In this interview series where we ask questions to people who are making a difference, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution to our society. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.
Jayanthi and Ram Ramanan are an NRI couple from Cleveland, Ohio, Unites States. They are living in India since past three years working on projects related to education, public health and socio economic changes in poor communities with an NGO called Sewa International. Mr. Ramanan has worked in the aluminum industry for 43 years and his wife Jayanthi is an experienced social worker.
We talked to them about their experience in India and following are their thoughts on some of our questions.
Tell us something about yourself?
Jayanthi Ramanan: My name is Jayanthi Ramanan, I am a resident of Cleveland, OH, I came to India in 2013 on sewa project but prior to that I have worked in inner city and local communities working with poor African American families counselling them on drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies, education for children and women. I’ve also worked with Hispanic families and taught English as second language helping them in assimilating into life in US. I have three children and I am also a trained Carnatic singer.
Ram Ramanan: I came to Canada for my Masters after which I joined the aluminum industry, in 1991 we moved to United States in Cleveland. After working for about 43 years I decided to take retirement. Right now I am supporting my wife in her work.
Can you explain your project for our readers?
Jayanthi Ramanan: In 2013 we came to India to work with local communities; it was a learning experience as we didn’t know how things work in India. We started working in Bangalore and nearby areas, which have about 1700 slums. In these slums we found that men were the sole bread winners but didn’t earn more than 200-400 Rs a day and also many of them had addiction issues which left the family life in turmoil with problems like child abuse, lack of savings and domestic violence. We worked with women from these slums and trained them in saving money in banks, making fixed deposits, managing budget etc, We also encouraged them to earn their own living by arranging their training in trades like sewing, tailoring and garment manufacturing. We arranged for microfinancing for these women and initially only two women were employed but it later rose to 20. We are also working with an NGO called Taxshe (www.taxshe.com), which is teaching these women to drive, and subsequently these women will work for corporations and five star hotels driving their guests and executives.
We are also focusing on education and development of girl child. We raised the funds among the NRI community and installed around 173 toilets in high schools and women colleges in Bangalore, Northern Karnataka and Varanasi.
Ram Ramanan: I support my wife by taking care of management responsibility of the projects, it’s mostly backend work like writing reports, managing finances, coordinating with volunteers, etc. One of the projects that I would like to mention is the tuition centers for underprivileged kids, because of lack of proper guidance and education these kids were quiet behind in their studies and in fact when we started their G.P.A was almost 0 but it’s now averaging at 76% for the whole group. Also in regards to constructing toilets for the girls in poor communities, I’d like to say that it takes around $400 to build a toilet for 100 girls which would serve them for 10-15 years. So it’d just cost $4 to build a toilet for a girl, it can definitely help in wellbeing of kids from these communities.
What motivated you to pursue this work and leave behind a comfortable life in United States?
Jayanthi Ramanan: We wanted to gain some international experience but above all we wanted to serve our motherland. We worked for our nurturing place and it was time to serve our birthplace. It was a learning and humbling experience to work in India, yes we had every material comfort in United States but it was a spiritual and morally uplifting time to serve in India.
Ram Ramanan: While I was working, my wife supported me completely in my career and raised our kids, now it’s my turn to support her in her work.
What does your family & children think about your work?
Jayanthi Ramanan: Initially everyone was skeptical, our family, children and friends were not convinced and we thought that we’d go do some research, send money and may be get involved in the field work for few months and then come back but as we started and progressed with the work, we thought to commit ourselves for longer time. We regularly send emails to our children about our work and they came to realize the difference we were making, they felt proud about our work and soon they will be joining us to volunteer in our efforts before we go back in January.
What’s in your opinion is the long term solution for improving India’s public health and hygiene?
Jayanthi Ramanan: In my opinion we have a long way ahead, we don’t have much awareness about public hygiene, sanitation in our country. Public defecation, lack of proper toilets and cleanliness are big hazards to health in slums and lot of rural areas. In our work we’d go to a slum and gather children to educate them about sanitation, cleanliness of surroundings, usage and maintenance of toilets and healthy habits like cleaning hands after use of toilet etc. It’s a constant process of reinforcement, of learning and making people aware of these things. We organized health checkups and training for nurses, on birth hygiene and medical aid. So it’s a sort of long term process to raise public knowledge about these things.
Ram Ramanan: On that note, I’d like to add that we are also working with a group of 10-15 medical students of Indian origin from USA who are here for their medical studies, it helps to have them work with local communities and also they get a field experience of applying their skills. Since we know it might be difficult for an NRI to adjust, we also guide them about things in India and it’s a learning experience for us too.
What were some of the challenges that both of you had to face in this service and how did you overcome it?
Ram Ramanan: Living in United States we are used to a certain comfort level, but though India is our mother country we haven’t worked here and it was a complete culture shock in the beginning. We had to get used to queues, traffic jams, power outages, red tape but we learned to be patient and to adapt. The key is not to get discouraged. One thing I’d like to mention is that youth are hungry for a change; they are more responsive to new ideas and aware about the importance of ethics and honesty.
Jayanthi Ramanan: I’d say that challenges are mainly political, though people want to see a change for better the politicians and to certain extent bureaucrats are indifferent to people’s problems. In northern Karnataka there are areas that don’t have electricity, roads, schools or any proper infrastructure, it’s a struggle to live day by day and politicians and their middlemen often make profit at the expense of these people. We have to continue fighting for rights for the underserved, as Swami Vivekananda said, we can’t build a society by bringing rich down but by rather bringing poor up.
When it comes to education and access to good schools, colleges, we have big disparity in India between kids from affluent and poor backgrounds, how should we fill this gap in your opinion?
Jayanthi Ramanan: When it comes to education, wealthy in India thinks that their kids should have an English Medium Education and the kids often have tuition classes for every subject after school but when I interact with these kids they want to do something different, they want to be artists, writers, painters, they want to pursue their dreams. Government spends a lot of money on education for kids from poor background, they give a lot of perks to the teachers and other workers but they need to make use of those facilities to come ahead in life.
Ram Ramanan: I think private organizations and NGO’s can really make a difference by taking these kids under their wings. Recently a girl from a very poor family in a local community became an IAS officer, another boy from similar background made it to IIT, there is a kid in 8th grade who can speak 15 languages. These kids are talented, they just need guidance. We are also partnering with an organization called The Nudge (www.thenudge.org), which is trying to instill a discipline in the kids from poor families through a system of gurukul and using concepts like yoga among other innovative techniques. They have a retention rate of about 80-90 % in their camps.
Working among the disenfranchised sections of our society, what were things that you learned about life’s everyday struggle from their perspective?
Jayanthi Ramanan: It was an extremely humbling experience to see the day to day challenges of these people. A lot of women were married at a young age and didn’t get a chance to study. They want a different life for their children. Though poor, they are human being too, I think it’s just bad luck that they are in that situation. It can happen to anyone.
Ram Ramanan: In India every challenge is huge, don’t get disheartened, do your part well, and you will bring change and influence others. Care for others, care for nature, you can make a difference.
Your message for our readers?
Jayanthi Ramanan: Quoting David Wilcox, the CEO of ReachScale, “If India doesn’t grow the world doesn’t grow”. I’d encourage the Indians living abroad to reach out and work for our country, give some time, help out a cause for social change. It’s a gratifying experience to work in a land with such rich history and culture.
Ram Ramanan: my message will be that if you have a desire to serve, don’t be afraid, be flexible, patient and enjoy your work, things will happen and you will see the fruits of your labor. I encourage everyone to come here.