Each day over 100,000 people visit Idealist.org looking for the opportunities, resources, and community they need to create a better world. To date over 400,000 people and 70,000 organizations have joined Idealist.org contributing to a vibrant and generous community.
But behind these numbers are powerful stories of people who have committed to taking one step to change the world. In the interview below, we chat with Rajendra Ka Vesana, Chairman and Founder of Touchwood Ecological and Social Foundation in India.
Founded in 2006, Touchwood’s mission is to create new initiatives and opportunities for indigenous populations within the jungles of the Nilgiris in the areas of health, education, agriculture, economic development, environment and social welfare through close cooperation between indigenous people, local NGOs, government agencies and private corporations. To date, Touchwood has treated more than 18,000 people in its free medical clinics, has staffed schools in remote locations with trained teachers, and offers a variety of classes in computers, English, and vocational skills. Read more about their programs and opportunities.
Raj uses Idealist to recruit volunteers and interns; thus far he has recruited close to 40 volunteers who help put his organization’s mission into action. Below, he shares his experiences starting and running an NGO, the power of volunteers, and the key lessons he’s learned.
What made you decide to quit your job in Canada and move to India to start an NGO?
Right from childhood I had a huge interest in wildlife. However, my family wanted me to pursue a degree in engineering in Electronics and Communication. I went on to a life in the IT industry, which took me across the globe. However, back in September 1993, I accompanied my friends to the Jungles of Sathyamangalam (a town in the Erode district in the Indian state Tamil Nadu, more known for the notorious bandit Veerappan – and now known as the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve) and that rekindled my passion for wildlife. From then on, I made sure that whichever part of the world I was in, I took a week off every two months and headed off to those jungles to learn and understand more about wildlife and ecology. In order to be more consistent in my efforts, I realised I would need a banner for my work and hence Touchwood was born in February 2006 as an NGO. My passion kept growing until I finally realized that this was my calling. I decided to quit the corporate world in the year 2010 and head to the jungles to do my bit.
When you realized you wanted to start an NGO, what was the first step you took?
In 2006 when I started the NGO I had taken a sabbatical from my job and worked in the jungles. It was a huge learning curve for me and I made so many mistakes. The place where I started my NGO, The Nilgiris, has almost 750+ registered NGO’s and almost 200 of them have been around for more than a decade. What would I do that someone hasn’t already done? What value would I deliver? What can make me different?
But I learnt from them and Touchwood grew in the hearts of the people(s) in the jungles. I did a complete reality check and decided that to help in conservation and protection, we must first take care of the humans (indigenous populations) in these jungles, for they are the true conservationists and protectors of the jungles. We must empower them with the knowledge and awareness that they are the most important link in conservation. If they are denied basic essentials in life such as access to healthcare, education, sanitation, clean drinking water etc, how can we expect them to handle such a huge task of conservation and protection? Keeping this in mind we started off with a Tribal Healthcare Center at Vazhaithotam in February 2007 within a year after we started the NGO.
What role do volunteers play in your organization? How do you support them?
Volunteers have and will continue to play a vital role in our efforts. They bring with them valuable international experience, knowledge and skills needed to design, develop and implement various programs that bring numerous advantages to the marginalized communities. Volunteers come with a passion and dedication to give back to society and to take with them what they learn. Hence there is more understanding of the existing ground reality and their willingness to put in the extra hours needed to see things through. Though we have local staff at ground level their capabilities to perceive the big picture and work towards a futuristic goal is limited and hence the need for the international volunteers and interns.
While the volunteers / interns are expected to pay for their time here with us, we provide them with in-country orientation, travel on behalf of Touchwood, boarding and lodging and free WiFi. There is a manager who supervises them and whom they report to.
Can you tell us about a success you’ve had recently?
After the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a Tiger Reserve (Mudumalai Tiger Reserve – MTR), we met with the top officials of MTR and decided to shift our clinic to a place they had given us so that it would be easily accessible to more people. I must mention the names of Dr. Rajeev Srivastava, I.F.S., Field Director and Mr. Ameer Haja, Deputy Director, of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve who have been of enormous support to us. Once with the MTR, we were approached by another NGO who wanted to work with us on healthcare projects. We started off with Free Medical Camps (75 to date) for all who live within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and its buffer zone areas. We also provided teachers to schools deep within the rural areas where normally appointed governmental teachers refuse to travel to. These activities quickly won the confidence of the people and managed the bridge the gap that was there traditionally between the Forest Department and the people within the reserve.
We went on to form Eco-development Committees on behalf of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to enable vocational training, skills development and sustainable livelihood options for those within these reserves. The programs were so well received by the indigenous populations that the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India conferred the Award of Excellence for the year 2010-2011 in the category of “Involvement of Local Communities and Eco-development” to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. We are proud to be a part of this achievement and we continue to support the people within the MTR with various programs.
What advice do you have for others who want to start an NGO?
Be prepared for brick-bats [blunt criticism/ disapproval expressed by pointing out faults or shortcomings] and sacrifice, not only from self but from your near and dear ones too. It takes a lot of patience and you will see the various faces of mankind. So many will come and go; it’s hard to have someone stay with you all the way.
If you weren’t part of Touchwood, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?
A typical story: get an education, move overseas, make lots of money and create wealth and live life like what we think is King Size. Maybe I would’ve liked it…maybe I wouldn’t have. I really don’t know. But for me now this is life – King Size!
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This interview has been edited and condensed.