About fifteen years ago, a 21-year-old IITian in America, got together with other fellow Indians and raised 3000 dollars to send to organisations working at the grassroots level.
It was the starting of something big.
Something that spread rapidly and increased to 40 chapters around the United States.
Something that inspired a generation of India’s educated elite to return home and provide electricity to villages in Maharashtra, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.
Yes, something which became a movement big enough to spawn a Shah Rukh Khan film.
Something that today affects lives of seven lakh children in 1000 schools and 10,000 villages in Tamil Nadu.
Something that today raises and spends six crore rupees a year – a long way from the 3000 dollars that started it all.
AID-India is quite something – one of those rare organisations that fights shy of any publicity and continues to consider its volunteer base more valuable than money.
“There are many sources to raise money. We are about getting people involved in doing work,” says Balaji Sampath, after finally agreeing for an interview under the condition we would write about the organisation and the people, instead of focusing on him.
“We have 850 people working in all of Tamil Nadu today because we are low-profile. If people feel that an organisation is somebody’s baby, they don’t feel ownership. The fact that it is a collective effort keeps people together and helps us get work done,” he explains.
When he was in school, Balaji thought he would someday build a factory and use the money to set up an orphanage and work in villages.
But while he was in the United States to do his Ph.D, the Electronics student from IIT found that a lot of his friends wanted to do something for the country, especially since they felt that they had left India behind. “The only thing we could do was raise funds and send money to support organisations. We also used to visit them. We would come to see if the money was spent.”
When he saw what money could do to bring about change, he decided to do more. “I contacted my friends, their friends and collected email IDs. Email was becoming popular. It was the first SPAM kind of mail,” he laughs.
He mailed his fellow IITians and his seniors who were spread out all over the United States. “Since they were all interested, we started chapters. We started in Maryland and by ’95-’96, we had about 40 chapters in the US.”
Initially, it was completely the “engineering and the geek” crowd, he says.
“But as we grew, more people got involved from social sciences and economics backgrounds. When you bring in people with different skills, the quality of discussion completely changes. If four engineers sit together, they will be looking at the technology, how to do things and the flowchart… An economics or a social science person would try and study the caste equation here and see what happens.”
He would use his two-month break in India to visit the villages and see how the money raised was utilised by NGOs, prepare a report and send it back to donors. He was hardly spending time with his parents.
“They were angry and very worried,” he recalls the “high tension period” of his life – the mid-nineties.
He knew he felt happiest working at the grassroots and seeing the change for himself but what would he do for bread and butter?
Since social work was hardly a career option in the nineties, he came up with a plan to use the interest of his savings (he saved most of the money from his fellowship by walking to college) to sustain himself while he pursued his passion.
Confused, he told his American professor that he wanted to leave the course and go back to India. “He asked me to wait for six-seven months and finish my Ph.D. I had already registered AID India by then. Everytime I would see a new programme, I would see the change, I would be inspired and say Ok, this is what I want to do.”
But once he started work at the grassroots, he realised he had miscalculated his living expenses since the cost of living had changed considerably since the early nineties. He ended up using up his savings within a year.
“Today when I look back, it sounds so risky and childish,” he talks about the decision.
He could not mobilise people and hence, started working with existing groups. Soon, he started working with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and did so for two years.
“That was an eye opener in mass-mobilisation and that helped me build up confidence. I gained experience on what can be done,” reveals Balaji.
Once he ran out of money, his friends from AID came to his rescue and they decided to support him financially by giving him a retainer of Rs.10,000 – something he wasn’t comfortable with.
“Then, I started my IIT classes, part-time teaching and stopped depending on AID. I wanted to keep my own financial requirement separate from the organisation,” he says.
Soon, he had support from some of the AID volunteers who were returning back to India. “Some of my students joined and started working with us and it became viable. As we started growing, apart from AID, Asha and Pratham started supporting, UNICEF and other corporate foundations started contributing.”
Was it practical for today’s youth to give up on salaries and work for a cause?
“Today things have become very different from what they were in 1997. Typically, if you manage to work for a few years in this kind of field, struggle without looking for financial returns, you will soon find a niche area to work and also find people to back you,” he believes.
“Suppose I said I wanted to take a salary here, even Rs.25,000 or Rs.30,000 would be considered normal given the number of projects. People don’t take salaries here because they don’t want to take. It’s their problem.”
Having gained plenty of experience in working with children, he realised that education and health were of primary importance in shaping the new generation.
“Government schools and public health institutions must be strengthened because they are the one that have the duty to deliver quality education and health. Sometimes, it’s like the government has almost given up on the mandate. So we work very closely with the government. Not by confrontation but in conjunction.”
“It’s ultimately teachers are the ones who improve quality of education. We identify and see how the teachers work can be made more effective. We listen to what they say, we do a lot of research and development, and provide them with extra training and material,” he explains the Eureka Child initiative of AID-India.
“One of the things we found was that a number of children were finding it difficult to learn. So we started developing a programme for them along with teachers. We have a team that gives arithmetic and science experiments based on the school syllabus. This provides them practical learning. Experiments that they can do with paper, thread, water, bottle etc and today, a lot of kids are coming out with their own experiments. We found out that 40 per cent of students were not able to read. So the teachers will target these students and conduct an extra hour of class to teach them, we train them and we give them materials. We should strengthen what is already there.”
There’s just one thing that governs its running – getting work done. “You form your team, decide what you want to do… you are an independent unit, you are responsible for raising your money. Our larger goal is citizens actively pursuing social causes and functioning democratically. In some places, we work with the government and in some places, we do our own thing but the point is that we work.”
“We have people working in the districts and we have districts where we work with other NGOs. The name does not matter, we keep ourselves in the background as long as we can get work done.
In Andhra Pradesh, there’s a group in Srikakulam, which says: I don’t like large scale. I will be a model for one set of villages and so I will take up 10-15 villages but I will do something very good in these villages. In Bihar, we have another team that says I will work on education and in Orissa, we have a group that started a livelihood centre. In Delhi, there’s a group that says I don’t want to be a fulltime NGO, we will all keep our jobs and carry on as professionals but we will reach out to other NGOs and help them, very similar to the original model of AID. In Chennai, Srikakulam, Bihar and Orissa, we have full-timers working in the field while Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai have a volunteer base and they work with other NGOs. We all meet regularly, once in a year and have email exchanges.”
Since Balaji started AID India in Chennai, it’s considered to be the headquarters. “It’s just quarters,” he laughs. “The head part is not really true because they (the other groups around the country) are all doing things on their own.”
Different places in the country need different strategies for the similar issues. Electricity, for example.
“In Bihar, we have already provided solar lighting to 100 villages. In Srikakulam, the group gives the money as a loan to the family to get a electricity meter because the initial set-up cost is high. In Maharashtra, it was hydro-electricity but it didn’t work out too well.”
AID-India has chapters in Chennai, Nellur, Chittor, Kolkata, Bihar, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai.
What exactly does he want us to project if not him?
“I want to project that school teachers are doing great work. If I project that we are doing great work, then I am devaluing what the teachers are doing. I don’t need the projection but I need the school-teacher to get the work done. The 10,000 villages is basically Damodaran’s work. He’s somebody who plays a big role but he may not be able to articulate what he does. But he would talk to the district co-ordinators and get work done. I would come up with the planning. So basicalIy I do what I am good at, you do what you are good at, together we will get things done. Our strength is that people do not want projection, they just want to get work done. Most organisations break up over who gets more credits. Too much projection draws the wrong kind of people.”
The AID-India team
Chandra Viswanathan: This BITS Pilani graduate, worked with Wipro and had a well-paying hardware job at Tidel Park. She was volunteering since 2000. In 2002, she quit her job to work to work for AID India for a humble salary.
Ravishankar Arunchalam: Balaji’s junior in IIT, he did his Ph.D in Carnegie Mellon University. He joined IBM and soon quit to start teaching in IIT because he wanted to spend more time on the field.
Damodaran Muniyan: Having lost his mother at a young age, Damu, who was born into a landless Dalit family, struggled as a student. But once he joined AID-India, he started writing, went on to Masters in Anthropology and M.Phil. Today, he’s one of the key decision-makers at AID India.
Gomathi: She joined AID-India immediately after college and picked up a lot of skills. Today, she co ordinates a lot of their programmes.
Jayaram Venkatesh: He was working in the US, returned to India to join Standard Chartered to work with AID-India part-time. Soon, he realised he wanted to spend more time on the field and quit his job to join AID-India.
Rajapandian: He had studied only till the 10th but then he picked up a lot of skills, went on to finish his 12th and is now working closely with the teachers in the Eureka Child programme.