The thing about India is that it can’t help but touch you in some way. Whether it’s a blessing from an elephant’s trunk, a welcoming bindi to the forehead, or that not so pleasant touch of a mosquito, there is always a part of India in contact with you. As a group we have indulged in our contact with India, and dipped into our pocketbooks, buying up scarves and Indian-inspired tops, Ganesh figurines and locally-made bamboo earrings. Some of us are studying Tamil, while others of us are inspired by Bollywood dance moves. One can’t help but dive into the culture, absorb the rich sensory experiences and converse with some of the least taciturn people in the world.
In return for our finds in and around Pondicherry, Auroville, Kuilapalayam and other surrounding villages, each of us are embarking on a communications project with the goal of adhering to the sometimes abstract concept of sustainable development. The projects range from working on grant proposals for ADECOM, an NGO which focuses on rights for the Dalit (untouchables), to constructing educational material for children to learn about trees at the local Botanical Gardens, to the creation of short video documentaries for inter-related craft organizations, and to website construction for SALT, an organization working for poor and marginalized children. This is just a taste of the illustrious plethora of projects we as a group are pursuing in the remaining 2 ½ weeks of our practicum here in India.
But our projects aren’t the only part of this story. Our impact is like a drop in a bucket. It’s appreciated by those we work for, but quite small in terms overall impact in the region. There are bigger factors at work, namely globalization, that constantly helps to remind us of our interconnectedness. The Village Action Trust, based in Auroville, works on community, economic and psychological issues affecting the local Tamil residents. Head of operations, Ambu has been working for the Village Action Trust for several decades and has seen the organization’s expansion and has helped to bring it through its ups and downs. One showcase success is the organization’s psychological services unit. Since its inception, a drastic decrease in domestic abuse and women’s suicide attempts has been documented in the area. Prior to the program about 7 or 8 women, who were members of women’s groups run out of the Village Action Trust, committed suicide each year. This past year, the tally was zero. Spousal abuse is combated with conflict resolution techniques and empowerment initiatives; it is a complexly simple way of working and most importantly it seems to work.
However, despite their good work, The Village Action Trust has encountered a drop-off in donor funds lately, much like many of the NGOs in the area, such as Integrated Animal Care, a sanctuary for stray or abandoned puppies and dogs, providing food and medical care to the animals or New Colors, an after-school program for students. Without donors and fundraising initiatives many NGOs are not sustainable. The Village Action Trust encountered this problem up-close in 2004, when funds nearly dried up and the organization looked to shut its doors. Funding helps to materialize projects, but since they can’t always be counted on year after year, this method is rife with obstacles to sustainability. Some organizations look to create a buffer by accumulating their own profits through the sale of media or material products, but for most these efforts are still in an infant stage of development or simply an out-of-reach option at present.
What’s the cause of NGO’s increasing their demand for funding? Ambu states bluntly and clearly the reason, “the Financial Crisis”. This event, with its epicenter on Wall Street has been global in its impact. Just imagine the possible repercussions of a drop in funds to the psychology center of the Village Action Trust, and explaining to those effected that their services have been cut due to irresponsible loans in the United States. Being on the ground here in India, really makes one realize that for every action there is an impact. The knowledge of this butterfly effect can help us tackle serious questions about the meaning of sustainability and possibly lead to a change in practice.
So while the impact of our group in India is small, it helps to know that we are contributing to an interconnected system. While, India touches us with its majestic tapestry of cultural diversity, we can proceed with our projects knowing how much we are touching India in return, knowing that a simple action can have a big effect.