As a new intern at Asia Initiatives, I have been introduced to bright and humbling ideas, as well as bright and open minds. In the midst of working over SoCCs pilots, earning and receiving menus and several Skype calls with different countries, the passion and commitment that goes into the efforts to improve lives and promote empowerment became clearly evident. But in working behind the scenes on the necessary back-end logistics, I was not sure of the potential impact of AI’s work on the ground. This question was amply answered when I was invited to join Asia Initiatives to visit their SoCCs site in Madurai, India. To delve into Asia Initiatives’ work and view its impact firsthand, I shut my laptop and was off to Madurai, India. In doing so, this trip has proved that in order to truly acquire knowledge and gain an understanding of a particular community or society, one must experience it, adapt to it, and adopt it.
To explain India is—to me, at least—to explain a fascinating new world with varied and stimulating sights, sounds, and smells. It is to explain poverty, different forms of wealth, pollution and waste, and to explain colors, smiles, dedication, and resilience. AI’s SoCCs site in Madurai, India focuses on one particular non-perennial river, the Vaigai River, which was once the center for religion, livelihood and day-to-day activities, now littered with plastic bottles, industrial waste and cow dung. SoCCs here is being used to incentivize local residents to become a custodian of this river, in hopes of eliminating waste and dumping.
While it is easy to focus on the aesthetically unappealing aspects of the river, the beauty of the riverside communities, the actions of the self-selected river custodians, and the daily social and economic activities of the river should also be considered. From the Dhobi community drying saris on the riverbed, the cattle herders along the riverside and the local fishermen catching fish from the shallow waters, it is evident that the river continues to serve a vital function to many communities. But digging deeper in our research and interviewing community members along the riverside, it became clear that the once depended-upon river for recreational, religious, and hygienic activities has been now burdened by informal settlement encroachments and waste. In attending stakeholder meetings and listening to stories of women marching to municipal offices to demand change, it became evident that the ownership and pride these members have for their communities and their perseverance and determination can and hopefully will result in healthier, happier, and ecologically sustainable space.
After being in India for merely 48 hours, I played cricket with local children on the riverbed, weaved through traffic in an auto-rickshaw, witnessed a sleepless and hard working city, joined a march of 2,000 women for alcohol de-addiction, met with self-help groups, financial saving groups, and observed community organized efforts for the disposal of waste and recyclable objects. I was introduced to a gracious culture and a society that was not completely adverse to change but rather warmly welcoming it. And with every greeting of colorful Kolam drawings on the ground, jasmine flowers in our hair and masala tea, I felt that our efforts were just as warmly welcomed. While AI’s SoCCs have just begun to break the surface, I have high hopes that with the passion and dedication of the many stakeholders and custodians throughout, change is most definitely underway here in Madurai. This experience thus far has opened my eyes to a new way of life, a new way of thinking, and to ultimately, a new world. I am grateful to Asia Initiatives for providing me with this invaluable learning and life opportunity.
– Katherine Georgios is an Intern at Asia Initiatives