A Discussion with Dr. Kezevino Aram, Director of Shanti Ashram
May 10, 2020
Background: Dr. Vinu Aram is a global leader of interreligious efforts to build peace, drawing on Gandhian values for the rich array of work she does. She is also a leading public health thinker and advocate. Her base is Shanti Ashram, in southern India, and she holds an array of international leadership positions in both health and interfaith institutions. A medical doctor, her special interest is action for vulnerable children. During the Advisory Council meetings for the Arigatou Foundation held in Lausanne, Switzerland, on May 12, 2019, she discussed with Katherine Marshall the origins of Shanti Ashram, her career and life paths, and her approach to her multi-faceted work. The discussion continued at the Global Assembly in Lindau, Germany of Religions for Peace, the global interreligious organization (she is Co-Moderator). The exchange was finalized at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, where KAICIID, Arigatou International, and Shanti Ashram, organizations in which she is deeply involved, are playing leadership roles.
A special thing that I learned by observing my parents and especially my father's own interest in academic work, was a systematic approach to keeping alive the element of hope that was so palpable in their work and thus in my own memory and life.
Can we start with the story of Shanti Ashram? How did it begin?
The story starts thirty-four years ago! A group of Gandhians, led by my parents, decided to meet once a month. These were people inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. They were leading institutions where they were working at the time, and they met together for what they called a “thinker's forum”. It was informal, and they invited one another, taking up issues that confronted India. Many of them were also brilliant thinkers and they would think together, have a meeting, share a thought, and then go back to work. They often weaved this creative churning into their work and shared the results when they met next.
Where was this? In Dehli?
No, in Coimbatore [in Tamil Nadu, India], because my parents had chosen that as their retirement place (semi-retirement would be a more accurate description). However, in 1993, my father [Muthukumaraswamy Aram Valarthanathan, 1927-1997] was nominated by the President of India to the Upper house of Parliament. This was done in recognition of his contribution to the formulation of the new education policy in India.
But the group kept this thinking together and by the fourth and the fifth month, they numbered in the hundreds, meeting for half a day at a time. Some of India’s most brilliant minds would fly down from Delhi and Bombay and Calcutta to be together.
Somewhere around the tenth month, a friend who was also, at that time, the advisor to the Prime Minister [Rajiv Gandhi], a scientist, Dr.Sam Pitroda, was working on the idea of technology missions for India. For the Prime Minister, he was looking at ten areas, including immunization, production of pulses, literacy, etc., areas where they felt India needed to take a quantum leap if we were to develop in meaningful ways and reduce existing social inequities. So he asked if one of the thinker's forums could be on adult literacy. It was fascinating: a group of people who came to it thinking that literacy was anything from A-B-C to something more along the lines of the collective consciousness of a society. Of course Sam Pitroda absorbed it all. Then he had some practical requests. One of them was simply to explore how we could improve the adult literacy rate, that was still hovering around forty percent. And he said, "While we are doing well with children, for adults, we are not doing well." The way the adult literacy programs worked was for a year, in a sequential way, though for most of India, adults don't have time to come to these programs.
Dr.Pitroda turned to my mother, who, like my father, was deeply inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. She was very much the field person. Whether it was in Nagaland, when as part of the Nagaland Peace Mission they were brokering the Shillong Peace Accord, she was building communities with the women and children for a post-accord situation, or in Gandhigram when my father was President of the university, she was looking at early childhood development interventions and women's empowerment in the villages of South India. She was the first to look at doing something in the community. So Dr.Pitroda looked at her, and said, "Would you work and do one of the experiments in reducing adult literacy here in the south?" In the south, you had infrastructure to improve literacy, but still a sizable section of the population, particularly amongst the Dalits and the lower castes, and the women, who could not read.
So that was the beginning. Because this was Government of India asking an individual, they had to think of some sort of a formal mechanism for doing it. At the next meeting, somebody said, "When you come to this thinker's forum, in some ways, we are working for peace, in building the different communities." It was a language and a dream that were not unfamiliar to the people who are inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, because he looked at integrated development, holistic development, as an active way of moving communities to the next frontier.
So that's how Shanti Ashram came about. It came out of these months of labor that were marked by deep concern for societal issues and creative thinking. And thirty-four years ago it was formally registered by a dedicated team who shared a common inspiration, and led by my parents. Once they decided to formally set it up, they defined the core elements. The vision was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi's vision of sarvodaya but there was also a pronounced focus on antyodaya, reaching the last and the least.
So is it now more an institution or a place?
An institution. It's an institution and the attention was, I think, not so much on the physical space. It was more on what came out of the community there.
There are three important things. First was the vision, sarvodaya. They spent an entire month thinking about how they would emphasize it. This was 1986. They said that between 1947 and 1986, thus four decades, the government had done a lot, institutions had done a lot. But now, what would be the new approach to working with the least and the last amongst us? There was from the start an interest in both links to what is currently being done in the Ashram and, because it was a thinker's forum, natural extensions to many other institutions.
Second, this was to be a model of a creative laboratory. Right from the beginning, the way they visualized Shanti Ashram was not like a classic ashram campus model. They wanted the notion of ashram in the way that Gandhiji had done, before India attained freedom and after: which was mindfully dwelling on issues, prayer and community life being an important part, in some ways preparation for that common work. So when they started off, they said that this was a creative laboratory. That's how they defined this Shanti Ashram, thus working towards identifying problems that the community faced, but also creating solutions that the larger community produced. This element of creativity leading to analysis and solutions, both for the Ashram but also for a larger community, has always been there.
So it started off with literacy and women's entrepreneurship. Some brilliant work came out of the Ashram for classic elements of mobilization of women: organizing and political empowerment. But we now also have one of the very creative and wonderful models of how rural women entrepreneurs come together. We have about 84 entrepreneurs, in 24-25 villages, showing how entrepreneurship can be a varied experience, where the women's commitment was starting something which is an enterprise, but also taking her own journey out of poverty, and, at the same time, getting us there.
And third was children. Health and education were the thematic areas from the outset within this mandate, and practical engagement points with the community. Education was a very important part. So from the early days, and this has not changed, there is a focus on women and children. What has been added is also looking at young people, because they are so vital.
Shanti Ashram was built around where your parents lived?
Initially, yes. Because it was to be a laboratory, they said, "How big is our lab?" The lab has changed, somewhat but not drastically. The “lab” has reined in a cluster of about a hundred villages. When we started off 34 years ago, the area was predominately rural, but now with urbanization, we have rural and urban areas within our service expanse. That's the immediate cluster of 100 villages. But right from the beginning, we've also engaged in thinking on issues that affect India as a whole. So it's always been this combination of direct hands-on field work and then looking at issues that affect India overall at the same time.
And how did you come into the work of Shanti Ashram?
Of course, I witnessed my parents shaping the ideas and the institution. My father, with his colleagues, was very involved with defining Shanti Ashram, and I found it very exciting. They were all professionals. They had all done well and had contributed to India's progress in very unique ways. For example, my father set up the very first teacher's training college for the state of Tamil Nadu in 1948, with a very inspired Gandhian. He was twenty-one years old at the time, and as education was an important part of the vision of free India, he realized that we didn't have teachers. He was part of the peace-making process in Nagaland, and then Gandhigram University, where they worked to bring Gandhian thought to higher education. For me, there was always th possibility of seeing it firsthand. In a very simple but very deep way, observing it was a very powerful experience.
Were you a volunteer yourself as a young child?
You had conversations around the living room, you accompanied your parents when they went on visits, and so on.
So where were you born?
I was born there and lived there until I was eleven. My father lived there for sixteen years. My name, Kezevino, is a Naga name. Vino in Angami (a language spoken in Nagaland by the Angami tribe who live around Kohima) means girl, and Keze means “peace be with you”.
As they traveled and moved, my brother and I loved our experience. Of course, coming to Tamil Nadu when he became president of the university, I learnt a new language and discovered another part of India. [Vinu speaks eight Indian languages]. I was reminded that I was a girl, which I wasn't reminded of in the Northeast, so I came to understand also how India was varied in experience, a sort of informal non-formal kind of exposure.
I think what I really took from the experience and from their generation, not just Appa and Ma [her mother and faather], but the entire generation I had the great privilege of knowing so well, was a sense of purpose. There was a real sense of building something for the common good. Hope was a palpable feature of their work. A special thing that I learned by observing my parents and especially my father's own interest in academic work, was a systematic approach to keeping alive the element of hope that was so palpable in their work and thus in my own memory and life.
In the movement, while it had the spirit of being a large family with a sense of purpose, analysis was always a critical part of how they worked. Being informed about what is happening was always there. In some ways, the modern parallels of monitoring as a value, was there from the outset. On the other hand, through my mother, and what I found again with her colleagues, was the great contribution of women of India. This included the ways that they negotiated new spaces for themselves: at home, in the community, in leadership roles. And they began to define how India would work to serve her people. In that way I felt a bond to them. I saw the larger context of the work, and so was always open to the mission. That's the informal side, and it is fundamental. But my parents were always very clear that this is not a family institution, meaning we don't inherit roles. It's a contribution to the movement and to the country and the world.
When did you decide to be a doctor?
The early seeds were perhaps planted when I was in my seventh and eighth grade, when we had just moved from Nagaland, and my father became what we call in India Vice Chancellor (President of a University as they refer to it in the U.S). The Chancellor of the university [Dr. T. S. Soundaram] was a very special woman. She was a doctor and was also the Union Health Minister of India, and set up the Gandhigram Trust and Rural Institute, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. She appreciated that I faced a kind of cultural shift when we moved from the Northeast to Tamil Nadu. I was also ten or eleven when we moved, and I think she wanted to support the family in this new setting. To speak of weather alone, it was some fifteen degrees warmer than in the Nagaland!
She did something that is very typical of their generation. On Sunday mornings she would come with her car and say, "I'm going to the village, do you want to come along? I'm going to a meeting; would you come along?" This sense of the larger family was what I felt, both in my parents and with her. So I'd jump into her car. She wouldn't do anything differently. She wouldn't lecture me, she wouldn't say anything. But she would let me observe her, completely. As I grew older I appreciated who she was: a remarkable person, who set up one of India’s largest institutions, a leader that India respected.
When I was in seventh grade, I first heard from her the term "Health for all." I remember I once asked her (I'd call her Patti, which is grandma in Tamil), "Patti, what is health for all?" She looked at me for a few seconds, I think, as she tried to think how to transfer that grand vision to an eleven-year-old, and then said, "When everybody can be healthy, Vinu. When they can find ways in which they can be healthy, but also find support when they have a disease, and when they can come out of the disease without any sort of pain or residue or damage." She thus brought the whole definition of health to me, and I became interested. There were no doctors in my family, so I'd never observed a doctor closely, but I saw, early on with her, in these Sunday morning excursions, the way she engaged in a much larger clinic. She had people in the hundreds.
Slowly, by the second or the third month when she saw my interest, she engaged me also during the week. They had a large hospital, the Kasturba hospital in Gandhigram (named after Kasturba, Mahatma Gandhi’s life partner), one of the pioneering institutions shaping the way public health practice and community health took form in India. She said, "Do you want to come, one evening, and see?" She never once told me "become a doctor," but the seeds were there.
Another person with whom my parents shared a deep bond was Dr.Susheela Nayyar. My brother Ashok and I accompanied our parents on their many visits to Sevagram, to her institution, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, and to her home. We heard her speak with such passion about India and all the work that had to be done to improve health. She always listened attentively, asking my parents many questions about Nagaland. We enjoyed the conversation and equally the delicious spread she personally organized for us, the ‘children’. She too served India as a Union Minister of Health and pioneered the public health approach. As a young doctor she worked very closely with Mahatma Gandhi and carried out at his request a large public health experiment.
Dr.Susheela Nayyar and Dr.T.S.Soundram went to the same medical school and together they created two significant models of health promotion that were adapted to India’s needs and its own rich indigenous health systems. So it's very much this sort of hand-holding but also very gentle exposure that I took away.
I was in the generation in India that had to choose, at age sixteen, whether we did computer science or medicine. I chose medicine. I came home and asked, "Shall I join medicine?" My parents affirmed that it was my choice; they left it to me, my reflection and my decision.
So through very gentle ushering I became interested in health. But once I got into medicine I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Where did you do your studies?
I got my medical degree in Coimbatore at the P.S.G Institute of Medical Sciences (PSGIMS&R), a leading medical school in India. This institution was born out of a vision of serving society through education. My father was quick to remind me of that vision as we entered the campus on my first day at medical school. I was twenty and won a scholarship that involved a week at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, an experience I added to the Gandhigram model in my background.
The Christian Medical College in Vellore is one of India’s highly ranked institutions. It has found a wonderful interface between high-quality medical care and high commitment to the communities. I saw their wonderful practices: young medical students could write off the bills for patients, and were trained to speak to large groups of children. I learned that the college was set up by a lady called Ida Scudder. Her parents were missionaries, and she saw young mothers die in labor. She collected money in remarkable ways. Apparently, over her life (some eighty or ninety years, even a hundred) she met ten thousand women and collected ten dollars or twenty dollars from each of them to set up the institution (she was from America). When asked why? She said, "Because, ten thousand times I have to clarify why we are starting this work, and ten thousand times I've re-affirmed that what we're doing is right." So this was a moment for me to connect another dot.
At the time the trend for my generation was specialization. Public health was not “cool” at the time; you only did it if your marks were bad and you had little idea where you were going, and wanted to be laid back. The “better” specializations were pediatrics and medicine. So I followed the crowd and did my special training in child health. But I always had seeds of interest in the work of the Ashram (I was living at home with my parents). I asked my mother often if I could volunteer and she gave me unique opportunities to practice medicine. I don't know if she did it intentionally, but she always had an element of thinking that I would recreate their ideals in my work.
How did you become so involved in issues for children?
A lot of the Ashram’s work from the start involved children, because my mother (Minoti Aram) had started a program called the Bala Shanti program. Both my parents, as a couple, with Religions for Peace, had worked with Jim Grant, the visionary behind developing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I was old enough to be a real part of the conversations and I read what they read. The Bala Shanti program started just around that time, so there was diffusion between what she was doing locally at the Ashram and what both my parents were doing globally, with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, working directly with Jim Grant and all the people around him.
I was also practicing at the time. I was training at what was called the Masonic Medical Center for Children, one of the first and busiest hospitals in my city. So in some ways I was living out a part of my interest there, doing clinical work. My mother would pick me up, so I did some practice in the pediatric institution and volunteered in the evenings and the weekends at the Ashram.
In 1995, after I finished my clinical training, I asked if I could work with them for a year, because I felt I had done what I needed to feel affirmed as a doctor with my specialization. I worked and volunteered at the Ashram. Like everyone else I joined as a community worker. They assigned me villages and I was in charge there.
A special program in India started at the time, the M.P Local Area Development Scheme. Members of Parliament had felt for a long time that while they represented their constituents, they did not have resources and automatic access to do some development work in their constituencies. That first year, members received ten million rupees: a crore. So suddenly the Member of Parliament (M.P) had something that he or she could do in their constituency. Appa, my father, was already in the Parliament at that time. I worked with a group of young people working with my father for the MP Local Area Development Scheme as well. Again, this gave me a chance to witness a policy interface that was both local and national.
What took you into public health?
In 1997, my father passed away. It was very sudden, very unexpected. I felt then that I wanted to help Ma, simply as a daughter; it was always very clear that this is not a familial institution to inherit. The Ashram had reached a certain scale then, and once I started working there formally, I saw the scale of the operations and work. I knew that, although I had the skills and the exposure, I didn't have quite the capacity needed to do work at that scale. That’s when I considered further study. In India that would have meant another degree in community medicine, as there was no public health course at that time. I heard about the MPH at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. In those days you got paper applications. My younger brother Ashok Aram, during his work trip to New York, went down and personally picked up the forms for me. He was also my thinking partner as we filled in my application forms by hand. In 1999 I applied, and got into Johns Hopkins and then Harvard.
How many years did you study in the United States? You went there by yourself?
Two years. I did the MPH program, and then a fellowship in pediatric practice, both. It brought another world alive to me and met my needs, expanding on the high-quality medical training I had received. While I was doing formal courses, I also learned informally about public health, as well as structured ways to pursue knowledge. I found this assortment of diverse models of how to operate extremely valuable. Of course, I was hungry to learn, and I enjoyed the American model, with its focus on self-initiated learning. I struggled, because for my Master's degree in India, we were still writing hand-written papers. Typing was something I had to learn! Apart from typing, I had to be the "I" more, while for 22-23 years I was always part of a collective "we”. It was an inner journey.
The first few months were a grounding, just as it had been to return as a doctor to Shanti Ashram, with little personal support. I was at the stage in my life (my late twenties) where I could recognize differences and opportunities. I had a great year and a great advisor who challenged me on my specialization and sub-specialization. He called me to his office and asked, "Why do you simply want to do more of the same?" He asked me what I wanted to do when I went back to India, and urged me to consider international health. That had never occurred to me but I moved in that direction. I did want to be part of the world. And being in my mid-twenties, I wanted to know what my worth was. So I went through job fairs and got a job.
I took a week off by myself to understand what I wanted to do. My parents had taught me that kind of self-reflection. We were never physically reprimanded. Non-violent techniques were always in play at home, and my parents were very intentional in the way they raised their family. My mother had this crazy saying, "Go talk to your inner friend." This was her way of saying time-out. Talking to my inner friend intentionally was an instinct, even if it was uncomfortable. In Cambridge, I would go off in the morning and just sit by the river near the business school and walk up and down. I did not expect to come to clear answers, but just to be more intentional. I had lost my father only two and a half years earlier and I wanted to recognize him but also to learn from my mother. By then I had recognized the kind of leadership model she and her generation of women were bringing. I wanted to learn it from close quarters. I also wanted to take stock after ten years as a doctor. By the end of the week I had articulated to myself that I wanted to get my hands dirty. I saw Shanti Ashram as a kind of lab that had formed me, even though it was not a family institution.
Then you returned to the Ashram?
After Harvard, I knew the basic infrastructure I would need to go back toward the Ashram. I was at a high point after working with some great minds and great people. But I had to work out my own units of measurement of success. I became the leader of Shanti Ashram in 2014.
Was the Ashram well connected at that time? How did you achieve your goal of being “of the world”?
There were essentially three connections. One was my parents and their ecosystem. The second was newspapers, that to me was like an entry point to the third, asking people. If I read something I could ask someone about the topic. It was very much physical contact. You had to ask someone, knock on the door. The newspaper and the conversations were my stimulus. There was a big shift between my medical degree and the public health approach in medical school. At medical school, the route was to go to a textbook, so you learned the theoretical basis or the causal analysis, but with little access to real-time analysis. We always went back to the book, or you looked at a very local level, meaning your patient, your professor, your people. I knew I had to make an extra effort, so every time we went to Calcutta or Delhi or Bombay, my father would bring back materials. Or he would ask me to go. Once we went to the Parliament library as we had passes, and I went crazy in the library, because for the first time, I had access to papers about how health policy worked, how they thought about immunization. But you very much had to ask and to look.
When I did my MPH degree, I realized that there are systematic ways of getting the analysis, that your analysis doesn't have to be limited to what you know or what you can get. The earlier approach of asking people, knocking on doors, meant that access became my privilege. You had layers of India, before the internet, because the circles to open doors depended on who you were and knew. But this changed in the new context I found myself in post Harvard. The digital world was opening up and I had a broader skill set and rationale to pursue knowledge and people.
When did you get involved in the interfaith world?
When I was seventeen, I was part of the local interfaith group. There were serial bomb blasts in my city during the general elections, and 135 people died. L.K Advani from the BJP party was there. We already had a little interfaith youth group, 18-19 of us. One among us had gone to a Religions for Peace youth camp. He came back and brought us together. That is how we spent our Sundays.
I got involved in more systematic work at the community level then, my first action inter-faith collaboration, because of the Hindu-Muslim clash. The government had to set up health clinics and my medical school looked for volunteers. Besides working as volunteers in clinics, the religious leaders of Coimbatore had asked if we could have a prayer meeting every week in a part of the city. That made me far more literate about my city. At that time the population was about 1.7 million people, with neighborhood after neighborhood. We went to different areas and in each neighborhood we had to find people from different communities. It was not the big guys who came and did the prayers; they always rotated amongst themselves, and we found the local priest and the local imam and so forth.
So I learned how familiar people were with these local leaders and how effective they were. Of course, in good Indian style, when you work, you build friendships. So that was my early experiential learning and I went from there. I was very active in the youth group, and I went to Religions for Peace events. In 1991, I took over as the youth coordinator for Religions for Peace International.
Today, I serve as one of the four co-moderators at Religions for Peace International. In this three decade journey I have grown and with some very committed people from around the world put our ‘faith’, the values from our faith traditions, into common action.
Yes, globally. In India we had one of the most active Religions for Peace groups, and I was involved in it. It was quite a democratic process. At that time I was at the youth camp, it had representatives from different countries that people nominated. That experience went in parallel to my medical education.
My interfaith work was also an extension of Shanti Ashram's commitment. All Gandhian institutions believed deeply in interfaith cooperation. They also articulated for India that there was space for prayer, always, in a deeper way than just having it in the beginning of a session. That's probably why I feel so comfortable in the interfaith setting: there was already an articulated sort of vision as to how to bring it to work in the field or to thinking at policy levels.
How did your interfaith and your public health work come together?
There was a moment when it really blossomed for me at the policy level. The first was when the HIV/AIDS epidemic started. UNICEF had put together a working group with the government of India on vulnerable children, at that time termed Orphans and Vulnerable Children, or OVC. I was on that experts committee (just after I returned to India after my MPH). I saw firsthand how much negative sentiment there was among bureaucrats and physicians towards all religious communities. There were large gaps between what they speak about and what's on the ground. I spoke to Archbishop Angelo Fernandez, who was a pioneer shaping Religions for Peace International, one of the founding figures, and lamented the anger and hate I heard in speaking about different religious groups but also the poor data about what the Catholic Church and others were actually doing.
I was quiet at the initial meeting but started contacting people informally to provide numbers. The Gandhian movement naturally did not have full information, so I had to build a loose collection of numbers and data. The Catholic Church had the information extremely well-organized, and the Anglican Church as well. The Muslim community was just like us: they knew examples, but had not put it together. At the next meeting, in a very loose way, I set out the numbers, primed for such efforts by exposure through Religions for Peace. UNICEF ROSA made it possible for a delegation to travel from South Asia. I co-led the delegation with Prof.Aktharul Wassey the head of the department of religion at Jamia University in Delhi (it was started by our former president, Zakir Hussein, and the first education minister of India; they have redefined themselves as a Muslim university but at that time, it was secular). That was the first time I had a role looking at the work of Indian medicine and public health and bringing the religious dimension to it.
I saw also then that I had the background to bring the elements together, including the different languages and fragmented information. We needed to move beyond a language that was so inward-speaking, including such phrases as "Can we serve the poor?" It was the first time I was able to do this and encourage the government of India to start working with religious communities.
The second opportunity came when the Naxalite problem in India had swelled up. It was most acute in Jharkhand and Odisha, all the mineral-rich states. The then Home Minister, Mr. Chidambaram who was also a Finance Minister, wanted to look at soft ways of working, other ways in which he could engage with them. He lifted up something that was always there in their cupboard but was kind of forgotten; an entity that the Home Ministry had floated called the National Foundation for Communal Harmony. It is, surprisingly, supported and invited by the government. The minister was committed to collaboration, but wanted a well thought through plan. So he then looked to me. At the second meeting he said, "We want to revive this program that we have called Project Assist, which was supported by the government of India for children affected by violence, like community or communal violence across the country." He wanted me to do, as a single person, an expert review. We set up a group of four and did a review. This was twelve years ago.
I had just started systematically looking at what and how governments can act to support children affected by violence. They had names and trails to every child, which means there was something in the process that worked very well, but of course, the problem was simply reduced to money. Because I had the trust and the confidence of the Home Minister himself, I was able to bring elements that I recognized from interfaith work and peace-building work to the recommendations. It gave a chance to the children and their families to study in a peaceful state, in a state which has experience of peace. They had a chance, not only to receive support for themselves, but families in need got support. I brought in informal elements of interfaith cooperation, youth exchanges, and work. It gave me my first practical understanding of what and how you can give to the country, in some fashion in an invisible way. The program has rolled out and it is functioning well now. I had a chance recently to go and see the impact on ground and I must say it was truly heartwarming. In some ways I feel that I am continuing the peace building efforts of my previous generation and of Appa and Ma.
So that was my way to enter into local policy work and to link it to my interfaith work. I now work actively with policy in other areas. In some ways it's the work at the Ashram that has expanded my portfolio. Health is still my core approach, but from there, child poverty and child development, because of how we work. The Ashram itself has become a convening space centered on how to further interfaith collaboration, both thematically but also in the way that we integrate it to our development work. It's taken fifteen, eighteen years, but now I feel that the Ashram is well set up to do it.
Children have been my conscience keepers; they also provide the purpose for my vocation and increasingly my life. I want to spend the next ten years looking at these intersections between child health, poverty and peace that God has been kind to provide.
To end, in a nutshell, how would you describe Shanti Ashram’s work and approach?
It is a development organization, founded on Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Sarvodaya (progress for all), an international center for learning, development and collaboration that aims to address social issues of relevance and promote community development. Areas of sustained work have been education, poverty alleviation, healthcare, environment, leadership training for women and youth, inter-faith collaboration, and women´s entrepreneurship. We have developed a template for community development pivoted upon active participation by women and children - which assists communities move out of poverty, address inequities, build leaders, and ensure sustainable development. The community work affects more than 250,000 people in Coimbatore, India, including nearly 70,000 vulnerable children, across over 100 villages. The work with children has focused particularly around 1) childhood immunization, 2) preventive pediatric interventions for vulnerable children including balanced nutrition, 3) piloting initiatives for care and support of children living with HIV, 4) addressing toxic stress in children living in poverty, 5) childhood violence and its health consequences in adolescents, 6) integrating health into community-centered early childhood programs, and 7) youth participation in integrated child development initiatives. The International Center for Child and Public Health (ICPH), established in 2017 in Coimbatore, has built many of its programs around analysis of the impact of health systems and social determinants of child health in India. It works to find synergies in pediatric care between hospital centered and community centered efforts. Collaboration with Ecole La Source, Switzerland, one of the oldest nursing schools of Europe, has enabled bilateral exchange of nursing and medical students with focus on community outreach of public health services.
The following are some of Dr. Aram’s notable national contributions:
• Working committee for NGO’s at the Planning Commission (Niti Aayog) of the Government of India.
• Developed the ‘Child Friendly Indicator’ for local Panchayats (government) with the Planning Commission of the Government of Tamil Nadu. She was part of the experts group that formulated the framework for health insurance for families living in poverty and the review of the state’s routine immunization policy.
• Lead consultant in 2004 for the very first Human Development Report for the State of Nagaland, India commissioned by UNDP and the Government of India.
• Led the experts’ team at National Foundation of Communal Harmony in 2015 to review and strengthen the Government of India’s ‘Project Assist’ program that helps children affected by communal violence.
• Collaborated extensively with UNICEF India on multiple programs including developing care frameworks for children living with HIV, building child friendly local Panchayats (governments) and the active engagement of faith based organizations in health care.