Meet a successful woman who remembers her roots, runs charity for tribals in Andhra Pradesh

Born and raised in Paderu, Swati Kanta has now dedicated her life to assisting Andhra’s tribal communities.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Feb 27, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedFeb 27, 2023 | 10:00 AM

Swati Kanta

Charity is silent, the act of giving best performed quietly and without the expectation of a reward or recognition in return.

That is the life lesson social worker Swati Kanta imbibed from her father. A tribal woman, Kanta has a PhD in human resource management.

Kanta, 37, fondly remembers her “daddy” and “amma”, her mother, quietly gifting essentials to relatives and friends from remote tribal areas visiting them every week at Paderu, a small town in Alluri Sitharama Raju district in Andhra Pradesh.

“Daddy would offer them our place to stay the night. The next day, amma would pack a bag filled with rations, sarees, clothes for their children, chappals, and even small items like hair oil and hairclips for their little girls,” recalls Kanta, who runs an NGO for tribals.

Swati Kanta

Swati Kanta at a tribal village. (Supplied)

“Daddy would never let the visitors leave without sliding in a note of ₹50 for their journey back home. Charity was routine for us.”

Kanta confesses she is appalled by today’s politicians boasting about any charity work they do. “They give 10 pairs of clothes and click a thousand pictures,” she says.

Perhaps this is why Kanta’s silent philanthropy has not drawn much fanfare as she carries forward her father’s legacy, offering assistance to anyone who needs it.

Every week or once in 10 days, she travels through the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh and makes short trips to almost a dozen villages — while the media is focussed elsewhere.

But Kanta gets her reward from those who matter to her.

“When the villagers identify my Mahindra Isuzu truck, they know akka is bringing them something,” she says, using the Telugu word for “sister”.

“That instant joy in their eyes is my return gift.”

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On starting an NGO

Born and raised in Paderu, Kanta has now dedicated her life to assisting Andhra’s tribal communities. “I’ve reached a point in life where I can give back to them, so why shouldn’t I?” she says of her NGO, the RS Swecha Society.

Kanta is an inspiration for many, and a source of guidance to others. But she herself was inspired by someone else — her father. Growing up, she heard stories of her father trudging kilometres just to get access to basic education.

Swati Kanta

Swati Kanta interacting with some tribal women. (Supplied)

“He hailed from a very interior place and used to cross two hills to reach his school,” she explains.

“His family didn’t do well, and so, paying education fees was always a challenge. Daddy would trade lemons, oranges and ragi with the teacher so he could be allowed to sit in the classroom.”

By the time Kanta was born, he was well-settled as a tribal welfare officer, a government job that spelled financial security.

“My childhood was comfortable and healthy. We lived close to the forest, life was decent. But daddy never forgot his roots. Any chance he got, he would help the tribals. He took care of not just us, but many villages as well. He has sponsored the education of several children, and donated money for girls’ marriages.”

Kanta says she never felt he was doing anything “extraordinary”. “I thought everyone does it. It was a way of life for us.”

Kanta went to Vizag for higher education, and completed a post-graduation course in human resource management, and even worked in an MNC for four years.

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As destiny would have it, it was at a charity in 2006 — a free medical camp for mentally challenged people — that she met her husband Dr Ravindranath Kapu, who would later encourage her to expand her philanthropic work.

Kanta quit her corporate job during pregnancy, and instead focused on doing a PhD in 2012. The couple also moved to Rajahmundry, a city located on the eastern banks of Godavari river.

Swati Kanta

Swati Kanta

Around that time, her husband’s practice as a neurosurgeon had also just taken off, and yet, they felt, they had extra time on their hands. “We did not like the idle time in the evenings,” Kanta confesses.

So, in 2016, the couple opened a small clinic, and on completing her PhD the following year, Kanta decided to help her husband run it.

Over the years, the clinic grew into a mini-ICU and eventually, a 15-bed neurosurgery hospital.

“Initially, it was just a two-bed facility. We handled emergency cases,” she says. “I remember taking a gold loan for this.”

In 2019, they took another bank loan so they could move to a bigger facility, a 10-year-old building that they converted into a neurosurgery hospital.

“My husband is very good at handling trauma cases. But navigating a business at such a scale was challenging. Some close friends supported us.”

Kanta handles the finances, housekeeping, training of new staff, coordinating with retailers in the pharmacy, and almost everything else except for surgery and OPD.

“We were destined to meet and work together. He liked me because of the social work I do,” she says of her husband, who is also an avid wildlife photographer.

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Committed to tribal welfare

In 2020, the pandemic happened. It raised new challenges for tribal populations, severely affecting their livelihoods, health and mobility just as it did to millions of others across the world.

But it also set off Kanta on a new path. And the nudge came from her husband, who told her, “It’s time to take your work to the next level!”

Officially registering an NGO and reaching out to larger groups of vulnerable people was a priority. And so that same year, RS Swecha came into being.

Swati Kanta

Swati Kanta.

Along with her husband and brother, she started visiting the tribal belt along the Eastern Ghats of Andhra; in order to help them, she needed to gain their trust first.

“Tribals don’t let outsiders into their lives easily. They have trust issues. We needed to do something to let them believe we belong to the same community,” she says.

And so, during the pandemic, the family started travelling daily to these small hamlets. They would carry their own tents and have long chats with the local drivers.

“Eventually the villagers let us in. We would eat with them, sit with them and have endless conversations. They would take us deeper into the forests to other villages. We carried medicines like paracetamol tablets to fight Covid-19 and some nutritional supplements for pregnant women.”

Gradually, Kanta started taking the road on her own, carrying ration, food supplies, medicines and clothing. “Every village had a different requirement. Some didn’t have onions even to cook basic food.”

Her journey from Rajahmundry to these villages would take up more than five hours, with a major part of her travel requiring her to walk.

“There is no connectivity to these villages. I have crossed dangerous streams and hills to get to them,” she says.

Kanta doesn’t have a full-fledged team, just a few locals who help her fetch supplies from the shops and transport them to the villages.

Schemes that don’t reach

There are a few government schemes for tribals but the benefits barely reach this population, Kanta says.

“I have seen it myself. A major part of these benefits goes into the pockets of middlemen. Tribals get a minuscule amount of government aid. A huge part is siphoned off,” she says

The main occupation of these villagers is farming, but it is only for survival, says Kanta; the produce is mostly not sold — but even if they are sold, the villagers get very poor rates.

Swati Kanta

Swati Kanta

The tribals also make broomsticks, though the income from it is very meagre. “They are paid ₹30 for one broomstick, which is later sold in the market at ₹150,” says Kanta.

Charity is her passion, and she wants to keep going for as long as she can. As a result, they spend their own money to buy the essentials for the tribals.

“Funds come from my husband’s pocket,” Kanta says. “We don’t accept donations from others.”

The reason, she says, is this: “If we seek help from others that would mean we are answerable to them for expenses, and I don’t want that.”

The tribals reciprocate with their own little gifts.

“Sometimes, they store dry mushroom for me. They pack it into a paper bag and slide it into my hand. They say, ‘Go home and cook for your family’,” Kanta says with a laugh.

“It is the most precious gift.”