By Marley Pirochta, Sophomore, Beta Class
A mere three days after wrapping up final exams, with clothes stuffed into my suitcase and my fear of flying stuffed far into the back of my mind, I traveled to India with fourteen other members of Project RISHI (Rural India Social and Health Improvement). Upon taking courses on development and reading about “voluntourism” and the white savior complex, I was eager to get involved with an organization whose philosophy was for members to use their privilege to empower others, not “save” them with quick fixes that can often end up being more problematic than helpful. RISHI is a student-run non profit organization that focuses on sustainable development and local engagement. There are chapters at universities all across the US, each working year after year in the same designated village in order to establish an ongoing relationship. Project RISHI Berkeley operates in a village called Bharog Baneri, in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. We have four main project groups: rainwater harvesting, women’s empowerment, health, and education.
As part of the rainwater team, I helped coordinate the construction of a rainwater harvesting system. With climate change, access to sufficient water (especially for agriculture, from which many families supplement their income) in Bharog is unreliable during the dry season. Our aim was to create a budget-flexible, do-it-yourself rainwater harvesting model to allow villagers to store water from monsoon season for year-round access. However, fiscal and logistical issues shattered this idealistic vision, and we have had to question our definition of “sustainability.” Typically, we have aimed to avoid subsidization because it can foster financial dependency and disrupt local economies; however, without it, the majority of Bharog households simply won’t be able to afford these rainwater harvesting systems. Could sacrificing our usual approach prove to be sustainable in the long term, given that increased access to water provides economic opportunity and improves overall quality of life?
A fellow RISHI member told me that if you come back from a service trip completely fulfilled and satisfied, you probably didn’t go about it right. Development – like any other work that intends to be impactful – is complex, dynamic, and frustrating. There is no instruction booklet and the field is inherently ridden with compromise. As such, our rainwater project, and the trip overall, have left me with more questions than answers. Nonetheless, I am proud that we built a working prototype on a home and, given RISHI’s methodology, I have complete faith that we are taking baby steps in the right direction.