Turning Over a New Leaf

The start of UC Berkeley’s transition to a new rural Indian village

After our trip to Vadamanappakkam during the summer of 2012, the Berkeley chapter came to the conclusion that it would be best to transition to a new rural Indian village. Vadamanappakkam has greatly progressed over the past years that both the Berkeley and UCLA chapters have spent working there; specifically, the new Panchayat (local government) seems to be very proactive and has already corrected some of the issues that we have identified in the past. In addition, our health education program and spoken English tutoring program have been established successfully and only need proper maintenance in order to continue. It is for this reason that we have begun collaboration with National Service Scheme (NSS) of IIT Madras with the hope of ensuring that our projects continue to be sustainable in Vadamanappakkam. As no other Project RISHI chapter has transitioned to a new village before, our role was essentially to establish a protocol for transitioning that other chapters may be able to use in the future, should they decide to progress to other Indian villages as well.

Once we surveyed general members about their thoughts regarding the transition and general criteria regarding village assessment, our next step was to reach out to others who could help connect us to a village in need. With the help of all of our general members, we contacted roughly 70 NGOs, personal contacts, professors and researchers whose work and mission seemed to align with ours. Keeping constant communication with these contacts was key in order to build a solid relationship with them. After receiving feedback, we categorized the promising contacts that we had into 3 categories; primary contacts were those that could connect us to a village, secondary contacts included localized organizations that worked in specific regions of India, and tertiary contacts included global NGOs that could potentially work with our club in any region of India that we move to. Our members had several discussions to narrow down our options and researched each of the regions under consideration, taking into account demographics, education level, language, safety, infrastructure and more.

Preliminary demographic research done by region at the state level.

When preliminarily evaluating each village before the trip, our main criteria included:

  • Necessity — Make sure that community members and the local government are willing to work with us, and that every project targets something that the villagers recognize as a problem.
  • Sustainability — Should be established through a RISHI Base and NGOs.
  • Boundaries of opportunity for innovation — Cultural, social and governmental constraints. What is Project RISHI reasonably capable of accomplishing here?
  • Logistics — Language, safety, lodging.

Finally, we had decided upon two regions, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, to visit during the summer trip in order to assess villages further using surveys and personal interviews. During the trip, members visited the villages of Kadel, Oontara and Kadera in Rajasthan, and Batamandi/Thapalpur and Bharog Baneri in Himachal Pradesh. Additionally, the team visited 3 NGOs: Barefoot College, OXFAM India and the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD). This year’s India trip was certainly different from those of previous years, as members had the opportunity to understand village dynamics in a non-project focused context and set a precedent for the future. Rupali Sood, our chapter president, shared some of her post-trip thoughts on village assessment: “Scouting and surveying all the villages was an extremely eye-opening and humbling experience. Simple conversations with the community members helped us gain so much insight into the cultural and social contexts they live within. The relationships we formed with individuals during our trip will be a huge asset as we move forward in the coming years.”

RISHI members conducting surveys with some of the village women.

Currently, members have been reviewing the information collected on the trip and having in-depth discussions during meetings about which village we should ultimately transition to. As of now, the two villages under serious consideration are Kadera and Bharog Baneri. Ultimately, our members had a rewarding and novel experience on this trip; in the words of this year’s Director of Transition, Pritika Kumar, “The India trip this year was one of the most life changing experiences of my life […] The friendships I made, the places I saw, the work I did and the people I met have given me a myriad of memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.”

RISHI members having some fun with the village children.

Author: Preethi Venkat

Originally published at www.projectrishi.org.