Just a Touch of India

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.

The Woman on the Beach

With the weekend came some free-time and beautiful weather.

A short ride down the road, across the treacherous street that leads to Pondicherry, is a small village.  Beyond this lies the beach, which is virtually devoid of women.

I do, however, spot a woman pacing up and down the stretch of sand, covered in heavy-looking garments.   She is hooded, as if she is hiding from more than just the sun.

She carries a sack of coconuts, and sells them to beach-goers for 15 rupees each (25 centimes).

I call her over to buy a coconut, and she says almost nothing.  She sits down, her face peeking through the hood of her shawl and begins her work.

With her sickle-shaped tool, she hacks away at the coconut, making a hole in order to access the reviving juice held within.

I finish the juice, and she takes the empty coconut from me.  Skillfully, she opens the shell to reveal the meat, and carves a shard of shell into a small spoon.

I pay her and she walks away, hiding herself once again beneath the heavy fabric.  I realize that I know her no better now than I did before.  Her visibility is fleeting, as she walks the beach like a specter, appearing only to those willing to acknowledge her presence.  People search not for her, but for the promise of the nourishment of a coconut on a hot, sunny day.



Christmas in India

Preparing for our gift exchange

Christmas in a predominantly non-Christian country is something very different than in our home countries.  People go to work, shops are open, and you are able to have a normal day if you wish.  Some of us celebrated away from our families for the first time, and there was some homesickness sprouting up here and there among our group.  However, for the most part, Dec. 25th, was a fantastic day for us here in India.  Even though normal Indians don’t take the day off, we were free to explore and

David opening a banana leaf wrapped gift

spend the day as we chose.  Some of us spent it hanging out where we are staying, Youth Camp Fraternity, some spent the day at the beach, and some just explored a little bit.  Jen, my room-mate, and I in particular had fun riding around on my new scooter which finally granted us freedom at the perfect moment.  We found what we think is a palm tree farm, checked out the beach and health center, and bought 26 tiny candles made here in Auroville to use at our present opening later in the evening.

Even though Christmas isn’t typically celebrated here in India, signs of it were here and there.  Shops, particularly in Pondicherry, had typical commercial Christmas decorations here and there, and these large, five-pointed star lamps meant for the holiday, were being sold everywhere.  Strangers on the street would wish us “Merry Christmas”, showing just how nice the people here can be.

Our Christmas-Palm

In lieu of family, our group gathered to exchange gifts.  But instead of buying something for a specific person, we all bought just one with a spending limit of about 300 rupees, or about 5 Euros.  Prof. Talcott played some jazzy Christmas music, we lit the candles, and ate holiday cake from Naturellement, the organization we visited the previous day.  A palm tree served as our Christmas tree, with flowers for decoration.  Our wrappings were also meant to be sustainable.  Instead of using traditional wrapping paper for the gifts, we used scarves, banana leaves, fabric bags, postcards, even the hair-net we had to wear while visiting Naturellement.

We exchanged gifts by playing a game where a person, who’s name was drawn out of the holiday cake box, picked a present from under our Christmas-palm….or “steal” a gift from someone else who’d already chosen a gift.  No worries though, that just meant the gift-less person got to choose another to open or “steal” from someone else.  That made the exchange much more communal, with the idea to just have fun no matter what you ended up with.

The Economy of Giving

Martina at Naturellement

Food Store

Tonight, everywhere in the world, people are going to sleep wondering which presents will be waiting for them when they wake up. Like most holidays, Christmas has become commercialized.  A tug-of-war over the supply and demand of, well, a lot of stuff.

It couldn’t be more appropriate than to be in Auroville over Christmas studying sustainable development. The consumerism that has engulfed this holiday is directly at odds with the system of beliefs and values that Auroville was founded on.

Earlier today, we met with Jean-Yves, a long-time resident of Auroville and a member of its numerous Councils and Committees. He walked us through the complicatedly simple system that is Auroville’s economy. Auroville aims to simplify the economic part of life to the point where consumption does not influence the individual pursuit of happiness. Without the constant emphasis on money, and the incessant need to make more of it, Auroville’s residents can focus on progress at the individual and community levels. For example, everyone, regardless of their job, is given a monthly maintenance fee, similar to a salary. To put this in perspective, it is around 8,000 rupees per month, or roughly 135 euro. The idea is, if you’re basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are provided (to an extent), then there is more time for the pursuit of “happiness.”

It seems to be working. Over the last week we have met people who are passionate and excited about the work that they are doing. Paul and Dave, with their backgrounds in traditional forestry, are re-building a virtually extinct sub-tropical evergreen forest. Martina’s original six-month project of providing Auroville with organic food products has turned into a twenty year sisterhood between her and the local Tamil women at Naturellement.

Instead of an economy of supply and demand, what we find in Auroville is an economy of need versus desire. Residents are asked to seriously evaluate what is a “necessity” and what is a “want” on a daily basis. Shops like Free Store and Nadini go against the paradigm of the traditional commercial system. At Nadini, a clothing and home goods shop, residents are allotted a flexible yearly budget. There is no “shopping” in Nadini. All of the items are behind a curtain. Instead of browsing, you describe what you need and a clerk brings you the item. Therefore, you only take what you need.

While I’m not certain that this economic system would work on a grand scale, it seems to be working in Auroville. Businesses are thriving, tourism is booming, and its residents are happy (or so they seem). At the core of its economic system, Auroville is very much about giving, with very little emphasis on receiving. Through self-reflection and self-realization (big ideas, I know) its residents seem to be finding a greater sense of purpose which they then and try carry on to the world outside of Auroville.

At Calve for Christmas eve dinner.

photoblog from my day at the garbage dump just outside of pondicherry


My internship started yesterday. I’m doing a project with streetchildren from pondicherry about photography and i needed to get a feeling for the organization that is helping me do that; KALKI. Unfortunatly i missed out on some great seminars and presentations that the rest of the group went to today, but it was worth it! KALKI is a foundation that helps streetkids all over Pondi with education, recreation, counseling and health issues. The social worker of Kalki, Manuel, took me to one of the places they go to once a week; The garbage dump. The people that live on the garbage dump are called ‘gypsies’ and ‘immigrants’ by the people in the area. This visit made a huge impact on me and it is really hard to describe what I’ve seen, so hopefully the 21 pictures below will speak for themselves! They show people lying on the street, sick, with their 1 year olds next to them not having a clue what’s going on, a school that was ruined because of the heavy rainfall and despite the sign that says that every kid has a right to eduction, will not be rebuild by the government, kids covered in dirt enjoying the attention of the people from KALKI , the garbage dump where their houses are practically build on and much more..

This is the second garbage dump in a developing country that i’ve visited in my life, and it was again heartbreaking. These pictures show what my western eye sees while visiting a place like this. My project will enable some of these kids to learn some photography skills and they’ll receive disposable camera’s, so we can see how their live is through their eyes..


Women and Dogs

Day 7 in Auroville. The group headed to the Village Action Trust yesterday morning. In a nutshell, VAT promotes and facilitates the empowerment of women in villages in the “greater Auroville area,” if you will; they run seminars and other group activities to increase the self-sufficiency of local Tamil women, which may include basic education, financial planning and/or social support services, all undergirded by the belief (and as far as I can tell, a fairly accurate one) that women in India are far more effective when they act as units rather than individually. Ambu, VAT’s co-director, made it abundantly clear that her organization is not a charity—charities foster dependency, they’re “easy” and “good for the ego,” but VAT’s participatory framework (that is, all those who benefit also contribute) reduces community segregation and hostility.

The group has been phenomenally successful: Women’s groups—and their men’s-groups spawn—are operating successfully throughout 60 surrounding villages, and the success stories (mostly of women harnessing the power of their respective groups and standing up to abusive husbands) that Ambu relayed were nothing short of all-out inspiring. Continue reading