Kolkata (part one)

Hello all.

I haven’t posted for a while… Lately I have been studying lots of Hindi and practicing a ton in an attempt to take advantage of my last days here in India. I leave in 2 and a half weeks!

My trip to Kolkata (Calcutta) with Andy was a different kind of trip than most tourists experience, and one that we both had not anticipated. We knew that we were not going to see many tourist sites, but we did want to see at least a few things: maybe a museum, or the old colonial districts, or famous markets. In the end though, we didn’t see much of anything touristy at all.

On our first day we visited an NGO that Andy was connected to called “Kolkata Kids.” Its aim is to provide health care, health workers, and medicine to newborns and their mothers in a particular slum in Howrah (a city across the major river that runs through Kolkata). Their office was located adjacent to the slum they were working with and despite being quite small, had computer stations and training facilities for new health workers. Andy and I arrived there at 9am after being picked up in a taxi by the founder—an American in his twenties whose name escapes me right now—where we were able to speak with him and other health workers before entering the slums.

His fundamental goals were simple: to increase the body weight of newborns—from the time they are in the womb to age three—to a suitable and acceptably healthy standard, which, consequently improves the health standard for all. To achieve this he hires health workers who monitor every family that is bearing children in a given area through weekly visits. Because population density in Kolkata is so high, there are definite constraints here on the amount of ground they can actually cover. But, what they do cover they do extremely thoroughly and successfully and is the reason they such a famous NGO. In addition to the health workers weekly visits where they monitor and educate families, they also provide sustainable and affordable insurance policies for the families they work with. They manage to operate on a grand total of 45,000 US dollars a year.

An opportunity to visit Kolkata slums and meet families face to face with health workers was not something I thought I would have the chance to experience. All of the families we met on our brief 3 hour routine visit with two health workers were Hindi speaking families from either Uttar Praesh or Bihar (in Kolkata Bangla is the official language). Although these families are migrant workers who are able to get some work in Kolkata during the majority of the year, they still visit their native villages during holidays and other important family events. For both me and Andy this was an unexpected occasion to practice Hindi.
Most of the conversations we had with the families were brief and consisted of small exchanges with the kids of the families who in return, were really most interested in the two white guys that were accompanying their weekly health workers’ visit.

‘Kolkata Kids’ is an example of a successful NGO that is building sustainable aid that can hopefully operate on a larger scale in the future. I had heard a lot about how NGOs don’t always do much good for the community they are working with because they don’t know how to implement permanent and sustainable change. Through focusing on a small area of the slums without being overambitious about its goals, ‘Kolkata Kids’ has built a reputation for itself in the world of NGOs as one of the most successful young NGOs in India. If anyone wants further information or is interested in how to help: contact them through their website: http://www.calcuttakids.org


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  1. Looks like you've had a very productive month — I'm glad you're leaving with a good impression of at least one NGO in India! My discipline is often so critical of NGO work and developmental work more generally that it's hard to even figure out what it means to be "successful" as an NGO. In other words, the question in the anthropological world becomes: Who gets to decide what is success? And for whom? Are you back in the US now? Looking forward to catching up!

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