As part of the HelpYourNGO.com "Pay it Forward" Scholarship, we asked students planning to study for a master's degree at any university outside India to write an essay on the following topic "Do NGOs Play a useful role in India? Why? Would you work in an NGO in India? Why?)". This is what Gayatri Sapru (Winner of the "Pay it Forward Scholarship Programme) had to say...
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Anthropologist Margaret Mead
NGO’s in India have always played a very special part in strengthening the fabric of Indian society. In a country of a billion people, it is impossible to expect that the government alone can handle each and every social and civil issue that exists. NGO’s have come into their own in the last two decades because of media exposure and increasing availability of funds. But it is my belief that organizations started by reformers like Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule set the precedent for what we now call NGO. Our freedom struggle itself was also led by non-government actors who wanted to see change and took it upon them to bring about that change. Today’s NGO’s are an extension of the legacy of such ideas with the additional benefits of having corporate structure and better administration. In the recent Indian Ocean Tsunami’s, it was the NGO’s that got to the distraught people and provided them with food and shelter much before the government. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is one famous instance in which an NGO channeled the power of the people to demonstrate against state injustice even when the leaders of the movement were threatened with imprisonment. While the Indian government turns a blind eye to the problem of HIV, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s project Avahan prevented more than 1 lakh new HIV infections from developing through their work with sex workers and truck drivers.
Many people criticize NGO’s and do not believe that the money they collect through donations is used in the right way, however these people are seldom talking from firsthand experience and their misinformed opinion often results in more people downplaying the work done by NGO’s. Having worked with many NGO’s, I have found no truth to such accusations. It is true that a lot of influential and moneyed people run NGO’s but the main reason for this is that their status helps to bring visibility and donations for their organizations which in turn means that money becomes available for issues which would otherwise remain unsolved.
As soon as I completed my standard ten board exams, I was bombarded with suggestions of what to do with my holiday time. My family suggested an ‘internship’ in a bank or something impressive that would build my CV. However, to everyone’s surprise, I declared I would volunteer as a children’s teacher at the NGO Aakanksha for the summer. Aakanksha today is a very famous NGO , but back then no one had really heard of it . At Aakanksha , I learned from the children more than they learned from me. I learned that they are stronger than many grownups, their smiling faces hide so many stories that one would never believe. Abuse, neglect, alcoholism, poverty were all a daily part of their lives. And still they believed that they could make a different path for themselves by becoming educated. I saw the difference that even a little attention can make to the performance of a child. I learned that children want to be acknowledged and respected just like adults. Many times the children would ask me why I went to teach them when I was just a few years older than them and should have been in a mall or watching movies at the cinema. The truth is that I did not have an answer for them; I just knew that nothing made me happier than spending time with them and seeing them flourish before my eyes. I am not a saint, in fact I think I went for a very selfish reason, they made me feel happy, they were doing me a service .It is now my sixth year of association with this organization that I have come to love and respect. . I joined for one summer and that summer turned into 5 more years and I thank the stars that I found Aakanksha or rather, it found me.
I went to St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, where working at an NGO for the first two years of college is compulsory. So people working for different causes like animal rights, minority rights, supporting the elderly etcetera have always surrounded me. In my experience, every single student in my class felt a change in their approach towards less fortunate people after volunteering at NGO’s. Even those who hated going and only went to be able to pass the year soon started enjoying their time. A large number of my classmates continued to volunteer even in our third year, even though it was no longer required or recorded by the college.
In 2011, I completed a one yearlong group research project for the NGO PUKAR (People for Urban Action, Knowledge and Resources).This is an NGO run by the Ratan Tata Foundation where young people are selected and given a grant of 60,000 to conduct research on a topic that is relevant to urban space. We published our report on Communal biases in English print reporting where we showed through newspaper articles , interviews with journalists , doctors and college students that the media does not report all events associated with different communities with impartiality. In my time at PUKAR , I saw another side to NGO’s. PUKAR’s workforce is also made up of volunteers , highly educated people who hold very good jobs and also work at PUKAR outside their normal office hours. I was very surprised to see their commitment and honesty about their work and often I would feel ashamed to make them wait or not deliver on a promise because I knew how much their time means. This is what it means to work in an NGO – relentless pursuit of goals that help the causes one’s organization believes in.
From October to December 2011 , I worked with an NGO called ‘Tamarind Tree’ which works for the development and protection of the Warli Tribals in Dahanu. It was an experience of a lifetime since my area of interest in Anthropology , the study of human cultures and I got to meet people I had studied about in books. I learned that the NGO had made such great efforts in preserving the people’s culture and also telling them that they must respect and value their traditions instead of adopting western values mindlessly. This NGO showed me the importance of protecting our rituals and cultures in a world where everything is changing rapidly. Their work now protects the rights of the Warli artist to get a fair percentage in the sales of their art work, especially the Warli paintings which are famous all over the world.
Thus , NGO’s of different kinds are all bound together by the spirit of compassion that drives the people in them to serve others. In a country as diverse as ours , NGO’s provide relief and comfort to people regardless of their caste or language. In this aspect they are able to do much more than government, which is bound by geographical factors, like state divisions and political factors like appeasing only powerful people. Many extremely wealthy people in our country and around the world , have gone on to establish NGO’s because they have seen the impact of their work. It would be my privilege and joy to find future employment in an NGO because I want to know that I have a made some difference in the world and being a part of an NGO lets a person increase their sphere of impact manifold and benefit not just one but countless people. Through my experiences and the experiences of those around me I can confidently say that working at an NGO is as respectable a job as any other public service. People may not tell their children to become social workers or join an NGO as a career option but I think there is no better job. I would like to end my essay , just as I began it , with a quote , this time by Edward Everett Hale
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
Edward Everett Hale.
By Gayatri Sapru