A longtime supporter of AIF in New England, Anjali Chuttani shares her reflections on joining our Annual Leadership Trip in India earlier this year.
Last year, like many of you reading this, I was juggling the demands of a busy work and family life, and once a year, attending the AIF gala, intrigued by the variety of projects presented. I often wished I could have a deeper look at what was occurring in India. Having recently become an empty nester, I finally inquired about visiting AIF’s project sites and received a gracious invitation for the annual leadership trip in January 2016. What ensued was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
This year’s AIF trip brought us to northeast India, a region with a rich history, but impoverished present. Our travels commenced in Varanasi, the oldest city in the world, the abode of Lord Shiva. It was an auspicious start, observing the Ganga Arti by boat at the Dhashashwamedh Ghat. The experience was truly surreal, sitting in a small wooden boat, surrounded by still darkness behind, while in front a dazzling display of priests performed the “Agni Pooja,” or Worship to Fire. The following morning, we visited the river again, but this second boat trip was a much more peaceful, tranquil experience. A local swami accompanied us, reciting mantras as the sun gently rose and seagulls swarmed about. We were completely transported by the splendor surrounding us. Landing on the river bank, we visited the Vishwanath temple, and the remainder of the day was spent learning about the Rickshaw Sangh program.
The rickshaw drivers are some of the most marginalized and exploited workers in India. Many have migrated into the city from rural areas, without any skills or trade. Prior to AIF’s involvement in this program, it would often take decades for these drivers to earn enough money to secure their own rickshaw. They are unable to obtain loans from banks due to lack of credit; AIF provides a First Loss Default Guarantee, assuring local banks that the rickshaw drivers will reliably pay back the loans. Thus far, not a single loan has defaulted. The program also assists drivers by helping with identity cards, driver’s licenses, permits, uniforms, and bank accounts. We met several of the rickshaw families in a “town hall” setting, and they expressed deep gratitude towards this program for helping them finally establish a livelihood. Many described improved lifestyles, better self-esteem and restored dignity for the whole family unit. Some of the beneficiaries have even been able to save up enough to upgrade to an electric rickshaw. At the time of our visit, AIF was running the Rickshaw Sangh program in 8 states, affecting 82,412 drivers.
Another AIF program I was introduced to on this trip is the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service. This highly competitive fellowship provides an opportunity for youth in India and USA to lead projects aimed at improving lives of the underpriviledged in India. One of the very first Clinton fellows, New York native Jessica Mayberry, now settled in Goa since her project brought her to the subcontinent over a decade ago. Her work in India led her to co-found Video Volunteers, a media and human rights NGO that provides a voice to the very poor. Equipped with a donated video camera and instruction on how to create a video document, hundreds of villagers and slum dwellers are better able to document a particular injustice, and thus have greater chance for successful resolution. We met several volunteers from various states, who presented poignant videos on topics such as lack of resources in remote communities, orphans without homes, gender issues, and violence within homes. (If you have a chance, I encourage you to check out some of their videos on their website: www.videovolunteers.org.) The Clinton Fellowship introduces young bright minds to problems in modern day India; Jessica Mayberry’s experience demonstrates how this introduction can be lifechanging for the individual, as well as significant for society as a whole.
Leaving Varanasi, we travelled through Bihar, stopping in Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Nalanda. In Bodhgaya, we visited the Mahabodhi Temple, the site of enlightenment for Lord Buddah. The highlight of the day was surely the seated meditation, under the peepul (Bodhi) tree, led by a Buddhist monk. It was hard to imagine the history behind the very sacred space that we were occupying…truly mindboggling! After reaching enlightenment, Buddha travelled to Sarnath to preach his first sermon on the middle way to Nirvana. We strolled around the remains of the stupas and monastaries, and visited the museum of excavations. Although the distance to Patna was rather long, we enjoyed the beautiful countryside, exchanging stories with each other, and the time passed quickly. A stop in Nalanda allowed us to visit the site of the first university in the world (450 BC) which, at its peak, accomodated over 10,000 students.
Back to work in Patna, the first evening was spent discussing with community leaders and social workers the increasing demands of providing assistance for young families and runaway children. Resources are thin for prenatal care, daycare, and after-school services, as well as for orphanages. The group brainstormed how AIF could help.
The following day was perhaps the most moving of the entire trip as we visited two slums, witnessing the incredibly sad, impoverished living conditions of the ragpicker communities. The one bright spot in both of these slums were the schools established through AIF’s Learning and Migration program (LAMP) working with Nidan, a local NGO. The schools we visited were specifically made possible by the generous donation of two members of our Leadership trip, Drs. Manjeri and Hasi Venkatachalam. We had a beautiful dedication in memory of Venk’s mother, Janaki Anatram, in front of the first school, then entered to find the bright shining faces of the children, the direct beneficiaries of their kindness. The rooms seemed palatial compared to the the dirty, crowded streets just outside the doors. The schools provided hope, in a safe clean space, otherwise impossible to find in these destitute communities. The enthusiasm of the students and teachers was absolutely palpable. It truly was heartwarming for each of us to witness the direct effects of the generosity of one amazing couple that would benefit countless lives for decades to come.
In Delhi, we reconvened with this year’s Clinton Fellows who presented their impressive projects to an audience of local AIF supporters, the leadership team, and guest of honor, US Ambassador Rich Verma. One project was headed by a fine young man who left a lucrative job on Wall Street, to return to India to improve conditions for Dalit families. Interestingly enough, this young man was of Dalit origin, but his life journey led him to USA where he was educated at top schools. His desire to return, and improve the lives of the Dalit community was made possible through the AIF Clinton Fellowship. Other projects were similarly poignant, including a young lawyer assisting child sexual abuse victims, and a computer scientist bringing technology to remote villages.
The last few days of the AIF trip surveyed some of the many local Delhi programs. The Digital Equalizer Program brings technology to schools across India, affecting more than 1.6 million children in over 4,000 schools. We visited one such school to see the programs in action, and met program leaders from several other schools, representing 10 states in India. Another impressive program was the Market Aligned Skills Training (MAST) program, which provides unemployed indigient youth with knowledge and skills so that almost 75% are able to secure jobs after training. Skills learned cover automechanics, electrical training, plumbing, beautician, and tailoring. They are also trainied in English communication, workplace readiness and financial literacy.
Our last stop was to the National Association for the Blind’s Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies in Delhi. After an introduction to the Centre’s goals to rehabilitate and empower visually impaired women with training in such skills as computers, braille, handicrafts, sewing, cooking, massage therapy and self-defense, we had a blindfolded tour through part of the center, assisted by the visually impaired students themselves. It was quite a humbling experience, how totally helpless we all were! If you are in Delhi, it is worth a visit to this center, both to witness this impressive facility, as well as to enjoy the spa area where visitors can enjoy an amazing massage, and support the center simultaneously.
The week was truly a whirlwind tour, and before long, it was time to say goodbye. It is difficult to sum up what an incredible experience this was for me. Most visits to India are packed with social events and family obligations, where the poverty is just part of the scenery you pass through. This trip provided an opportunity to see another side of India. It left me hopeful and encouraged that good work is truly being done; so many of the very poor and destitute are benefitting from the collective efforts of this wonderful organization. The leaders of AIF are an awe-inspiring group, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to travel with them, and to get to know them personally. Thank you, so much, Lata, Kash, Ravi, Anjali, Diaz, Arvind, Srbala, Sudha, Ash, Venk, Hasi, and Vir for welcoming me so warmly. It was truly a priviledge to spend time with each one of you. Also, I must mention, the team in India including Nishant Pandey, Rowena Kay Mascarenhas, Hanumant Rawat, and Arjun Sanyal, could not be a more dedicated and hardworking crew. With the collective intellect and enthusiasm of this stellar group at the helm, AIF will certainly reach its goal to disrupt poverty, and catalyze social and economic change. If any of you have any inclination to have such an extraordinary experience, I encourage you to inquire about joining future trips. I promise you will not be disappointed.