In 1978, Benjamine Oberoi came to India to do her Ph.D. She never left. Here, she talks to Vaiju Naravane about her amazing life, and her foundations for rural development and the empowerment of girls.
Away from the glass and glitter and the concrete high-rise of brash Bangalore, tucked into the folds and meanders of old Richmond Town, sits Casa Cottage. Surrounded by a garden, set well away from the gate at 2 Clapham Street, its eaves and lattices painted ochre and white, the house is a colonial style bungalow that looks welcoming. Eighteen large rooms offer travellers a unique living experience away from the city’s harsh realities.
“This building was very dilapidated when we bought it 10 years ago,” says Benjamine Oberoi, a Frenchwoman who first came to India in 1978 to do her Ph.D. in child psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). “This house once belonged to an Anglo-Indian lady who was the florist for the entire community. She did the flowers for all the christenings, weddings and funerals. She lived alone. Her heirs were in England and the property fell into disrepair. We found that the walls and foundation were solid and we decided to restore the building to its former glory,” says Oberoi in her easy, no-nonsense way.
This tall, earnest Frenchwoman, who wears churidar kurtas , met her hotelier-husband, Bhushan Oberoi, while in India. They got married some 30 years ago. “First we owned a chain of restaurants, then this house came along and we set up a small hotel. Then I thought, so many people are seeking clean, inexpensive, serviced accommodation in Bangalore for short stays and they are asked to give 11 months rent in advance… how can students afford that? So I started offering long-stay and short-stay options. Students can opt for shared flats. I also have volunteers and persons from NGOs who do not have large budgets.”
With a Ph.D. in child psychology and development, Benjamine Oberoi from distant Toulon wished to use her talents and skills to help her adoptive land. She started two foundations; one registered in India, the other in France. Objective France-Inde, created in 1998, is a registered not-for-profit organisation under the French law of 1901 that governs NGOs and associations. Casa Foundation was created in 2011. Made up entirely of volunteers who place their skills and talents at the disposal of rural development and empowerment projects, OFI has managed to collect over a million Euros for projects in Bangalore and Tiruchi these past three years. Working with NGOs such as SEVAI, HUT, BOSCO and GRAMIUM, OFI participates in fundraising, coordination, and monitoring of rural development projects in Tamil Nadu.
Father George of Bosco, who heads projects for orphaned, runaway and disabled children, is very appreciative of Oberoi’s work. “We welcome some 7,000 children here. Most of the time we try to reunite the children with their parents through counselling and other measures, but those whose families cannot take them or those who have no families board with us. The challenges are huge and money is in perpetual short supply. For instance, for the five projects that we run for children in association with the Karnataka government, we have not received a penny since last April. Our helpline operators are paid just Rs.4,000. They have been working for practically 11 months without pay. So funding continues to be a major preoccupation and Benjamine persuaded the PVF foundation in Geneva to fund one of our projects. When we were building our new hostel for children, she persuaded the Hirzel Foundation, also in Geneva, to pay for an entire floor of the seven-floor building.”
Oberoi talks about the successes and failures of some of her rural development projects with wry realism. “In Tiruchi, through micro-credit schemes, our women were given cows. But the cows gave very little milk. I arranged for a young veterinary agronomist to spend some time with them. It turned out the women were not giving the cows the right kind of fodder and certainly not enough water. The experiment gave excellent results and the young researcher used this experience to obtain a Ph.D. degree!”
But the results are not always up to scratch. A jam-making enterprise with some of the BOSCO students worked extremely well at first. The children managed to sell several hundred bottles of jam through churches and retail outlets. “But the moment there was no direct supervision, the enterprise failed. They did not put in enough sugar, the fruit rotted.”
Oberoi talks of projects in water management and harvesting, building homes for HIV children or those with disabilities as experiences that have taught her along the way. “What did I know of water management? The villagers knew it all; I was just a catalyst, the person who helped get the initial money and gave some motivation. I now know rather a lot about canals, water tables, conservation and drip irrigation, thanks to the knowledge of the villagers and the experts who came to help us.”
Made up entirely of volunteers who place their skills and talents at the disposal of rural development and empowerment projects, OFI has managed to collect over a million Euros for projects in Bangalore and Tiruchi these past three years.