The TELSA Story
The First Years
Telugu Society of America, popularly known as TELSA was the brainchild of Sri Viswanatha Achyuta Deva Rayalu. Sarma Indraganti, Padma Indraganti and K.V. Baparao were part of the team that gave his ideas the organizational structure it needed. It was incorporated in 1998 and received its non-profit status as a tax-deductible 501 (C)3 organization in 2003.
Sri Rayalu, eldest son of the legendary Telugu poet and writer Sri Viswantha Satyanarayana, was an auto-didact in classical Telugu literature and the Vedas and was a traditionalist. He was nevertheless quite tolerant of the radical departures which took over Telugu letters from the mid 1800’s on wards. His stewardship marked TELSA as a forum for small gatherings, often addressed by literary scholars, poets, dramatists, nearly all traditionalists, and an odd assortment of eminent visitors from other fields. Many of the men of letters were dedicated followers of Sri Satyanarayana and offered deep insights into his work.
When there was no visiting luminary, it often fell to local writers and Sri Rayalu himself to enliven these gatherings with their own offerings. I was one of those. But the difference between our worldview could not be greater. I am an atheist and an iconoclast, irreverent of classical literature so suffused with religion, yet respectful of their poetic beauty wherever I could find it and I am totally preoccupied with cotemporary concerns and the human condition. But in an odd twist, as he was leaving for India in 2006, never to return as it turned out sadly, Sri Rayalu and then his wife Kamala garu both asked me to take over TELSA and do with it what I would, but keep it going. Thus began the second and continuing chapter of TELSA.
Change of Guard
Just as in the first 8 years, we continued to hold literary gatherings where we have lively proceedings which in the most recent times have begun to inspire first-time writers. We have had these sessions as stand-alone events, as part of our camps in the woods or cook-outs in local parks attracting larger gatherings. We have also held many events showcasing local talent in drama, dance and music in the last 13 years. Many of our child participants are today young adults out of college, working or pursuing professional careers.
The new team with me at the head decided that TELSA would henceforth
- Continue activities undertaken in its first 8 years mentioned earlier
- Undertake activities that might have a material impact on the lives of people
A Philosophy of Development
In an effort to translate the second objective above, the team has agreed upon to try out the following activities:
- Make an attempt to plead for an economic developmental philosophy of ‘in-place development’ otherwise known as ‘moving development to people-not people to development’. TELSA completed a project of studying a village in Telangana selected after examining several for ease of access, local participation, size, potential and typicality. The village is Marikal in the then Ranga Reddy District of Telangana and a video outlining a conceptual plan was presented at various forums. A number of walkathons were organized to project it. The plan may be called a ‘Microplanning Approach to Rural Change’– MARCh for short. It was based on the following thinking:
- India has 4 or 5 megacities, 10-15 smaller cities, 4000 small and medium sized towns and 600,000 villages. The cities and towns are home to 45,000 slums, and counting. By a recent count, sadly 9 out of 10 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. And yet, all development is centered in the megacities, to a much smaller extent in the smaller cities and to an insignificant degree in the larger towns. The village remains a place to flee from!
- If it is not already clear, it should be, that western style development of the past 400 years, geometrically accelerating in the last 80 or so, supporting a western pattern of wasteful consumption and standard of living is simply un-achievable across the entire population in the Indian context, not to speak of the entire globe, both in terms of natural resources and environmental sustainability. 10%-15% of global population enjoying that standard in the developed parts of the globe, and by the top echelons in the remainder, has already ensured a pathway to the destruction of the planet, absent a radical transition to renewable energy sources and biodegradable waste generation among other changes.
- Blindly following the western model, countries like India, starting with large populations, as opposed to western nations that grew organically hand in hand with their development, are on a suicidal path. This is evident from the inhospitable conditions that mark most of the world’s cities and towns. Just one natural resource, namely water, is enough to point to the gravity of the situation. Think Chennai for a recent warning! Or any other Indian city for ongoing alarm! A re-incarnated Bhagiratha can’t move water from everywhere else to these overcrowded cities and towns!
The Approach Needed
- Plan for development of towns and villages, big and small, where as many as 85-90% of people live.
- Don’t neglect but revive natural resources that already exist in towns and villages, and more than anything else, their human resources
- Solarize everything, homes to industry, industrialize on an environmentally appropriate scale and technology, re-imagine water-sourcing and utilization, and humanize living conditions.
- Bring higher professional, technical and vocational education and employment to rural areas and smaller towns. Stop measuring progress by GDP numbers, and the number of millionaires and billionaires a country has. Make human development index the central metric.
- Minimize the need for people to move, and maximize conditions to move things.
- Harness modern technology and communications to move production to smaller towns and villages. Let those villages that cannot support adequate and appropriate industrialization become bed-room communities to nearby towns
- For starters, move planning to the microlevel.
Stalemate and Success
While we cannot and will not claim to have had any great success in reaching policy makers or executive functionaries with our message and moving them in our direction we can say we have been part of the vanguard the world over, where opinion is demonstrably seeking new directions.
While our media appearances, walkathons, countrywide tours, district-wide rural visits of the former Andhra Pradesh did not make a break-through in spreading our developmental philosophy, they have had significant success in mobilizing funds, prioritizing the needs of rural high schools by their own lights, and developing ways to address them. But before we present the numbers, let me just say “charity, even philanthropy, no matter how large it might be, is not the solution to the problem of inequitable and misconceived development. Only an equitable, evenly distributed development can truly improve the human condition.” To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider this! The world’s GDP last year was roughly 85 Trillion Dollars. Charity and philanthropy took in about 700 billion dollars or less than one percent. Much of this charity goes to religious organizations, medical research, higher education, arts, museums and so on. The poor, the hungry and the abandoned adult or child in some corner of the globe might get a few
crumbs if she/he gets lucky. But, when that happens lives change, one individual at a time.
Our Projects So Far
Here is what we have done since 2010. These numbers are approximate and subject to revision as they change constantly.
- Funds Raised: $515,000
- Funds Distributed: $441,040
- We gave 4,800 bicycles to poor rural high school students at a cost of $264,000. We reached over 425 village high schools
- We gave 60 tri-cycles to handicapped students at a cost of $4,800
- We set up Scholarship funds & computer labs at some schools with $35,000
- We installed 4 Water Treatment Plants at schools for $32,000 in 2012. A special feature incorporated in this project was the creation of a maintenance fund with equal contributions by the school or its local donors and TELSA. The interest from the fund is intended to be used for the plants’ maintenance. As of August, 20th, 2019, that is just one month ago, we checked and all these plants are functioning and providing drinking water to students, teachers and in some cases to households in the village. In 2018, we installed one more plant with a chiller in Murikipudi as part of our school adoption project.
- We set up a Summer Studies Award Fund at University of California, Berkeley with $50,000. The university will provide an annual grant of $2,500 for living or travel expenses to a student interested in developmental research in India, preferably in the Telugu states.
- We provided solar lamps at girls’ hostels in 7 schools at a cost of $7,500
- We provided assistance to Bless Voluntary Organization, Anantapur, for helping an Old Age Home, an Orphanage and providing school supplies and study-aids at some schools with $11,540
- So far we spent $36,200 on our School Adoption project, in Murikipudi.
Now, a word about how we treat our donations! As a sacred trust, to say the least. Historically, as much as 96%-98% of donations received by us have gone to the beneficiaries. And that is not a record many can beat or equal! We give nearly all of our assistance in rural government schools. Not those run by private managements for profit!
After extending a helping hand to over 425 rural high schools with various kinds of assistance we have decided to add one more approach to the package of initiatives we have been pursuing. We would pick two or three schools with a leadership firmly committed to the welfare and education of their students and adopt such a school for substantive physical and educational infrastructure building. The hope is that such a project, if successful, could be a source of transformation within a rural community and also lead to others adopting a somewhat similar approach.
As our first school, we selected Murikipudi in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh after we were convinced that we found a willing and competent partner in Mr.Karimulla Ghantasala, Head Master, Zilla Parishad High School. Mr. Karimulla impressed us when he completed an 11 page village survey and drew a conceptual developmental plan for the village in collaboration with his colleagues and select students and sent it with an application for bicycles for students of the school as required by us. Many others chose not to send the bicycle application because we made the survey and the plan, a requirement to consider them for bicycles.
Since then, he has reinforced our initial judgement during our multiple personal visits and phone conversations with his cost-saving efforts and diligent execution of the projects we funded. His willingness to go the extra mile has saved money in several projects.
We have carried out the following projects at the school, so far.
- School Library and books
- Painting the school
- Repairs to the school’s building and electrical systems
- Fans in class rooms
- Benches in some classrooms lacking them, chairs and tables for staff
- Two sets of uniforms for 600 students
- Installation of a solar power plant to meet the school’s power requirements
- Installation of a water treatment plant with a chiller to provide clean drinking water
- Provision of snacks to students taking extra-classes to prepare for 10th class examinations after school hours.
Our next project at the school is to repair and update the school’s toilets and latrines with dedicated water supply. And create a maintenance fund for them. With this, the physical infrastructure projects will be completed and we will turn our attention to creating a science lab and a work shop where visiting experts can conduct classes, demonstrations and workshops in exposing students to college-level scientific concepts as well as expertise in building, automotive, solar power, water-harvesting and use and other trades. The expectation is that students from the school will graduate with some exposure to such crafts as furniture making, electrification, plumbing, welding, smelting, home building, solarization and so on. So called ‘skilling’ in current jargon!
We are not Done!
Another idea we are weighing is to conduct interactive spoken English classes over the internet for higher grade students by a group of high school students here. There are other ideas we are considering and will implement as we find resources and willing participants on both sides.
To conclude, TELSA is always thinking of helping the disadvantaged, ready to reimagine old ways of doing things and fashion new programs and methodology.