Kolkata, India has been our home for almost 2 weeks now. I would classify the first several days here as “sensory overload”. Taking in the sights of the city all around us, nonstop sounds of cars and horns, the smells of the city’s streets and spices, the vibrant colors on the buildings and the intricate saris and kurtas worn by women, our wild commute to work on the metro and autorickshaws- it’s all a bit overwhelming. It seems to be a world of paradoxes, of green jungle trees and dirt parks, fancy malls and people making homes on the sidewalk right outside, British colonial apartments with windows open to the chaos of the street, high technology offices with computers neighbored by run-down market stalls. This city never stops moving, and every square inch seems to be covered. I see pain, beauty, richness, stagnance, and hope all at once.
Hope is something that Anudip and iMerit specialize in. These are the social enterprises we are working with during our 7 weeks in Kolkata. Anudip is dedicated to creating livelihood opportunities for women and youth in rural areas and urban slums of India through Market Aligned Skills Training (M.A.S.T.) and personal development. iMerit employs Anudip trained graduates, providing improved livelihoods with business process outsourcing jobs doing projects for clients around the world. Anudip and iMerit realize that populations living in rural India have great potential, but just don’t have access to higher level job opportunities. It is possible for someone living in these rural communities to graduate from high school and remain unemployed for years after. Often, the only jobs available to them are merchant jobs- such as selling fish or poultry. Anudip starts training centers in rural communities and guarantees two interviews with outside companies for employment for each student after completing the two-month M.A.S.T. course. Many Anudip students are also employed by its sister-company iMerit, where they receive a salary much greater than that of any job available in their local communities. In order to benefit the local communities and individuals, Anudip also runs a program called DREAM- Developing Rural Entrepreneurs through Adoption and Mentoring. This program gives students who aspire to start their own group-based micro-enterprises the tools to do so, as well as financial assistance for startup costs, guidance in the incubation phase, and ongoing support. The entrepreneurs are typically low income, unemployed youth from agrarian backgrounds in rural villages. Cyber Cafes, digital photo studios, and computer training centers are just a few examples of enterprises made possible through DREAM.
This past week, we began to see the social impact of Anudip and iMerit firsthand, visiting rural centers where its students and employees are in action. The hope for a brighter future was laced throughout all three centers we visited. The first during week 1 was Metiabruz- a conservative Muslim village on the outskirts of Kolkata. Here, the women and girls are not allowed to leave Metiabruz, unless accompanied by family or a man, so their access to the job market is limited even further than most rural populations. To address this critical need for income earning opportunities for women, an Anudip training center and an iMerit work center were established for just young women. We were able to sit in on an Anudip English language skills class in Metiabruz, where the girls participated in mock interviews and answered their teacher with a confidence that did not exist in the slightest just two months prior. Radha Basu, founder of Anudip and iMerit, testified that when Anudip and iMerit first started in Metiabruz, the girls would not even make eye contact. Furthermore, the girls remove their burka when they enter the office- a symbol of the empowerment taking place here. The iMerit women explained the tagging and zoning projects they were working on at the moment. Their projects are very cutting edge, and it is clear that the women are very intelligent and highly skilled. Chatting with the girls, I learned bits and pieces about their families, backgrounds, and what brought them to Anudip and iMerit. Many girls there have strong, charismatic personalities- too big to be confined to the borders of their village. These women are blossoming into their full potential, that their community would not have recognized without the opportunity provided by Anudip and iMerit.
At the start of week 2, we were able to visit two more rural centers with Radha. We went to Sonarpur and Bonhooghly, over an hour from Salt Lake where the Anudip and iMerit headquarters offices are. These rural areas are lush like jungle, yet not too distant from the bustling city of Kolkata. We were given a very warm welcome, complete with flower boquets and snacks, since we arrived with the very well-respected Radha (“Radha-Di” as they call her, DiDi meaning older sister). The students were given an opportunity to stand up and introduce themselves, speak about their families, their experience with Anudip training, and their goals for the future. When we asked if they feel more confident after two months of training, they responded with a resounding yes. Many of them are motivated by the prospect of providing a brighter future to their family members, many of whom their income will support. At the Sonarpur center, the instructors and students shouted their motto “We Can!”, showing their fervor for learning and work. In just these first two weeks, we have gotten a glimpse of how Anudip and iMerit are creating hope and livelihoods for thousands of rural women and youth, and I cannot wait to see the evidence of social impact that the next six weeks hold!