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Man On A Mission

Man On A Mission

Author: Shantanu Guha Ray
Publication: Tehelka
Date: April 12, 2008
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main38.asp?filename=cr120408man_mission.asp

Introduction: NRI businessman Raj Loomba helps widows across the world move towards a better future

IF YOU ask Raj Loomba what prompted him to help widows in distress across the globe, you will not get an instant answer. Loomba, sitting in his flat decorated with pictures of world leaders and him, will look dazedly at you and weep. "For my mother," he says, regaining his voice. Pushpawati was in her forties when she had to forego her status, her coloured saris and expensive jewelry, when she lost her wealthy husband. "I saw a queen turning into a ghost, as relatives forced her to smash her colourful bangles, wear white saris and told her - in as many words - to stay away from all occasions of merriment. It was the stigma of a lifetime," reminiscences Loomba.

The decision to help widows was almost instantaneous, though the actual project took final shape decades later, in 1998, when the London-based business tycoon started the Loomba Trust with an initial personal funding of a million pounds sterling. The idea: to seek widows in distress across the world and raise funds - from corporate captains and political leaders - to partially solve their problems. The idea was not to dole out money, but to help them get jobs. This partial help is an important element. Loomba feels that no one can solve another's problems on a permanent basis: "You can only ease the pressure for some time and let them take charge of their lives. And then, you move to the next case."

Loomba should know. His meticulously done research, thanks to law graduate daughter Roma, estimates that there are about 100 million widows in distress across the world. The Indian sub-continent has one third of them, with the rest scattered across the war zones of Africa and West and Central Asia. Loomba, his daughter and other members of the Trust crisscrossed the globe in search of such hapless women and started listing them. Then, with the help of Prince Charles and former British PM Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, the Trust was able to get global leaders to respond to Loomba's cause. It also worked because until then, no one had worked for the betterment of widows. It was the Trust's efforts that resulted in the UN seriously contemplating declaring June 23 as International Widows Day. It will happen soon. The Trust also works closely with Sir Richard Branson's charity, Virgin Unite, to support 1,500 HIV orphans in South Africa. Once again, the focus is on jobs, not grants.

YET, LOOMBA says he is far, far away from achieving the half-way mark: in India, his Trust helps nearly 4000 widows and their children with jobs and education. Another 2000 widows and children in Africa - many affected by HIV - are funded by the trust as well. Similar numbers are helped across West and Central Asia. Comparing these 8000 widows and their children against 100 million - the world figure- is actually a joke, says Loomba.

He asks why people in India cannot stop making ashrams, pointing out, "An ashram will further push a widow into a life of obscurity, but not show her the light for the future. There is no growth story in the ashrams. All have survival stories. It needs to change." He says he is tired of repeating the same line during his visits to India. Yet, in every visit, he sees new such ashrams springing up. He does not want to go to Vrindavan, home to an estimated 5,000 widows. He wants them to shift out of there to a life of dignity. "Why sing the whole day to the Lord for a bowl of rice? I am sure even He does not want that," he says.

He'd like an Indian corporate captain to join him in his mission. He wants to visit the country's coal belt and help widows of workers who never returned from the mines, he wants to visit battle-scarred Sri Lanka, and Sunderbans villages to meet widows of men killed by tigers. As Loomba waits for a hypothetical offer from a hypothetical Indian corporate giant - he calls it the hand of God - he runs his Trust alone. In an area of darkness, even a single beacon can signal a great deal of hope.


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