Upasana Kamineni Konidela remembers getting her first life lessons when as a three-year-old she was walking along the corridors of the Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad, holding the hand of her grandfather Dr Pratap C Reddy, the Chairman and co-founder of the hospital. Seeing the people who were seeking treatment for various health issues made her realise the value of health and ‘the value of lives, and the importance of serving the ill,’ says the now mother of one.
Most times we forget the value of waking up and breathing without any difficulty, she says. ‘Such a small thing also is of great value because we see people tackling life and death in hospitals regularly.’
Taking care of your body, taking care of others, being there for others, and being a support system are important, believes the Vice Chairperson of the Apollo Foundation (CSR). ‘Doing good for people to enhance their lives is something that was instilled in me very young.’
Upasana grew up learning a lot more values. At 17, she went to the US to study for her undergrad. ‘My parents taught me discipline. home values, respecting culture and things like that, which were a bit conservative, but I think that helped me shape my personality better, and made me much stronger as a person.’
But among them all, it was the importance to value life and respect health that stayed uppermost on her mind.
‘Later, I realized there is a reason behind my birth and if I don’t put my background to good use, it would be a waste of a lifetime.’
After completing her studies at Regent’s University in London, Upasana returned to India, sat her grandfather down and asked him what she could do. What he told her would go on to help her chart the blue print of her life.
‘He told me, ‘Upasana, I want to share with you that our mandate now has changed. Yes, we will always be curing people with illness, but imagine if you could actually keep people away from the hospital? That should be our mandate’.
‘So, preventive health care became something really big for me personally, and for corporate India. I’ve turned it into a business, and for the underprivileged I’ve turned it into a philanthropy space.’
I am on a Zoom interview with Upasana, an award-winning philanthropist, sustainability expert, and conservationist. and the passion in her voice is palpable as she begins talking about some of the philanthropy projects she has been spearheading. One of them, called Billion Hearts Beating, is one of the largest basic life support training programmes in India providing under-served communities with healthcare and health awareness programmes.
‘The idea is that if we can make every college student and every policeman, for instance, a lifesaver, they may be able to save the life of someone who might have had a heart attack or suffered severe burns, or an accident,’ says the hugely popular influencer with more than 10 million followers on Instagram. ‘Individuals could be trained to provide help and aid to those in need before they are taken to a hospital.’
Apart from running welfare health programmes, the Billion Hearts Beating Foundation also provides free clinic and health services for the elderly living in marginalized communities, as well as in senior care homes across India.
For Upasana, whose husband is the mega popular award-winning Indian actor Ram Charan, ‘treating people with empathy and dignity through Billion Hearts Beating is our main main, main goal’.
A tone of sadness shrouds her voice as attempts to shine a light on residents of many senior care homes. ‘They are doing nothing but just waiting for life to pass,’ she says. ‘And that can be very depressing.’
Keen to make a difference in the lives of residents of over 300 senior care homes across India, her charity provides them with palliative care, medicines to manage their health conditions, and personalised care to ensure they can live a comfortable and dignified life. ‘I never ask for donations or support for the charity. I only ask for something more precious - people’s time. If people can take some time off to visit these care homes and make an effort to interact with the people there, it would make a huge difference in the lives of the elderly,’ says Upasana, who has won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for philanthropy, and is a WWF Ambassador of Forest Frontline Heroes.
Another initiative, called Total Health that her grandfather was instrumental in creating has become a model for rural health communities that Upasana is now taking forward and implementing in several areas.
‘It’s all about the community driving the community to be healthy and happy, thereby improving their lives,’ she says. ‘Thanks to this, infant and maternal mortality rates have dropped, people are living healthier, women are respected and getting jobs, and becoming financially independent.’
As part of the project, she roped in corporate players to support in the education of deserving youths in villages, and opened a school for village children.
She was delighted to see that replicating the Total Health model in tribal areas began to have surprising benefits for not just the people but even the environment. Implementing the programme in a tribal region in the Ahmedabad Forest Reserve for instance, had a surprising spinoff- the tiger population went up because many tribals did not have to rely on the forest for their livelihood and so avoided going into the core areas of the forest thereby giving the big cats enough space to thrive.
Upasana’s charity also began providing alternate sources of income for the village women who relied on selling forest produce for their livelihood. They were offered jobs such as making candles and lamps which were displayed at the India Art Fair and became hugely popular. ‘These women now had a source for their livelihood and that led to a sense of respect, and they started working and being proud of their forest, champions of the community.’
To Upasana, women empowerment is about being financially independent. It doesn’t matter whether it is urban or rural, she says, a financially independent woman is more likely to have better physical and mental health, and greater self esteem. And I firmly believe, ‘If you can run a house, you can run a business.’
The Philanthropy Ambassador of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is keen to inculcate in the youth a sense of respect for the environment - particularly forests. ‘We should respect nature and maintain our boundaries; we need to respect [the fauna] and live together.’
She makes it clear that she doesn’t associate with businesses that harm the planet. ‘I won’t be able to have a good night’s sleep if I’m investing in a business that harms the planet.’
Among the many projects she is spearheading include a wellness startup called U R Life that she founded during the pandemic to make caring for one’s health an easy, and enjoyable experience. Said to be India’s first digital healthcare concierge service, it offers engaging and thoroughly researched content including health information, diet plans, fitness exercises and healthy recipes among others, that are whetted by experts including medical professionals, fitness experts and nutritionists, encouraging users to live a holistic life.
‘Making the right choices, getting access to correct information, and working towards leading a healthier life, could keep people away from hospitals, says Upasana.
DEFINITION OF SUSTAINABILITY
According to Upasana, ‘sustainability doesn’t mean zero waste; it means less waste. It means upcyling, recycling, and having your basic ethos in place; that’s my definition of sustainability’.
So, what kind of changes has she included in her life in terms of sustainability?
‘Firstly, I don’t support any businesses that are non-sustainable. Second, I’m trying to change my living patterns and trying to be more eco-friendly.’
She admits that she used to be ‘a hoarder who loved shopping’. But she has made a conscious decision to reduce that, she says. ‘For my kid too, I’m happy to use hand me downs from my cousin who has an older child. I think it’s very cool to do that and makes total sense.’