Social Changes

Vivake Prasad (center) at a class in Bagar, Rajasthan where students are involved in an exercise on using English to do business in a market

Working for solutions

By Deepanjali Kakati


Indicorps, a U.S. nonprofit organization, helps Indian Americans volunteer in diverse fields and reconnect with their roots

Karthik Raman did not want to just sit around and complain about what was wrong in the world. He wanted to go out and do something about it. “Instead of sitting in the U.S. and knowing that problems existed in India, I wanted to come here and test my limit to create change,” says Raman, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Ohio. His family is from Tamil Nadu. “Also, I was out of touch with ground realities in India, especially rural India. By relocating to a tribal village, I felt I could learn about my own culture, especially Tamil culture.”

Raman got the chance to test his theory that “by working for social change, we get to choose what kind of world we live in” through Indicorps. The Texas-based nonprofit organization, with an office in Gujarat, helps people of Indian origin all over the world volunteer for a year with an NGO in India. “I specifically liked Indicorps’ developmental methodology as it emphasized working alongside local communities to create sustainable change,” says Raman.

He arrived in India in January 2007 and was placed in the Naickaneri Hills in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district. Raman’s project was to work on nutrition seminars in the small, mountaintop Adivasi community. “But, as often happens in India, things didn’t pan out as planned and I ended up spending most of my time working with a local potter to design and distribute pot-in-pots,” he says. 

Rahul Brahmbhatt (center) at a youth sports tournament in Ahmedabad, Gujarat The orientation camp for new Indicorps fellows in Ahmedabad, Gujarat

Pot-in-pots (PIP) are rural refrigerators created by placing one clay pot inside another with sand and water filling the gap in between. “With this device...villagers were able to keep their fruits and vegetables fresher for longer periods of time, thus improving their health and nutrition. Even better, the PIPs were so affordable that villagers paid for the technology and didn’t need a subsidy,” says Raman. 
His fellowship ended in January 2008 but Raman stayed on to work with Source for Change, an all-women, rural, business process outsourcing venture in Bagar, Rajasthan. “Selfless leadership is a life lesson that is often misconstrued. During Indicorps, I narrowly defined it as being willing to volunteer and serve the poorest of the poor. Since then, I have realized its meaning is as simple as working toward an objective and not for one’s own personal gain,” says Raman. “My life in India post-Indicorps has been the time for me to more fully realize this, but it all started with the lessons from Indicorps itself.”

Amrit Dhir, a 2008 fellow, feels Indicorps is “an incredible organization, not just because the fellows contribute so much in their respective NGOs (and they do!),” but also because of the personal growth and exposure that each fellow gains. “The experience is, in no small way, life-changing,” says Dhir, who is from California and works in Bangalore. During his fellowship, he worked with Manzil, a New Delhi learning center for young people from low-income backgrounds. 

Indicorps was started in 2001 by Sonal Shah, now head of President Barack Obama’s Office of Social Innovation, and her siblings Roopal and Anand. Fellows are chosen through a two-part application with several essay questions, a phone conversation and one-on-one meeting with an Indicorps alumnus. They must have a university degree or five years of applicable work experience from anywhere in the world. 

The fellowship year starts with a rigorous, month-long orientation camp at Ahmedabad, Gujarat where participants are given practical lessons from grassroots developmental experts, and take part in group discussions and community activities. “Indicorps stresses the idea that service is not transactional. For us, to seek a better world means to connect the process of personal change to societal change and to make our story part of the community’s story,” says Adam Ferguson, who works on fellowship support at Indicorps. 

In the past seven years, more than 100 fellows have spent a year in India. In August 2009, Indicorps placed two to four fellows each with 12 community-based partner organizations. Though they come from different backgrounds such as medicine, public health, marketing, finance and nonprofit management, what the fellows have in common is the drive to make a difference. “I have not come to ‘help’—I have come to make genuine relationships and to work on solutions to rural poverty hand in hand with rural Indians.... By volunteering I am addressing my own inner hunger,” says Vivake Prasad, who is associated with an NGO called Grassroots Development Laboratory in Bagar, Rajasthan. 

Born and raised in New Jersey, Prasad graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania where he had founded a student organization dedicated to service and social justice issues. “Something about India was just calling me. I wish to connect with my roots and to explore my own spiritual relationship with India on a much deeper level. I have always had a passion for development and social service, so it was only natural for me to come to India to work in this arena. I honestly wouldn’t trade this experience for anything else,” he says.

Prasad is working on a start-up social enterprise called the Bagar Employment Institute (BEI) which was founded by an Indicorps fellow, Ashish Gupta, two years ago. “The goal of BEI is to reduce the prevalence of unemployment and underemployment across rural India...,” says Prasad, who is working with two other volunteers, including another Indicorps fellow, Sahil Chaudry. 

They conduct training courses that aim to fill the gap between the skills rural youths attain through formal education and the skills actually needed in the modern Indian job market. “To this end, we teach courses in spoken English, basic computer skills, and accounting software. In all of our courses, we emphasize confidence building and invaluable soft skills such as public speaking, presentation skills, workplace etiquette, job hunting skills, interview skills, etc.,” says Prasad.

Chaudry and Prasad conduct presentations every night at Bagar and the surrounding villages where they educate villagers about the job market and recruit students for the institute. “Much of our impact, however, comes not from these more formal interactions, but from our personal relationships with our students. These go a long way in changing mindsets in the community,” says Prasad. He plans to attend law school when he returns to the United States. But his ultimate goal is to return to work in the development sector in India.

Himabindu Reddy’s motivation to work for social change comes from her parents. “I’ve witnessed both my parents working incredibly hard and struggling to provide their children a comfortable life.... I see volunteering and social work as a way to ‘pay it forward,’ to use the advantages I’ve been given to benefit others,” she says. 

Reddy is associated with Chaitanya, an NGO based near Pune in Maharashtra, which works to spread the self-help group movement in the state as a means of empowering rural women financially and socially. “Health issues and particularly women’s health issues are of major concern in this area; low-cost public facilities are often lacking in quality and private facilities can be very costly. As a result, medical emergencies can topple families into poverty,” says Reddy, who moved to the United States shortly after she was born in Andhra Pradesh. 

Unnamalaima, a villager from Naickaneri Hills, and Karthik Raman Himabindu Reddy (left) at a party to celebrate the birthday of Savni, a resident of Rajgurunagar in Maharasthra

“It’s for this reason that we’re designing a low-cost, community-based health insurance scheme for women to enroll in. The idea is for the program to be entirely community-driven and operated, much in the same way that microcredit operates currently within” the self-help groups. Reddy will be starting a master’s degree program in public health at Columbia University in New York City after her fellowship ends.

Though her fellowship is in the early stages, Reddy says there is so much that she has already gained. “I think, foremost, I’ve come to view India not just as an ancestral homeland or the occasional site for summer vacation, but as really and truly my home. In some ways it’s tangible—I’ve gotten very familiar with transportation within the country, with language, with cultural norms. But it’s also in the intangible, just a general feeling of belonging, of knowing that this is where my roots are, roots not just from my parents and grandparents, but roots that I’ve planted on my own,” she says. 

Though they come from different backgrounds, what the fellows have in common is the drive to make a difference

Rahul Brahmbhatt, who has lived in Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C., is volunteering in India because he wanted to work directly with people. “After years of working in the corporate world and not being able to see the end result of my work, I decided that community work and social entrepreneurship were areas in which I wanted to work,” he says. 

Brahmbhatt is working with Ahmedabad Ultimate in Gujarat, an Indicorps sports initiative focusing on Ultimate Frisbee, a high-energy team sport that combines elements of many other sports, such as football and basketball. 

After studying chemical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, Brahmbhatt worked in technical fields like oil and gas and IT consulting for eight years. His work took him to China, where he developed an interest in international sports development. In 2009, Brahmbhatt earned a sports management degree from George Mason University in Virginia and researched how to increase the popularity of basketball in India. 

“We are looking to inspire a citywide sports culture which is accessible to all and which embodies the true strength of healthy competition and personal challenge.... On this journey, we haveA0been challenged by some people who say that there are more urgent needs than ‘playing games,’ ” he says. 
Besides building a group of youth players, teams and coaches, Brahmbhatt wants to spread the message that “sports can be a new vehicle by which people can work on developing and improving some larger life skills like conflict resolution, diet and nutrition, health and hygiene, sportsmanship, teamwork, honesty, just to name a few.”A0A0 

All fellows agree that working in India is a challenge, but brings its own rewards. “The style of work that is needed in order to be successful is extremely different than in America. I would say that things almost never go as planned, and you have to be quick on your feet and always prepared for surprises,” says Prasad. “At the same time, working in rural India is also extremely rewarding. There is rarely such a thing as a ‘strictly business’ relationship. People are warm, hospitable, humble, and generous beyond measure.”

Working in India, says Brahmbhatt, takes a lot of patience and creativity to get certain things accomplished, “but it teaches you to appreciate the path and surroundings of your journey, and to not just be preoccupied with the destination. That being said, accomplishing goals in India is that much more rewarding!”

For Reddy, the challenge was adjusting to a different work culture and working without the facilities, like electricity and the Internet, she had grown used to. “Replacing the instant gratification of instant messaging and e-mails are the drawn-out conversations over chai; this has been immensely rewarding. I’ve been given a chance to enter people’s lives, to hear their stories, and I’ve been in awe of people’s openness and willingness to share with me,” she says. 

Reddy’s most rewarding moment so far came during the orientation camp at Ahmedabad when she spent eight hours with a rag picker, raking the ground and pillaging through dumpsters to collect plastic and glass. After sorting the collection, they hauled everything to a recycling warehouse where they got their earnings for the day—Rs. 80. “To be exposed to a side of India that was always just out of sight for me was truly enlightening and will shape the way I view and work in India,” says Reddy.

Sometimes memorable moments come not from work but from unexpected events. Prasad recalls how the NGO staff and the villagers got together to celebrate Dussehra in September. The organizers had planned a spectacular fireworks show but there was a malfunction in the middle of the proceedings and Ravana blew up unexpectedly. “The scene was one of beautiful fireworks going haywire, people running for their lives, and an old man on stage asking people to stay quiet in a monotonous voice,” he says. 
“I turned to Sahil, and we both couldn’t help but burst out laughing. It was a perfect metaphor for life in Bagar. Big plans, things not going exactly according to plan, chaos, and beauty—all woven together in a single moment.” 

—Courtesy SPAN

March 2010

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