Shobhana Wahi, dressed in a crisp salwar kameez (traditional Indian outfit), is a picture of elegance. There is a sense of serenity about her that’s very comforting and must have come from years of working for the underprivileged, as also for being the better half of a decorated Indian army official and civil servant, the late Colonel Satya Pal Wahi, who was also a legend in India’s business world. Their son, Rakesh Wahi, is co-founder of the ABN Group that publishes FORBES AFRICA.
Born in 1938 in Uttar Pradesh in north India into a business family, Shobhana earned her diploma in home science and studied in Delhi’s prestigious colleges: Lady Irwin, Lady Shri Ram and Indraprastha. Growing up, her family was committed to India’s freedom struggle. Her father, Prag Nath Kukreja, was imprisoned by the British during the Quit India Movement in 1942.
She married Col. (then Capt.) Wahi in 1957, and all her life, has been involved in innumerable charitable activities including adopting villages, setting up schools, cultural centers, vocational centers and polytechnic institutes for the less fortunate.
When we meet her on her recent visit to Johannesburg, she highlights her association with Mother Teresa and vignettes of her own life committed to uplifting communities in India.
What impressed you most about army life after marriage?
There was something special about men in uniform; it was first a romantic notion but over time, it was overwhelming to see the disciplined life, the respect for ladies, the honor code and the brotherhood. My husband was posted all over the country and some of the notable cities were Delhi and Secunderabad. Since my husband had served two years with the British Army at the Vickers Armstrong Tank factory in Leeds, he was handpicked to be part of India’s tank factory in Avadi where he, along with some great leaders, rolled out India’s first indigenous tank, The Vijayanta, in 1966; the inauguration was done by none other than our first woman prime minister Indira Gandhi.
In 1968, my husband was the first commanding officer of 6014 EME Battalion that he raised in Ambala. This was the pinnacle of our time in the military. The army is a unique way of life. While our husbands would be away on exercises and other combat duties, the ladies would form a strong support system for each other; this was not just the officers’ wives but the Commanding Officer’s wife would be responsible for welfare activities of the complete battalion. Perhaps it is this comforting thought that allows our brave soldiers to fearlessly take on responsibilities on the frontier knowing their families were safe.
My husband had served under Mr Mantosh Sondhi in Avadi [in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu], and when he moved to establish Bokaro Steel Plant, he requested Army Headquarters to transfer my husband on deputation. Once again, the entire city developed around this mammoth steel plant that was built with Soviet collaboration. It was during this period my husband finally decided to retire from the Army and stepped out of uniform in 1972.
My husband then pursued a career with the public sector and first moved in 1974 to establish BHEL’s foundry and forge plant in Hardwar [in northern India] and later was appointed Chairman of Cement Corporation of India. In 1981, he moved as Chairman of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and finally retired from service in 1989.
How did you get involved in welfare activities?
This has to be seen in the context of the economic disparity and poverty in India. We have extreme poverty and being charitable was in our blood. It’s hard to see people live below subsistence; I grew up watching my grandfather and parents supporting schools for the blind as well as our orphanage in Patodi House Daryaganj, Delhi. Even at school, we gave our clothes, books, toys, tiffin and shoes to poor children. These activities were unstructured and localized within communities but as I grew up, got married and traveled all over the country, my husband and I were able to institutionalize the activities.
In the army, the activities were all internalized; they were centered on the welfare of the soldiers and were related to hygiene, medical, day care centers, schools and other social activities like fetes. We taught ladies to knit, cook, home finance, bank and most importantly write letters to their husbands; it was so important for the morale of soldiers. It was extremely gratifying.
I had a great mentor in Mrs Reeta Sondhi from whom I had learned a lot in Avadi and Bokaro. The real opportunity to lead social activities started when we moved to Hardwar. Some of the activities I initiated were: starting a nursery school, a central school, establishing a branch of Delhi Public School, starting welfare centers etc. Since Indians love spices, we purchased grinding machines and got the spices ready and packed. Almost 10,000 people were living in Ranipur [in Hardwar in northern India] and everyone started buying the fresh spices from our little cooperative which I believe is still the tradition there.
In 1981, when we moved to Dehradun; Mrs Indira Gandhi visited Dehradun in Dec 1981 and she asked me to adopt villages around the 20-point program. The ONGC is India’s largest public sector company and was spread all over India. My husband and I decided to create a strong culture of supporting our people as well as the communities where we were operating. I established the ONGC Mahila Samiti in 1982 under the auspices of which we adopted Jhajra and Majra villages where we constructed bus stops with sheds, repaired roads, bored wells, and built school buildings; improved the quality of life by supplying power and water; launched a cleanliness drive giving incentives to each house in the village; offered adult education for women, and talks on personal hygiene and health.
What was your most noteworthy accomplishment?
It was the setting up of a vocational center where widows and dependents of deceased employees and also women of the weaker sections of society were given training to earn a living. The following units were set up that were commercially viable: a printing press; a typing center; we bought a grinding machine and employed ladies to clean, grind and pack fresh spices into small packets for sale; grocery stores; a sewing, cutting, embroidery and knitting section; we bought weaving looms and made bed covers, table cloths, dusters, napkins and towels…
We launched cultural activities in Dehradun – we hosted the First Regional Cultural meet of ONGC and produced ‘Festivals of India’; we produced tableau for various cultural programs for Delhi Doordarshan [state-run TV] and our work centers throughout the country including composing patriotic songs on the 20-point program and on Mother Teresa for Independence Day and Republic Day.
There was a dire need of a polytechnic institute for girls and women in the Doon Valley to be trained in various fields and be gainfully employed.
The polytechnic received an overwhelming response from the people, evident from the 400 admissions we had in the first semester. I secured partnerships and recognition from institutions and industry. This included a French language course to be conducted by Alliance Francaise; cutting and tailoring course recognized by Usha International limited; recognition of the hotel management course by the Welcom Group of Hotels and the computer science course by the Computer Society of India and the Russian language affiliated to the All India Institute of Russian Language; we have employed experienced teachers and eminent visiting lecturers; provided a comprehensive library; and was amongst the first to start a computer literacy program.
How and when did you meet Mother Teresa?
This was the highlight of my life. I was informed that Mother Teresa was visiting Meerut, a city a few hours away from Dehradun [in northern India]. I extended an invitation to her to visit Dehradun which she accepted; this was a dream come true for me. We welcomed her at our auditorium and arranged a cultural program for her after which she visited and blessed our home. My younger daughter, Shalini, who was in school, met her several times. This was the start of a relationship that was the greatest blessing from God. She had spent her life in the service of people and we were blessed to have had such a close relationship with her.
I met her whenever she came to Delhi and on a few occasions she traveled with us. I went to meet her on one of the occasions when she asked my husband and I to start a home for her in Dehradun. We found a place and the Sisters from the Missionary of Charity visited and approved the place. From the Ladies Club, we donated furniture beds, utensils, curtains quilts, blankets, clothes, woolens, books and toys. The home was occupied by children, old and disabled people; our doctors from the ONGC Hospital visited the home and treated them as when required. Mother Teresa became very fond of me through this association and it’s her blessing that has been a pillar of strength for us all.