“Incredible India” is the Government of India’s international marketing tagline, and it is spot on. But when Acara travels to India, the question is not which Himalayan peak to summit. It is, “How can business be used to impact the grand societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century?”
In May 2014, Acara sought to gain further insights into this question through our most recent study abroad program. We spent three eye-opening weeks in Bangalore, India with 14 University of Minnesota students from engineering, business, public health and design. We were there to discover challenges at the nexus of community development, infrastructure, and environment, as well as the entrepreneurial venture solutions that India’s change makers are passionately pursuing.
During many long days in India, we interacted with executives from various social ventures diving deep into Bangalore’s unsightly locales: jam-packed roads, reeking garbage dumps, bustling scrap markets, flowing wastewater treatment facilities, and numerous “slum” communities that house many of the city’s low-income workers. We also spent time learning about rural development issues in villages. Through field visits, we discovered not only about India’s intriguing culture, delicious food, and vibrant history, but also about issues ranging from water access (or lack thereof) in slums to solid waste challenges to women’s livelihoods in rural villages. This is the real incredible India!
We visited a waste contractor and his employees, part of Bangalore’s house-to-house garbage collection network .
Our group spent a day on the “trash trail” with Saahas, a solid waste management venture, following garbage from neighborhood collection to sorting facility to landfill to scrap market – and on to the informal plastic waste recycling sector. Once waste reaches the landfill, rag pickers (who pay the authorities to live and work on the landfill) extract the remaining recyclables and sell them to scrap dealers.
A young man in Bangalore’s informal recycling sector oversees the plastic extrusion process before the pellets are sold to local manufacturers.
Garbage piles, loose electrical wires, broken sidewalks — these are the many tragedies of the commons. To learn about the issues and take action, we spent a day with Ugly Indian, an anonymous group of “spot-fixing” Indian citizens. Watch this public wall get a make-over.
With SELCO, we explored their approach to providing solar lighting and energy access to low-income communities using distributed, pay-per-use battery rental ventures.
When rural immigrants make their way to urban centers, they use what they can find to build their homes and to begin to build a better life for their families, resulting in commonly unauthorized informal settlements known as slums. Our teams spent a day with Biome learning about water access issues in both high-end gated communities as well as low-income informal settlements.
Life in Bangalore is especially onerous for low-income families living illegally on unauthorized land in tent slums constructed from locally available materials.
Local farmers in northern Tamil Nadu rely on “Government gobra,” chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to grow their crops. We spent a day on the Navadarshanam (New Vision) organic farm learning about traditional farming practices, organic methods and rural development challenges.
The auto rickshaw, a three-wheel vehicle that runs on liquified petroleum gas, is ubiquitous in urban India, a form of transportation you come to know well while sitting in traffic for hours.
We spent an afternoon with elementary and middle school students at Sikshana Foundation learning about their families, answering questions about the U.S., enjoying their talent show (and performing!) and planting trees to commemorate the occasion.
In northern Karnataka, we spent a day learning about livelihoods issues and how TIDE is working to help rural women’s groups develop income-generating opportunities through their Women’s Technology Park.
After a long day, nothing beats a sweet chai. For three weeks we enjoyed India’s delicacies, including various street foods and chaats (snacks), though sometimes paid the price.
Brian Bell is assistant program director of Acara at the Institute on the Environment, as well as network coordinator of IMNPACT Angels and member of the Minneapolis Hub of Global Shapers. When not facilitating Acara teams, Brian enjoys traveling to developing regions, cycling around the Twin Cities and cooking international eatables.
Banner photo: The challenges of rural India drive thousands upon thousands of villagers to seek opportunities in urban India, leading to overpopulated and overstressed urban environments. All photos courtesy of Brian Bell.