Opening Act of Adventure

By Priti Dewan 

My desire to connect with a cause and a purpose that encompasses social change achieved by like-minded individuals steered me towards exploring organizations working in India with strong ties to the US. An event hosted by the American India Foundation for their ABLE program in NY that ignited my curiosity to explore more about the organization and its initiatives. The AIF leadership trip offered a rare opportunity to witness the programs and its beneficiaries with my own eyes, experience the engagements and the positive impact first hand. The experience introduced me to inspiring and energetic supporters, practitioners, and leaders at AIF who started off as strangers and parted ways as collaborators and friends in a common quest to making a difference in lives of people in India.

The participants of the trip included AIF board members, their families, people looking to know more about AIF and curious souls like myself, AIF’s CEO Nishant Pandey, program directors of AIF India and AIF staff. They came from multiple states in the US and even multiple continents considering we had representation from Down Under. With this diverse community we started our adventurous journey.

The journey began in Delhi on the 28th of January 2018, at the domestic terminal of the IGI Airport. As I got off the cab for the very first time at the domestic terminal, I was not sure what to expect but I soon found myself in the midst of a group of people with luggage marked as AIF, and I knew I was at the right place. The flight to Raipur was short and uneventful and on our arrival we were pleasantly surprised to find the Raipur airport to be a state of the art international airport. Raipur is the capital of Chattisgarh, a newly formed state in India. Our first order of business was to visit AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAMP), geared towards providing foundational education to the kids of migrant workers so they don’t end up as child labourers.

Chhattisgarh to Odisha

Migration is a harsh reality of life for many in villages of Odisha; the move is out of sheer need for survival. The families migrate from their villages to escape a life of poverty. Unfortunately most of the time they end up in a life of bondage, malnutrition and physical abuse. Life of seasonal workers is defined by movement from villages to work sites and back. Growing agricultural distress in several parts of rural Odisha and lack of local employment opportunities are contributing to increasing labor mobility. The biggest fall-out of this distress seasonal migration is kids who cannot attend school regularly and consistently. LAMP addresses this need by providing additional support to help keep kids in school while their parents migrate away. The program also supports living facilities so the kids do not have to travel with their parents.

We visited the learning resource center which provides classes before and after regular school hours. The kids were very engaged and seemed eager to learn and respond to teachers’ questions. In fact, when asked if they knew where U.S.A. was on the map, one of the girls quickly pointed on the world map to the correct location. The sheer curiosity and capacity to learn was a testament to their underlying capability. When provided with the right guidance and tools, these kids would be candidates to succeed in any walk of life and would be well prepared to lead us into a bright future.

Perhaps the most powerful tool available to mankind in its fight against poverty and oppression is education, and a program like LAMP provides an avenue for these kids to potentially have a future which is different from their parents, a future that does not put them at the mercy of abusive landlords and loan sharks.

We also got to see the Magurpani Seasonal Hostel, which provides living space for boys and girls as an alternative to accompanying their parents on jobsites. The simple and secure environment provides continuity and consistency to the kids’ educational needs. There was a science exhibition put forth by the kids displaying their knowledge of usage of science and technology to solve practical problems.

With wonderful wishes and blessings for the kids, we headed towards our destination for lunch. The drive back to the hotel was long and we went through some very remote areas providing a glimpse of the life in a village of Odisha. The land that once may have been fertile was dry and arid. Once at the hotel, we got together for tea, we enjoyed the hot beverage and reflected on our time with the kids and the teachers.

Our flight to Hyderabad was later in the evening and we found ourselves back on the road towards the airport, ready for our next destination, Hyderabad.

Grand majestic land of Biryani

On arrival at Hyderabad, we checked into the hotel. After a long day of travel, I had no energy to stay up for dinner so called it an early night so I could be more present for our visit the next day to the DE school. Breakfast featured a wide variety of north Indian, south Indian, and continental dishes and it soon became was my favorite meal of the day, not just for the food but for the fact that this became a time to converse with the group, get feedback on things and catch-up on events of the past day in addition to planning for the future while savoring a nice bowl of idli and sambar. It was nice to see how much more comfortable we became with each other in just a day; I guess if you are limited to a group for over 10 hours in a day, it’s good to get to know one another.


Our first trip in Hyderabad was to a Digital Equalizer school. A three year initiative led by AIF in partnership with local government schools, it is an innovative approach to bringing technology as a medium of instruction in government schools.It targets the middle school years where the dropout rates are really high. As we sat through a Math class the energy and enthusiasm in the  classroom was uncanny. The students were engaged and excited toparticipate, especially the girls who were significantly more confident than the boys. The use of technology like smart boards and learning software was providing a framework for the teacher to keep the lesson interesting and engaging. Even our group could not resist the urge to participate and was gladly raising hands to answer any numerical challenge that was thrown our way. The quality of instruction although driven by the teacher was definitely augmented by the tools and framework provided by the Digital Equalizer program.

We even got the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with the kids who showed us there skills in creating a Powerpoint presentation with bells and whistles. Obviously the nerds in all of us took charge and we all got ourselves immersed with the students in building a dynamic presentation while having fun along the way! The students also showed us some of the experiments and puzzles that they had built. This was an interesting exercise since I don’t think I was able to solve any of the puzzles, but it sure got the brain cells working. We also got to hear from the parents of the students currently enrolled in the program to get their perspective. For lunch, we headed to the Waterfront Restaurant, which boasted an impressive view of the Hussein Saagar lake that divides Hyderabad from Sikandrabad.

The next stop for the day was the MAST Training center. “Market Aligned Skills Training” program in Hyderabad is implemented in collaboration with CAP Foundation. This program aims to provide youth with adequate vocational training that would assist them in securing employment. We met students currently enrolled in the program, which offers vocational training in housekeeping, security services, and retail. The successful partnerships with potential employers and focused training propels their chances of finding permanent employment.

We also participated in the graduation ceremony for the young men and women who have completed the skills training and a book launch. Lata Krishnan, one of the founding board members and presently Co-Chair of AIF, presented the students with their certificates. Our next adventure awaited us at the “Qutb Shahi” mosques. It was an amazing experience witnessing the grandeur and architectural brilliance of the monuments.

The dinner was hosted by Capgemini, a large provider of consulting services that has been a supporter of AIF since 2015 and the MAST program. With good food, eloquent speakers, good company, the evening was splendid to say the least.As we concluded the evening realizing that we had a packed schedule for the following day, which included visit to “Dialogue in the Dark” and visiting the ABLE and Clinton Fellowship programs followed by “High Tea” and then the dinner.

Dialogue in the Dark is a social enterprise that aims at educating people on what it’s like to be blind. Dialogue in the Dark has two main goals. The first is to increase the public’s awareness of and tolerance for “others,” thereby overcoming barriers between “us” and “them”. After a very humbling experience at Dialogue in the Dark, we headed to the Youth4Jobs training center, part of AIF’s ABLE (Ability based Livelihood Empowerment) program. The key aspect of the program is its creation of an ecosystem which provides the necessary skills to persons with disability (PwD) so they can lead a life of dignity while sensitizing and enabling employers to understand how best to utilize the skillsets of PwD—thus creating a more equitable social set-up.

We got to meet the recipients of the training, the employers who have been able to include PwD in their workforce, and parents who now see their previously dependent kids become more independent in leading their own lives. The interaction with different beneficiaries of the program and the confidence it has been able to instill in the lives of PwD was clearly testament to the success of the program.

We also had the opportunity to interact with AIF Clinton Fellow Priya Charry, who is working with Meera Shenoy, the founder of Youth4Jobs. Priya has been working to launch “Not Just Art,” a platform for PwD to support their creative projects and make them accessible to everyone globally. ABLE to me presented an extremely successful collaboration between AIF and Yourth4Jobs NGO. It was a testament to be what can be achieved when you have all the elements of the problem statement addressed adequately.

Final Countdown to Ananthagiri

Our last flight before we all took our flight back to our final destination was to Vizag. By this time I thought I hadbecome a pro at packing/repacking and taking flights but as it turns out I was just beginning to learn the basics, foremost of which was to never forget to collect your laptop at the security and only to remember it when you are seated on the flight. Apparently, this is not a surprising occurrence for the staff of Indigo as they very graciously collected the item from security and brought it over to the aircraft, just before we took off.

As we landed in Vizag, we made our way to Dakshin for lunch. Dakshin is a very well known destination for experiencing authentic south Indian cuisine with its many flavors and spices. The experience was a treat for the senses and smiles in our picture attest to that. Although we wish we could have had more time to savor the flavors of the Araku coffee, we had a more enticing venue to explore, the Borra Caves.

Borra caves are located in Ananthagiri hills of Araku valley. The caves are known to be the largest in India, and have various geological formations like speleothem, stalagmites and stalactites made of calcium and limestone deposits. The caves have extensive construction inside, making stairs available and various lamps illuminating the formations inside.

After witnessing this geological wonder we made our way to Ananthagiri Haritha Hill, where we would spend the night. On arrival, we were served piping hot tea and coffee along with fresh pakoras that hit just the spot after a long afternoon. The evening concluded with a authentic display of “Tribal Dance Dhimsa” performed by the locals around a bonfire. The morning schedule consisted of an early breakfast and visit to the MANSI village to meet ASHAs (the front line community healthworkers). Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) is a testament to the successful collaboration between local community support, local government support and private funding. The village was set back in time, houses with mud walls and timber roofs.

The program trains women from the community (ASHAs) to impart pregnant women knowledge regarding how best to take care of themselves and their newborns. They also monitor the health of the newborn for any early signs that may signal any medical concerns like low birth weight and hypothermia. The ability of ASHAs to filter out severe cases from simple ones allows the villagers to forgo dependency on local medical facilities, which are not readily accessible without compromising the health of their newborn. The training of these workers is done with an assumption of lack of any formal medical training and utilizes pragmatic methods and tools for making adequate decisions. As ASHAs gain more trust in the community, their reach to influence decision increases allowing their recommendations to be taken more seriously.

The program has been replicated in other parts of India with great success and demonstrates the ability to initiate change within the community through change agents who are themselves part of that ecosystem. The ecosystem of MANSI is driven by the mantra of self-sufficiency for initial diagnosis which can help eliminate the majority of infant mortalities.

I was energized and mesmerized to see the program’s local staff and the front line workers. The commitment to make a difference was evident in the framework that they have put in place. I do wish the success of this program can be emulated across villages in India. Deeply inspired, we bid goodbye to the villagers in Karaiguda and headed towards the 11th centurySimhachalam temple on our way back to the airport. The journey had come to its conclusion although for me it had just begun as I left with a yearning to come back to know more and learn more about the work in progress.

The flight back was uneventful and actually reached earlier than its scheduled time. There was nostalgia in the air as we bid farewell our newly formed circle of friends. The fatigue was visible on everyone’s faces and although we were sad to leave, we wanted to take some time to digest all that we had witnessed and reflect on it in solitude. I reflect back on the trip and and commend the founding members and the ones who have been continually providing their time and money and guidance to the initiatives, and not to mention the staff of AIF who have very professionally been executing on the vision with great motivation and dedication.

Main akela hi chala tha janib-e-manzil magar

Log saath aate gaye aur karwaan banta gaya

– Majhrooh Sultanpuri


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