Pragati Kendra

Pragati Kendra…
an instrument of Change…

“In a progressive country change is constant, change is inevitable.”
— Benjamin “Dizzy” Disraeli (1804-1881)


“For almost 10 years we felt as if we were banging our heads against the wall and suddenly like a curtain opening on a scene, the people concerned realized the worth of the programme and a real change took place.


When British left India in 1947, India was yet to recover from the catastrophic event known in the annals of history as the ‘Bengal Famine’. It was the world’s worst recorded food disaster in which an estimated four million people died of hunger, alone in eastern India (that included today’s Bangladesh) in the year 1943. Besides the food shortage, the problems of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment were also the legacies of British rule that India had to tackle soon after the independence. The uncontrolled growth of population aggravated all these problems. Population growth became the obvious hindrance to the socio-economic development envisaged by our policy makers.

In spite of this, even in the first Five Year Plan, not enough steps were taken to address the issue of population growth. The time called for the concerted efforts on part of every citizen to find the solution to the problem. The time demanded the change in the social attitude of every citizen.

Disraeli way back in 19th century remarked that “In a progressive country change is constant, change is inevitable.” In fact we can easily mistake the word ‘change’ for ‘progress’. Realising this, around 1950s lot many countries all over the world started adopting the population policies to make the change possible. In a country like Japan, the industrial units and press played a very important role in propagating family planning and their efforts paid off when the birth rate was cut half within ten years from 3.35% in 1947 to 1.7% in 1957.

Activities at Pragati Kendra

Activities at Pragati Kendra

Activities at Pragati Kendra

Activities at Pragati Kendra

Around the same time, in India one man heading the industrial empire also realised the role an industry could play in bringing about the change. He envisioned that as the growth of the country is essentially dependent on the well-being of its countrymen, the welfare of the employees is an essential ingredient for the growth and well-being of the company. He didn’t stop at his vision but converted his vision into the action and led the change. The Welfare Centre that he started for his workers soon became the instrument of change, advocating family planning, stressing the need of education among his workers. He was none other than late Shri Pirojsha Godrej and the welfare centre which he named as ‘Pragati Kendra’ was inaugurated on 15th August 1955.

It was created with three fold objectives:

1. To provide activities for all-round development of the employees and their family members

2. To raise the standard of living

3. To provide counseling and case work services.

Mrs. Alooben Mowdawalla, who headed the Pragati Kendra for a long time, was instrumental in shaping this institution right from its beginning. Her dedicated efforts, the determination of Cooverbai Vakil (Aunty) and the encouragement from Soonuben and Jaiben made the dream of Pirojsha a reality. We attempt to unfold the memories shared by Alooben Mowdawalla about the activities of Pragati Kendra working towards the welfare and well-being of workers.

Her work began even before the inception of the Pragati Kendra. She began with conducting a survey amongst the residents of 24 cottage type buildings known as ‘Baithi Chawls’.

Baithi Chawl and its residents

Remembering these days Alooben recalled,

“We thought it wise to go and meet them first before starting any work. Mrs. Godrej (Soonuben) and Aunty also told me that if they happen to be there then take them also for the survey…I used to go everyday and they also accompanied me quite sometimes. At least five –six times they did come with me. I have to go to all the twenty buildings located near Pragati Kendra. Later on within 3-4 months time other four buildings were ready and then we took the survey of those four buildings also. These visits helped quite a lot because they (workers) come to know what we intend to do and (they realised that) whatever problems they were facing in the colony are going to be solved. So they all were very happy. We also tried to know how big is the size of the family, how many children are there? Supposing if we start the school, whether we will get the required number especially with pre-primary class? We wanted to start with pre-primary.”

She added that the survey facilitated the understanding of the immediate needs of the workers. The workers listed all the basic requirements: a school for children as no school existed in the near vicinity, a dispensary as only a mobile van used to come near the colony twice a week, a flour mill as there was none nearby, a consumer store where all the necessities could be obtained as no such facility was available in the Vikhroli Village then and so on…this was the situation in 1955. She also pointed out that the survey immensely helped them to come in closer contact with each and every family in the colony; and to find out few literate ladies among them, who can be of help in the activities of the Pragati Kendra.

To start with, numerous meetings were held with men and women separately to discuss matters of adult education, and health issues including family planning. “We had meetings with both men and women and we used to invite people from outside to address them (on different issues). We used to have symposiums; exhibitions and all the exhibits were made in the Kendra itself by the workers, staff and some others who could help and who were good at it. Sometimes we used to go to municipality to get the posters on different subjects but soon we started making our own posters. Those posters were also kept for exhibition in the Kendra. They were on different aspects - family planning, nutrition, cleanliness, hygiene were just some of them.”

As during the survey the literacy standard of adults was found very low, it was taken up as the very first activity for adults. The literary classes in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi were conducted during afternoon and men’s classes at night by volunteers. It is believed that the training and education contribute about 80% to productive capacity worldwide, while capital machinery contributes only about 20%. ‘Godrej’ realised this long ago by giving importance to the literacy programme for the workers.

Pamplets distributed among workers during Family Planning programme, 1960s

Family Planning was a part of a packaged welfare programme until 1964 when it was given a top priority. In 1964, the monetary incentive was introduced on sliding scale. Those who accept sterilisation while they have two living children received Rs. 100/-. After three children, it was reduced to Rs. 75/- after four to Rs. 45/- and after five or more to Rs. 25/-. Alooben however remarked that in the years to come it became the least important incentive. Much more effective was the school admission. “We did not give admission to those who had three children unless the operation was done. So if the operation was not done then first or second child seeking admission would not be admitted. (This measure was) just to bring home to them that this is what is needed. Housing was also another such (incentive),” remembers Alooben. She continued by saying, “Not only that, at the time of employment we asked for their opinion on family planning. What they have to say about family planning, whether they subscribe our views (or not). If the person was found to be least concerned about family planning, he was not employed. …… (Even if a) worker wants a loan then too this question was asked. There were very strict restrictions. Only if he had undergone operation he would be granted a loan. Some used to feel that this was not the right thing to do but we realised that these rules will eventually help them only (in future).”

Front Elevation plan of Pragati Kendra, 1955

On asking how long it took to change the mind set of workers and to convince them to undergo operations, Alooben replied, “Not much … There were not too many people who resisted our advice and they themselves realised that we were talking some sense. However, those who had only three daughters would not like to undergo this operation because they still wanted a boy and also the other way round. Later in spite of them having either all girls or all boys even after the third birth, most of them used to go in for this operation. We made them realise that (this is for their benefit only)…

“Those were the years when we had to convince them, now I don’t think anybody requires that kind of help in Vikhroli because their children who were attending our schools have become engineers and are now holding good posts elsewhere if not in Godrej and their wives are also literate, so now there is a total change. So what I’m feeling is all this work that we did, did not go in vain.”

Booklets used for Adult Education Programme

While talking about achievements of Pragati Kendra and the efforts for the promotion of family Planning Soonuben once remarked:

“For almost 10 years we felt as if we were banging our heads against the wall and suddenly like a curtain opening on a scene, the people concerned realised the worth of the programme and a real change took place. The message a small family norm, of a small but healthy, happy, educated family, sank in. The workers were happier with fewer worries, financial and familial.”

Vrunda Pathare
Godrej Archives
(We would like to thank Mrs. Alooben Mowdawalla for sharing her reminiscences with Godrej Archives and Mrs. Susmita Singh for handing over old photographs and documents of Pragati Kendra to Godrej Archives)