She was 19 years old and had a visible and infectiously positive view of life and of the world. As she sat dressed in a pretty yellow sari on her wheelchair, avoiding the scorching Bangalore sun, we sat ourselves down around her and listened to her story.
Like many children born into poverty in the rural villages around the bustling city of Bangalore, she suffered from health problems caused by her mothers malnutrition when pregnant and in her case was paralysed from the waist down from birth. We’re told that the local culture was to believe this to be an act of God and consequently she received little or no help. Like many others, she had not been sent to school by her family and we were stunned to hear that, up until the age of 17, her only way of moving around was to crawl – there being no wheelchairs or even crutches available. Thankfully, she had been located by a local charity and given a place at a residential hostel which specialises in training disabled young adults and finding them real jobs. It was here that she had been given a wheelchair for the first time in her life. She was now in the late stages of her time at the hostel and was shortly to join one of the local garment suppliers to Marks & Spencer as a full time employee. It was a wonderful success story and her entirely positive attitude to life reflected none of the obvious traumas she must have faced. We learnt that Marks & Spencer had required their local supplier to employ a certain level of disabled people at its plant and paid regular visits to monitor how this was being undertaken.
I had been to Bangalore several times already on business trips but this was a first experience of both the human aspects of the city’s and of India’s many social issues -and also importantly how local and international businesses could engage and help. I was leading a “Seeing is Believing” visit of local and UK business leaders to Bangalore organised by Business in the Community International in order to see these challenges and opportunities at first hand.
After meeting other remarkable young people in wheelchairs, with artificial limbs, or who were blind – all being similarly trained up to work in specific jobs, we got back into our now very hot bus and travelled across the city to one of its few green and underdeveloped areas. Here was a very different story. The group of ramshackle huts housed many adults and children suffering from HIV/Aids. Some appeared relatively healthy and moved around, including children attending makeshift classes, others were clearly very sick and dying and lay motionless on makeshift wooden beds. The centre had struggled for funding for years and was on the verge of being forced to close. The faces of the staff were dejected by resigned to this fate. We discussed the sums needed and quite against any plan or expectation one of our group immediately pledged the necessary funds. The stunned audience could clearly hardly comprehend this news and, even as we left, were still in a state of shock that this had happened. I heard later that the funding had indeed been provided and the centre saved by the business leader concerned.
Our final stop was in a busy side street right in the city with the chaotic street life that is India right outside the door. As the leader of the visit, I had been warned on the bus that we had “a bit of a problem”. The visit to a centre to help local people gain IT literacy skills was to be held in an upstairs room (the centre’s only room) which at a stretch could comfortably hold around 40/50 people. As news of our visit spread, each pupil had duly arrived, but were accompanied by in many cases their entire (and very proud) family – parents, brothers, sisters, grand-parents and more – all arrived for the occasion in their best clothes. The room had well over 100 of them and growing. By now the temperature was well into the mid-40’s centigrade and the combination of stifling heat and a hopelessly over crowded room was a real challenge. Once again we heard, however, how this time it was Western technology firms which had provided the kit and the experienced volunteers to provide training to people – young and old – in essential IT skills. Given Bangalore was and is one of the major IT outsourcing cities in the world, once trained these fortunate beneficiaries of the scheme were instantly employable. Another great example of business engagement in helping address social issues.
The day was both deeply humbling as well as a very motivational experience. Businesses both local and international were engaged in directly helping the people of Bangalore – both directly and through their local supply chain. I am sure, like me, the day will have had a marked impact on each of those in our group. It was truly extraordinary, as were the people we met.
Business in the Community has, for many years, been organising Seeing is Believing visits under the Patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales and has, in recent years, been piloting visits outside of the UK through its local Partners, as a part of its commitment to CSR360, the Global Partner Network.
This Seeing is Believing Visit was part of a series of three visits kindly co-supported by TCS and Oracle.