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Indians for Collective Action (ICA): 50 Years of Social Service

Indians for Collective Action (ICA) is a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit group whose mission is to support sustainable development in India by partnering with dedicated non-government organizations (NGO’s) and individuals. ICA celebrated its 50th year, and I attended the ICA Golden Jubilee conference at the Santa Clara Convention Center on Oct.20, 2018.

At a preconference workshop, social entrepreneur Lijo Chacko spoke on his path to social entrepreneurship, and on raising funds for charitable organizations. A former submarine commander, he was also part of a select team that climbed Mount Everest. A guiding principle in his life has been to see doors where previously you saw only walls.

Lijo Chacko

He spoke of several organizations that he helps. Rainbow Homes is based on the fact that schools are not used after 4 PM. From 4 to 7 PM, street children, mainly girls, are asked to enroll and told that their job is to study. These caring spaces protect, nourish, and educate children through their transition into adulthood. Another example is of a village incubator for scavengers in Cambodia.

The goal of his work with the Right to Food Campaign is to ensure that public distribution of food works. There is a good deal of corruption that needs to be overcome in some parts of the country for example Jharkhand, which can barely be understood by those in other parts of country, for example in Kerala.

The disappearing art of handloom weaving is being revived with the support of the Mauna Dhwani Foundation, enabling employment in the rural population.

Chacko spoke of his mountaineering expedition from March through June 2004, saying that mountaineering is not about reaching the top, it’s about coming back safely.

He spoke of “laddership” versus leadership, the former being where you make people go up. He also shared the poem Ithaka with its emphasis on the journey, not just the destination.

“As you set out for Ithaka

hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”

At lunch, I joined a table at which sat an alert, bright-eyed woman in a blue sari, beige vest and red blouse, sipping water out of a tiny steel tumbler and holding a small cloth towel. The plates, glasses and napkins they use here are all compostable, I offered. She was not impressed, saying she believed in a sustainable lifestyle with miminal waste. It was only after several minutes of conversation that I realized I was sitting with the afternoon keynote speaker Janak Palta McGilligan, who had been awarded one of India's highest civilian honors, the Padma Shri in 2015.

Her energy, enthusiasm, warmth and humor were a delight and an inspiration.

Keynote address

The keynote speaker, introduced by Reshma Nigam, ICA president, and Kirit Shah, conference committee chair, was Bharat Vatwani.

Bharat Vatwani

Vatwani received the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay award in recognition of “his tremendous courage and healing compassion in embracing India’s mentally-afflicted destitute, and his steadfast and magnanimous dedication to the work of restoring and affirming the human dignity of even the most ostracized in our midst.”

Established in 1988 by psychiatrists Vatwani and his wife Smitha, the Shraddha Rehabilitation Foundation rescues mentally-ill persons living on the streets, providing free shelter, food, and psychiatric treatment and reunites them with their families.

in describing society’s attitude towards the mentally ill, he quoted from William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” the disturbing lines chanted by the boys “Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!” 1 – 2 % of the population of every country has schizophrenia. In India, 400,000 men and women wander the streets. They wandered the streets not because they want to, he pointed out, but because they have a mental illness. They have treated more than 5000 mentally ill persons to date, and have done about 7000 reunions with their families.

In his moving talk with photographs and anecdotes, he described the support of Baba Amte and Prakash Amte for Shraddha’s cause. He was representing 250 million in India who needed help, he said.

My friend Shafi and I noted that even though Vatwani and his wife were cofounders and worked together side by side for years, it appeared that only he received recognition. Perhaps a joint award would have ben more appropriate?

Panel discussion 1

There were two sessions of several concurrent panel discussions. The first panel I attended was on Women, entitled “Empowerment and Opportunities.”

The session was introduced by Lata Patil, Women’s Leadership Chair. 70% of the world’s poor are women, she said, and a large percent are in India. Empowering women could be the secret weapon to alleviating poverty.

Lata Patil

Radhika Shah, Judy Frater, Hasina Kharbih, Sarah Henry

Moderator Radhika Shah of Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs introduced the panelists. She said “Nature is not a resource for us to use, we are trustees.”

Judy Frater is Founder Director of Somaiya Kala Vidya, an Institute of education for artisans. She works with traditional artisans of Kutch, and spoke of the term empowerment: it is best viewed not as a conflict, but as a focus on achieving potential.

Hasina Kharbhih is Founder and Chairperson of Impulse NGO Network and Impulse Social Enterprises. She created the nationally and internationally acknowledged Impulse Model (formerly known as the Meghalaya Model), a comprehensive tracking system that successfully brings together the state government, security agencies, legal groups, media, and citizen organizations to combat the cross-border trafficking of children in the porous Northeastern states of India.

The bio on her website reads "For 30 years now, I’ve been working to provide sustainable livelihood in a safe environment for women and children. What started out as a mission in my home state of Meghalaya, has today evolved into a global program that aims to put an end to human trafficking and exploitation worldwide."

Trafficked women have no marketable skills, she said. How do we engage those who are already exploited, and how do you empower them? It has to be economic in nature, she said. Support should come to them not as victims of trafficking, but as those who have overcome slavery.

Sarah Henry of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is Executive Director of the Gender Equality Center of Excellence at Stanford University.

She spoke of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly.

Abha Singhvi, life and organizational coach, did a brief exercise in audience participation and engagement. She asked each audience member to turn to the person next to them speak of a cause that was very passionate to them and what they planned to do about it. She left the audience with inspiring words: action without vision is passing time, vision without action is dreaming, action plus vision can change the world.

Panel Discussion 2

In the next session of concurrent panels I attended one entitled “Soul Responsibility and Solo Dynamism.”

Victoria Hale, Shreyas Desai and Sriram Shamasundar

Sriram Shamasunder, of UCSF moderated the session which focused on what individuals with passion and a sense of fairness have accomplished was delivering affordable healthcare solutions.

Shreyas Desai of SEWA Rural described the evolution of mobile health, from a mobile medical plan in the 1980s to health workers with mobile phones in the 2010s. He described an app that provide a daily schedule for health workers, has 3-4 in-built short videos for counseling, in-built decision trees with a digital checklist that provides a diagnosis and risk stratification at the end. If the diagnosis is serious, and SMS or alert is sent to the clinic doctor. They have achieved a 38% reduction in newborn mortality.

Victoria Hale is the founder of OneWorld Health and Medicines360. She started with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Her desire to make medicines began at the age of eight when, suffering from an ear infection, she was told by a doctor that there was nothing he could do, and that there were no medicines that could treat her. After many successful years at Genentech, which she found intellectually stimulating but not sufficiently fulfilling, she decided to start a nonprofit Pharma to learn what you can do if you take out the profit motivation from a company.

She spoke of establishing the first nonprofit pharmaceutical company in the United States (the UK had the Wellcome Foundation) her work on leishmaniasis in Patna, Bihar. The practical learnings from that experience informed the formation of her new company Medicines360, which is a hybrid 501c3 with a C Corp. subsidiary. The company was funded in the year 2000, and their drug was approved in the year 2006. She showed a picture of the article published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. The drug is administered via intramuscular injection, and costs $10.

In the Q&A session, and audience member asked the panelists about Prime Minister Modi’s universal health coverage scheme. Dr. Desai answered that if implemented well, it could be miraculous. Another comment was on the education of children to increase awareness. Dr. Desai responded that investing in children youth has a generational effect, and that adding a “youth force” would have great impact.

In response to a question on why she chose to work in India over Africa on Kala Azar, Dr. Hale responded on some of the factors that influenced the decision: there is greater availability of physicians in India, they are English-speaking, the Gates foundation felt India would work better than Africa, and Kala Azar was more advanced in India.

Keynote Session

The afternoon keynote session was a fireside chat between Dr. Janak Palta McGilligan, recipient of India's prestigious Padma Shri award, and the morning’s speaker Lijo Chacko. The banter between the two, that of good friends, was warm and engaging.

Before the session began, I had the opportunity to speak with Lijo who, like me is originally from Kerala, the state where I was born. It was enjoyable to speak with him in Malayalam, and share information about where each of us and our close relatives lived in Kerala, as well as the impactful and inspiring nature of his work.

The Palta family are descendants of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. In 1964, at age 16, Janak had open heart surgery. Having survived it, she said to God, "You have given me a new life. I will spend it thanking you." For 16 years, she went on a major religious pilgrimage, and eventually found the Baha’i faith which gave her a clear vision for the path ahead.

She spoke of her “sustainable marriage” with Jimmy McGilligan, and of founding the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women, Indore, which has been empowering Women since 1985. In 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent 4 surgeries. In 2011, she lost Jimmy to a car accident, after he fought for his life for 17 days. Despite these hardships, she has continued to forge new paths.

She spearheaded Solar Kitchens, believing that “Cooking in smoking kitchens is a violence against women.” Notably, the maximum number of rapes occur when women go to collect wood for the kitchen. With the initiation of solar kitchens, one gas cylinder lasts Janak 2 years and 4 months, a stretch of time unheard of for those who use cooking gas regularly.

Janak spoke passionately of sustainable living, and the need to teach people not to eat food in wrappers, e.g. chocolate, exhorting the audience to go back to endogenous ways of cooking, to play the festival of colors, Holi, with natural colors, not chemicals.

She grows almost everything that she eats, buying just 4 things: salt, sugar, tea leaves and cooking oil. She generates no garbage. Newspapers are converted into briquets for cooking. She concluded by showing her essential travel items, a cloth bag holding the little steel tumbler and small towel.

Then followed a reception in the expo hall where cocktail samosas disappeared from the trays within seconds of arrival. It was a gathering of Who's Who in Silicon Valley. Among those I spoke with were Stanford University Professor Emeritus Tom Kailath, recipient of the National Medal of Science which he received from President Barack Obama, Vandana Kumar and Vijay Rajvaidya, publisher and managing director respectively of India Currents, and Ritu Jha of Indica News. I also said hello to saxophonist George Brooks, known for combining Indian classical music and jazz, as he dashed in to perform at the dinner that followed.

George Brooks

The evening ended with an awards ceremony during dinner.

My friends Shafi, Sunita and I left the event, filled with admiration for ICA and is outstanding work for community.

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