Coming to Terms with My Privilege in India

Story by Rachel Abastillas, abastillas.r@husky.neu.edu

When thinking about India, one might imagine vibrant colors, delicious spicy food, crowded streets and the Taj Mahal. My preconceived notions of India before my Social Entrepreneurship in India Dialogue of Civilizations program definitely did not include the complexity of social issues that have been neglected for decades, prior to the evolution of the social entrepreneurial space.

In our pre-departure meetings, we were told by past students to pack lightly and to bring medications. We were told to reflect daily in a journal or with a peer on sites we visit and people we meet. We were told this trip will not be easy and is not meant for those who want to just glide along. However, we were not told that we would face one of the most rewarding, yet challenging experiences of our lives with regards to coming to terms with our privilege as we had yet to learn that for ourselves.

On our first site visit in Delhi, we met with Madhureeta Anand, a Bollywood documentary filmmaker, who showcases the underworld of sexual preference through female infanticide in her film titled “Kajarya.” This film is an illustration of rural communities employing this practice, while a non-traditional city journalist attempts to break through the inclusive culture by reporting on it. The viewing was followed by questions directed toward Madhureeta regarding her inspiration behind writing the screenplay. She explained how her drive came from village women she interviewed and her desire to bring light to the conversation of female infanticide in India. I remember sitting in the first row, in awe of this woman who is challenging what has sadly become a deeply rooted cultural norm in certain rural villages in India. I began to question why I as an American woman deserve a life, while a baby girl in Delhi is sentenced to her death? Why is this privilege afforded to me and not all women and children in the world?

Our team also traveled to Pune, where we met with Chetna Gala Sinha, an Ashoka Fellow who founded a women’s microfinance institution called Mann Deshi Bank. Within the organization, they train women using financial literacy programs in order to help ensure the sustainability of their blossoming businesses. While in Pune, we  visited some of the various businesses to interview women on their successes repaying their loans. One of the stores we went to was a beaded jewelry store, and all of the women spoke of how they enjoy working with Mann Deshi Bank because they are one of the only non-discriminatory microfinance institutions in the region. The institution is found to be more supportive of these women, which results in them working extremely hard to repay their loans. For example, I interviewed Rubina, a woman who borrowed money from the banks. Due to this instillment of fear, Rubina and many other women trust Mann Deshi because she said to them, “it’s the obvious choice” because the bank is always encouraging the development of these women’s organizations.

After Pune, we took a bus to Aurangabad, a region in India known for its prehistoric Ajanta and Ellora Buddhist caves. Aurangabad, a leading city in the waste reduction, is home to a social entrepreneurial organization called the Civic Response Team (CRT). CRT influences its citizens to properly segregate their waste by simplifying the issue in a comprehensive way. An example is their use of a Charlie Chaplin impersonator conducting street performances to teach kids and their families the process of segregating waste and recycling. He goes around encouraging kids to pick up rubbish from the ground and tossing it out into its designated waste bins. Another example of their work is employing men and women to sort dry waste, which they can then take and sell for money. During the site visit, we met with one of the coordinators who described herself as a revolutionary. When we asked her what exactly fueled her to become a revolutionary, she responded, “The fact that I don’t deserve the rights that other women can’t have.” Meanwhile, behind her stood a family of four segregating dry waste. In this moment, I could not believe I was looking at a child helping his parents sort through waste rather than being in school studying. This image really pushed me further into my reflection regarding my undeserved privileges.

One of our most academically challenging projects of the trip was yet to come. Flying out to Mumbai was highly anticipated as we were all thrilled to be engulfed by historic culture in its purest form by working in our consulting groups throughout the city. As we were landing, I could see the slums surrounding the airport and expanding for miles. This hit close to home for many of the students assigned to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a novel painting a picture of the disturbing operation of slums throughout Mumbai. Additionally, we went on a tour of Dharavi, the largest slum in the world. Here, we witnessed the realities of the slum and how it operates. Surprising to many, the movie Slumdog Millionaire’s portrayal of a desperate and poor environment is not at all what the slum is like. Dharavi is actually a highly functioning, well structured slum with various markets. Most people we met with were migrants to Dharavi from cities we visited previously. Unfortunately, one of the more negative aspects of the slum was that throughout our tour, the only time I saw women was while walking through an alley narrow enough for me to see them crouched inside, cooking food with their children.

Fortunately, my group was focused on researching possible strategies to gain government support for families that are involved in waste picking, as well as researching global market trends that had the potential to implement waste management plans that needed government sponsorship. This was an exciting experience because we were able meet leaders in this industry, such as Mobin, President of the Recyclers Association, and Vinod Anand, founder of the Dharavi Project. With their guidance, we became aware of specific areas of the slum we should visit and the certain people we should interview. Thus began the beginning of our research and field work for our consulting project. During this process I witnessed the unsanitary and unsafe conditions of the workplaces. Men were grinding plastic into shrapnel using long sharp wheel blades, making it easier to get hurt. This forced me to realize that a large part of the population does not have access to air-conditioned offices, cushioned seats and a proper building. It became apparent to me that privilege is not warranted and is definitely not granted. It is randomly selected.

One of my major takeaways from this Dialogue of Civilizations program was not how social entrepreneurship is applied in India, but how India is a center for this field that includes various issues that are relevant universally. In our last three days, we travelled to Goa for a reflection period with our peers. During this time, we were encouraged to present a creative personal reflection, drawing upon our feelings toward what we witnessed in the last month. Some people presented beautiful poems, videos and even choreographed dance. These presentations were meant for the class to understand everyone’s ebb and flow of triumph and struggle in regards to understanding Indian culture and gender rights, and coming to terms with our privilege. Going on this dialogue you must be prepared for that protective layer to dissolve, as well as accept that you might not understand or agree with everything, and that is okay.