Interview of Dr. Kakoli Mitra, Washington-based Śramani Institute Founder and CEO

Dr. Kakoli Mitra, a multilingual molecular biophysicist having Ph.D. from Yale University, is one of the leading Indian American philanthropists, social activists, environmentalists and innovators. She is the founder of CEO of Śramani Institute, a non-profit organization, which works to solve five major human-ecological challenges in India and the US. A noted name among the Indians in the Washington DC Metro area, Dr. Mitra has two decades of excellence in highly inter-disciplinary scientific innovation. She is a published author with several articles to her credit in some of the best science journals and a keynote speaker on existential sustainability, innovation and likes at many prestigious universities as well as institutions across the world.

IndianEagle catches up with Dr Kakoli Mitra to share with you her insightful views on threats to human existence and possible solutions, increasing homelessness and food waste in USA, poverty and environmental degradation in India, how her organization works with tribal communities in India, how to prevent identity loss of immigrants and other such crucial facets in the following interview at Travel Beats, a digital publication for Indian Diaspora.

Washington-based Sramani Institute Founder Dr. Kakoli Mitra Interview

Share something about the mission of the Śramani Institute.

All over the world today billions of people face widespread poverty, disease & ill-health, environmental degradation, violence & unrest, and identity loss. At the Śramani Institute we call these the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges. We human beings have created these challenges, because of the way in which we have over-exploited the earth and certain human communities over the past few centuries. These challenges are all inter-linked. So to effectively solve any one of these major challenges in the long-term we must tackle all of them together. It is the mission of the Śramani Institute to generate and implement sustainable and equitable solutions that are effective in the long-term to solve the 5 major human-ecological challenges simultaneously.

Who or what motivated you to found the Śramani Institute?

As a child I attended a number of schools in different countries in Europe, North America, and Asia, having to learn each local language so I could keep up in class. What struck me was that even though the cultures and the Knowledge & Technologies (KT) of each of the communities we lived in were very different, we were taught pretty much the same syllabus in every country. Everywhere I went to school or university, we were taught to value and promote the culture and KT originating in Europe and North America, while disparaging other types of cultures and KT. Even though I come from India, a country that is home to the oldest, most scientifically advanced civilizations in the world, my people and our knowledge were disregarded as primitive, irrelevant, and unscientific in schools and universities in Europe, North America, and sadly, even in India.

Already in my teens I felt passionately that I had to do something concrete to counter this intolerance towards diversity and this unwillingness to believe in the capabilities of all human beings, regardless of their color. Alongside my training and service as a scientist (at Yale University, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NYU, etc.) and later as an Intellectual Property attorney, I conducted independent, scholarly field research to develop a comprehensive framework for what would later become the Śramani Institute. I found that just as we need genetic diversity to survive as living beings, we need diversity in cultures and Knowledge & Technologies (KT) to ensure our survival in the face of economic, environmental, and cultural changes and disasters. And so I founded the Śramani Institute in 2010 with the objective of revitalizing the KT of various communities, especially tribal communities, across the world and empowering innovators from tribal, rural, and urban communities to work together to use a diverse range of KT to solve the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges.

What challenges did you face during or after the inception of the Śramani Institute?

I have faced many challenges when and since I founded the Śramani Institute. The first was that I was a full-time attorney in the US regularly working 10-12 hour a day but that the fieldwork we were doing was in several states of India. Since I personally trained and oversaw my staff in India and initiated fieldwork with new tribal communities myself, I had to stay awake most nights videoconferencing from the US to India, devote all my weekends to working remotely with my staff, and travel to India whenever I could accumulate enough leave. So for several years I had been holding down two full-time jobs with little sleep and no down time. Every second was worth it though, because we were making significant long-term change in the lives of people who had been sidelined and neglected for decades.

The second challenge I faced was money. My objective was to develop our new methods, refine our innovative approach, and prove our ground-breaking concepts before approaching governments, foundations, and philanthropists for funding. So I saved every penny from my own salary and paid the salaries of my staff in India from my own pocket, set up community funds for the tribal communities we worked with, paid for our equipment, fieldwork and travel expenses, research and infrastructure costs, conference and workshop hosting costs, and the administrative fees. Eventually, when in 2014 I decided to devote myself full-time to growing the Śramani Institute in India and the US, all of the institution’s expenses came out of my personal savings.

My third challenge has been to convince those who believe disenfranchised communities can only be helped through the charity of governments, NGOs and individuals that these communities can in fact be empowered to be self-reliant and come up with their own solutions to have a higher Quality of Life. Gradually, as we show how remarkably effective the Śramani Institute’s approach is in the long-term, how significantly they can self-reliantly increase their Quality of Life within a few years and how much more cost-effective our approach is, people are becoming convinced of the possibility and benefits of our self-reliance based approach versus a charity based approach.

What role do you play in the current functioning of the organization? (Your responsibilities)

Since I founded the Śramani Institute in 2010, I have been and continue to be the principal driving force behind developing our novel framework, initiatives, methodology, innovations, and training programs. I have also been overseeing the legal and administrative matters of the institution in India and North America. In 2014, after I transitioned to growing the Śramani Institute full-time, I became its Chief Executive Officer (CEO). So in addition to my previous responsibilities, I am now also in charge of raising funds, increasing our visibility, and forging strategic partnerships globally.

How unique is the model / framework of the Śramani Institute as a nonprofit institution?

The Śramani Institute is unique because of the combination of the following three aspects of who we are and how we operate. First, we are a vertically integrated institution, in that we conduct our own research, perform our own analysis, and implement our own solutions. Generally, apart from governments and international bodies, like the UN and World Bank, most nonprofit organizations either conduct research (like research institutes), perform analysis (like think tanks), or implement projects (like many NGOs). Sometimes an organization might do two of these activities, but rarely all three simultaneously. The Śramani Institute is thus rare in sense that we collect our own data to conduct our own research, we perform our own analysis to interpret our data and generate effective solutions, and we ourselves implement the solutions we generate.

Second, inter-disciplinary, cross-KT innovation is a cornerstone of our institution. We not only promote the diverse innovations of the communities we work with, but we also develop our own innovations in projects and initiatives (like village revitalization), applied programs (like AVISH™), and theoretical models and frameworks to anchor our grassroots work (like the Integrated Sustainable Economic Growth model and the Transformative Economics framework). When we innovate we use cutting-edge concepts and techniques from across disciplines (including science, economics, psychology, environmental studies, law, and anthropology/sociology) and from across various systems of Knowledge & Technologies (KT). We are experts at combining the strengths of different KT systems (tribal, rural, urban from different communities and countries) to generate new Hybrid Knowledge & Technologies (HKT) that can solve the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges. It is the Śramani Institute’s inter-disciplinary and cross-KT approach that enables us to generate effective, long-term solutions to the various problems we address in the field, solutions that are locally relevant and have global impact. It is our inclusive approach that makes our solutions relevant and applicable in any country in the world.

Third, sustainability is a core principle underlying our existence and work. Through AVISH™ we promote sustainable attitudes and behaviors not only in our own staff, but also in our clients (individuals, corporations, organizations) and the communities we work with. For us, being sustainable means treating all human beings equitably and being environmentally sustainable. And so the Śramani Institute strives to pay competitive, living (not minimum) wages to all of our staff, use biodegradable and responsibly sourced materials whenever possible, consume with minimal waste and pollution, and solicit the services of diverse and local craftspeople, farmers, and professionals for our institutional needs. We strive to lead by example.

Can you brief us about on AVISH™?

We originally developed AVISH™ to train the staff of the Śramani Institute. Postgraduates from the best universities across India were applying for positions at our institution, because we offer challenging and meaningful career opportunities that really can’t be found elsewhere in India. These applicants were bright but many lacked the practical skills, stamina, confidence, out-of-the-box thinking, and empathy necessary to work with poor, marginalized communities at the grassroots level and help our institution solve the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges. AVISH™ enabled us to draw out the inherent strengths of our trainee staff so that within just a few short weeks they could become real-world problem-solvers, energetic, innovative and professional, and compassionate towards people as well as environment,.

Building on the success of AVISH™ in unlocking the potential of our trainee staff, we expanded the program so that it was at the very least able to improve mental and physical strength, increase self-confidence and cooperative participation, enhance performance, creativity, and innovation potential, and reduce anxiety, depression, and violent, unsustainable behaviors. We have developed AVISH™ modules for a variety of applications and clients. A few examples are the AVISH™ Community Empowerment module serving marginalized communities, the AVISH™ Performance & Leadership Enhancement module serving individuals, corporations, and organizations, and the AVISH™ Rape & Sexual Assault Prevention module serving educational institutions and communities.

Poverty is one of the ‘major human-ecological challenges’ facing humanity today. What is your approach on behalf of the institution towards mitigating poverty?

Poverty is indeed one of the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges facing a large percentage of humanity today. Unfortunately, many individuals and communities that are poor are also sick, victims of violence, living in degraded environments, and are in the process of losing their identities. Most of these people have been reduced to be living on charity. Perpetuating this dependence on charity has been a common pattern in national and global development efforts. Governments, NGOs, and individuals shell out hundreds of billions of dollars every year financing social welfare systems that provide free education, free food, free shelter, and other free commodities, keeping large numbers of communities indentured to the charity of others.

As I mentioned earlier, in our grassroots work with poor communities they tell us repeatedly that they want to take care of their own needs through their own efforts. They do not want their wellbeing to depend on the charity of others. So what the Śramani Institute does is to work with each of these communities to help them create a Sustainable Village Autonomous economy based on self-Reliant knowledge & TecHnologies (SVARTH, sva (self) + artha (economy)). In tribal villages we have had remarkable success, because when tribal communities have access to natural resources, they are astonishingly self-sufficient and innovative. Each tribal woman and man is skilled in 3 to 7 different professions, ensuring that even in a small village of 100 adults, there are doctors, pharmacists, architects, engineers, textile manufacturers, artists, advocates, resource managers, scientists, therapists, and other professionals. Thus, they are able to take care of their own needs themselves.

To measure the impact of our work we have developed a Quality of Life or Comprehensive Wellbeing Index. When individuals have a high Comprehensive Wellbeing score, they: (1) acquire relevant and practical education, (2) are rooted in their identities, (3) have equitable resources access, (4) engage in livelihoods and sustainable practices, (5) have opportunities and are treated with and treat others with dignity, (6) have access to basic amenities, (7) ensure good nutrition for themselves, (8) engage in effective health and hygiene practices, and (9) are safe and feel empowered in their civic and innovative capacities.

What have been the successes of your approach?

Our self-reliance based approach enables us to increase the Quality of Life or Comprehensive Wellbeing of a community by 300%-500% in a period of just 1-3 years. We have done an economic analysis on the cost-effectiveness of our self-reliance based approach as opposed to a charity-based approach. If a charity based approach were to be taken to ensure an increase in Quality of Life in all 9 aspects to the extent that the Śramani Institute is able to achieve, for a community of 250 families in India the cost of charity would be $3 million for just 3 years. This means that if the Quality of Life of this community were to be maintained for 10 years, the charitable donations would have to increase to $10 million, and so on. In contrast, for $250,000 the Śramani Institute is able to achieve an increase in Quality of Life in all 9 aspects within just 3 years, after which the community self-reliantly maintains and steadily increases their own Quality of Life without any further external costs. This is a savings of $2.8 million for a 3 year period, and a savings of $9.75 million over a 10 year period.

The United States is grappling with increasing homelessness. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Hawaii and New York declared emergencies over the rise of homelessness in November, 2015. Nearly 1 million people are living on the streets, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. What’s your take on it? What are the possible ways the US can overcome or mitigate this problem, according to you?

The Śramani Institute is about to begin working with the poor communities in the US, at the outset in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. These poor communities include individuals and families living on social welfare and homeless people as well. Long-term poverty and homelessness severely decrease an individual’s optimism, willingness, and ability to rely on herself or himself. Often, in addition to all of the other material challenges these individuals face, they also suffer from severe depression. These factors, along with drug infiltration, gun violence, and disenfranchisement, tend to keep many of these individuals perpetually homeless and/or dependent on charity as well as social welfare.

We are entering into partnerships with local organizations in the Greater Washington, D.C. area to create self-reliant urban village economies in poor neighborhoods here in the US. The plan is to create self-employment opportunities in the food and health sectors in these neighborhoods, which not only solves the problem of food deserts (the reality that there are inner city regions in the US where residents have very limited or no access to quality fresh foods), but increases the health and disposable income of the residents in these poor neighborhoods. AVISH™ will play an essential role in instilling self-confidence, increasing healthy and cooperative behaviors, decreasing depression and violence, and enhancing the innovativeness and self-reliance of the poor as well as homeless individuals we work with. As we have learned from our work in India, people who are impoverished and homeless often just need someone to believe in them and provide them with real opportunities so that they can increase their Quality of Life with their own efforts. What I have outlined is a solid path to get out of homelessness and dependence on social welfare.

Environmental degradation is one of the key areas that the Śramani Institute works in. Food waste is one of the critical reasons for environmental degradation. Approximately 40% of food in the US goes to waste every year. Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption is wasted every year. About 40% of food produced in India is wasted, according to the CSR Journal. How food waste affects the environment is known to us. How can India or US or both countries brave these odds to save the environment? (Your view)

Food waste is certainly a reason for environmental degradation. Unfortunately, however, other factors, including industrial and agricultural pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, over-consumption of manufactured goods, the widespread adoption and use of unsustainable Knowledge & Technologies (KT), and marginalization of communities with sustainable KT, contribute more heavily to environmental degradation.

One of the reasons that tribal communities are leaders in sustainability is because they live in the lap of nature. They intimately understand and experience the consequences of unsustainable behaviors like resource depletion, food waste, and over-consumption; so they do not engage in these behaviors. Rural and urban communities have partially destroyed the ecosystems (forests, indigenous plants, animals, water bodies, etc.) that once used to exist where their settlements now stand. Thus, these communities are not intuitively connected to nature and hence don’t experience or see the environmental or social consequences of their unsustainable behaviors.

Food wastage occurs due to a combination of cultural, economic, and logistical aspects of rural and urban behaviors. It is a highly complex challenge that will need large-scale interventions to transform the way in which we think and behave. AVISH™ helps root individuals to themselves, to others, and to nature, thereby unlocking their unique potential to think, act, and innovate in ways that sustainably and cooperatively increase their own wellbeing, the wellbeing of others, and the wellbeing of nature. Thus, AVISH™ could be an instrumental tool in decreasing food wastage and other unsustainable behaviors worldwide.

The Śramani Institute has been working with different tribal communities in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and other states of India for the past 6 years. What is your experience of working with various tribal communities across India? What difficulties did you face (if any)?   

My interactions with tribal communities, no matter what state or country they are in, keep me grounded and humble. I am in awe of and continuously amazed at these remarkable tribal women and men, who despite the staggering challenges they face, are innovative, kind and ingenious. They have a fervent desire and an astounding ability to be entirely self-sufficient. I have undergone 25 years of education and training in some of the world’s most prestigious formal academic establishments and I have deep expertise in three entirely different fields (science, law, and economic development). But when I am in the presence of tribal people, I feel as though all of my accomplishments and accolades pale in comparison to their achievements.

I encountered one tribal man in his early thirties who can generate rain in a cloudless sky, build houses that withstand extreme weather with completely biodegradable materials, and knows how to locate nutritious tubers growing 8 feet below the ground. I met a tribal woman in her twenties who knows how to manufacture a compostable fibre that is stronger than synthetic industrial rope, knows how to make over 200 types of medicines for various ailments, and likes. She is her community’s chief physician. What is amazing is how different each community is. Each community has an entirely different set of sophisticated Knowledge & Technologies (KT) that they have been developing and using for hundreds or thousands of years. Every moment I get to spend with tribal communities I feel privileged to be able to learn so much from them.

Identity loss is one of the threats to humanity in the world. It results in cultural crisis. Does it exist among the young Indian Americans who were born in the US? To be precise, have you ever come across any instance of identity loss or cultural crisis in the current generation of Indian Americans? 

Identity loss definitely results in cultural crisis. But identity loss also results in all of the other Major Human-Ecological Challenges facing humanity today: poverty, disease & ill-health, environmental degradation, and violence & unrest. When we lose our identities, we lose our rootedness in ourselves, in other human beings, and in nature, and hence begin to think and act in ways that are unhealthy as well as unsustainable.

New immigrants all over the world face a stupendous set of challenges. They not only have to become acquainted with and find a way to make a living in a strange and new environment but also have to find a way to integrate themselves into their adopted society while retaining important aspects of their identities. These are very difficult challenges and I really think new immigrants try their best to balance all of these formidable tasks. It is not possible to keep all of your identity when you move to another country, not only because the people around you are different but also because the natural environment around you is different. Unfortunately, losing a part of your identity means you lose touch with the attitudes and behaviors (culture) and Knowledge & Technologies (KT) of your community. What I’ve noticed among Indian Americans is that in general they tend to remain in touch with their performing arts & culture, especially girls and women. But I don’t see Indian Americans being aware of or giving much value to the KT of their communities. Unfortunately, though, even in India I do not observe much awareness of the KT of their communities among young Indians in urban settings.

How does the Śramani Institute raise funds to execute the projects and reach the institution’s goals? 

I have been self-funding the Śramani Institute since I founded it in 2010, because I wanted to develop and test innovative new approaches. Since neither I nor my family is independently wealthy, this has been quite challenging. I essentially saved every penny I earned from my paying jobs to pay for community funds for the tribal communities, the salaries of my staff in India, our fieldwork and travel costs, administrative and legal fees, and all other costs we have incurred over the past few years. Since 2014 I walked away from my paying job to dedicate myself full-time to the Śramani Institute, so funding has become even more challenging. I am now using my personal savings to fund the work of the Śramani Institute in India and the US in this transition period in which we are gearing to scale up our work, in both countries.

We received a National Geographic Legacy Award for our tribal revitalization work in Tamil Nadu and I am very optimistic about receiving various grants that will enable us to scale up our work. Currently I am meeting community leaders and individual philanthropists to create awareness about our work and to hopefully receive sizable donations so that we can continue doing the innovative and essential work we have been doing.

Any landmark achievements in the journey of the Śramani Institute.

Our biggest achievement is the successful creation of a new model for Integrated Sustainable Economic Growth that simultaneously revitalizes Knowledge & Technologies (KT) that can solve the 5 Major Human-Ecological Challenges, lifts impoverished communities out of abject poverty based on their own innovations and self-reliant efforts, and through AVISH™ inspires individuals, communities, and organizations to think, act, and innovate sustainably and equitably. The Śramani Institute’s approach is locally relevant with global impact and can be applied to all countries worldwide.

We achieved several other landmarks during our journey. I’ll just mention three here. We conceptualized and organized a ground-breaking conference on ‘Justice in Intellectual Property (IP): Incorporating Marginalized Voices into Mainstream Discourse’ at IIT-Madras, in Chennai, India. The Chief Justice of the IP Appellate Board of India was the keynote speaker at our conference attended by scientists, policymakers, lawyers, judges, scholars, tribal innovators, students, and professionals from across disciplines. We also conducted several successful outreach workshops and seminars in universities and organizations across India, Canada, and the United States in the past several years. And as I mentioned before, we won the National Geographic Legacy Award for our ground-breaking work in tribal revitalization in South India.

Would you like to give a brief about the future projects that you are eyeing on?  

We are expanding now in three directions. First, we will be working with several communities in Indian states where we have already been working: Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, and Jharkhand. We will also launch our tribal revitalization projects in other states of India like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala. And we are embarking on urban village revitalization projects first in the Greater Washington, D.C. area and then in other parts of the US.

Second, we are approaching social investors to set up new concept Incubation Centers we call Sustainable Incubation Centers, which will serve as hubs to revitalize and commercialize tribal Knowledge & Technologies (KT), generate and commercialize new types of cost-effective and sustainable Hybrid KT for the benefit of communities worldwide, and offer AVISH™ workshops, seminars, and conferences to rural and urban individuals, corporations, and organizations in order to enhance performance, leadership, and sustainable innovativeness.

Third, we are going to launch our AVISH™ Rape & Sexual Assault Prevention programs on campuses to decrease the alarming rates of rape and sexual assaults at colleges and universities. We will be beginning in the Fall semester in universities in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

Is there anything else you would like to share?  

I’d like to encourage people to go to our newly redesigned website www.sramani.org to learn about our institution and the innovative work we do. Our ability to do our ground-breaking work depends on generous donations and contributions. For individuals interested in making a tax-exempt donation in the US or India, I welcome them to reach out to me directly (donate@sramani.org). And finally, I thank you for taking the time to interview me and for giving me the opportunity to share with you our journey and work.

Travel Beats is a digital publication by IndianEagle, a leading travel organization for Indians in USA. IndianEagle connects with Indian Americans and connects them with India through NRI news, editorial features and interviews on Travel Beats. As part of its CSR activity, IndianEagle writes about philanthropists and social activists from the Indian community to promote their contributions towards community development, social progress and Humanity.

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