It was the early 1990’s. Out of curiosity I went to a mela organized by some Indian groups . The theme was to tell slogans in front of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. “Kashmir is India, India is Kashmir…..India is for Peace” and so on.
Joining the crowd I shouted a few times with much enthusiasm. A Pakistani group came and distributed some pamphlets. Not much happened that day. Everybody went home.
What’s the point in such efforts? No one has a plan on what to do next beyond slogan shouting. At best, a senator may come out and say a few words and everybody claps.
It was the early 1990’s. In university campuses groups of students would discuss issues like poverty, capitalism and politics. On the newsgroups there’d be people flaming each other on sensitive topics related to India, fundamentalism and development.
What’s the point of all this — you don’t go deeper into a problem by mere discussions — the knowledge is just lateral — on many many topics— beyond the obvious, there is little insight. At best it creates an awareness of the problems and on why mere discussions can’t solve them.
One day I saw that there was a new group…. Action India or something. I was excited, for I was looking for an opportunity to do something. I started reading the mails — this time we were discussing action! “it will be great if we all acted” one would say. “Is this the right time to act” said another …… needless to say, there was no action!!
There is no point in being critical, for the problems are tough. I decided that I should have the strength to trust others, for the important thing is that almost everyone, the person who discusses or the person who quietly wonders, has good intentions and is well-meaning.
On Independence day of 1991, I sent a mail “Village Education Project” . If we contribute $10 a month each we could take a village in India where there was no school, and find someone who would be willing to teach there if we paid a small stipend. The challenge was to identify a village and a motivated teacher, make an appropriate syllabus and talk to the village children and inspire them to come to classes. Would anyone be interested ?
“If you are starting an organization I can help keep the accounts” said one mail. Some of my friends and office mates said they’d be happy to contribute money for such a cause. Someone said their native village needed help and would provide details. We soon realized that strength lies in team-work. Even for one project of educating a village we need many people with different interests and abilities working together. What’s more … a day ago I was depressed, just thinking about the scale of problems and feeling that only a conscientious politician or people with some kind of power or other could only do anything about them — but today I realized that actually working on the problem, even if it was just a small start, made any previous notions I had about it by mere speculation, look irrelevant.
It is important to work together with several people to solve a problem. We know implicitly that this is true for any problem in our professional career. The same is true with the poverty problem.
We decided to open a bank account as people promised to donate money regularly. Being a graduate student from India, I didn’t have much knowledge of the procedure in USA for non-profit organizations. Riyaz Papar, Venugopal Varma and I were thinking hard as we drove to a bank –what shall we name our organization? Every 5 minutes we were excited about a different name. Finally when the teller called us, we still didn’t have a name. We filled out the rest of the form and we were thinking desperately — the words like India, Progress and Development we thought should be there for obvious reasons, but what other words can we have so that the entire acronym itself would mean something. I asked the teller how she knew that this would be an account for a non-profit organization rather than something else — I was still foggy about the rules. She said “oh such accounts normally have the words like association in them”…… and she asked “you mean you don’t know what your organization is called??”….. I said, “Oh! we are the Association for India’s development …. AID” and she approved the form and smiled , “good luck, it seems like a wonderful cause!”
By now we also decided that it was a good idea to tackle all the problems….. as they are all connected to each other, and over-all development of an individual or society has so much more meaning. Besides the challenge of addressing pressing problems requires us to work in all fields — for example the correlation observed in Kerala between women’s empowerment and smaller, healthier families.
Besides it is much more efficient to tackle all problems at once than tackle them separately through different efforts. For example, going to a village and getting their local involvement itself requires a lot of effort. Having gone this far and having got everyone excited to work in a spirit of cooperation and friendship, if we just tackle only one problem, say illiteracy, then someone else will have to repeat all this effort when they want to start a health campaign.
I also felt that from the point of unleashing creative energies and efficiently using the talent and motivation of every person who volunteers to help, it is a good idea not to reduce the actual challenge, for truthfully, we want to see every problem solved and so there must exist the required “can do” spirit that we shouldn’t bottle due to a lack of vision.
Beyond friends, making new friends…
Our friends were pitching in, both in terms of monthly contributions and taking on voluntary responsibilities. It was in October 1994 that we hit upon the idea of a “Community Service Hour” (CSH) where every Saturday from 11 AM to Noon we would meet in room 1219, Physics Building University of Maryland and actively pursue AID work. We advertised by putting a few notices in the Univ. of Maryland and nearby Indian grocery stores. This was a good way of attracting people beyond our friends circle, since interested people had to simply show up.
On the inaugural CSH I was driving to Univ. of Maryland expecting to see only Ramani Hariharan when a few Indian students thumbed for a ride. I was thinking in my mind, “Look at these people, when they need help they have no hesitation in asking for it, but when it comes to helping others no one steps forward. I won’t give them a ride”. It being a weekend and there being no University transport, they started waving vigorously and I stopped. “Where are you going?” I asked impatiently. “To the AID Community Service Hour” they replied. AID was never the same after that day, for when I asked their names they said, “Shrinaath Chidambaram, Sudhakar Adivikolanu and Sandeep Rao,” and the next CSH brought their room-mate Balaji Sampath. Since 1994 till today (2000) the CSHs have continued there without stopping. They brought people regularly from diverse backgrounds, doctors, lawyers, software engineers, professors, students alike from as much as 1 hour away, and sometimes from other states.
Beyond the Washington Beltway….Starting chapters
We felt that the performances on Independence Day and Diwali in the USA were mainly imitating Indian movies and there was a need to use the stage to portray issues and display the culture that has always developed interlinked with social agenda. India Beckons was an almost zero budget AID production that was sold out. Using only the talents of University students and second generation Indians we had plays such as “What is India’s Biggest Problem”, “Back to the Past” and dances choreographed by volunteers like Tulika Narayan to portray the work of AID in villages. At the end of the first India Beckons in 1994 a tall young man with a smiling face met me and introduced himself as Prem Vadapalli who drove all the way from Pittsburgh. A year later Prem started a one-man Community Service Hour in Pittsburgh which soon grew into the Pittsburgh Chapter of AID. Sudhakar meanwhile invested $80 and bought a second hand industrial size photocopier which he spent a few sleepless nights repairing, and that enabled us to make thousands of copies of our quarterly newsletter “Dishaa”. Balaji Sampath inspired people with his e-writings and chapters began to sprout in a number of cities. Balaji and Kiran Kumar Vissa made it a point to visit chapters and give heart-to-heart presentations on AID and its inter-connected philosophy. Soon we had several chapters and a volunteer base that began to run into the hundreds. Arvind Raghavan started what became really popular as “AID NEWS.” Thus through extremely grassroots initiatives, and with no budget but only people’s commitment AID caught on in the USA.
Keeping the India Commitment
The growth of AID Chapters in the USA resulted in a lot of human-hours, potential and money being directed towards work in rural India. By the turn of the millenium AID had over 100 projects in all major states of India. When Mahendra Verma, an AID volunteer returned to India to join as a faculty member in IIT, AID got involved with a dynamic student group that was later called Jagriti.
Through AID support spread over some 6 years (and still continuing), the Lodhar School came into being which has nearly 150 village children learning till class 8. This is just one example of the Plan AID volunteers committed themselves to in 1996 — namely to be deeply involved in a long-term sustained sense, in one effort in every district of India. Meanwhile several prominent social workers, journalists and activists visited AID Chapters in their Community Service Hours. The came from various regions of India, representing diverse issues, like Dr Ramanujam from TN talked on the total literacy campaigns, Kalpana and Shubhamurthy from Bihar on health, Medha Patkar from Maharashtra on human rights and social justice, to name a few. With increased awareness came the commitment in some AID volunteers, Balaji Sampath, Aravinda Pillalamarri and myself to return to India to work full time for integrated development at the scale of movements.
Movements, AID-India and Future Outlook
People returning to India immediately got AID volunteers everywhere closer to the scene of action. This meant detailed knowledge and closer collaboration with groups in India as well as initiation of our own projects where no groups were working. AID-India thus started, modeled after AID in USA, for people in India who were interested in volunteering.
Typically a person who has decided to devote full-time to rural development work, starts by going on a pilgrimage — or “NGO Darshan” — to meet and visit people and places where such a journey has already begun. Through this process they discover what they themselves want to do. What captured our hearts and minds was people’s movements that had a greater reach than NGOs, had much less administrative costs and infra-structure, and much more volunteerism — things that AID itself was modeled after. We found that the human rights, environmental, health, literacy and women and dalit movements not only had the support of local people, but raised extremely fundamental issues, at the very core of what development is, and who it is for and therefore how it should be done. By articulating what is wrong with the current system and by focussing on alternatives that involve people’s capacities at the local levels the various movements of India that are silently happening in the background are pointing to new directions, new ideas and new methods, which the NGO community, the governmental machinery and funding agencies are taking implicit or explicit note of. To be on the cutting edge of development work in India means to be a part of its movements and AID volunteers began expressing their solidarity with such struggles in remote regions.
While the future is what we make of it surely it involves exciting journeys with fellow travellers, some whom I have mentioned, but many more who make up AID and even more in all the other organizations around the world, working towards a more equitable society, using natural resources in a sustainable manner and envisaging a mode of development that doesn’t exploit the poor and marginalized, but bridges the gaps between people. It is development when there is no destruction of the world or even of a single village, in the name of development.