UPDATED:  February 27, 2011 10:42 PM
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Lend-A-Hand India Chapter Launched in Washington

By: Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – A new chapter of the humanitarian organization Lend-A-Hand India (LAHI) was inaugurated in the nation’s capital.  Making a profound difference in the lives of the needy, LAHI enables school children, in remote villages in India, to learn vocational skills so that they may go on to become gainfully employed.  It provides job and life skills training, career counseling and bridge loans to these impressionable young boys and girls and, by promoting entrepreneurship, it tackles the issues of youth unemployment and urban migration in rural sectors.

  The Washington chapter, which was launched at the Eden lounge on Thursday evening, is the third after New York and London.  Shikha Bhatnagar, of the Atlantic Council, eloquently welcomed the gathering here and introduced the co-founders, Raj Gilda and Sunanda Mane.

  LAHI was established in 2004 by a group of five young professionals in New York.  Leaving their full-time jobs - Sunanda at the UN and Raj at Citigroup - the couple have dedicated themselves to this worthy cause!

  Today, their program assists some 8,000 students in Maharashtra, where it is in its sixth year, and another 2,000 youth in Goa and Karnataka, where it was launched in 2010.  LAHI works with the schools in these states to impart job and life skills training as part of the high school curriculum.  It identifies and trains instructors such as electricians, plumbers and carpenters, who in turn share their expertise with the students.  By doing so, it bridges the disconnect between academic education and practical training relevant to rural India.

  The students are in Grades 8 through 10, and in the age group of 14 to 17 years.  We asked Sunanda that if these boys and girls developed such job skills at an early age, why would they be motivated to study further?

  She replied, “everybody in India reveres education.  If you pass the tenth grade, you have accomplished something.  Every parent would want a higher education for their child, maybe college.  But then, the question arises, What type of education should they seek?  Students follow various disciplines in college based on the percentage of their marks.  But, by going to college and pursuing traditional degrees, there is no guarantee that they will find jobs.  When it comes to girls, parents are not inclined to send them out of the villages.  So, girls either end up not going to college or just availing of opportunities in their area”.

  Through the LAHI program, which is now in 61 villages, Sunanda explained, “our effort is to expose (young boys and girls) to several options besides the regular college education which is available.  If I learn carpentry, I need not be a carpenter for life.  But, by learning the intricacies of carpentry, I can be a great architect”.

  The LAHI program has four sections: home and health; basic engineering; energy and environment; agriculture and animal husbandry.  Sunanda told us, “This program is a gender equalizer: boys and girls learn the same skills.  We have women carpenters, fabricators, masons, electricians.  And we have boys who know how to cook a nutritious meal”.

  We queried her about the choice of Washington as the venue for the third chapter of LAHI, to which she replied that policy-makers, several international NGOs (non governmental organizations), together with her friends in the World Bank and various institutions, are all based here.  “They are like our ambassadors to spread the word about what LAHI is doing”, she said.

  In her opening remarks, Shikha pointed out, “for those who are involved with South Asia, this is a very exciting time.  India is growing; there are many opportunities.  But, at the same time, we can’t forget about the challenges that still remain, primarily poverty issues and access to education”.

  She drew attention to the fact that India has a population of 1.2 billion, of which 40 percent is below the age of 15, and this has far-reaching implications.  Many of these kids are facing difficulties when it comes to finding a job, even completing their education.  This, in turn, will have a negative impact on India’s economic growth and stability, and with increased globalization and connectivity, it will have an effect here in the US.  LAHI is a shining example of a positive development in India insofar as it provides access to education and career training to young people, Shikha noted.

  For more information on Lend-A-Hand India, readers can go to www.lend-a-hand-india.org

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