Conference, Notes

What is India’s Development?

Printed in the program note for the AID-India Conference, Chennai, 1999.

For many Indians, success is a path whose home stretch is the runway of the Mumbai, Chennai, or Delhi airport, and whose finish line leaves them with no connection to any community either in the land of their birth, growth, and education, or of their career and family.

The route from the rural to the urban to the university to the airport is one that is expanding faster than the Mumbai-Pune expressway and displacing many communities in its trail. Pursuing research, jobs, or marriage, people are beating a path out of India. Some people even select their area of study, work or spouse with the specific goal of leaving India.

Once abroad, the Indian may begin to think of India from a new perspective. Maybe it is the first time he or she has even reflected on India in so many words. All the while focussed on leaving India, she may think afresh about those who live there.

In the U.S. alone, where AID was born, there are over 1 million people who are Indian. Of these, a growing number are raised in the U.S. and know India only as a place for vacations, grandparents, shopping, and festivals. And also, beggars, fuel emissions, bribes, and getting sick.

It is easy to know about the poverty and the helplessness in India, but it is not as easy to know about the active individuals and community organizations in India. Once one knows about them one may wonder how one can get involved.

Wonder some more. Just such a group of people started AID and have been finding ways to get involved in a wide variety of community activities. From thinking about issues in India, to reading, discussing, corresponding, visiting, even returning to India to work for community development, AID has paved new roads.

About 100 people are active volunteers of AID in the U.S., along with a handful in Europe. A few hundred receive our daily e-paper and a few thousand our monthly newsletter. A small but growing number of people have returned to India to work either full or part time in the villages of India. They have in turn drawn people from the cities to work with them, and also joined local groups with experience in various facets of community development. Currently our activities range from social service programs such as health, education, and vocational training, environmental programs such as tree planting or field studies of rivers, to social justice activities related to displacement and disease caused by a kind of “development fundamentalism” calling for more dams, nuclear plants, airports, etc.

Those who join AID usually feel that they are taking a positive step in the direction from self to society. An important principle to keep in mind when taking up a civic agenda is, “first do no harm.” While we direct some of our time and energy towards community issues and problems it is important to recognize how many of our every day acts just to maintain ourselves impact on society. Although it is not glamorous, it is equally if not more important to reduce the burden we impose on society than to ignore this and try to “contribute” something back.

It is often noted that the sum of the income of the 5 million non-resident Indians equals the gross national product of India. This also amounts to a gross global consumption and waste which influences the lifestyle in Indian cities as well. While AID taps this financial wealth, AID also hopes to provide a counter influence, based on understanding the true human and natural cost of this lifestyle, paying the right price where it is feasible and reducing consumption where it is not.

In an ideal world where resources were shared fairly, or at least a real world where the “right price” was paid, there might not be excess wealth to “take from the rich and give to the poor.” But there would still be a community spirit and a passion to work together for the common good. It is this spirit which brings AID volunteers together, and which has allowed us to meet and get involved with people working in villages. To find ways to pool a random collection of talents towards constructive activity is our ongoing aspiration.

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