wangari Maathai. She founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya; an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. She started with Africa and then spread her activities all over Africa to combat desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger. Her style of working and some of the principles are used when we teach our students at Vyasa on green revolution and tree planting. Every year, we have an annual green day at Vyasa. On this day we make each child at school plant a sapling, and take care of it all year round. Last year, we had a very interesting incident; Aditya, a middle school boy, wrote a small poetry on Wangari Maathai and also performed a skit which highlighted key initiatives she had undertaken in the green belt movement as a way to enhance the awareness among his class students. It was truly a pleasure to watch the young minds grip this powerful concept. All our students at Vyasa, grow up with the love for nature and sustainability. They really celebrate this occasion, where our students sing and dance when they go to plant the saplings.

“Course beyond Discourse. This meant culling out the essence from our religious texts and giving it to people in byte sized content, for them to adopt the best practices in every day life.”

“It’s our next project – donate 1 million dollars towards arts and culture betterment.”

What is next in your philanthropist journey

North Bangalore also has very few places, where people can come and be enriched. I want to ensure the school be a continuous learning center for the community. This institution should serve as a learning journey for all the parents as well the community where our school is located. We are looking at building an auditorium which can seat over 500 people. The auditorium will work with budding and well established artists to come perform arts and theatre. We will have a restaurant inside the school campus, which will only serve organic food. This will help in ensuring our students have the right and balanced meal. The restaurant will also have volunteers from the community. This ensure greater community engagement. We are looking to raises funds from our connects both in India as well as overseas for the auditorium development. It’s our next project – donate 1 million dollars towards arts and culture betterment.

In addition, we are creating a platform called “School of Life”. Here anyone with interests in arts, culture, theatre and would like to discuss their views or get views on their ideas, can use this platform. We are looking for volunteers to join the “School of Life” platform. For example, recently “Oota from Thota” (food from your garden), the organic garden group in Bangalore met at the school and discussed the new developments in organic gardening as part of the “School of Life” initiative. They had over 200+ people who came to the campus and also had 50+ stalls which either demonstrated a technique for organic farming or had some produce via organic farming displayed.

If the person is interested in learning more about your cause, what is your advice and where should they start

There is no better time than now. Start small, but please contribute. Do not wait for someone else to encourage you. Be a self-starter. Small movements can get great momentum. It’s similar to an avalanche. As the cause gets momentum, it will get bigger and its effects will be far reaching. Also try working with the community around you, and you will see that that is sufficient to get the initiative going. If anyone would like to be part of our auditorium project or “School of Life” platform, please reach out to us.

“Do not wait for someone else to encourage you. Be a self-starter. Small movements can get great momentum.”