Thursday, 7 May 2009

To India and Back

Below is an article that I wrote for the Putnam County Sentinel upon returning from our trip to India. For the most part, it sums up the highlights of my experience there. Enjoy!

To India and Back

Imagine the end of poverty.

Seriously, picture the day when you can’t guilt your kids into eating vegetables because “poor children are starving in Africa”. Contemplate a year when you can support local cancer research because developing nations are no longer asking for American funds to feed their own people. Think of the moment when all regions of the world not only have enough water to feed their crops but also water that is clean and safe to drink. Imagine a world without poverty.

“It’ll never happen,” a waitress once said to me as I settled into the corner of an airport coffee shop.

“Excuse me?” I asked questioningly while sipping tea with my carry-on luggage and a small pile of books.

“The End of Poverty,” she said pointing to the title of a small paperback in my hand. “It’ll never happen.”

Glancing at the bestselling book by Jeffrey Sachs, I shrugged and thought to myself, “It’s already happening.”

In 2002, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned the “Millennium Project” to develop a plan of action to reverse extreme poverty, starvation, and disease affecting billions of people worldwide. Led by former Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs, an independent team of international experts proposed a final plan to achieve the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015. Topics ranging from world hunger to universal education, the Millennium Development Goals define concrete and attainable steps to end the crippling poverty affecting third-world and developing countries. In particular, Millennium Development Goal 7 is where my story begins.

Target 3 of Millennium Development Goal 7 states: “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”

Currently, almost half of the world’s population faces a scarcity of water resources. Nearly one billion lack access to clean drinking water. In developing nations, one in four individuals use no form of sanitation or toilet facility. Due to poor sanitation and water treatment, roughly ten thousand people will die today from preventable water-borne diseases; half of these will be children.

As an engineering student planning to attend medical school next year, I began to recognize that disease prevention is sometimes more powerful than any cure. Joining an interdisciplinary team of business, design, biology, and other engineering majors, I decided to work with the “poorest of the poor” in rural India in hopes of assessing water quality, educating villagers on the importance of clean drinking water, and establishing a partnership between the University of Cincinnati and local Indian villages.

Spending nearly three months preparing ourselves for our trip halfway around the world, our team entered Thanksgiving break with high expectations for our travels ahead. Unfortunately, none of us were prepared for the chaos that ripped through India merely two weeks before our departure. On November 26th, ten terrorists attacked Mumbai, the financial capital of India, in a horrific four-day nightmare that left 173 dead and 308 wounded. They murdered without discrimination or warning – seeking only to kill as many as possible before taking their own lives. Five American travelers were among the large number found dead in Mumbai.

Though terrorist attacks are not new to India, this was the first time that my classmates and I were faced with a life-threatening decision: Should we continue our travels to India despite landing in Mumbai and working only 250 miles from the Pakistani border? Or should we cancel the trip, refund our flight tickets, and toss the entire project? Five students on our team felt that they could not risk putting their families through the worries of a potentially dangerous trip to a terrorist hotspot in Southern Asia and therefore chose the latter option. Though not faulting our five classmates, the remaining eleven of us ultimately decided that terrorism would not rule our decisions. Only a few weeks before Christmas, two professors, ten classmates, and myself energetically boarded a plane bound for Mumbai, India.

After a 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Mumbai, our first few days in India were spent traveling inland from the western coast to the Dahod region of Gujarat state. Traveling via train, we were able to catch glimpses of the Indian countryside before delving headfirst into tribal culture. Probably the most memorable sight on that train ride was the “toilet field” one of our professors spotted from his window. Without established toilet facilities, one particular village had designated an open field that villagers could use as a “public restroom”. Though it was a shock to our American eyes, we eventually realized that this was a common practice in rural villages where no latrine was available. Without a proper toilet facility, however, the villagers risk contaminating their drinking water supply with diseases such as E. coli and typhoid fever.

Upon arriving in Dahod late at night, we were greeted by representatives from the Sadguru Organization. Ushering us into dormitory-style rooms and urging us to sleep, the Sadguru representatives woke us early the next morning for a busy day of meetings and planning sessions.

“The purpose of Sadguru,” began one of the representatives, “is to bring water to the people.” As the morning progressed, we learned that Sadguru has previously focused their efforts on increasing the quantity of local water resources and is now interested in improving the quality of drinking water. Through an expansive system of dams and irrigation systems, Sadguru has provided Dahod farmers with adequate water resources to support multiple growing seasons. With several growing seasons, farmers have been able to not only to experience crop surplus but also avoid leaving their wives for seasonal work in distant cities – an aspect that has resulted in declining prevalence of AIDS and other STDs in the local area.

Wrapping up our meetings for the day, a handful of classmates and I decided to take a hike to the nearby village of Chosala to immerse ourselves a little deeper into Indian culture. Guided by a translator, we wandered throughout the village dodging endless herds of cows and discretely diverting our stares from the brightly-clad women finishing afternoon chores. Walking towards the back of our group, I heard a distinct catcall shouted behind my back. Turning around, I caught a glimpse of children frantically scrambling to hide from my view. Laughing at their shyness, I walked closer to their hiding place and tried to gesture for them to come out in the open. Eventually, one-by-one they stuck their heads out in curiosity only to laugh at my pale skin, blonde hair, and pink sunglasses.

Unable to speak a single word of the Hindi language, I thought desperately for some way to show them that I was friendly. Pulling a digital camera from my back pocket, I motioned for the children to come closer. Baffled by the small gadget in my hands, they leaned towards me as I snapped a picture of their confused faces. Quickly hitting the review button, I showed them their faces on the camera screen, which was met with squeals of delight as they urged me to take more pictures. Crouching on the ground as I showed them picture after picture on the tiny camera screen, I eventually rose to leave them and catch up with my classmates. Though I expected the children to run home to their mothers, they instead ran after me and shouted to their neighbor friends to join them. As we passed each house, our knee-high fan club grew until there was a parade of nearly twenty children following us throughout the streets of Chosala. Occasionally, mothers would stop their chores to bow their heads toward us in welcome. Since many of them had never met Americans before, it was certainly a memorable day for all of us in the village.

After our initial jaunt through Chosala, the rigorous work began. Each day for one week, my classmates and I would travel to nearby villages to interview local women from a range of financial and social backgrounds. Focusing our questions on domestic water use, health concerns, and education, we quickly noticed that very few households had access to latrines or other sanitation systems. In many cases, livestock slept in the home with the family at night to prevent animal theft. Food was usually cooked indoors over an open fire pit with no ventilation – often triggering respiratory diseases. We also recognized the common theme that women with higher levels of education were more aware of medical resources and often held leadership roles within the community.

While some of us started testing water samples from the villages, others began teaching villagers how to construct latrines to prevent human waste from leaching into the water supply. A few classmates showed village leaders how to build sand filters to remove bacteria and parasites from drinking water. One classmate even collected our clear plastic water bottles to demonstrate how radiation from sunlight can destroy disease-causing microbes in water sources. By the end of the week, we were able to test over twenty local wells for harmful contaminants, educate villagers on sanitation and water purification techniques, and sign an agreement partnering the University of Cincinnati with the Sadguru Organization for future work on clean water systems in Dahod, India.

The most rewarding aspect of our work in India was the persistent evidence that the people of this country are beginning to climb out of poverty. All children are now vaccinated against major infectious diseases. Parents seek to push their children through higher education. And several community organizations are empowering women through employment and community leadership roles.

In India, the end of poverty is near, and the poorest of the poor are beginning to thrive.

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