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Feeling the pull of India

Northeastern undergraduate Matt Shutzer ventured halfway around the world to study infrastructure problems and write grant applications in Kalahandi, one of India’s most drought-stricken agricultural districts — and when the six-month co-op was complete and he was back on campus, only one thought ran through his mind: How he could return.

“All I can think about is getting back there,” said the junior history major. “Kalahandi is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, but the people live in almost unimaginable, abject poverty.

“My goal is to return to see how steps taken with the organization I worked with are being implemented to help the people obtain a better standard of living.”

Shutzer worked for Gram Vikas (in Hindi, “Village Development”), a 30-year-old nongovernmental organization striving to improve habitats of tribal developments in India. He began work as a grant writer to help bring development money to the district, particularly for infrastructure projects.

But Shutzer’s interest in the plight of the people he met there quickly moved him to dig deeper, working to assess overall sanitary and living conditions of the Adivasi people.

The frequency of drought in the area, inland from India’s northeastern coastline, adversely affects water supplies, crops, and the overall health of the inhabitants.

Traditional hunter-gatherers in the lowest class of the Indian caste system, the villagers he met in Kalahandi internalized the feeling of being among “the untouchables” in Indian society. “They very much had the feeling that they were at the lowest levels of class,” he said.

Trying to help villagers envision a better life for themselves, Shutzer participated in regular focus groups, helping to introduce new concepts that would lead to better living standards, such as modernizing agricultural methods

“We introduced cash crops—like mangoes, guava, cashews and corn—that they could eat and also sell,” he said.

Shutzer also worked with his organization to devise a plan to build structures for clean, piped drinking water, and to create improved irrigation for crops.

The experience went beyond the work, and became, for Shutzer, personal.

“We lived in these communities. We lived in their homes. We cooked with them and ate with them,” he said. “In another village, we lived in a government school house where the roof leaked on us — we slept in puddles and had to deal with dogs and mosquitoes.”

As a history major, he became fascinated with broader issues affecting the people he monitored, including the value of religion in their lives and politics.

When he graduates in May 2010, Shutzer intends to return to India to continue the work he started this past spring, possibly by founding his own nongovernmental organization.

“I can’t wait to get back,” he said. “I want to help be an advocate for people who are at the lowest rung of society.”

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