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Featured Organization - American India Foundation

Nirmala Garimella

Of all the destructive phenomena of nature, the earthquake is most devastating. In just a fraction of a moment, towns, villages and cities are destroyed, courses of rivers have been changed and lives of thousands of people have been lost.

So can the charitable world find new footing in such catastrophic moments?

Obviously this thought seems to have crossed the minds of quite a group of concerned people of the American India Foundation or AIF which has its genesis in such a disaster as the Gujarat Earthquake that occurred on the morning of January 26th, 2001.The earthquake killed 18,602, injured 166,866 and left 600,000 homeless. When disaster like this strikes, all hell breaks loose. There is untold misery and devastation, suffering and chaos and of course immense tragedy.

The American India Foundation took off by the shared vision of two of its members, Lata Krishnan, at San Francisco and Pradeep Kashyap, in New York. Their vision: to bring accelerated relief to these victims in a concerted effort. Their first major focus therefore was to rope in the local NGO’s in India and in a planned, phased and compassionate manner, implement disaster relief. One of the many AIF success stories is a case such as this: About 24 kilometers from Bhuj town is a village Sumrasar Jatwali, inhabited by one of the most vulnerable, economically marginalized and illiterate minority groups - the Jat Muslims. What catch the visitor's eye are the newly built pucca houses with wavy Ferro-cement roofs. One such house owner is Ibrahim bhai, a field worker with Kala Raksha, an NGO working with grassroots cooperatives of women artisans to preserve traditional craft. So when Kala Raksha offered help of Rs 45,000 each to build permanent earthquake- and cyclone-proof shelters, with aid from American India Foundation (AIF), it was like a dream come true.

This is just one example of this project's success, vision and determination to utilize the help of outside NGO’s to achieve maximum success. So began one of the many success stories of the AIF which has Bill Clinton as its honorary Chairman, Rajat Gupta and Victor Menezes as Co- chairs and an impressive list of the Board of Trustees, AIF executives and an India Advisory Board. The foundation that is still in its infancy shares a vision for a long term commitment to accelerating social and economic change in India at the same time strengthening the bonds between India and the US. Another mission is to provide assistance within the US in times of need. It also hopes to build a professional organization that is secular, transparent, credible, and accountable for all of its activities.

Although the initial focus was on Gujarat, AIF launched its first program, the Service Corps fellowship which sends qualified and skilled individuals to India for 9 months of volunteer development work. More than 50 skilled young professionals have been sent to India under this program to engage in development work. AIF has also initiated the development of computer learning centers called the Digital Equalizer, which seeks to bridge the digital and educational divide in India. It has now 80 such equalizers in 12 cities and has implemented with the help of the Indian Government in 30,000 schools across the country. The organization has a full time staff in New York, San Francisco, and New Delhi. In addition, there are 8 chapters throughout the US.

AIF Boston Chapter and its activities:

Begun sometime in November 2001 with the motivation of two local volunteers, Chirag Shah and Naveen Wadhera and two of the foundation trustees, the chapter has leap frogged into a premier organization making it presence felt in a very short time through its various fundraising and outreach events. The Boston premier of Mystic Masseur of noted film maker Ismail Merchant was chapter’s first event. It was preceded by a cocktail event hosted by AIF Trustee Desh Deshpande and his wife, Jaishree, in conjunction with Merrill Lynch. The event was a sold out affair with more that 275 present and netted more than 12,000 dollars for AIF.

Ramesh Kapur, AIF Treasurer and Boston Trustee, who has hosted fundraising dinners for the AIF, says, “We strongly believe that it is the next generation who will work toward the Vision of AIF. We encourage volunteers to join AIF and the only requisite we ask for is an underlying passion for the development of India” Pradeep Kashyap, AIF’s Executive Director,says” the major strength of the chapters has been its ability to regenerate itself and its success will be determined by their ability to handle such transitions. The Boston Chapter has done well in this regard in terms of its leadership and attitude. At the end, of course AIF mission is the culmination of the Indo American Community’s desire to do things in a organized way for philanthropic purposes, and build an institution to be proud of".

Other local outreach events have been the NETSAP National Conference and the Independence and the Republic day celebrations organized by IAGB. The group consistently collaborates with local partners to work for a common good. These partners have included NETSAP, The Young Physician Society (YPS), , PROJECT Impact, and IAGB. Other successful events in the past have included the Gandhi Walkathon in October last year and the Shabana Azmi, Farookh Sheik popular play Tumhari Amrita which drew in an audience of more than 600 people.

Bharat Dwarakanath, who is the Chapter Coordinator of the Boston Chapter and a native of Boston, is fulsome in his interest and motivation of this group “In May 2002 I attended a fundraiser at the Cambridge Hyatt with Victor Menezes.I was simply astonished at the level of dedication and enthusiasm. Almost everyone I met there had demanding jobs but yet found time to put so much of energy for this cause”. That kind of dynamism you find only in young organizations,” he says.

"Our biggest asset is of course the accountability. For instance the local chapter coordinates through an event committee and it is an overall team effort. Another major strength is partnership which is an important aspect of our strategy”. When the group organized a Gandhi Walkathon, Bharat brought in the youth group at the Chinmaya mission to come out and participate and perform Yoga as part of the event. We had a great feedback.” All my life, thanks to my parents active involvement in the community, I have believed that Service is an imperative and giving back to the community is very important”

Says Chirag Shah, co-founder and Chapter Coordinator, who grew up in Houston but is currently based in Boston,” We had a great inaugural year. The chapters are the ‘legs’ of the organization. The Foundation’s goal is to make AIF a household name and to build an organization that will hopefully last not only for the short-term, but also for generations to come. The chapters play a very important role in helping achieving that lofty goal. Most of us are young professionals, who have enough time and energy on our hands and believe strongly in the betterment of India".

"This is truly a team effort, with meaningful impact from each of our forty plus volunteers. Among many others, I would also like to acknowledge the immense contributions of Naveen Wadhera, Brian Santhumayor, Anil Phull, Vikram Bhandari, Pallavi Singh, Vineet Malik, and Dhruv Prasad and Vijay Sankaran. We change leadership at every event so everyone gets a feel of what goes into planning and execution. Most importantly, we thank the community of Boston for supporting us over the past eighteen months. I highly encourage everyone to get involved in whichever way one can contribute. Overall, this has been a very positive and self-fulfilling experience for all of us involved. Together we are making an impact on the development of India.”

The volunteer team is determined to build on its momentum in the coming year in Boston. AIF Boston future plans include talking to local campuses and other college chapters and bringing awareness of AIF. The group already shares a close relationship with graduate students and young professionals and hopes to expand its volunteer base and reach out the entire community through various awareness building events and fundraisers. The group’s next big event is the annual Gandhi Day Walkathon on Sunday, October 5th at Artesani Park.
For more information visit the website www.aifoundation.org

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