Volunteering in Uttarakhand

Volunteering in Uttarakhand – An interview with Sonali Gupta

Volunteering is a great way to get more involved with the local community, learn more about the culture and give something back but increasingly travelers are becoming involved in expensive ‘volun tourism‘ projects where the actual benefit to the local community can be debatable (see the previous interview with Lianne who volunteered with turtles in Sri Lanka for more on this issue)

This week I spoke to Sonali Gupta, from India, who recently had an enriching experience volunteering to set up a community radio in the state of Uttarakhand in North India.  

Sonali Gupta is a 25 yr old freelance event consultant by profession, a passionate traveller and a hobbyist photographer for whom travelling has become a way of life. She likes to volunteer during her travels to enrich her knowledge and also be able to share her skills and connect with society. Sonali volunteered to work through a non profit organisation called – People’s P.O.W.E.R Collective (PPC) to launch a community radio in village called Sena Ghadsari in Uttarakhand, India. You can see more about Sonali’s journeys on her blog – Free Spirited Wanderer 

So please tell me a bit more about the volunteering you are doing and what inspired you to want to go and do this project?

I was planning a solo trip in Uttarakhand and came across PPC’s work in supporting the set up of FM community radio in the interiors of Uttarakhand. I had neither worked for radio sector nor lived with a community in this region. They spoke to me regarding assisting them with their official on ground launch, and my experience in event management would facilitate and teach the local team for such future events. I immediately signed up for volunteering with them for 3-4 weeks knowing it would be a great opportunity for me to learn and share.

the crowd gather on the launch day

What was your role while volunteering. Can you describe a typical day …

My day would begin around 6 am. We would leave our rooms by 7 am to walk for approx 1 hour towards the radio centre. Our first activity was to start the day with positive spiritual Indian hymns (prayer songs) at the radio station. A small meeting would follow to plan and assign every one’s tasks for the day. At this time, the test transmissions were on so we could focus on main launch event, and shortlist final content for the live transmission. I would concentrate on outlining and planning on all launch related elements, divide responsibilities amongst members regarding the event – from cleaning the venue, invite management, sourcing local artists, housing and food arrangements and production for the event. We would finish by 6 – 7 pm and walk back to our rooms, to dine together and retire.

What did you like the best about the volunteering?

Self satisfaction and happiness of having been useful to the society is something I will always cherish. The best reward was to be able to utilise my expertise with available resources and infrastructure and be able to successfully work hand in hand with the other team members to bring something to life and this community for its future.

at a field recording in a close by village

But nothings perfect right? Are there any downsides?

I would consider these as challenges. Nothing ever is or will be perfect, but one needs to be flexible, adaptive and tolerant of lack of resources. Lack of infrastructure in India is known, which added to making the project more challenging on a daily basis and local’s skepticism towards PPC’s team was a bit disheartening but they took that in their stride and worked towards it.

Do you have one standout highlight or biggest achievement from your time volunteering?

Undoubtedly, the successful launch of MKA (90.8fm) for the team. I think after months and years of planning and putting everything together, when the day finally arrived of the launch and seeing the event take place successfully with everything coming together has to be the most fulfilling accomplishment. The process to teach the locals and develop on their skills and strengths was my biggest achievement.

And what has been the greatest challenge?

For me personally, it was the mental and physical adaption to the environment. It takes a certain amount of will power and mental courage for a city bred girl, sole child, to sustain and co-work with the community. It was difficult to switch from working with professionals in a city to putting together an event in a remote location with limited resources and infrastructure. I think the greatest challenge for the organisation was to be able to teach the local people to sustain themselves, set up this model and make them believe in themselves.

the power room of our station

our little sustainable radio station

shivanand ji from team MKA during a field trip recording

What do you wish you had known before you started volunteering there?

I am one of those, whose happier going without too many expectations. I am glad I did not know too much about the working conditions or of my surroundings as that made it much easier for me to adapt and work.

And how did you arrange this volunteering? Did you go through an organised program and did you have to pay?

The team at PPC arranged for my travel, stay and food. They took care of all my expenses and made sure I had a comfortable stay and time.

me along with the team outside the radio station

What are your thoughts on ‘volun-tourism?’ (Do you believe that you made a difference in the short time you spent there and that any money paid benefited the project appropriately)?

This is exactly why this experience is more special than the previous experiences. I do believe I did contribute as I was able to witness the end result in my case. Also, I credit the organisation as they choose people who can join on their strengths and yet are able to learn, which helps both the parties.

Sounds great! So finally, and perhaps most importantly, what tips would you give for people wanting to follow in your footsteps

I think volunteering is a great way to contribute and learn in our society. It not only expands our knowledge but is also a very rewarding experience.

One must be sure of the organisation they are working with and of the role they will play in the given time. It is best to read up and understand the scope and result of the time you will be devoting to ensure your funds and services are well utilised.

Thanks Sonali, sounds like a really worthwhile project and thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

If you are working or volunteering abroad contact me for a chance to be featured here.

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