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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Students in India Take Social Change into Their Own Hands

Courtsey : The WIP Magazine

by Zakeer Fehmida, India

Fehmida Zakeer

Not long ago, a young man named Srinivas and his friends had just planted saplings along one of Chennai's busy thoroughfares and stood wondering how they could ensure the plants' survival amidst the sidewalk bustle. A nearby bicycle shop owner offered discarded bicycle tubes and suggested converting them into plant barriers. The tubes were piled together and the saplings got a new lease on life. Their efforts were part of their work with Diya, a social welfare organization that Srinivas and a group of his fellow IT professionals formed in response to their desire to help provide a platform for citizens to come forward and participate in resolving issues of public interest. Srinivas is one of Diya’s co-founders and says of his organization’s objectives, “We keep looking for ways to step out and make a genuine difference to our society, whether that means a slum development initiative, or a tree planting drive, or lending a helping hand to a blind school.”

Sangam India picks one community at a time in Chennai and helps guide it towards prosperity and self-sufficiency. Photograph courtesy of Sangam India.
In another part of Chennai, a group of medical students was distributing food to underprivileged children near their college when a man walked up to them with a request, “Can you help me send my daughters to school?” In a section of society where education for girls does not even warrant a cursory thought, here was a father who wanted to send not just one, but two daughters, to high school. The medical students soon founded Sangam India to help improve the quality of life for those in underprivileged communities. Their plan was to adopt one disadvantaged community at a time and guide it towards self-sufficiency by supporting education for children, providing vocational training to adults and establishing public health measures.

“We pass by slums and impoverished people on a daily basis but how often, if at all, do we stop and actually consider what their lives might actually be like? Where do they go when it rains and floods? What happens to them when they fall sick? Do their children go to school? What are their hopes and dreams? The answers will come only if we actually stop and meet the people staying there, and take the time to know the cadences of their lives on a personal [level],” say Nivedita Gunturi and Sriram Ramgopal, medical students and founders of Sangam India.

Diya established a school for the blind, utilizing volunteers as teachers. Photograph courtesy of Diya.
In Mumbai, IT professionals Ashish Goyal and his friends found that many of their colleagues were suffering from vision related problems. They started researching the issue and were appalled at the statistics they uncovered. “Ninety percent of the world's blind live in developing countries, a child becomes blind every minute. Lack of resources, poverty, non-availability of trained professionals and lack of outreach programs are just a few reasons that India is home to more than one third of the [world’s] blind,” says Ashish, co-founder of Umang Foundation.

But the group was encouraged to learn that seventy five percent of these cases are preventable or treatable and that the treatment and cure of blindness is among the most cost effective and successful of all health interventions. This proved to be the impetus for their first project, an eye education initiative that targeted 100,000 school children in and around Mumbai.

Lending a Helping Hand

“Lots of youngsters have an inherent proclivity towards social work,” explains Srinivas, “but are unable to act in a cogent fashion for want of a platform where they can work with other like-minded people and create a lasting impact.”

When Diya was first founded, the focus was on charity related activities, but they have now shifted to capacity building activities like running tutoring centers and vocational training centers. Collaborating with other organizations has helped Diya execute systematic and meticulous projects.

Diya worked with Nizhal, an organization devoted to developing green cover within the city of Chennai. “The group provided us with all technical input to not only ensure that the planted trees have a maximum chance of surviving but also to factor in issues like biodiversity,” says Srinivas.

Partnering with an organization devoted to empowering visually challenged women, Diya set up a school for blind students where office colleagues volunteer as teachers. The volunteers, some of whom were embarking on such work for the first time, were initially nervous, but soon warmed to their new role. “I started teaching [the students] the basics of English grammar, which they dutifully recorded in their Braille notes. At the end of the session it was as much a learning experience for me as it was, hopefully, for them,” says a volunteer named Krishna. He plans to continue his work.

Akshay Shah and Deena Sawlani, co-founders of Umang list the benefits of opening the doors of their social welfare organization to anyone who is interested in doing their part for society. “Having members from different backgrounds such as college students, professionals from IT, finance and management sectors, as well as doctors and senior citizens, makes available a wide spectrum of services. It also provides a great way to network and meet new people.” Deena further points out that collaborating with established organizations helps members interact better and provide services faster.

The members of Umang Foundation understand that collaboration allows them to provide more effective services. Photograph courtesy of the Umang Foundation.
Srinivas understands the benefits of working with organizations that already have a presence in society, “Leveraging our strong and widely spread member network to mobilize funds and resources for organizations which do not enjoy high visibility but are doing an enormous amount of work for the poor and the underprivileged helps to sustain their work and also widens the scope of their service.”

Networking for Success

The growth mechanism of all these youth initiatives has been simple: friends rope in more friends, and members ultimately choose their levels of participation. Many of the volunteers are pursuing their social work in addition to keeping full time jobs and studies. A combination of sound planning, clear-cut delegation and responsibility, and an open decision-making process creates a sense of ownership and accountability in every member.

“Money doesn't solve everything - in fact, it doesn't solve much. The problems we are facing cannot be solved with money alone. Instead, we are up against hard and often ugly cultural patterns that prevent people from becoming self-respecting, self-sufficient members of society. These [patterns] are hard to change and they require a lot of dedication and compassion for the people being served,” says Sriram.

Srinivas and his friends managed to protect their saplings, and they helped set up a school for the blind in addition to converting a thatched roof tutoring center into a brick and mortar structure. Their list of successes does not end there, whether it is bringing a smile to the elderly or setting up a library for underprivileged school children who would otherwise not have access to one.

The two girls whose father requested help are now enrolled in high school thanks to the efforts of Sangam India members. The group has also been busy holding health camps, ranging from pediatric, dental, ear and eye, to gynecological examinations for women. “During the camps, we found that women are not only undervalued by society but by themselves as well - women are ingrained with the belief of not according any value to their health. They would rather sit at home and cook rather than go to a doctor for a check up, even if it is free. Every woman deserves to be empowered, every child deserves to have an education. How many Gandhis and Einsteins do we lose everyday because of their sheer lack of opportunity?” asks Nivedita.

The Umang members meanwhile surveyed students across Mumbai and identified vision problems among those who were not even aware of having any sight related problems. They have also launched initiatives to educate the public about ways to take care of eyes and avoid the after-effects of overexposure to computers and televisions.

“A positive intention can make all the difference,” says Deena. “One-on-one interaction and a system of role models can help spread so much happiness and joy, especially among children. So many children need role models to look up to, they crave the attention that they so rarely get in their own communities,” agrees Sriram.

Young people, some still in school themselves or barely out of college and earning their first salaries, are proving that all it takes to bring about positive changes in society is the will to help.

About the Author
Fehmida Zakeer is a freelance writer based in Chennai, India. Her articles have been published in various online and print publications including Herbs for Health (US), Azizah Magazine (US), the Indian editions of Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Better Homes and Garden, Child magazine and others. She covers topics related to health and nutrition, childcare, women's empowerment and development.

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