Who looks out for India’s rural poor?

The Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh on India’s remote southeastern coast seldom makes headlines unless natural disasters or political disruptions loom. Every day, however, grinding rural poverty affects millions of inhabitants living far away from the seats of national power in Delhi and Mumbai.

Fortunately for the disabled, the HIV afflicted, destitute widows and agricultural workers who subsist on scant wages, the Chaitanya Educational and Rural Development Society (CERDS) provides support. Founder Srinivasa Rao finds his inspiration in the words of Mahatma Gandhi who led India to independence in 1947 with a philosophy of nonviolence: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

This challenged region is home turf to Mr. Rao, writes Deepa Garimella, a CERDS volunteer:

It was a hot afternoon (then again, it is always a hot afternoon here, in Guntur). Only the elderly seemed to be home. The younger, more able-bodied folk had gone to work in the fields around the villages, or in mills and sundry other occupations in the town of Chilakaluripeta. The children were off to school. Here and there, a few groups of housewives could be seen lazily street-gazing.

I was with Mr. Srinivasa Rao, the founder of CERDS, who seemed to know these villages like the back of his hand.

Mr. Rao was six when his mother died of cancer. His father, a farmer in the village of Suravarapupalle, raised three sons.

From his childhood, hunger and deprivation surrounded Mr. Rao in a region skipped by global prosperity. Learning from his father how farmers provide food awakened him to potential for humanitarian initiatives. He pursued humanitarian goals while earning graduate degrees in sociology, journalism and communications from Nagarjuna University — a respected institution named for the revered second century Buddhist philosopher Acharya Nagarjuna.

Degrees in hand, Mr. Rao mobilized community support for CERDS in 1996. Its formal mission centered on uplifting the lives of disadvantaged children, women, disabled, small and marginal farmers, agricultural laborers and other underprivileged rural communities.

Two decades later, 60 villages and hundreds of people rely on CERDS for social assistance. Many are in coastal areas vulnerable to flooded, cyclones, tidal waves and destructive winds. Most families along the coast belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, among the most disadvantaged people in India. Others belong to struggling communities of fisherman and weavers. Families reside subject to droughts and monsoons.

Major activities span relief in several areas of need. Besides nutrition and wheel chairs, support for the disabled builds suitable toilets in rural India for men, women and children. Says volunteer Garimella:

This project changes lives in a significant way, when you take into account that some of its beneficiaries are women. Jampani Sujatha, a disabled lady, is an example. Before she got a toilet built in her compound, she had to walk long distances with her limp, away from agricultural fields and into the bushes – and with someone for company.

Women empowerment advances awareness campaigns on human rights, malnutrition, immunization and birth control measures. Donated milk cows earn income for poor, uneducated widows left destitute without husbands. Skills development confronts harsh realities in rural India where girls’ safety stops families from sending them to school outside of villages. “The rural hinterlands,” Ms Garimella reports, “picturesque as they are from a road trip in a car, are not accessible by bus or other public transport. Even if they are, there is never an assurance that the roads are safe for young women.”

Mindful of safety, CERDS educates young women in their villages. Some learn tailoring, for instance, and others earn a living by training more girls, including school dropouts, to operate donated sewing machines. To be sure, teaching a trade to girls may not address all concerns about adequate wages and working conditions, but it does give them some means of self-reliance in the absence of a social safety net.

Health initiatives that preserve personal health and the environment include nutritional support for HIV/Aids infected individuals and vitamin distribution to pregnant women and new mothers who are breast-feeding their children. In schools, CERDS directs health programs and builds sanitary toilets. Access to fresh drinking water is a linchpin for safeguarding communities from water-borne illness. Toward that end, CERDS installs wells, promotes proper usage of water sources and trains community administrators to manage water with an eye to conservation.

Kudos have multiplied for CERDS and for its founder. They include the Glory of India Award from the India Development Foundation, the Bharath Vikas Ratan Award from the Global Society for Health and Educational Growth and the Mother Teresa Excellence Award from the Integrated Council for Socio-Economic progress.

Awards aside, Mr. Rao expresses the value of humanitarian work in humbler terms reminiscent of the Mahatma, as Ghandi was known.  Says Rao, “to support others means you have good character.”

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