Here’s Mr. Balaji Sampat, Founder of “AID INDIA”- Empowering the marginalized communities to overcome poverty and become self-reliant by providing education, health, and shelter.
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
My name is Balaji Sampat. I am working with Aid India, a non-profit organization. I graduated in B. Tech from IIT Madras and then pursued Ph.D. in Mobile Phones-Communication Engineering from the University of Maryland, USA.
While doing Ph.D., I got to know of some groups who were working to support the poor in India. One group was working on literacy, the other group from Andhra was doing rural development work in about 80 villages, and so on. So along with a small group of students, I started raising money and supporting some of the programs in India. I learned about many village initiatives in India. I got a chance to work with the villagers and wanted to visit some of the villages and see how the work is done. So, I took a break for 2 months and traveled to many villages in different parts of India.
I went to West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. The more I visited the different villages, the more I was convinced that I want to do philanthropy full-time. I wanted to work in rural development. I chose to focus on Health, nutrition and livelihood.
I completed my Ph.D., came back to India, and started an organization Aid India. I started working in villages focusing on health. We worked with some TB patients and took them to hospitals for their treatment. But unfortunately, many people died and we did not see any success in our initiative. I felt terrible that even after identifying the patients, we could not help them out.
Thus, I changed my focus to livelihood initiatives. I stayed in a village in Ranipet. We started some small enterprises for people. We enabled women to prepare ragi food and sell it in the local area. It didn’t work a lot because the collection of money was a major problem. Villagers had to travel many times for the collection and the huge traveling costs resulted in the failure of the business.
We also helped a man start a Cable TV distribution in 1997, but it took him 10+ years to be successful. It was a big challenge for him, but eventually, he became a good entrepreneur with his skills. Now he has a big chain of Cable TV.
Since I didn’t have any expertise in creating livelihood opportunities for villagers, I decided to discontinue the work I was doing. I realized that teaching Maths and Science to students is easy for me. So we started a school in a village called Kondengere and handed it to the government later. It was a good experience and it was supported by a lot of volunteers. There was a lot to do in this field and so I began to focus on education.
Please tell us more about your success on this journey
Growth of the kids through learning was our priority. So, to know if the kids are learning, I started doing assessments. Soon we realized that they are not leaning a lot and the methodology is not working. Thereafter, a lot of volunteers joined me, and we came up with new techniques to teach Maths and it helped the kids to learn in a better way. We used a lot of activities, games, and a step-by-step approach.
We worked on many things like science experiments and puzzles, which can attract the students and also make them learn. We started focusing on basic reading levels and Maths. We noticed that gradually there was some improvement in the learning levels with the students. Change in the teaching methodology and assessment, together helped in making the learning experience better for the students.
We have worked with 100-150 villages and about 20-25 children in every village. The children were from 1st to 5th standard.
We observed that the students can read words but not the entire sentence. So we tried to break the sentence into sub sentences and this helped them to read better. Assessment and multiple activities helped them to grow their skills and get promoted to a higher grade.
We divided the class firstly on competencies and secondly on the age group. We ensured that kids enjoy the learning process and at the same time learn new things. Happiness and confidence are important along with acquiring the skills. The content was designed as per the learning capacity of the children.
We worked with the government to scale up these schools. We worked with 13k government schools. For every 10 schools, one person from our team visited 2-3 schools every day within a week and trained the teachers to conduct classes. At one point, we were working with 1 million students. Managing this huge number of students wasn’t an easy task. It was entirely a team effort.
Any volunteer who joins our team brings in new ideas to expand our initiative. A woman named ‘Chandra’ joined as a volunteer and then became a full-timer with us. She made sure that children can read. She focused on reading skills and became a leader in this area. One guy wanted to work on agriculture education, so we helped him and now he works independently. A lady named ‘Mala’ has been with us for 15 years, she is running a lot of programs in the Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu. Slowly in each district, we started having people taking up leadership roles. The local people from the villages took the lead and implemented the program with our support and mentoring. We now work with 15 districts of Tamil Nadu.
Education is our specialization. We have focused on pedagogy and our training material are so much in demand that the government schools want it for their students. Slowly private schools have also started approaching us.
We have set up a non-profit trust called ‘Eureka Books’. Any school or individual can buy the books from here at a low price. We have Eureka Tab Labs – Here the students learn through video lessons and practice on mobile apps. There are 2 ‘Eureka Schools’ located at Parameswaramangalam and Venkatrayanpettai villages of Kanchipuram and Tiruvannamalai district respectively. The ‘Eureka Village centers’ are being run in 647 villages of Tamil Nadu.
We don’t specialize in disaster relief work but are the first ones to offer help. We have been engaged in many relief work projects including Orissa cyclone floods in 1998-99, Tamil Nadu Tsunami 2004, Chennai Floods 2015, and Kerala Floods 2019.
When the Tamil Nadu Tsunami happened, our team was involved in relief activities for about one year. Our volunteers did everything from setting up relief camps, lifting dead bodies from mud, providing food to helping people start their livelihood. Later we set up two schools there, which were delayed because of a tsunami for about two years. We also provide technical and academic support to anyone who wants to set up schools.
After the Chennai Floods in 2015, we started constructing houses and around 450 houses are being constructed. We identified families whose huts were destroyed and helped them built a concrete house. No contractors were involved, only local Maistris (laborers) along with their family members worked to build their houses. The cost of constructing one house was 1.8 Lakh rupees. We started with building 1-2 houses and gradually moved to construct 20 houses in a village. We acquired permission from the panchayat before constructing the houses. We also arranged in obtaining ‘Patta’ and other documents like ration card and aadhar card for the villagers. We worked with the poorest people in the area and also supported them in their livelihood by growing a kitchen garden for them.
During the lockdown, we gave food to the poorest people and reached about 15,300 families in 1300 villages, i.e. about 10-12 families per village.
We don’t have a hierarchical top-down structure. Different initiatives have different drivers. Self-driven people drive the projects and own them. The money raised for one program is used only for that program. We help these leaders in the initial seed support.
For example – if some volunteers wanted to work on kitchen gardens. I will help them with 4 lakh rupees for three months and ask them to figure out the ways and take it forward. I fund initially, and then they have to raise money for their own programs. Usually, between 1-2 years, they become sustainable. Now, it’s their work to contact people, sell their ideas, organize workshops, etc. Success or failure depends on their work. I mentor and guide them occasionally.
Malaya, one of our volunteers, is working on the Kitchen Garden project. Shamu, another volunteer, works for livelihood projects. She has identified some women who sell vegetables, phenyl, etc. She has given 3-4K Rupees to them to restart their livelihood. About 800 families have restarted their work after the covid-19 lockdown. She has come up with a good model, and it is slowly scaling up. She has started the livelihood project in Kaveripakkam and many other villages and has supported 400+ families. A woman named ‘Mala’ has supported around 300-400 families in other villages. 90% of the jobs are taken up by the women in villages.
Damu takes care of the housing program. He collects money and ensures that the houses are being constructed. He also works for an app-based learning program. The app is called ‘Myschoollesson’. It is free for the students. Around 25-30K students are using it free. All the videos and content are in Tamil.
Another volunteers started creating a football team of 100 girl students. She held some competitions and arranged for some coaches to train them in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu. But because of Covid-19, she has stopped and will start soon.
Once in 2 months, I do a review. The photos related to the work done are being exchanged in the group daily. Every team has to respect each other’s work. The review meetings are generally based on budget allocation. Around 20 people participate in the review meeting. If a project is large, 3-4 people of that team will come together. They have to answer some tough questions and justify that their program is effective, useful, and sustainable. They have to make sure that the money spent should not be more than the value earned.
I keep asking for the data and evidence to know if their program is effective. I make sure they are measuring the outcomes. Like in the kitchen garden I ask, do the people sell the vegetables or consume it? Is it still working after 6 months? Has there been any change in peoples’ eating habits after having a kitchen garden? It should be a matter of pride for these volunteers that their projects succeed.
What are your future plans?
We will continue with relief activities. There is a lot that can be done for the livelihood of the people working in the informal sector as street vendors. We will help them to grow. App-based education is doing well, so we will set up a separate team to work on it. The kitchen garden program is also growing up, we will try to make it sustainable.
For Housing construction, we will not be doing everything from the scratch. We are thinking of a tie-up with the government to divide the cost. Spending 1.8 lakh rupees for every house is a bit costly for us to be sustainable. The government can contribute 1 lakh, we can give 50k rupees, and if the family also contributes the remaining 30k rupees, the construction work can be done in a better way.
We want self-driven people who exchange ideas and work for their region and take it forward.
‘Aid India’ is a multiple program organization. It is a non-profit in India. We want committed people coming in to make a meaningful change. They should be motivated to work on their own because the payment given by us to them is very little.
How can someone work with you or join you?
There are many ways for people to join us. If someone wants to support the program, they can donate to the cause. They will keep getting the status report. If some people want to document our work, they can do the documentation that will help us to generate funds. In the educational platform, many college students conduct live or online classes for children. Anyone interested in teaching can join us.
Some volunteers join us occasionally for relief activities. Nandini is a volunteer who often joins us for relief activities. She comes and takes over all the relief work, organizes everything in place, stays in the affected area for about three months, and once the initial phase is over, she goes back to do her regular work. She has helped a lot during Chennai and Kerala floods.
One lady from Bangalore often visits the villages, take pics, interview the people, documents the story, and publishes it as an article. We pass it on for raising funds.
We also have support volunteers who help us with whatever skill they have like brochure making, teaching the children, documentation, analysis of income-expense, marketing, and so on.
Some people approach us to start a new program, which requires a full-time commitment. Since we are not sure about their dedication towards the program, we ask them to work on our existing programs and earn their right to start a new program. I support them initially and later they have to take over. We are not region-centric. As long as people are leading a program, we are ready to support it.
Those interested in volunteering with us can get in touch through one of the founders of ‘Your Philanthropy Story’.
Written by: Nimisha Jaiswal
Edited by: Vasudha Veeranna