Two US students observe, first hand, SHGs transforming an Indian village.

It is an incident that’s firmly entrenched in Golda Calonge’s mind.

“My neighbour once showed me an X-ray which showed a rod in her body. I did not quite understand what she was saying, but started crying thinking of the pain she had to endure,” the young graduate student of Columbia University recalls.

Her ‘neighbour’, incidentally, is an older woman who lives in Padavedu village near Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Golda and her classmate at Columbia’s School of Social Work, Kimberly Nasatir, were here for nearly six weeks as part of an internship programme. During this time, they forged strong emotional bonds with the residents.

But how did a top university in New York build a bridge with a small dwelling in Tamil Nadu? Padavedu is among more than a thousand villages ‘adopted’ by Srinivasan Services Trust of the TVS Group. Local communities take ownership of the development process. The 150-plus SST employees live and work in the villages, focusing on economic development, health, education, infrastructure and the environment. Empowerment of women through self-help groups (SHGs) is an important part of this exercise.

Uma, for instance, runs a weaving unit. She was part of a 15-member SHG team which collectively got a bank loan of Rs 12 lakh. Today, she makes at least Rs 10,000 a month and is confident of building the business even further.

Her friend, Kumari, operates a rice mill that assures a monthly income of over Rs 8,000 and is confident of repaying her loan soon. Kasturi, likewise, is into selling flowers and garlands. “I am happy with what I make and have bigger dreams for the future,” she says.

Vijaya retails milk and rice, which translates into an income of nearly Rs 10,000 a month. All have big dreams for themselves and their children, who will take the story forward.

Venu Srinivasan, Managing Trustee of SST, says the model is about partnership with the stakeholders (society, police, forest department among others), and not philanthropy. “It is not our intent to act as crusaders, but work around a system. The idea is to be part of the society, live there and create a transformation from within.”

SST also follows a secular business model. “It is about loving and respecting people from all faiths. This is what ensures complete harmony in society,” Srinivasan says.

During its 15 years of work across India, SST has realised that improved income levels can truly transform a community. Padavedu, for instance, has seen revenue generated from waste, be it banana stems or lantana, which has spawned a manufacturing industry for baskets, mats and furniture. A relatively nominal investment from SST has yielded returns 30 times over, all of it generated by the community.

Likewise, the tribal belt has struck gold with honey, which is again extracted without destroying the beehive. Initially retailed at Rs 80 a kg three years ago, it now fetches four times as much — a tribute to its quality.

Srinivasan adds that SST attaches great importance to conservation of forests and water. It, therefore, helps that the senior workforce comprises retired Government officials, who are better equipped to represent problems with State Collectors.

K.S. Krishnan, Field Director at Padavedu, for instance, was formerly with the Indian Forest Service. “I have been working here for over eight years and get more satisfaction and happiness than I did when I was with the Government,” he says.

The SST model caught the eye of Columbia University, which sent two students from its School of Social Work last year for a five-week stay. Golda and Kimberly arrived for the second internship programme.

“I had always wanted to come to India and never expected to be in a global village,” Kimberly says.

Golda, who has also worked in community development in West Africa, admits her motivation for coming was different. “My best friend is from Chennai and I missed her wedding. I jumped at the first opportunity to come here,” she quips.

Both are unanimous that the stint has been a ‘tremendous’ learning experience. What was particularly memorable was the way the SST employees (referred to as animators) went about working and developing their communities.

“This is such a big change from what I am used to elsewhere. I am amazed with the energy levels and want to bring this lesson back to the US,” Golda says. Kimberly agrees. “I see success in the connection between the community members and animators. It is a model that should be seen by other NGOs.”

Till she came to India, Golda had little idea what corporate social responsibility really meant. “I am kind of learning that it is all about preserving your dignity, because a lot of what SST does is connected to this space,” she says.

Kimberly is pleasantly surprised by the reactions of men in Padavedu to their women working. “It was better than what I expected. The wife being the breadwinner is something that has taken many societies long to accept. This model is remarkable,” she says.

Golda has also observed a host of differences between men and women when it comes to financial goals. “Women work a lot to get their kids to better schools or when it comes to organising clean-up operations within the community or health camp events. I think it is easier to mobilise women into programmes,” she says.

Both Golda and Kimberly are carrying happy memories back home to New York. “My high point was attending the local festival,” Golda says.

She found everyone was present at the festival and enjoying themselves. “You get the sense that everybody works together as a team and there is camaraderie and people have fun. It does not feel like work.”

Little wonder that Golda was moved to tears when her neighbour showed her the X-ray. “I figured she was in pain when all she was doing was to share something with me. Even though so much is lost in translation between us, I still feel very close to her. In a way, she reminds me of my great-aunt back home,” she says.

(This article was published on August 2, 2012)
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