7 Things to Ponder Before Volunteering in India

by Joe Baur

Full disclosure: I have never properly volunteered in India. The closest I came was an afternoon spent at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. While there, we donated toys we had collected back home and learned about an orphanage full of young Tibetan refugees from various employees and other volunteers.

It would be more accurate to say that I studied abroad in India. While that is admittedly quite different than volunteering, my unique experience still gave me insight into the Indian culture and what it’s like to work within its cultural framework. The lessons I drew from India throughout my experiences still ring true for others with an interest in Bharat.

Ginger Warehouse, India

Ginger Warehouse

Photo Credit: Rita Callahan

With that in mind, I’d like to offer these seven things individuals should consider before volunteering in India.

1. Understand cultural differences.

India is huge. There are 22 official languages, but the total number of mother tongues spoken adds up to a whopping 1,652. 80 percent of Indians are Hindu, but there are at least six other religions with significant populations. It goes without saying that there are stark cultural differences, not just between your home country and India, but within India itself. An experience in Dharamsala, rural northern India, would be different than someone volunteering in an urban city center and/or southern India.

Before volunteering in India, you must consider the vastness of the country you’ll be spending time in and not assume that all Indians are alike. This holds true for much smaller countries, but even more so a country of India’s size; it’s home to more than 1.2 billion people (and is the second-most populous country in the world).

Do your best to research and understand cultural differences beforehand, talk to your volunteer program leaders on the ground once you land, and do your best to implement lessons in real-time.

Rajasthani Camel Driver, India

Rajasthani Camel Driver

Photo Credit: Jody Shulnak

2. Which program should I choose?

As you begin the decision-making process to volunteer in India, many questions will likely come to mind. Anyone who has done a bit of research online has read critiques of voluntourism and aggressive questioning of who actually actually benefits. These are all important, deep questions that individuals should chew on before ultimately deciding to volunteer.

Ideally, these questions will inspire and empower you to take an even more active role in deciding which organization or company to volunteer abroad with. Organizations like International Volunteer HQ, Love Volunteers, and GoEco, the list goes on. How does one choose a program for volunteering in India?

First, identify the cause that gets you most excited. Do you want to work with children? Help with environmental projects? From there, begin to suss out the different organizational options and what each provides. Can you do a homestay? Do you want your meals provided (calories don’t count while volunteering, FYI). Have you read reviews of the different programs, talked to alumni, and done due diligence?

It’s up to each volunteer to consider thoughtfully the program, cause, and project they will devote their time and energy to before volunteering in India.

3. The poverty is real.

There’s an unfortunate image of India that everyone suffers from relentless poverty. Of course “everyone” is an extreme exaggeration. India is full of innovators and young professionals with many similarities to other populaces across the globe.

That said, poverty is real and readily apparent to anyone volunteering in India. The Indian government put the number of those living in extreme poverty at 21.9 percent in 2012. That’s approximately 276 million who live on about $1.25 per day. It’s inescapable and heartbreaking to see. You need to be mentally prepared for it, especially if you come from a more homogeneous, relatively affluent upbringing.

You’re human, so you will be emotionally impacted no matter what. The important thing to consider before volunteering in India is to learn how to manage those emotions. You’ll be useless to your program if you’re constantly drenched in a puddle of your own tears.

Remember that you’re witnessing of poverty is nothing like experiencing it. Suck it up, and make yourself useful.
Boat Ride in India

Boat Ride

Photo Credit: Debajit Rose

4. You need shots. And they cost money.

As Lil John once said, “Shots, shots, shots-shots-shots, shots!”

Before volunteering in India, you’re going to need some shots. Currently, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all travelers be up to date on their routine vaccinations.That means your measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your annual flu shot.

But wait, there’s more!

The CDC also recommends that most travelers get the vaccinations for both Hepatitis A and Typhoid. Both can be contracted through contaminated food or water. Typhoid is especially recommended for those "visiting smaller cities, rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater." Above all, it's recommended you consult with your doctor before volunteering in India on what other vaccines might be appropriate for you. Travelers from countries other than the United States may have other vaccination requirements, such as Hepatitis B, Malaria, Rabies and Yellow Fever. The latter is not a risk in India, but the government of India requires proof of a yellow fever vaccination if you're traveling from a country at risk of yellow fever.

Keep in mind that vaccinations can cost you a pretty penny; there costs will need to be factored in as you budget for volunteering abroad.

Chamundeshwari Temple, Karnataka

Chamundeshwari Temple, Karnataka

Photo Credit: Prabhanjan Ingale

5. You can’t drink the water.

Speaking of the water, you cannot drink the water. Not only do you need to be aware of what water you’re drinking (only recognized bottled mineral water), but also keep in mind how much water you are drinking. Many villages across the country have poor access to water, as water scarcity is an unfortunately growing issue in south Asia. You might even be volunteering in a village where they fill plastic jugs out of wells. That water is almost certainly contaminated.

This all means a couple things. First, be grateful that being cut off from fresh water is only temporary for you. Most people you’ll be working with have dealt with it their entire lives. Second, as it pertains to your personal health, you must do everything you can to keep the water out of your system. Brush your teeth using bottled water and keep your mouth shut while taking showers.

Considering the punishing heat in many regions of the country, staying hydrated is essential, so be sure to manage your resources wisely when volunteering in India.

6. Toilets will be rare and certainly not Western…

Before traveling to India, many of the women are warned to go in with strong thighs (and not just because Indians appreciate toned ladies). It’s because most of India uses squatting toilets, just as they do across the rest of Asia. Even then, a toilet is not always a guarantee. It is estimated that over 600 million Indians still practice open defecation, and some estimates range as high as 660 million. That’s a huge chunk of the world’s 2.5 billion people who defecate openly. Naturally, these practices lead to numerous health issues, including malnutrition among children.

That's why India is aiming to provide sanitary toilets for up to 60 million homes over the next few years, even though some people are perfectly content defecating openly. The issue is more complex than simply providing toilets. If you spent your whole life dropping trough in public, you might be suspicious, too, of bringing something into your home meant to take human waste. This is not a western country, there are few western toilets, so consider whether or not you’re prepared for the change before volunteering in India.

The colourful flautist in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

The colourful flautist in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Photo Credit: Thommen Jose

7. You need an open mind.

All of this can be condensed to summarily say; be prepared for incredible change before volunteering in India. It’s not just the culture, the poverty, the immunizations or the water issue. India is all of the above and more.

None of this is meant to scare you away from volunteering in India. Annoyingly, some people wonder aloud why anyone would ever bother traveling or volunteering in India after listing out these things to consider. But that's fine, leave them with their familiar flushing devices and air conditioning. You won’t find meaningful experiences locked up at home. The experiences you’ll have in India, both good, bad, and everything in between, will stay with you for life. You’ll return home and to your career a more independent person with special experiences and become a catalyst for change in your field.

All those who stay home? They're missing out on the good stuff that India has to offer, which helps keep it special for those willing to visit it. Volunteering was never meant to be easy, after all. It's meant to be effective and helpful, which sometimes means going beyond your comfort zone for the greater good. Likewise, sometimes this means dining on the best damn homemade curries you'll ever eat in your whole life.

That’s not an attempt to romanticize the plight of millions of Indians for the sake of a personal, feel-good moment. It’s good to push the boundaries of your mind in all directions -- good, bad, or otherwise. Not all travel is meant to fit within the confines of our western definitions of “comfortable,” and there is plenty worth exploring in India outside your comfort zone.

Also, this doesn’t mean all of India fits into some impoverished stereotype. Remember when we talked about the enormity of this country at the beginning? It’s too huge to fit neatly into any generality, or any article with good intentions. Yes, some young people in India live in poverty. But other young people glued to social media. There are young women making a name for themselves in fashion. There are chefs expanding upon what is already some of the most delectable food in the world.

What we’ve discussed above is a better portrait of what you’re likely to encounter while volunteering in India. So, before scheduling your trip, do consider adding some time at the end of your volunteering to see another side of India. Find out where your Indian equivalent might be and go meet with them. Talk to them about their country, get their opinions, and share your experience volunteering in India. Go have an adventure! You’ll get a fuller picture of what India is than by sticking exclusively to where you’re volunteering.

Only by the time you finally head home, after volunteering in India AND enjoying some free time, will you truly understand the enormity and complexity that is India. Above all, you won’t regret it for a moment.