TEXT: PILAR ABAD PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ AND MUMBAI SMILES

«Destitute people living on the streets are often unfairly judged and blamed for their situation»

It all began with Mumbai Smiles… How many projects are run today under the auspices of this NGO and how many people benefit from your activity?
It all began in 2003, with those 40 children at the Mumbai orphanage, located in the midst of the city’s slums. We then progressively started up new projects and, over all these years, we’ve benefited more than 10,000 people, some 1,000 or 1,200 in 2018 alone. In Mumbai there are many children living on the sidewalks who officially don’t even exist. We identify them and, once registered, we take care of their health, nutritional and educational needs at the different stages of their lives. Where they exist, we strive to get the families involved from the very beginning, as what you do is of no use at all unless you engage the whole community.

The other group we dedicate ourselves to are the victims of human trafficking, especially young girls — some just three, four or five years old — who, in many cases, have been sold into prostitution by their own families. As well as attempting to cover their basic needs, we offer psychological support in the mental health center that we opened in the city’s red-light district, the prostitution ‘nerve center’ of practically the whole of Asia. Logically enough, before being able to rebuild their lives, they have to overcome many traumas. We have the case of a fourth generation three-year-old girl; in other words, her great-grandmother was sold off and her grandmother, mother and herself were all born in the brothel. It was actually that girl’s mother who contacted us to break this cycle and change her daughter’s destiny. As far as the mafia running the brothel is aware, that girl is dead and we must maintain her anonymity… It’s tremendous, but that’s the situation we live in here.

You write that “you’d never boast about what you were doing.” What a great lesson for life and for organizations such as MAPFRE! Have you ever thought of running projects elsewhere in the world?
I’ve received proposals, but always said no. Mumbai is a city of 20 million inhabitants, and over half of them live in extreme poverty. Our ‘vision’ is to work for a Mumbai free of poverty and social injustice, and overstretching ourselves would only endanger that goal.

In my case, not bragging about the results may be something that’s in my blood… I always focus on what still needs to be done. I also believe that comfort zones are a major hazard for organizations and individuals. I’d encourage all of you to leave your comfort zone and always go that step further, bearing in mind that a small gesture with a work colleague has the same transformative capacity as creating an NGO.

What do you think of corporate volunteering and initiatives promoted by the foundations of enterprises such as MAPFRE?
I believe this work is essential. One way for organizations to become involved in making the world a better place is to encourage employees to engage in volunteering activities through the corresponding platforms.

The results of these collaborations are tangible and if they are performed with honesty they work well, greatly benefiting NGOs like ours and continuing over time.

You invite us to look, listen, be close to and feel real life… Is volunteering a way to fulfill this recommendation?
It clearly is. In order to form an opinion, the first thing is to learn and, to learn, you need firsthand experience. 

Charity/cooperation… What’s the difference?
I believe we’re living in times when the concept of charity no longer bears that connotation of inferiority for the recipients. We must not forget that poverty, disease or neglect are situations that any of us may have to face. I believe that we NGOs must fight to eradicate that misconception of charity and we must also defend the professionalization of those of us who work in development cooperation.

How did that transformation from rejecting this country to falling in love with it come about?
Well, today, I still say that I’m not in love with India, that it’s not my favorite country and that Mumbai is not my favorite city… If it were, nothing would need to be changed and I wouldn’t be devoting almost my entire life to modifying what I don’t like about this city.

“Making others happy is the real secret of happiness” Why do we in Western societies find it so hard to be happy?
Because we live without realizing that our real purpose is being useful to others, from whatever perspective and position that may be. It’s like a violin that grows and reaches its point of greatness when it is played, which is the reason it was created.

I believe the rapprochement between East and West, in both directions, reflects the relationship between companies and NGOs. They need each other. The former are ruled by the markets, but they need to include in their mission a social commitment to improve the world, and that’s where we come in. Those companies whose sole goal is to make money will die.

I suppose despondency has no place in this endeavor…
When I started studying journalism, my dean said “life is much better than they w ould have you believe” and I still believe that. Despite the pain and the unjust, almost inhuman situations I’ve witnessed and experienced, I believe that the good in the world exceeds the evil.

What is the toughest question you have asked yourself or the most painful reply you have encountered?
And your own mental prison? Perhaps what was hardest to accept is that a mother’s love is not always universal… You realize this when you see mothers selling their daughters at the age of just three, four or five, knowing that the next day they’re going to be prostituted.

And my mental prison? Well, I’ll tell you that there came a day when I realized that, in order to be a balanced person, you need work and rest. People must have a multidisciplinary life, filled with lots of different things; there must be friends, love, even frivolities… and rest. I had to make an effort there, as my dedication to work knew no limits.

15 years in India… Will this be your destination forever?
Right now, I’d like to think it will be. I have that longterm commitment to Mumbai, another thing that doesn’t seem to be fashionable in Western societies. There, if you don’t have a load of jobs on your résumé, it seems that you aren’t a good professional. That capacity for loyalty was more appreciated before, but now labor ‘promiscuity’ is all the rage.

Have you found your Taj Mahal?
My Taj Mahal is Mumbai Smiles. To think that, thanks to this project, 10,000 people have a better life and we’ve contributed to that, gives me great peace of mind. I’m really satisfied because we can see the results. In fact, one of the best chefs in Mumbai was one of the children in the orphanage, and that is so rewarding.