It’s hard to decide where to start with our adventures in India, easily the most colorful and lively place any of us has ever visited.
After 30+ hours of travel from SFO, we arrived at the steamy Kolkata airport on Sunday morning. On the drive towards our host’s home in the Jadavpur district, we were blown away by the amount of activity, new construction, people, poverty, and serious lack of traffic patterns. Our first day was spent exploring Kolkata’s sites, including the majestic Victoria Memorial and the wonderfully air-conditioned South City Mall (our haven from the heat). We spent the evening enjoying delicious home-cooked Indian food and catching up with our client and host, Mr. Ajoy Ball, founder of the Amar Lata Gramin Seva Foundation.
Our unique project has us working with Amar Lata, a family-run healthcare charity that serves rural areas of West Bengal. Amar Lata has been in operation for nearly 10 years and offers services in primary healthcare, eye care, cancer clinics, immunization, ambulance services, family planning, homeopathy, rehabilitation… the list goes on. Our challenge is to provide Amar Lata with a long-term financially sustainable strategy that supports free and low-cost care to villagers in impoverished rural India. During our stay at the Ball family home, we were overwhelmed by their passion, warmth, generosity, and good cooking.
We kicked off our work immediately on Monday morning with a visit to the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy. We met the energetic founder, Dr. Reena Sen, and talked with her about how her organization is managed and funded, and how the most important part of the operation is the people. After overstaying our welcome at IICP, we headed to the Indian Institute of Health Training, where Amar Lata’s nurses were trained. Tuesday included visits to the Rehabilitation Center for Children (one of Amar Lata’s partner NGOs), and Microtel Computer Education (a potential partner that connects NGOs in India with government and corporate CSR projects).
On Wednesday, we headed to Gadaibalbarh (the family’s ancestral village in Purba Medinipur, West Bengal) for three days of on-site fieldwork at Amar Lata’s main healthcare center. We interviewed the optometrist who works at Amar Lata six days a week, seeing 45-60 patients a day; the primary care physician that comes for two hours a week to see 20 patients (a small number compared to the 400+ he sees daily at the local government hospital’s outpatient center, where he works six days a week, 12 hours a day); the nurses that are available seven days a week and ride their bikes to even more remote villages to survey the population; as well as many other doctors, partners, and Amar Lata staff. We have continuously been struck by the Indian people’s ability to work with whatever they have, and always with a smile on their faces. They all work extremely hard, earn meager salaries (the average annual income in Gadaibalbarh is just $240!), and deal with incredible obstacles. It is simultaneously inspiring and exhausting.
The village also brought a bit of fun in the form of numerous power outages, gigantic spiders in the bathroom, geckos on the ceiling, eating food we probably shouldn’t have, and attracting a crowd of followers wherever we went!
On Saturday we traveled to the Sunderbans, an even more remote and impoverished area of the country built on a series of islands covered in mangroves, to analyze Amar Lata’s facility in the region. Amar Lata has suffered in the Sunderbans because of the remoteness of the location and the ever-complicated local politics. The family owns quite a bit of land there, but the local business leaders refuse to let Amar Lata build out a local health center. Throw in some religious tension between the Hindus and Muslims, and you can sense the underlying currents of tension in the vicinity. While there, we were invited to tour a two-story mud house (!) complete with a solar panel and played a bit of cricket with the locals kids during our short time in the village.
The last couple of days have been filled with report writing, interviewing several additional family members, shopping for saris, visiting the Vivekenanda Mission Ashram (an eye care hospital that performs 18,000 cataract surgeries a year and also runs a school for the blind) where we chatted about unit costs with the Swamiji (Holy man who leads the ashram), eating enough Bengali sweets to permanently ruin our teeth, getting lost in Kolkata, meeting with the Water for People organization to explore a possible partnership, preparing our client for the changes we recommend, sweating profusely, and marveling yet again at the traffic and constant blaring horns.
We’ve found a direct correlation to the Haas defining principles in the Kolkata traffic. The cars driving wherever they please on the road are definitely questioning the status quo. The rickshaw drivers carrying hundreds of pounds of goods on the back of a bike are certainly going beyond themselves. The people riding on top of buses display tremendous confidence without attitude. And I guess that makes us the students always – constantly asking questions about what just happened?!
Since we worked through the weekend, our presentation is set for tomorrow. We will be presenting our analysis and recommendations to approximately ten of Amar Lata’s key advisors and board members. Then we are off to Darjeeling via an overnight train, where we will spend the last couple days of our trip. We have all come to love the experience here, our host family, and the organization itself. We will be sad to leave our exceptional hosts and their hospitality, but we must let them run with our recommendations and see what the future holds!
As for our team, we will always remember our time in India and hope to visit soon – after all in India, it’s never goodbye, it’s “see you again”!