The Akshaya Patra Foundation in Bangalore, India—Post-Internship Reflection

After I return home from India, I see my life in a different way. Although I have traveled back to Boston twice from India within the same calendar year, I am finding that the most challenging part of my summer experience is in returning to my life in the US. After my summer in Bangalore, I am returning with not only a more developed understanding of the alarming barriers that separate many Indian youths from regularly attending government schools, but also an awareness that many of the ways in which I live my life in the US directly harm Indian citizens. My challenges are: How do I apply what I have learned to help repair a small piece of our often violently unfair, radically unequal world? How do I address the systematic devaluation of Indian lives, which is implicitly reflected in my consumption practices in the US?

I wouldn’t call this “culture shock”—at least not the way I often hear it spoken of. In fact, I experienced a heightened awareness of my race and class status, rather than a “blending” that others may experience during their time abroad. My advice to future interns doing internships abroad—or even domestically, if there is a significant difference in the concentration of power—is to consider the ethical implications of participating in a “voluntourist” capacity. There is certainly a way to do ethical, mutually beneficial work that challenges historical concentrations of power. But even more important than spending a summer abroad is making a commitment to living the vast majority of our day-to-day lives—which, for many of us, is in the United States—in a way that subverts and challenges the consumption habits, institutions, and mores that make up part of the foundation on which India’s poverty rests. I would certainly encourage other students to peruse an internship at The Akshaya Patra Foundation. I found it to be a wonderfully supportive environment and I was able to work on an issue that is deeply relevant to the wellbeing of our world. I also benefited from spending time abroad—in an environment that I found challenging. My internship, and my time in India, have taught me that acknowledging my responsibility and my role in perpetuating vast inequity in the distribution of global wealth is central to my ability to resist the grossly unfair consequences of that distribution.

The majority of my time at The Akshaya Patra Foundation was spent listening to the stories of Indian youths enrolled in government schools in which the Akshaya Patra mid-day meal is served. I wrote one narrative per child to document many of the stories that I heard. I feel my work was successful because I documented stories in the most fair and honest way that I was able to. Although I remain skeptical about the ethics of transnational “development”-oriented work, my experiences this summer have made me anything but indifferent to the suffering I witnessed. For that reason, I am committed to using my education and my privileges in service of dismantling the foundation of India’s poverty, which will necessarily discourage child slavery and improve access to education. This summer, I have learned about the importance of addressing both immediate needs, and the source of suffering. Indeed, it is through the recognition that, in our increasingly globalized world, the way that I live my life in the US has profound consequences for the people whose labor—and whose lives—are all too often dismissed and unseen.

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One of Akshaya Patra’s 24 centralized kitchens
Photo source: http://www.techsangam.com/wp33/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/apatra3.png

vehicles.jpg
Akshaya Patra vehicles about to deliver containers of food
Photo source: http://blog.akshayapatra.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/vehicles.jpg

 

Shane Weitzman ’16

Akshaya Patra Foundation in Bangalore, India—Mid-Point Reflection

My first month in Bangalore has brought a host of opportunities for personal and professional growth. As I mentioned in my first blog post, my primary responsibility is to visit government schools that receive the Akshaya Patra mid-day meal in order to collect testimony about the impact that the mid-day meal has on students, teachers, and school administrators.

I collect this information via one-to-one interviews, often translated from English to Kannada, and then Kannada back to English. With support from the Foundation, I have been able to collect a reasonably representative sample of testimony of school children from several communities in Bangalore.

Collecting testimony has been a practical application of the fieldwork necessary for much of the work produced in social science research. I’m lucky to be able to practice a modified version of fieldwork, with a lot of support from the people around me. After finishing my time at Brandeis, I would like to pursue graduate study in anthropology. I have India in mind as a place I would like to explore further, so the exposure I’m getting this summer will be helpful to me during future trips.

Being an intern at such a large transnational NGO, like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, has helped me understand some of the challenges of operating an NGO in conjunction with a government mandated program. I am also learning about the opportunities, and difficulties, that fundraising across continents may pose.

During my time at Brandeis, I have been introduced to the ethics of international (and domestic) development. I have been fortunate to receive a strong academic background in some of the ethical considerations that circulate in academic circles. My internship is supplementing theoretical arguments that I have been exposed to—most of which are very critical of the development industry—with exposure to the challenges of running a social welfare program, initiated by the government, on a scale necessary to accommodate India’s large population.

In the last month, I have been reading Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?written by Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m finding that much of Dr. King’s commentary is directly relevant to my time as an intern at Akshaya Patra. Dr. King rhetorically asks, “How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows?” (1968:86). He then responds, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice in it” (1968:86).

The effect, however small, that the actions in my adult life will have in swaying our collective consciousness towards justice—or towards further harm—remains to be seen. For now, I have been very lucky to sit with, and bear witness to, the stories of people in India who we do not regularly hear from. I hope that, in my working life, I’ll be able to remember and honor the stories I have been exposed to this summer. My internship is renewing my commitment to following Dr. King’s leadership, and his assertion that it is in our best interest to actively engage in creating humane, fair, and just living conditions for all members of our societies.

-Shane Weitzman ’16

 

Government Urdu High School, DJ Halli

Government Urdu High School, DJ Halli

(A school I visited to collect testimony.)

 

school 1

Government Lower Primary School, Kattugollahalli

(A school I visited to collect testimony.)

 

To learn more about the mid-day meal scheme in India, please see:

  1. http://mdm.nic.in/

(Government of India website for mid-day meal scheme)

  1. http://www.archive.india.gov.in/sectors/education/index.php?id=7

(Explanation of mid-day meal scheme by Government of India)

 

The Akshaya Patra Foundation in Bangalore, India

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which provides a mid-day meal every school day to approximately 1.4 million Indian youths, is the largest provider of mid-day meals in the world. This summer, my main responsibility is to interview parents, teachers, headmasters, and, when appropriate, the general public, in order to gain insights into the ways in which a daily mid-day meal motivates families to send their children—and especially their daughters—to school for longer periods of time. The Akshaya Patra Foundation has two primary and interrelated goals. First, the Foundation seeks to supply children to with a mid-day meal to incentivize participation in government schools and, consequently, to help alleviate child labor and slavery. Often times, children attending government schools are forced to drop out of school to work menial and often dangerous jobs to provide supplementary income to their families. Since the children are fed during the school day, it often becomes possible for them to attend school, rather than working to pay for their own mid-day meal.

Every day, I will visit three government schools and interview children ranging in age from seven to sixteen years old. I will interview nine children per day. In addition, over the course of the summer, I will interview several former mid-day meal beneficiaries who have received scholarships towards the cost of their post-secondary education. I will use these interviews to write a series of “case studies” for the Foundation. These “case studies” may be circulated internally within Akshaya Patra, or may be displayed on the Foundation’s website with the hope of motivating potential donors to support the Foundation by qualitatively demonstrating the “impact” of the mid-day meal program.

Akshaya Patra is far from the only NGO to supply a mid-day meal to Indian youths. The Foundation receives half of its funding through the Indian government due to a federal mandate and national scheme that required that every child enrolled in an Indian government school is entitled to a mid-day meal. Since Akshaya Patra’s Bangalore headquarters raises approximately 40 percent of the necessary operating costs, funders that give in the United States account for only ten percent of the overall expenses. This differentiates Akshaya Patra from many other transnational NGOs. Because all of the food production—and the vast majority of the fundraising—come from Indian sources, the Foundation it is much more likely to remain sustainable in the communities that it serves.

Since the Foundation has asked me to write about “success” stories in order to demonstrate “impact,” I have proposed a senior thesis topic that explore the relationship between “success”—as defined by the informants—and caste/class status. More specifically, I have proposed to write about how notions of “success” are used by transnational NGOs, like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, as a means to motive foreign donors—primarily from the United States and western Europe—to support their work. I will engage with issued of “modernity” and “progress” as a way to interpret what “counts” as “success”—for the Indian students, for the transnational NGOs, and for the foreign philanthropic audience.  I’m hopeful that this work, which will be informed by the interviews I conduct this summer, will also be helpful to the Akshaya Patra Foundation. I’m looking forward to sending a copy of my findings.

I have the wonderful opporunity to stay at the ISKCON temple complex while I am in Bangalore. Akshaya Patra is affiliated with the ISKCON temple through A. C. Bhaktivdanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the ISKCON.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation’s website in India can be found here. In addition, the USA Akshaya Patra website can be found here.

ISKCON Bangalore’s website can be found here.

ISKCON

ISKCON Bangalore temple complex

(photo source: http://www.iskconbangalore.org/our-temple-0)

AP Kitchen

One of Akshaya Patra’s 24 kitchens across ten states in India

(photo source: https://theakshayapatrafoundation.wordpress.com)

 

-Shane Weitzman ’16