Giving back to India - the Indian American experience

June 11th, 2008 - 1:40 pm ICT by IANS  

By Ashok Easwaran
Darien (Illinois), June 11 (IANS) Students, academics, executives and physicians came together in Darien, a Chicago suburb, to consider action to uplift the millions in India who have been bypassed by the country’s economic reforms. The speakers recounted their experiences in tackling the problems of India’s rural poor from water purification and primary education to healthcare for impoverished tribal children.

Some of the speakers noted that they, not the villagers, had been the net gainers. One of them was University of Iowa professor Raj Rajagopal who led 23 students for a three week visit to Tamil Nadu. His students participated with eight organisations that worked to address social problems such as child labour, unemployment, poverty, healthcare for the poor, illiteracy and community waste management.

All his students had a question, Rajagopal said, which was echoed by other visitors to India’s impoverished villages - “How can there be so much generosity when they have nothing?” Another speaker observed that he had received “unconditional love” from the villagers.

The conference titled the ‘Rural Indian learning journey conference’ was held by a local not for profit organisation, the India Development Coalition of America (IDCA). The IDCA has amongst its objectives the promotion of collaboration between Indian American organisations and individuals engaged in development in India, and the promotion of a forum for members to network with one another.

“These people are underprivileged but not backward,” said Roda Patel, who closed down a flourishing paediatric practice in Northbrook, Illinois to take care of tribal children in Kharel, Gujarat.

Patel referred to the rapid urbanisation of India, which leads to the inevitable urban squalor. “They are creating horrible slums,” she said. After moving to Kharel, Patel said that the major part of her responsibility was non-medical. She said she focussed her energy on total impact, including the eradication of malnutrition, and social change.

Most of the children who are the beneficiaries of her project - under the Gram Seva Foundation - are the children of sugar and brick factory workers. The hospital she works with also employs local women, who despite a school education, would have otherwise worked in the fields. “These girls and boys work with so much zest,” she said.

Despite the economic liberalisation, prosperity has not touched more than 70 percent of India’s population, speakers noted. “India has monumental problems,” said D.V. Giri, who worked in Indian orphanages.

“On the purchasing power parity scale, India ranks fourth in the world, but on the human development index, it ranks 126th, according to a United Nations study. We need to reconcile the two.”

Another Indian American, Amarjit Singh, spoke about his experience in installing water purification plants in Rajasthan’s villages. He had a word of advice for others: “Money is never a problem if your heart is in what you do. But keep away from (Indian) government officials.”

(Ashok Easwaran can be contacted at

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