February 2013: The start of my adventure in India
In February 2013, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland sent me on the trip of a lifetime to meet social innovators in the India. We started in Bangalore; it was wonderful: perfect weather, incredible people and the best food I’ve ever had.
As I listened to the fascinating insights of the people we met I was struck by one word that seemed to colour every conversation: “contradiction”. I began to understand this during an incredible walking tour of Bangalore; we experienced 1000 years of history in just 4 hours! We travelled from the grandeur of enormous, pristine colonial buildings to the back streets. At first glance we thought we were in a slum area but we soon found out that many of the residents work in large IT firms. I was struck by the levels of tolerance and acceptance as the homeless live next door to the new ‘middle class’, Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Muslim live together in peace and everyone accepts that they share their space with cows, wild dogs and other animals. Our guide that day, an extraordinary man, explained that every stereotype we have seen of India is both totally inaccurate and absolutely correct simultaneously. This tour was my first step towards understanding what that might mean.
Our social journey began with a visit to Selco an organisation helping to provide solar panels to some of the 400 million people living without electricity in India. Thanks to their work, over 100,000 people now have power for the first time. They forge relationships between banks and those who have never before had access to credit. The impact on individual lives is immense; children can study after dark and countless families are and no longer forced to breathe in the toxic fumes of kerosene.
Next we went to Mother Earth, on the surface it looks like a large department store, but I learned very quickly to reserve judgment. They, and their sister company Industree, work with some of the 100 million artisans in India. They educate rural craft workers about design and find markets for their work. As a consequence, many of the poorest people can now earn five times their previous wage. Craft work is so common in India that it is not always valued. Mother Earth exports beautiful textiles and exquisite objects to well-known shops around the globe so that we can all appreciate them.
I was starting to let go of some of my preconceptions. As I expected, I witnessed unfathomable poverty, what I didn’t expect was the dignity with which many of the the poorest live. I saw homeless women paying a couple of rupees to have their freshly washed saris ironed, well behaved children whose only home was a piece of fabric laid on the street and a sense of community that would put many to shame. There have been recent reports of businesses in Ireland and the UK putting spikes in their doorways so that the homeless cannot take shelter. In Bangalore many of the houses are built with ledges so that the homeless have a place to sleep and many home owners leave out fresh water every day for those less fortunate.
I know that it would take a lifetime to understand the complexities of this enigmatic land but the more I saw the more I fell in love with India.