Groups sponsor activism in India

by Heather L. Mueller

Despite living 8,000 miles away from India, members of the Association for India’s Development are participating in grassroots activism to improve the poverty-stricken lives of some Indians.

For the past 10 years, members of the association’s Minnesota chapter – both students and members of the community – have raised money to sponsor programs on education, health care, women’s empowerment and rural development in India.

Helping women and devising better sustainable and organic farming practices are at the top of the association’s agenda this year.

“Even from very far away, people are still trying to do good,” said Trishna Das, electrical engineering doctoral student and association student coordinator.

In collaboration with other nonprofit organizations, the association pays about 10 impoverished women nearly 10,000 rupees ($224) a month to cultivate half an acre of land in western India.

“We are teaching them skills in organic agriculture, which helps in sustainable development,” said Leena Ranade, an association member.

Ranade visited a rural Indian farm in January 2006.

As a part of the program, social workers teach women organic farming practices such as composting. The women raise crops and sell them at the market.

“They are made independent,” Ranade said. “What they sold in market is money in their pocket.”

The land used by the project is donated by local farmers or the government.

“Even one-fifth (of an) acre of land can get people out of poverty,” Ranade said. “So it’s a massive poverty reduction kind of program if it grows.”

The program plays off the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a new policy aimed at giving India’s poorest residents 100 days of work at six rupees a day.

Conservative estimates have put over 250 million people below the poverty line.

The association uses money raised by local volunteers to pay the women and the three workers who train them.

If the association-sponsored project proves successful, it might catch on at the government level and provide larger masses of unemployed women with a sustainable livelihood – and livable wage, Ranade said.

“Once the pilot project takes off and it becomes an example, then other (non-government organizations) and other people can pick it up and start work on it,” Ranade said. “We are hoping that it spreads to other parts of India.”

Some members who joined the association for social purposes were inspired by the association’s energy and passion for raising awareness about social issues affecting India.

“I wasn’t aware being in India my whole life (of the issues),” Das said.

Swati Agiwal, an association officer and doctoral student said the association hasn’t just offered her “a way to sit and discuss (issues) over a cup of chai,” it has helped her understand the struggles of her people.

“Back in India, for most people, it’s a survival-based life,” she said.