I take people to India every year on cuisine and culture tours.
I love Indian food.
I admire many aspects of Indian culture.
But, my favourite thing about India is – and always will be – her people, all of her people.
That’s why I seek out a chance each year to spend some time with Indians who’ve joined empowerment projects. These are people who are changing the welfare of their families and India forever. I’m going to share some of their very hopeful stories here.
My friend Praveen Syal (who is the owner of Indus Travels and the person that invited me to lead tours to India in partnership with his company) asked me what I hoped to get out of my travels to India? That was just before I set out on the first trip in 2012. I told him that my number one hope was to actually meet and spend time with Indian people. Praveen told me that in all his years of asking that question, nobody else had ever told him that. Most people just want to see “the Taj”.
I’ve always been about people. I was a nurse for over 20 years and I’ve seen people at their best and worst. I’ve worked in street clinics with junkies and homeless people. I’ve worked with AIDS patients and dying people in palliative care, with the poor and rich and I’ve worked in rural settings in Canada where the living conditions are almost as bad as the most poverty-stricken places in the world. Public health visits to homes with dirt floors and babies are left in the same diaper for days while flies swarm around them are not as uncommon as we’d like to think in many parts of our very well-off country. I’ve seen a lot, but I always see the common thread that is our humanity first and foremost. Most people are good to their core – especially when they’re given the chance to be good.
My earlier career meant that I wasn’t worried about anything I’d see in India. I knew we would occasionally see poverty and people living in harsh conditions. (Note – I need you to know that we see way less of this than the stereotypes of India would have you believe. India is not one great big slum – for crying out loud). We do occasionally see what appear to be some pretty hopeless situations but I thought a way to help my guests cope with the inevitable “why” of it all might be to to also show them something to balance that perspective. That’s why we visit the real hope and change that are the empowerment projects movement throughout India.
The first empowerment projects were started over 30 years ago in the South India state of Kerala. That state now has the highest literacy rate in India at nearly 94%. Empowerment projects aim to provide jobs for parents so they can afford to send and keep their children in school thus, hopefully, ending the cycle of poverty that the family has been stuck in for generations.
Empowerment projects are aimed at people formerly known as untouchables. They are people of the lowest caste and they were formerly ostracized and locked into lives filled with the miserable jobs that their ancestry had enslaved them to by the mere act of being born. The caste system has been illegal for decades now but it’s hard to erase it completely because certain surnames were associated with the jobs of certain castes and the legacy of that infamous name game carries on.
The current Prime Minister – Narendra Modi – was of low caste and many of his cabinet were as well. Things are changing in India but since the literacy rate of the country is still only 74% that means there are over 300 million people in the country who cannot read or write. Caste aside, if you are illiterate, your chances of breaking out of the cycle of poverty are very low. Try multiplying that by 300 million.
That is why the empowerment projects are so vital. In just three decades Kerala is almost at the same literacy rate as Canada (99%).
In Kerala, I’ve visited a few projects. I loved one that was a poppadum factory – a nice combination of my love of food and helping people. The women employed at the factory work from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. and then go home to shop, cook, clean and care for their families. But if you look at the faces in the collection below, you’ll see they are happy and proud to have these jobs – even though it’s not easy when it’s your turn to mix the flour to make the poppadums.
I’ve also visited an empowerment project laundry where the members went door to door to homes and hotels to collect laundry and then wash it, hang it to dry and iron it all by hand to have it back at the place they got it from within eight hours.
It is especially important for women to obtain these jobs because it’s been shown that when a woman gets paid, 100% of her money goes to caring for her family whereas only 50% of money paid to men goes to the family. Sadly, women paid only 60% of what a man gets paid – even when doing the same job.
On one trip to Tamilnadu, we witnessed stereotypical sweat shop working conditions for women in the cotton weaving district of Madurai. The women in the photos below got paid 50 rupees (about one dollar a day Canadian funds) to sit on a dirt floor and spin cotton non-stop.
They didn’t look healthy or happy compared to the men down the street who got paid 200 to 250 rupees a day to weave cotton. They had smiles and much better working conditions.
Perhaps the most inspiring empowerment project I’ve visited is a women’s arts and crafts revival project called Sunder Rang (beautiful colours) in the small village of Chandelao in Rajasthan in North India. Chandelao has 2000 people and only got electricity in 1979. Things were very dire for the villagers until the leader, Praduman Singh Rathore (a very well educated man who could have stayed overseas) came back to help his people. He met a Norwegian named Sphein Villanson in the early part of the millennium. Villanson had a project called Base Camp Norway that loaned Chandelao $500,000 to begin the empowerment project.
Under Rathore’s guidance the project was able to pay that money back in three years and has gone on to build schools and improve sanitation and health in the village. They’ve built over 200 latrines and drilled a central village well. The women make crafts to sell, there’s a computer learning lab and a girl’s education centre. Much of the electricity is now solar, plantation is local and all rain water is saved.
Our group visited with the seamstresses, bought out the store where they sold their goods, toured the village and school with Mr. Rathore and had a gorgeous lunch at the fort turned hotel that he runs.
I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, The Golden Temple, The Amber Fort, The City Palace of Jaipur, The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the Himalayas, the spice jungles and backwaters of Kerala, the ghats of Varanasi, Humayan’s Tomb and the Beach Temples of Mammallapuram but for me – nothing beats cooking with local chefs and home cooks, spending time with my Indian friends and visiting the people changing their destiny and that of their families through the work they do in empowerment projects.
Does our touring the projects make a difference? YES! Are we just gawkers? Absolutely not. We convey our genuine interest in the plight of our fellow human beings and mutual shyness melts into friendship. We support the commerce of the industry they are undertaking by making purchases. Occasionally we might contribute to something the group needs to carry on or go to the next level in their plan. My groups see past poverty to the worker’s humble dignity. There is respect instead of pity. There are smiles all around by the time we leave.
And now, I’ll leave you with this powerful story of how one woman in Tamilnadu changed the course of history in her village forever and for good. Click on this BBC CAPITAL article, read the story and watch three powerful videos that articulate – with compelling facts and firsthand stories – the impact of empowering women and giving them a path out of poverty.
I always tell my groups that while someone can’t help everyone, everyone can help someone. This is a way of being that will always make a difference. Perhaps this is the very best way of all to savour it all.