– WHEATON, Illinois, USA
India Development Coalition of America (IDCA) hosted its 12th international conference here at Illinois Institute of Technology, Rice Campus, Oct. 18 and 19 with the theme “Inspiring Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship for Poverty Alleviation and Climate Change Mitigation in India.” Consul General of India in Chicago Ausaf Sayeed delivered a brief opening address. Keynote speakers from India included Dr. Nandita Pathak, Director, J. P. Foundation, Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh, and Pooja Murada, Director Communications, S. M. Sehgal Foundation. Pravasi Bhartiya Samman Award Honoree Suresh Virmani was a special guest. There were panels on water management, livelihoods, health care, climate change and education.
Pathak recounted how Chitrakoot, known only from the Ramayana, has been placed squarely on India’s development map by Nanaji Deshmukh, who was responsible for making this pioneering initiative her own life mission. The J.P. Foundation says its primary focus is to create sustainable livelihoods for marginal and small farmers in the region. Graduate couples live in these villages to cultivate grassroots self-reliance. Agricultural yield needs to be supplemented by livestock and entrepreneurial activities, speakers said, despite the introduction of short yield crops to boost the seasonal harvests. At the same time, the Foundation strives to preserve and promote local traditional knowledge and culture, they said.<\p>
Sayeed, who during his diplomatic career, was responsible for India’s West Africa programs offering concessional lines of credit to countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, pointed out that such initiatives are required even here in the U.S., which now has 17.5 million hungry people. He praised Prime Minister Modi’s Swacha Bharat campaign and wondered at the 75 million poor people who, given the opportunity to open bank accounts with zero balance, signed up with all their savings. He regretted the lack of youth in the audience, considering that India will soon be “the youngest country.”<\p>
Murada’s fascinating presentation “Community Radio: a Catalyst for Rural Empowerment and Transformation” described how the Sehgal Foundation is working in Gaghar tribal village, almost two hours from Delhi, with community-led media to highlight rural voices that otherwise do not have a platform. It takes only a computer and radio to get started and broadcasts now continue for 12 hours daily, organizers showed. Most of the rural audience listens in through radio-enabled mobile phones to discussions affecting their immediate lives and surroundings. Here again, the program “Kisse Kahani” is devoted to retelling and preserving ancestral stories. The children’s program counts Sesame Street and UNICEF as partners.<\p>
Virmani described his work amid the 100,000 Indian, mostly Gujarati, expatriates in Oman, where he lived 36 years. With help from the Indian government, he led a group of professionals to build a school there. The story was again that of self-reliance imposed by a largely indifferent alien regime, he noted.<\p>
Professor Aseem Z. Ansari described the initiatives of the Khorana Program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in exposing American students to India’s developmental needs. For example, India is the largest producer of milk in the world but produces only 2-3 kilos per cow compared to 30 kilos in Wisconsin. The reason for this dramatic difference in yield was discovered rather fortuitously by his university colleague, while on a field trip in India, Ansari said. Today, the program sends 50 students all over India and brings back a 100 Indian students, who the faculty find “simply amazing,” he said. Other fascinating and inspiring stories were told over the two days of the conference either for the first time or by way of updates to ongoing projects.<\p>