Help, teach, change

Aug 20, 2013, 02:08 IST | Richa Pinto

From cushy US university life to roughing it in Indian villages -- Indian-origin youth have found surprising benefits in their stint with non-profit organization Indicorps

For most youngsters living abroad, coming home to India means a stint of being pampered and having fun, the desi way. But a diverse group of young people is proving otherwise.

RUSTIC LIVING: Indian-origin youngsters were introduced to basic living in the villages of India. File picture for representation

Young people of Indian origin from all over the world have spent the last year volunteering in different parts of India, under a fellowship conducted by non-profit organization Indicorps. From palliative care to maths tuition to sanitation, they immersed themselves in their respective projects and the zeal they found in their work carries over to the results.

At the Indicorps 2013 Development Symposium held in Colaba recently, the fellowship participants of the 2012 batch shared their work, and told stories of change from Chamrajnagar in Karnataka to Amreli in Gujarat. Indicorps, which is based in Ahmedabad, is the brainchild of three Indian-American siblings who had observed that a lot of Indians living across the globe had a very myopic view of the country. The fellowship programme, which kicked off in 2002, has been encouraging youth with Indian origin to serve the country by applying their skills, time and resources towards grassroots projects.

The 2012 projects covered the development themes of sanitation, public health, education, women’s empowerment, gender sensitization, livelihood and agriculture. Most of the fellows who shared their experiences have been born and raised in the US or UK, so experiencing life in India - especially at the grassroots level - was an eye-opening experience for them. To help the fellows get a better perspective on the areas in which they can grow, a panel consisting of Priti Patkar, the co-founder of Prerana -- an organization which works towards protecting women and children from the threats of human trafficking -- and Shital Shah, an Indicorp 2005 alumnus, shared their experiences in the development sector.

Each fellow had a different take on how their programme could be taken forward. Anila Yadavalli said her role was to make mathematics more approachable for busy students, between standards V and X. She partnered with a trust called Sharda in Ahmedabad, working with what she termed “busy” students -- because they were genuinely pressed for time. One of them, Rahul, worked all day long in a tea stall while another was tied up with doing household work she was entrusted with. Having graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a Bachelor of Science and Mathematics, Yadavalli said volunteering as a mathematics tutor was something she was keen on.

As the trust focused on Maths, Computers and English, the panellists asked the fellow why was it that these three sectors were given so much importance. Yadavalli was quick to answer that while Maths was important for the children to earn a livelihood, better command over language could come to them on learning English, while being computer-savvy was an added advantage today. Added benefits for Yadavalli came from singing garba songs with the kids or learning the ins and outs of Gujarati cuisine.

For Abhijit Kaushik, a graduate from Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, it was a journey from Economics (in which he graduated) to sanitation. Sharing his fellowship story, he said, “My theme was holistic village development of Chamrajnagar in Karnataka.

The villagers did not have toilets within their homes, and I felt that building them was a possible task. However, after a point I realized my actions were not being sustainable. I then decided to target the youth who would be more open to change. A sacred fig tree, which had both historic and religious importance, had an unstable platform which was almost crumbling. I knew this was my trump card in bringing the entire community together. We went up to the villagers and asked them how they could contribute to build the platform. The response we received was overwhelming. The fig tree platform brought everyone together.”

Amee Patel, a media student born and raised in London, was drawn to help children from the nomadic tribes at Amreli district in Gujarat with the Vishwa Vatsalya Manav Sewa Trust. Talking about her natural love for children, she said the education of a child was the most affected when nomadic tribes travelled from one place to another.

As an Indicorps fellow she explored ways to strengthen the curriculum with the teachers in existing learning environments. “We have started with a day-care school for the children of these tribes. Initially, it was a task to get the little children together - they would run away at the sight of us! But today what inspires me to continue with this fellowship for another year is the fact that from the 50 tribal families I have dealt with, 10 of them have agreed to stay back only for the education of their child. The children today are the ones asking their parents to allow them to come and study with us.”

Organic farming was the topic chosen by Deepak Kumar, a graduate from Rowan University in the US. His project site was Bihar Sharif, the district headquarters of Nalanda, where he collaborated with the Centre for Development Orientation Training to promote organic farming practices. During the last fellowship year, Deepak’s responsibilities were to strengthen existing farmer’s collectives, develop relationships with government departments, and help build market linkages for produce.

Of his experience, he said, “Living with a farmer’s family helped me engage and interact with the community on a daily basis. The initial seven months were very challenging for me. Besides, not being well-versed in Hindi was even more of a problem. But today things have changed and I feel proud to say that having inculcated the value of organic cultivation in the farmers, they have been able to conduct meetings even without the volunteer’s presence.” Asked how he had managed to convince the farmers about the benefits of going organic, he said he had support from another farmer who was convinced about organic farming. “Getting another farmer to talk about it to people of his community was what did the trick for us.”

Kavita Padia chose to engage with students in the space of holistic education. The California-raised Padia partnered with Baala Balaga Srujanasheela Trust in Dharwad, Karnataka to create a hands-on science and mathematics curriculum through Indian sports and traditional cultural activities.

Her challenge was a differently-abled student, Sangam, and she helped him gain confidence in mathematics by involving him in games like gilli danda. She explained that she had chosen traditional Indian games as she felt the little ones would connect with them instantly.

For Priti Sah, raised in South Carolina, US, her journey took her to the palliative care programme in Mysore, with the Swami Vivekanand Youth Movement. Sharing her experience, she said, “The programme addressed chronic disease through home-based care and livelihood sessions, emphasizing emotional and psychological support and helping patients get back on their feet.

One HIV-positive patient had lost self-respect after being deserted by her alcoholic husband and shunned by her neighbours. The palliative care approach helped us improve her quality of life to quite an extent.”

Divya Sooryakumar used her Economics and International Studies degree from North Western University to partner with Chandigarh-based NGO Chhoti Si Asha, helping women and youth to build income for underprivileged women and children.

“My role was to market the products of the NGO which were prepared by the women. When I began, the women were earning somewhere around Rs 533 a month and today their average earning is somewhere around Rs 4,500 a month.”

Indicorps’ executive director Dev Tayde, in his concluding note, said that the organization has been basically playing the role of a catalyst to help youth who want to do something for the country but don’t know how to go about it. However, he said, Indicorps would retire with the current fellowship programme. “Over the next 18 months, nevertheless, we will still continue to support existing fellows, open-source our methodology and share our learnings. The programme will be discontinued but the organization will remain as it is -- addressing grassroots challenges,” he said.

The fellows have shared their experiences on the Indicorps blog, 

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