After witnessing hardship both in India and the UK, Rita Hinduja set up the Mukul Madhav Foundation, following in the philanthropic footsteps of her grandfather and father in law

Words: Selma Day

Rita Hinduja is the only daughter of Gopichand Hinduja, co-chairman of the St James’s-based Hinduja Group which made its fortune – £28.5 billlion at the last count and topping the Sunday Times Rich List 2022 – through industry, oil, finance, IT and property.

Her grandfather Parmanand Deepchand Hinduja was born in Shi­karpur in Sind (now in Pakistan) on No­vember 25, 1901, and founded the family business when he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1914. He went on to earmark a huge portion of his personal wealth for the benefit of those less fortunate.

Likewise, Rita’s father in law, the late Pralhad P Chhabria and his family migrated from Pakistan to India after partition. As a young boy who had nothing, he began a small business which grew to become one of India’s largest cable and pipe companies. The company – Finolex – is now headed by Rita’s husband Prakash.

Having had no formal education himself, PP Chhabria devoted his life to philanthropy, with a mission to foster quality education.

Rita has since continued the legacy of her grandfather and father in law, living by the values instilled by them. Her motto is “live to give” and for many years she has been involved in various initiatives to support and serve society.

“When I moved to Pune, I saw a lot of poverty,” she says. “We know poverty is around us, but it's in your face. You see people out on the road begging and there's a lot that makes you realise that you are different, because you have it all. So I though, why not start sharing?”

Rita and I are chatting over afternoon tea in the elegant surroundings of Fortnum & Mason’s Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon – a world away from Pune but a stone’s throw from the Hinduja family home in St James’s.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Rita moved to London at the age of eight with her family at the time of the Revolution, then after her marriage to Prakash in 1989, she returned to her roots in Pune, where in 1999, she set up the Mukul Madhav Foundation (MMF).

The foundation is primarily engaged at grassroots level with vulnerable, marginalised communities and individuals – striving to give access to the resources they need to thrive and to succeed. Its work encompasses healthcare, education, social welfare, water and environmental conservation, sanitation, women’s empowerment, disaster relief, promotion of sports and skill development.

Since its inception, MMF has initiated several milestone projects, from establishing Pune's first ever Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to inaugurating the Mukul Madhav Vidyalaya (a school for quality education) in the rural region of Ratnagiri, impacting tens of thousands of lives.

“At first it was institutional support and then it became individual support,” says Rita. “Then we went on to working for village adoption – helping villages to upgrade themselves, so providing them with safe drinking water, sanitation, toilets, electricity, solar lights, etc.

“It’s about listening to the community to see how we can deliver and implement their needs in the best possible way – it’s about what they want, not what you want to give them. I can't just walk in somewhere and say, okay, this is my donation and be happy with it. No, it's all about knowing exactly where they stand and where you stand.”

Along with ensuring affordable, world-class healthcare at government, corporation and private hospitals, and supporting schools by providing equipment, helping pay for teachers’ remuneration and offering scholarships, promoting gender equality and empowering women is a major focus.

Rita Hinduja

So far, over 30,000 women have been helped through various programmes. The foundation provides vocational and farming training to help women become self reliant while also providing healthcare, educational and welfare support to underprivileged women.

Menstruation is still a taboo in many parts of our country. To help menstruating women, it has created period-positive homes where they can feel safe, happy, healthy, motivated, and increase their self-reliance with various skill development activities every month.

As well as running the MMF Foundation, Rita also sits on the steering committee for the Hinduja Foundation and heads up CSR at her husband Prakash’s company Finolex Industries and having offices in 26 states out of 28 states in India has enabled MMF to expand its own work across the country.

“It means locally we have a face and the support so I've been able to engage them in finding and implementing projects,” says Rita.

For Rita, collaboration is key. The foundation has partnered with several international organisations to help individuals across the length and breadth of India build stronger foundations for themselves so that they can reach their true potential and take their communities along with them. This includes working with partners in the UK to access their expertise and resources for healthcare projects.

“Collaborative efforts have made small projects much bigger than we had imagined,” says Rita. “The last 20 to 23 years have shown me a diversified way of giving back and all these different things that we have been able to do has actually made a huge impact on villages, society and community.”

Rita, who divides her time between the UK and India, has inherited her strong work ethic (she’s at work by 6.45 every morning) from her father and father in law. “I find my dad and my [late] father in law so similar, because of being simple, humble people – they've never been out there saying, ‘we did this, and we did that, and whatever’.

“And when I say, ‘dad you work too hard’, he says, ‘I’m not working because of money. I'm working, because I'm learning.”

When she’s not working, Rita enjoys walking around Mayfair and St James’s and visiting the art galleries. “I love art. I’ve have a lot good paintings that I’ve got over the years. In fact, I did an course with Sotheby’s on art appreciation before I got married. It was the first time I really got to see London. You understand the buildings and the connotations of this, that and the other.”

As for restaurants, she cites C London as one of her favourites, along with Mimi Mei Fair, Jamavar, Chutney Mary, Em Sherif (in Harrods) and Scalini (over in Chelsea). “There are so many good restaurants, but I think we just overdo it sometimes,” she laughs.

Having established its offices in London in 2019, MMF UK is now an officially-registered charity in the UK and works to support causes both locally and in India. In the UK, it has partnered with various organisations to support meals, healthcare services, celebrating Christmas with kids, supporting victims of Ukraine war and education.

“London is a home for me and it has embraced us,” says Rita. “India is my mother country, so naturally, I feel strongly about it, but I have grown up over here, so now it’s time to give back here as well.

“It’s been an amazing journey. There’s a lot of satisfaction at the end of the day and I’ve learnt so much through individuals and communities both in India and over here – and I think I have been instrumental in connecting the UK and India.

“A lot of people do philanthropy because they like signing off the cheque or they want to be seen. And then there are some people who want to know where their money has gone, not because they're being nosy, but because they care.

“I’m not just signing if off because I want to be seen by Prince [now King] Charles – it doesn’t make any difference in my life. Yes, I am someone who loves meeting people and it has been a great eye opener to meet people. But I am involved in my work because I care, I can and I want to.”