A Journey of Discovery
It was hard to imagine what sort of impact my first trip to India would have on me, a 16 year-old high school student from the United States. I traveled there earlier this year with a team from PYXERA Global, a Washington DC-based nonprofit, to visit development projects in the northern region of the country. Over the course of eight days, we visited the hectic city of Mumbai, rural farms and villages at the height of the dry season near Udaipur, the historic and exotic city of Jaipur, and the country’s bustling capital, New Delhi.
India is the world’s second most populous country with over 1.2 billion residents, almost 300 million of whom live on less than two dollars a day. Contemplate that for a minute. That’s like having almost the entire population of the United States living on the equivalent of a candy bar per day!
Throughout my travels, I was particularly struck by three foreign concepts associated with how Indian society deals with complex social and economic issues.
Empathy and Empowerment: Employing Over 40,000 Rural Women
NK Chaudhary, the founder of Jaipur Rugs, had a vision 40 years ago to bring employment and a better life to women living in rural villages across India. Jaipur Rugs sells rugs made by over 40,000 weavers in more than 600 villages. The company focuses on a socio-economic business model, providing communities of women with much needed income, independence, and better healthcare. Over one million lives have been positively impacted by this unique company that sells its rugs, made with love, all over the world. The company is built on a foundation of values most Americans crave to see in the modern corporate world: respect and compassion for its workers.
Sustainable Livelihoods: Strengthening the Capacity of Indian Farmers
We traveled to several villages near Udaipur to visit farmers who were receiving support from the Joint Initiative for Village Advancement (JIVA) project, sponsored by the John Deere Foundation and co-managed with PYXERA Global. The farmers were very proud of their produce. Early in the JIVA project, farmers were invited to plant pomegranate trees to increase their profits, as pomegranate is a lucrative crop. However, the pomegranates take a relatively long time – two-to-three years – to start producing fruit, so the farmers needed to trust in their potential.
Initially, JIVA distributed pomegranate saplings to the farmers free of charge. This led to the death of many of the trees as they were neglected by farmers who couldn’t be bothered to care for them. After that, the farmers were asked to split the cost of the trees to help motivate them to give the crop the supervision, patience, and attention it needed. This ‘skin in the game’ approach, where farmers invest their own money, succeeded in securing the needed care for the plants, and the farmers have since reaped the rewards of increased income.
It is a truly eye-opening story. If you are given everything you need in life free of charge, you aren’t necessarily going to respect it, and may end up losing it. These farmers did better with a subsidy rather than a gift by also having to put their own precious cash at risk.
Definitions of Success: Education and the ‘New Millionaire’
Another interesting idea I noticed was the pure drive and ambition of the charitable organizations in India to help people in need. At the Kaivalya Education Foundation in New Delhi, I was introduced to the term ‘New Millionaire,’ which they use to depict their aspirations, but not in the sense you might imagine.
Instead of wanting to make millions of dollars and be materially wealthy in life, the workers’ goal is to have a positive touch on a million lives by the time they are done. A group of educated people, called Gandhi Scholars, take two years off work to train teachers in schools to be more effective, thereby multiplying their reach to help thousands of students, then hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions.
This was fascinating to me, because I realize that if you go out on the street in the United States and ask someone if they want to be a millionaire, they will assume you are talking about money and say yes. But if you ask someone if they would work to touch the lives of a million children or people in need, their response would probably be “How can I possibly do that?” I was captivated by the sincere drive of these individuals to help as many people as they could and to not be daunted by the task.
During my time in India, I was able to learn a lot about a different culture and appreciate how privileged life is in my country, but these three concepts really stuck with me on my journey back home.