His initial years have all the elements that usually go to make a classic Indian movie; a very rich father who enjoyed his drink and mistress; a noble virtuous mother who (in that day and age) courageously walked out with her two sons; their initial days of near-poverty; his break at starting a business venture and his consequent stellar rise to prosperity and affluence. A man who is more known for his philanthropic ventures rather than his business successes, Sri Atmakuri Sankara Rao, is one of Visakhapatnam’s most famous people.
Born in 1931 into a rich timber-merchant family in Vizianagaram, A S Rao, at the age of 14 was compelled to relocate to Visakhapatnam with his mother and elder brother, A S Raja. That year, 1946 was a very crucial year as it defined the fortunes of the family. In spite of being a keen and meritorious student, at his mother’s behest, he willingly dropped out and took to working as an apprentice in his uncle’s Seaway Shop for a princely sum of Rs 50, while his brother went on to complete his B Com. Two years later, on a suggestion and assistance from his estranged father and with an initial capital from his mother’s property, the brothers entered the Timber trade. From then on, financially, there was no looking back. They later diversified and jointly ran the concerns till Sri A S Rao tied the nuptial knot (1957). In 1958, the brothers amicably parted ways, each heading successful business firms of their own.
After acquiring the Timber trade in the partition, Sri A S Rao further ventured into construction, ship chandelling, transport, earthmoving, civil and marine engineering. Ever the entrepreneur, by the age of 31, he had 40 trucks plying under him. He took up civil engineering contracts and bagged mega projects, like a portion of the Naval Drydock and reclamation of land in the port area for the Visakhapatnam Port. He also undertook works in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. He did attempt to expand into the hospitality industry as well, for which he constructed the Grand Bay hotel. But the Visakhapatnam market was not yet ripe to sustain a Five-Star hotel back then, hence, he sold it instead to the Adyar Gate Hotels. An astute businessman, Sri Rao relied on honesty and transparency in all his dealings. This ensured that not only did he gain the trust and respect of all those who worked with and under him, but also earned him goodwill and considerable profits.
But amassing wealth was not his goal, this man believed in giving back to the society. Having faced a period of poverty, though very brief, his desire to share his earnings and help the lesser fortunate was strong. While still a busy businessman, he started the Sankar Foundation in 1984. In its infancy, the foundation was quite low-key, doling out scholarships to the deserving needy students for almost eleven years till Mr. Rao made a momentous decision in 1995. Considering that he had earned enough wealth for the family and fulfilled his familial obligations, he divided his businesses and properties amongst his children (two sons and a daughter), retaining a quarter for himself and his wife. Out of his share, he kept aside a bit to lead a ‘simple but comfortable life’ and pumped the rest into the Shankar foundation. He also took over as managing trustee and devoted all his time and energies towards making a positive difference in other’s lives. Through the foundation, he initiated diverse charity ventures like scholarships for the needy students, a maternity hospital, a TB hospice and an eye hospital.
Realising that TB and cataract were the most prevalent diseases in North Andhra, he diversified from only scholarships to medical aid for the poor. A hospital for TB patients was started in 1995, and in the five years of its existence, 400 patients were cured. The high dropout rate and negligence to continue medication amongst the uneducated patients were defeating the very purpose of setting up the hospital; hence he was forced to rethink the viability of the hospice and eventually closed it. Similarly, a hospital for women and children was started in February 1998. But was consequently closed in April 2002 as funding it was getting extremely tough. The venture that gave him total satisfaction in all aspects was the Eye Hospital, which was opened in June 1997.
Low-key and service driven, the Shankar foundation takes up after its founder. Even when the former Prime Minister, Great Britain, Sir John Major visited the hospice on 9th March 2005, the affair was kept simple without any fanfare or media overexposure. Standard Chartered Bank in association with the Sight Savers International, London, and the BBC World short-listed among various projects in 6 countries, Visakhapatnam’s Shankar Foundation. For this programme, the former British Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. John Major and a host of dignitaries descended onto the city. In addition to interacting with the staff, filming for BBC’s programme and assuring them support, they also took part in the ‘bhumi puja’ and unveiled the Foundation Stone for the then proposed state-of-the-art hospital building on the 2 acres of land given by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.
Impressed and moved by what he saw at the Sankar Foundation Hospital, Mr. John Major’s entry in the Visitors Book reads: “It was a pleasure to be here – you are doing wonderful work that is much needed.”
Today the five-floor hospital is an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art facility the boasting of nine operation theatres and 25 private luxury rooms, with services such as an optical shop, a fully automated laundry, water treatment plant and boiler cum solar water heating system. It caters to varied specialties such as general ophthalmology, retina, cornea, glaucoma, pediatric ophthalmology, orbit and ophthalmology plastics. In addition, the hospital has five spacious, well ventilated and well furnished general wards for patients receiving free treatment. The hospital is also the training centre for surgeries in cataract, glaucoma, and retina. It also has a full-fledged research and development centre.