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Bay Area nonprofit organizes fundraiser for grassroots projects in India

OCTOBER 21, 2015

BY SAURABH DATAR
Peninsula Press

Indian fusion band Indian Ocean played to a packed auditorium on Oct. 11, at a fundraiser organized by a Bay Area nonprofit to support grassroots projects in India.

The show was organized by the Bay Area chapter of the Association for India’s Development (AID), a U.S.-based nonprofit that partners with groups in India to promote inclusive development and social justice.

The concert, attended by nearly a thousand people, was held in Los Altos Hills at Smithwick Theater in Foothill College, a community college nestled in the beautiful hills and surrounded by plush bungalows and mansions.

"The funds collected for this show will be used to support a variety of initiatives we support back home [in India],"said Asti Bhatt, president of AID Bay Area. The projects — around 28 — span the length and breadth of the country, including a rural health clinic in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, sustainable farming in the wetlands of Sunderbans in the eastern part of the country and community environment monitoring in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, among others.

Elaborating on one of the projects that would benefit from the concert, Srikanth Jandhyala, past president of the chapter, and now a volunteer, said, "We have a partner called Chetna Vikas based in the Wardha district of Maharashtra. They teach farmers the principles and importance of organic farming. One of the major challenges in organic farming is seeds, because most seeds are corporate-controlled. So Chetana Vikas has seed banks; they take promises from farmers to contribute to these banks and store seeds so that future generations can use it."

Involving the community

Peninsula Press also spoke to one of the partners in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The partner nonprofit, The Other Media, works with local villagers near the industrial town of Cuddalore to monitor environmental pollution caused by the scores of chemical factories in the industrial belt. Cuddalore is a coastal town about 110 miles from the state capital of Chennai.

"These factories were set up in the eighties, but there were no checks to regulate the spread of these units. So the villages are surrounded by factories on three sides and a river on the fourth. In some cases, villages are sandwiched between factories,"explained Shweta Narayan, who works for the project. Narayan said the pollution had rendered the water useless; it now has an odor and is yellowish in color.

"Whenever villagers complained about the water, they would be accused of lying or attempting to extract money. The government mechanism was not working,"she recalled. The group then decided to scientifically document the experience of pollution so that nobody could dismiss them. "We decided to record the date, time, location and health effects every time someone experienced bad odor."The team, over a period of 14 weeks, documented 36 different kind of odors and 30 types of health effects. They also collected air samples and sent it for analysis to a lab in California.

The results spoke for themselves; the people of Cuddalore had been inhaling toxic chemicals, many of which were carcinogenic and could be traced to the factories. The government finally woke up and decided to take action.

The state’s pollution control board now regularly engages with the community monitoring team of six volunteers and self-help groups in 25 villages to find breach of rules or misdeeds by corporations.

'Privilege'

Though they are thousands of miles away from India, volunteers at AID Bay Area feel that since they have been privileged enough to come to the U.S. and live comfortable lives, it is their duty to do something for their countrymen who are not so fortunate.

"We believe in social justice … there are many societal factors that play a role in your success. When you realize the society’s hierarchy and power dynamics, you feel you must do something about it [to restore the balance],"Bhatt said.

As for the concert itself, the crowd cheered and screamed with joy as the band played some tracks from their new album "Tandanu,"as well as older favorites like "Bandeh,""Ma Rewa,"and "Hille Le."

The show ended with people dancing in the aisles — all for a good cause.

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