An exclusive interview with Santosh Bhanot, Founder and Chair of The Asian Circle, an NGO supporting vulnerable women in India, on what being a Living Bridge between India and the UK means to her.
What does a ‘bridge’between India and the UK mean to you personally?
A bridge between India and the UK for me is a seamless connect across two great nations. Global excellence and continued growth can be achieved in science, medicine and technological advances with access, trust and intelligent sharing. The bridge can result in entrepreneurship, development of super products, processes and best practices. It would be phenomenal!
In my 24 years at P&G, I was able to input into a blend of west and east cultural practices to achieve winning strategies. I quote from one example, Vicks VapoRub, a well-loved familiar 100-year-old product with virtually 100% brand awareness.
The challenge has been on how to sustain this global product. I worked with India based talent with great scientific expertise which resulted in a winning global ‘Touch Therapy’ concept. This combined traditional ‘Ayah’ practices of baby massage to calm, soothe and bond with babies and by linking this to clinical scientific evidence – VapoRub Touch Therapy was created.
It was the combination of east meets west that resulted in this Vicks campaign which achieved global market success. More recently, I am pleased to see that the ‘Touch Therapy Campaign’ has now evolved into a successful Vicks Brand Equity – ‘Vicks Touch Of Care in India’.
I’m sure many advances could be achieved with a seamless bridge – many more connections are waiting to be fostered.
How do you feel connected to India as a member of the diaspora?
Being British born to parents of Indian origin, I was raised in the UK embracing both Eastern and Western cultures – loving things Indian, the food, the people, the music and a spiritual bond with the motherland. This was further strengthened during a visit to the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad; an epic experience cementing my connections with ’India’.
My instilled Indian values were to serve family, society and the community. I was raised in a ‘Community House’ which was about sharing and caring with events, visits and trips centred on Indian arts and culture.
Growing up in two cultures had its benefits, challenges and conflicts and was a balancing act of being ‘British’ with my English friends and ‘Indian’ at home – a subject for another time. Meera Syal’s book ‘Anita and Me’ certainly resonates!
In contrast, recently reading Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary about a remarkable Indian Suffragette fighting the rights for British women in the UK during the 1900s is unimaginable. In those times ‘the bridge’ existed albeit in a different way of Empire.
So India has always been on my radar.
Why did you pick The Asian Circle and the cause of Adivasis? Why not something else?
My father Om Parkash Sharma MBE was a true visionary and mentor, who taught me that ‘women stood equal to men’ and we should stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’. I was also raised with the Hindu philosophy of ‘Learn, Earn and Return’ and that life was finite. Wise words!
My roots drew me to India with a ‘deep dive’ into the humanitarian world and a fact-finding visit with Oxfam in India. Sharing time, hearing stories first hand, and listening particularly to women’s suffrage was an altogether emotional experience.
What was most impressive for me was once given the belief and confidence, and the right tools – these women were able to become the ‘changemakers’. India as a world leader rich in culture, work ethic and economy is fabulously placed to positively change this dynamic.
Back in the UK, 20 of us sat around an Oxfam table in summer of 2013. It was some months earlier in Delhi that a brutal gang rape took place. It was horrific and savage and a unanimous decision that we would work on an ‘Ending Violence against Women and Girls’ was made. Reviewing Oxfam projects we ‘discovered’ the Adivasi tribes of India; I had heard of Australian and American indigenous groups – why not Adivasis? So here started the quest to know more about these people and see how they could be supported.
The Asian Circle is a group of high achieving, highly talented British women of Asian origin. Our Mission: to ‘Work with vulnerable women in South Asia, who haven’t had the opportunities or resources to help themselves’. It is part of the International NGO The Circle, founded by Annie Lennox, singer and philanthropist.
From 2014 to 2017 a pilot project was developed and run in Chhattisgarh. We partnered with great talent from Oxfam India and local NGOs. The objective was to provide and improve – access to support centres, patriarchal attitudes and advocacy – knowledge to empower women and girls within this region. We worked in a number of villages with the Adivasi communities, Police and local Government to train, offer support, counselling and legal aid to women and girls.
The project was successful and the local NGO awarded the state level honour of ‘Nari Shakti Samman’ for ‘outstanding improvement of the conditions of women at the margins of society’. With International funders the project is being scaled across Chhattisgarh – an achievement The Asian Circle had set-out to realise.
The success of the project is a brilliant example of Bridge India at its best.
Why do diaspora Indians wish to engage with India in your experience?
Like myself, the diaspora that typically want to engage with India are those that have had exposure to both countries and cultures.
Within the Asian Circle, most of the women are in a ‘second career’ generally based on a passion they want to pursue and often linked to heritage, culture language and roots.
Bridge India is a fascinating concept and with the engagement of the diaspora and people of India we could bring about ‘something magical’ to build, grow and achieve excellence in unimaginable areas.
Setting up a British Asian based NGO and working in strong partnership with an Indian based NGO has given me fascinating insights into the huge possibilities partnerships can bring. The key for me is to engage in positive dialogue and practices ‘on’ the bridge and to ‘seamlessly’ integrate two great nations.
 Anita & Me, Meera Syal.
 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary Anita Anand.
 Nurturing Circles, Santosh Bhanot 2013 Ginger Public Speaking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9CnciyBz2w&feature=youtu.be&a=
 Creating New Identities: A Photo Journey Of Lok Astha’s work on Gender Justice 2014-2017, Oxfam India 2017