Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Grassroots Hero: The Story of Giri

D. Venkata Giri is a 35 year-old father of two, living in a small village called Narayanarajupeta in Andhra Pradesh, India.  Giri was an alcoholic, a smoker, a college dropout, and the son of a poor farmer. He is now the village Sarpanch (or leader), a spiritual leader, a propagator of social change, and an inspiration to hundreds. With a background of modest circumstances and difficult obstacles, Giri’s story is one of grit and determination, of the power of motivation, and the rewards of progress.

Like many of India’s rural youth, Giri started life in incredibly difficult circumstances. He was an alcoholic and influenced many friends to do the same. He had no true focus in life and lacked the means to chase fame and fortune.
Back To the Roots.

One day, he and his friends came across the Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) and it piqued his interest. The rest is history.

This program entails the education of India’s youth in the areas of yoga, meditation, spirituality, leadership skills, communication skills, public speaking, sense of service, sense of responsibility towards oneself, family, nation and the environment, physical and mental stamina, to empower them to be citizens that take control of the future of the country and drive progress.

Giri’s world expanded beyond that of his small family farm to include the hopes and dreams of his entire village and he soon became an active, dynamic force of change in his community. He got rid of his bad habits and influenced his friends to do the same.  

In 2011, Giri took a situation into his own hands when an elderly woman in his village, abandoned by her children and dealing with the extreme inefficiency of government programs, became homeless. Although she had tried to utilize the services of Indiramma Government Housing Scheme, the bureaucratic nature of the agency prevented her from being able to access all the forms and procedures necessary for the program.  Giri put in all the resources he had into acquiring basic materials such as cement, bricks, asbestos sheets, and the like. She now has a roof over her head, but for Giri, this effort is just the start of his life-changing journey.

The unusual and tragic circumstances of the rape of a girl in a nearby village led to the building of 83 toilets. In many rural villages in India, the lack of toilets means that villagers generally go to the restroom outside in the open.  However, most women avoid going out during broad day light due to uncomfortableness and the presence of men..  They avoid drinking too much water and hold off until late at night to relieve themselves.  This has led to a lot of health problems. In a rare incident a young girl near Giri’s village was raped when she was alone.

To combat both issues of women’s safety and public health, Giri went door to door to garner support to build toilets with the support of government funding.

Due to the fact that government funding was insufficient, Giri asked residents to pitch in and also received help in fundraising from the Back to the Roots Foundation.

Thus, by being proactive and taking on a problem that no one else was willing to see through the end, Giri accelerated the development of his village.

In an agricultural country such as India, the availability of water and land is of utmost importance. Every summer, the lake in Giri’s village shrunk due to natural causes, and after this occurs, the farmers in the vicinity encroach upon the land and use it for farming. Thus, year by year the lake became smaller, and the wealthy and powerful landowners added more to their assets, confident that none of the villagers will have the bravery to take them on.

 After being unsuccessful in getting help from the government, he decided to start a dharna, or a strike. Soon, the media got involved and political parties took their own sides on the issue for their own gain.

In order to prevent the issue from getting out of hand, Giri took the matter into his own hands and many joined him in the strike because of the good will he earned with his teachings of yoga and meditation, eventually gathering enough support for the issue to be fixed.

After the incident, with the subsequent media coverage, Giri became an overnight hero.

It came time for the Panchayat elections, and with Giri’s new found popularity, many wanted him to contest. Despite the support, Giri hesitated due to the importance of money, alcohol, caste, and family background, of which Giri had none. However, his parents had a decent reputation; he was not of a high caste but was of the same caste as many others in the village, and most of all he had proven himself as a capable and dynamic leader. However, with the official announcement of his campaign, opposition sprung up. The one opposition candidate was a distant relative from a wealthy and influential family that had won many elections previously. The other members of Giri’s own party also felt threatened with his unorthodox campaign and the impact he could have on their future political prospects. In the middle of this opposition, an even wealthier third political party wanted to buy out Giri. It was Giri’s refusal of lakhs of rupees that earned him the respect and approval of his parents towards his campaign. On July 9th 2013, he finally filed his nomination. The village came together and unanimously elected Giri to be the village President or Sarpanch.  

After this victory, Giri helped three more villages during their elections persuading people to vote for the candidate they felt was best, without succumbing to money, alcohol, or food.

As Sarpanch, Giri took the lead in the development of roads, toilets, electricity, clean drinking water and other amenities in the village.  

In 2014, the Hud Hud Cyclone hit South India, especially Andhra Pradesh. Giri went street by street removing debris and coordinated with others to gather food, water, and supplies for his village along with neighboring villages.

In response to these issues, Giri forms a “Back to the Roots Village Development Committee” with youth and well-wishers from his village. With this organization he enlists the help of non-resident Indians (NRIs) who want to give back to their home country.
With the help of this program, Giri greatly increased the amenities and government grants in his village, including his project to distribute water filters to every household.

In January of this year, Giri was awarded the Swachh Bharat Mission Award for achieving a hundred percent sanitation in his village.

It’s 2016, and Giri continues his fight for justice and change along with raising two children. Giri’s story is an example of the extraordinary powers of education, determination, and hard work.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Same Person From Two Sides

Edward Mcnealy is a college student, the kind that everyone wants to be. He was studying with a lot of focus so he was clearly smart, but he alternated tabs to Facebook and Instagram every five minutes so he was cool. With trim black glasses and neat white vans, Edward is the ideal modern college student.

Edward Mcnealy had square black glasses, side swept brown locks, and an attentive gaze towards his MacBook, with which he was currently surfing pictures of his biggest loss: his ex-girlfriend. He had a habit of scrunching up his shoulders and pushing up his glasses that made him look a little nerdy, but his cool-boy clothing and hand-constantly-pushing-hair-back attitude said otherwise.

The Gardens

Crackling leaves. Faint buzzing of insects. Streaky trickle of sweat down my back. The mid-summer heat turned the local botanical garden into a tropical jungle. We traipsed around the lobby trying to decipher our maps and then, having given up on the maps, walked outside in the first direction we thought of. In this beautiful, intricate garden full of 100s of species of plants, our number one goal was to find a comfortable air conditioned indoor environment. We meandered around a winding path surrounded by beautiful exhibits of flowers and trees till we happened upon 3 different indoor exhibits. We opened each door, anticipating a cool air flowing past us. However, the first two yielded undesirable results, each of them just as hot or barely cooler than the outside. As we opened the third door, a gust of cool air struck us and everyone sighed softly with happiness. We walked inside, dazed and hardly believing our luck. Content in the success of our mission, we sat in comfortable leather chairs and wrote about our journey.

A Library

A place of studying and silence, but also panicked cramming and brisk hushed whispers, the library is a fascinating study of the range of behavior exhibited by a student at work. On this summer day, the library has a hollow, desolate, and abandoned quality. There is a stale, stuffy smell of plastic, wood, and old book pages, an aged quality as if the air hasn't been disturbed by swarms of students in a long while. There is the quiet shuffle of a single student’s feet in the distance, the thud of books being arranged on a shelf, the faint drone of the air conditioning, and the occasional clicking of keyboard keys. There are neat rows of books, on a twisting array of bookshelves that are arranged as if in an organized maze. There are a range of scattered rainbows of color on books confined by dark greens, browns, and plain off-whites. There is the roughness of the speckled carpet colliding with the cold, smooth wood contrasting with hard plastic surfaces combined with slippery laminated books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Pleasure Comes With Patience

Growing up in a large family, my grandfather had a lot to live up to. His parents, who were successful farmers, were quite rich; however due to some family disputes they have lost most property in court cases, and paying for eight children who all had their own lavish hopes and dreams was a difficult task. Throughout his childhood, grandpa wanted to study well, become an engineer, or perhaps enlist in the army. As I ask him what life was like back then, he reminisces gloomily and says "Hardworking." But his hardwork paid off later, as with tenacious effort he soon rose to become the treasurer of the Indian Airforce. With his job, education, and discipline behind him, he made his way up, slowly but surely, towards a prosperous, fruitful life in which he was able to provide for his family, helping them achieve their dreams.
Regardless of what he had been through, the good and the bad, he always had the ethics he had grown up with , in mind. My grandpa realized the power and influence of the people around you, and was careful about it. "Be cautious and make friendships with good people" he told me.
Now my grandpa inhabits a contented life. He and his family, through effort and perserverance, are living like the middle-class equivalent of a king.
Discipline, discipline, discipline. Grandpa repeated this word over and over again as I interrogated him, it seemed like his whole life had bloomed through this one word. And for what he wanted to achieve, and the circumstances through which he wanted to achieve it, self-discipline was the resilent pedestal on which he stood. "Think about your goal, think about what you want to become. Then you must try hard to achieve that goal," He said. His words have forced me to think, really think, about what you want to be; notice his quote never said anything about doing what other people wanted you to become. This notion is reflected in his life story. He paved a road to his goal, no cement, no shovel, just true grit.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Topsy Turvy

For five mediocre years I went to Hickey Elementary. There was nothing quite extraordinary or memorable about this school. It was simply okay. The teachers weren’t particularly strict, the students weren’t particularly smart or friendly, and the campus wasn’t particularly beautiful; nothing memorable enough to mention.  But there was one small comfort: knowing this dreary place was home sweet home. Nothing could change that. But one day, even this comfort was going to disappear.
The middle school that Hickey feeds into, Bowman, was deemed “not that good” by my mother. Apparently it had bad influences, notoriously low academic scores, and an atrocious criminal background. I kind of thought so too, just a tiny bit, but the alternative was literally unimaginable. It was some weird, exotic, Asian school named…you guessed it, Rice. Confronted with two equally horrifying choices, I had no idea what to pick. I had two options: Option 1: a school that I knew was going to be distressing, and Option 2: a school that I had absolutely no clue about, and could possibly end up being the worst school on the planet. Fortunately, I didn’t have to bother myself with the decision because it was already made. It was final; my mom had transferred me to Rice.
You would think I would be really mad wouldn’t you? Honestly, I would feel the same way no matter what she picked. So many things were changing at once, and I didn’t like change. Going from school to school, elementary to middle; I was terrified.  I liked knowing what was happening and when; this whole “transferring” business seemed fishy. Before I could get my mind around this, I was whisked away to a summer vacation halfway around the world. But time seemed to fly by in India, even though my holiday went three weeks over the start of sixth grade. When I finally came back to the U.S, I was scared to DEATH. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, it was like walking around blindfolded. I didn’t know what was coming up next, I had absolutely no clue. Getting my school supplies, packing my backpack, organizing my binders, I felt like a zombie, already dead and gone, but still determined. That dreaded first day arriving upon me seemed like a night mare. Almost there, three… two …one…Welcome to Rice Middle School. We pulled up the drive way and my fingers touched the cold metal door.  With echoing footsteps we made it to the front office, my heart ticking like a time bomb. Any moment, my life was going to change forever…
 And then we realized we were in the wrong school. This was Skaggs.
We went back in our car and drove up to the place that I was supposed to be scared of.  But funnily enough, after that anti-climatic moment, I wasn’t as scared. Thank you Skaggs. I walked through those front doors with a little less trepidation than last time, and saw Rice Middle School with my own eyes.

 Wow…its …normal. I meet my counselor, Mrs. Barshop, also normal. The classrooms, the hallways, the lockers, all were normal. By the time my orientation was over it was time for second period. I said an awkward “hello” to the class and got settled in, and I realized I could actually get used to this. Classes flew by, awkward introductions were made, and names were learned. And just like that my first day was over. A week was over. A month was over. The entire sixth grade year raced past me, it left me astounded, and I realized that I had a new home. I had new friends, new buddies, it was a whole new world. After it sunk in, I realized couldn’t even imagine how life would have been if I did not go to Rice. It was a challenge, an adventure. Who said change was bad? It was one of the best things to happen to me. Why? Because I was bored. I needed something new, something fresh, something exciting, and something to wake me up from routine school life. This simple transfer came along like an explosion. It shook me, turned life topsy-turvy, and in the best way possible. But friendships have been made again, attachment has strengthened, and sadly high school is coming up, where I will part with most of my friends once again. But this time, I will be ready.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Engineering Question No Engineer Can Answer

In the aisle of every grocery store, in the menu of every restaurant, and in the refrigerator of almost every American, genetic engineering plays an important role. However, the topic of genetic engineering is still subject to much debate. Although its supporters list its benefits, many countries around the world, along with some American citizens themselves, have banned these GMOs from their diet. The fact is that despite the many benefits of GMOs, genetically modified food should be banned due to the ethical, economic, health-related, and biological risks that it results in. How can we prevent the consumption of GMOs to ensure a future of food safety, security, and sustainability?
Introducing the concept of genetic engineering and giving that much control to humankind has posed many ethical questions. How can we trust ourselves (seeing what we’ve done to the planet so far) with this much power over Mother Nature and what are the regulations in place that ensure we exercise it ethically? In 2000, the Pope declared GMOs against God’s will, furthering the religious debate, and in some cases anger, over GM food (Lyman). Many advocates fear genetic engineering because it results in the ‘separation of science and technology and ethics” as said by Dr. Vandana Shiva. And that’s not all. Opponents’ arguments are being strengthened as genetic engineering is branching out to animals as well and only time will tell when we use it on ourselves. Hence one the most challenging problems that GM food faces is the moral reservation the public has about it.
The production, research, and sale of GM food solidifies its negative impact on the global economy and agribusiness. More than 35 countries restrict GM food, thus cutting down US agricultural exports greatly when American farmers began to adopt GMOs (Anderson). To extend their global influence, corporations and researchers patent local plants, robbing the livelihood of poor farmers in the periphery (Wan Ho). GM food also maintains a monopoly over the American market, beating out small farmers with their low prices. The expansion of genetic engineering in agriculture results in short term and long term losses for our economy. Therefore, restricting GMOs helps us retain jobs, reduce monopoly in local and global markets, and set our economy on track for a brighter future.
Scientists and consumers alike have begun to speculate about the many health risks that could result from the presence of genetically modified food, not only on our plates, but in our environment as well. A researcher, Arpad Pusztai, conducted an experiment on rats that were fed GMOs. His results revealed that these rats suffered from structural damage and decreased immunity (Lendman). Perhaps what is more terrifying is that companies don’t regularly test their food for its effect on health. Simple changes to the genes of an organism can have a devastating impact on the health of a human. We’ve seen the consequences, and if we don’t do something the effect may be disastrous.
Perhaps the scariest threat that genetic engineering poses is the creation of pesticide resistant “super” pests. The process of engineering plants to be resistant to pests, bacteria, and viruses, is creating organisms that will be deadlier that ever before. Biological processes such as recombination, transcapsidization, synergism are exhilarating the ability of pests to evolve and increase their ability counter a plants defenses, the more the genetically engineered plants, the more chances these pests have to pass on their resistant genes. Therefore, by decreasing the number of GMOs we can lower the rate that pest develop resistance, saving us from a potential outbreak.
Advocates of genetic engineering emphasize the increase in produce and scientific advancements that come with it. However, the potential problems of genetic engineering far out way its benefits. By restricting or simply banning genetically engineered food, we can eliminate many of the philosophical, financial, medical, and natural issues that come from the dominance of GM food in the agriculture industry. By reducing your consumption of GE food and choosing sustainable types of agriculture you can make a big impact on your well being as well as that of the world. Turns out the answer to the genetic engineering question is simple: we need less of it.