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On a Friday afternoon in July, dozens of children rose to their feet to sing a chorus at an educational institute in the Palakkad district of central Kerala. It was a cloudy afternoon — right after a shower that cleansed the lush surroundings.
They had gathered at a circular open area overlooking the slopes of the hills where the facility — Sobha Academy — lies, to welcome guests and narrate their stories. They started singing … a song of hope, of their dreams of a better future.
A few years ago, hope was a luxury not meant for these children. Some were destitutes, from families that had difficulty in providing two square meals a day. But not anymore, thanks to Sobha Academy, which has set itself the ambitious goal of grooming the poorest of the poor living in two panchayats — Vadakkenchery and Kizhakkenchery — and setting them on the path to a better future.
Run by Sri Kurumba Trust, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of Sobha Developers, the academy's building mirrors that audacious dream at many levels. It rises tall on the flank of a hill — a testament to the passion that drives this project — and, like the children it houses, seems out of place in this otherwise modest neighbourhood.
The person behind this initiative is a non-resident entrepreneur from the southern Indian state of Kerala, P.N.C. Menon, who is the chairman of Sobha Developers and a man well regarded for quality, finesse and perfection at work. He has put his money, and more importantly his heart and soul, into the project.
"In addition to world-class education and training, we provide three sets of uniforms, breakfast, lunch and snacks to all the children. The food is prepared in our kitchen. All students are fed adequately, as we know they might not have proper meals at home," says Jayashree Parameswaran, the academy's vice-principal.
The academy does not, however, limit itself only to the children's health and academic requirements.
"Because we know that some students come from disturbed families, we periodically visit their homes, interview the parents and sometimes summon them to the school and guide them on how they [the parents] should behave at home," Parameswaran says.
The parents are often asked to work towards improving the environment at home and change their own behaviour so they can set better examples for their children.
"Within three months of the child being admitted, changes in their health, attitude and behaviour are visible," Parameswaran says.
Every year, 90 children from the most vulnerable families are selected through a scientific poverty-mapping scheme called Social Empowerment Mapping Exercise (SEME). The chosen ones — there are 565 children at the academy at present — are then brought under an action plan called Vision 2020 that is aimed at providing comprehensive and sustainable social empowerment to 2,500 families living below the poverty line.
The plan encompasses all aspects of the students' lives to the extent that "when school closes for long holidays, we give them packs of dry food that will last the entire duration of the vacation — so their health and nutrition level is maintained at home," Parameswaran says.
The boys and girls are admitted to the school at their earliest — between 3 and 5 years of age. The school provides them transport, education, books and other materials, food and medicare as part of the overall development plan.
"The most difficult part is the selection of the most vulnerable — the poorest of the poor families — and their children for admission into Sobha Academy," says Ajay Rajendran, vice-chairman of Sobha Developers' international operations, who is based in Dubai. "Mr Menon is very particular about details of his work, even in the corporate social responsibility, to ensure that the really needy get the benefits of the company's CSR initiatives."
Rajendran said Menon designed the project and was personally involved in the construction of the academy and the two other facilities attached to it — Sobha Hermitage, an old-age home, and Sobha Healthcare, a day-care medical facility that treats patients free of cost.
"There is no billing department in any of these institutions. All services are free, including basic medicine," Rajendran says.
The institutions are part of Graamasobha, the trust's social development initiative. The programme covers key human development verticals such as education, health, employment, water, sanitation and housing, besides various social empowerment measures.
The attention to detail, a hallmark of the academy, also shows in the other facilities. Take for example the fact that employees of Sobha Healthcare are selected from the panchayats so that they could support families through their income. Sobha Hermitage — which looks more like a resort — boasts well-laid-out suites, 24-hour care, entertainment, common room with indoor games, recreational facilities, gymnasium, library and round-the-clock food. The guiding philosophy, of making a real difference in lives, has resulted in the school providing the most advanced education to the underprivileged.
"Just because it is a school for destitutes, we do not run it like one. It is managed in a way that we would want our children to be educated in," Rajendran says.
The institution — set up in 2006 — has gained such repute that even well-to-do families are pressuring it to enrol their children.
And that pressure has forced the authorities to lay down some specific ground rules. "Children of people who can afford to pay the fees are disqualified from getting admission. Those who approach Mr Menon personally are also automatically disqualified," Rajendran says. "The whole objective of the project is to support and empower the poorest and help them to become successful professionals in life."
The pro-woman, pro-child, pro-senior citizen initiatives take a bottom-up approach to human empowerment. Sustainability is built-in for continuity of the empowerment process.
Rather than just donating to charities, Menon has brought the entire population of the two panchayats — 80,000 people, or 15,000 families — living below the poverty line into a comprehensive sustainable empowerment programme to ensure that each stands on his own feet.
"You could either do certain things for a lot of people, or you could do almost everything for some people — give them a complete package — education, food, health care, clothing and empowerment," Rajendran says. "Mr Menon chose the second option. Although it will help fewer people, these initiatives will offer them a better living and empower them to lead decent lives."
More than 250 million of India's 1.2 billion population live in extreme poverty.
"Our CSR initiatives, we hope, will be replicated by others and then these numbers will be multiplied throughout the country and eventually help a larger segment out of poverty," he says.
Menon is building a larger high school — up to 12th grade — with the campus close to the existing Sobha Academy premises to extend education to the children when they move to high school.
"We will then establish a college for them to earn their bachelor's degree and prepare for employment," Menon says. "We have a moral responsibility till they settle."
Menon also has plans to absorb them in his own company, if need be.
All these, say the staff of the academy and the other facilities, highlight the human side of Menon, featured by Forbes as the richest non-resident Keralite, and show that he has not lost touch with his past.
A rags-to-riches story
Menon's is a perfect "rags-to-riches" story and his life journey is proof that he has worked hard to get where he is today.
Menon started his business in Muscat in 1976 with Rs50 ($7 as per the then exchange rate) after "accidentally" meeting Captain Sulaiman Adawi, an Omani army officer, in a hotel lobby in Kochi, Kerala.
"‘Where is the Sultanate of Oman?' was the first question I asked the Omani gentleman," quips Menon, while chatting at his Jebel Ali office that looks after the GCC operations.
About 45 days later, Menon was in Oman, looking for business.
"Upon landing in Oman, my partner and I borrowed 3,000 Omani riyals to start a small street-side furniture and interiors business under the name of Trade and Services Co. Initially, it was a ‘briefcase business' — trying to fix small things, maintenance, etc — and then it developed into an interiors outfit. Slowly and steadily, we grew, repaid the loan and began to grow our own capital," he recalled.
By 1984, the company began to get big contracts, driven mostly by word of mouth due to its quality of work.
Then one day Menon received a call to work for the diwan, the sultan's office in Muscat, to work on a palace.
The rest is history. His company then went on to work for the royalty of Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the president of Tajikistan. He spent the most glorious part of his career designing and developing palaces, royal facilities and mosques. The Grand Mosque in Muscat bears testimony to his work.
"It's my skills that had created a need for such works," says Menon, who was later granted Omani citizenship.
Later Menon expanded his business in India, launching Sobha Developers in Bangalore in 1995, where he started with some residential and commercial projects.
"It's the attention to detail that makes the difference and Mr Menon has made his mark by developing a knack for intricate details in his works that stands out — something I am yet to see elsewhere," says Colonel M.S. Kapoor, a retired Indian army officer and a long-time associate of Menon.
His big break in India came when Infosys asked him to build a campus for them. On the day of the inauguration, Infosys chairman N.R. Narayana Murthy was impressed by the quality of the finish and wanted to meet the person who delivered the project.
Thereafter, Menon was assigned to deliver almost all Infosys projects. He also built the Infosys Global Education Centre, spread over 136 hectares, in Mysore. This is independent India's largest monolithic structure. More than 16,000 students walk through these hallways every year.
"Quality has to be endorsed by others," Menon says. "Money is only a by-product of the success. You've got to chase success, rather than money. You've got to be different from others. If you are doing the same thing that others are doing, you are the same as others."
‘We have to do good things to others'
On his birthday in 2006, P.N.C. Menon offered gold equivalent to his body weight — 76 kilograms — at the Krishna temple at Guruvayur in Kerala, in a thulabharam (weighing balance) ritual. The gold bars were worth Rs6,80,00,000 (Dh5,433,499). "Administrators of the temple had never seen so many gold bars," a report says. They did not know how to deal with such a huge chunk of the precious metal. "We believe in God. We are accountable to him. We have to do good things to others," Menon says. "Karma is what you take with you."