“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

—Margaret Mead

IDS started its journey with a few committed individuals who wanted to make a difference in the lives of the marginalized people in India. IDS believes that supporting individuals who are passionate and committed to a cause can make a significant impact at the grassroots level. Many of these activists have been NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who left lucrative careers and returned to India because of their inner call to make a change.

Mr. S.R. Hiremath

A founding member of IDS and one of the first NRI board members who took the plunge to move back to India. Mr. Hiremath started his work in the Medleri District of Karnataka and was initially involved with alternative technology for the masses. His work soon grew into integrated rural development and has flowered in the environmental movement. He is best known for his relentless fight against the illegal mining mafia that took place in Karnataka, and successfully challenging many political heavyweights and government executives associated with illegal mining. His organization is a recipient of the highest environmental honor, Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar, an award that encourages the public participation in environment, instituted by Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

Late Dr. Rakesh Kumar Popli

An Indian nuclear physicist known for establishing the first Ekal Vidyalayas,” one-teacher schools, in remote regions of India. IDS supported Dr. Popli in1986 to follow the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda’s followers to work with tribal people in Jharkhand district on the concept of One-Teacher Schools. Dr. Popli and his wife refined the concept and wrote the syllabus for the pioneering schools that were established among the tribal people in Jharkhand district.

Dr. Madhukar Deshpande

A professor of Mathematics at Marquette University, Wisconsin who decided to move to India in 1994 after being inspired by a TV program on NBC called Science on Wheels. IDS supported Dr. Deshphande to start an organization, Vidinayanvhini, that has state-of-the-art vans furnished with a lab, audio-visual equipment, countertops, cupboards, a water tank and a generator that visits about 200 schools per year in 24 districts in Maharashtra. Over 100,000 students have benefited from these mobile science vans. Inspired by the Dr. Deshpande, several activists have set up their own Mobile Educational Units in Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Dr. Deshphande and his wife have been honored with various awards, including Rajiv Gandhi Award and a Sewasadan Award, in recognition of their service to the cause of education in rural Maharashtra. He is also a recipient of the 2005 World Technology Award (WTN).

Late Dr. Roda Patel

A pediatrician from the Chicago area who used to attend the IDS meetings, Dr. Patel was inspired to work toward improving the nutrition of rural and tribal children in India. Being a pediatrician, she was very troubled by the poor nutritional status of children in India, especially for children between the age of 2 and 6, which studies have shown has dramatic impact on their long-term development. IDS adopted her project, Gram Seva Trust in Navasari, Gujarat as one of its first multi-year projects to start Bal-anganwadis to provide locally made nutritious meals to children. To date, the organization has reached over 32,000 children and has shown significant impact on their growth and performance. Since its inception, the organization’s holistic approach toward rural development has flourished in many areas including boarding schools, hospitals, micro-loans and income generation.

Dr. Vikram Akula

A doctorate student at University of Chicago who joined IDS in the mid-1990s, Dr. Akula was inspired by micro-credit work that IDS was supporting. IDS provided seed funding to start SKS Microfinance, an organization that offers micro-loans and insurance to poor women in impoverished areas of India. He converted SKS Microfinance to a for-profit organization in 2005 and led the company to a successful IPO in 2010. Reaching a market capitalization of $2.2 billion and an outreach of 7.3 million low-income borrowers in 2011, SKS had disbursed more than $5 billion in micro-loans as well as micro-insurance products. Dr. Akula strongly believes that only a market-based approach would be able to tap capital markets and scale micro-finance, unlike non-profit or government initiatives which depend on limited donations or grants. For his work in financial inclusion, he was named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006.

Dr. Ramesh Bellamkonda

A gastroenterologist who left his practice in Ohio to work in India in 1997. During the 21+ years that he had spent in the U.S., Dr. Bellamkonda was deeply troubled by the fact that India was one of the poorest countries in the world. He was very inspired by the work of Professor Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, and found a practical way to address poverty alleviation. IDS provided seed money to Dr. Bellamkonda to start an NGO in Karnataka, Bharatha Swamukti Samsthe, which focuses on large-scale poverty alleviation work in India. Since its inception, his organization has reached more than 300,000 women by providing micro-financing loans.

Dr. Shiban Ganju

Another past IDS president and a practicing gastroenterologist from the Chicago area, Dr. Ganju has been passionate about the socio-economic issues of India and how to create successful replicable models in development. On his periodic visits to India, he was deeply troubled by high maternal and infant mortality in India. IDS provided seed funding to Dr. Ganju to start an organization in Uttar Pradesh called Save A Mother. By 2013, the program had reached over 950 villages serving a population of approximately 3 million people, and 300,000 households. The reduction in maternal mortality by 93% and infant mortality by 66% is truly a remarkable achievement that has not gone unnoticed; UNICEF and the Malinda and Bill Gates Foundation have taken up the program and expanded it to 15 districts.

Dr. Anita Deshmukh

A past IDS president, a neonatologist, and a passionate believer in human dignity and the right to health, Dr. Deshmukh quit her lucrative career and returned to India after 24 years living in the U.S., receiving a Master in Public Health degree from Harvard University, and at an age when some of us are thinking about retiring. Since joining IDS in late 80s, she religiously visited various IDS projects during her visits to India, which reaffirmed her belief in equal rights for all. In 2009, she joined an action-based research organization, PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge), that conducts multi-sectorial, cross disciplinary research on issues related to urban poor who are often neglected in the hubbub of a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. Dr. Deshmukh mobilized youth in the slums of Mumbai as “barefoot” researchers to do their own introspection about their rights in a democratic society. The advocacy resulted in the establishment of regular health camps and placement of new municipal water supply in a slum community near Shivari—which was unprecedented in the community’s 50-year existence. While many IDS projects historically have been in the rural parts of India, supporting Dr. Deshmukh through PUKAR for last few years in an urban setting was important for IDS to acknowledge a need of an egalitarian society in the ethos of urbanization.

Manish Jain

He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago but his dream was to change the education system in India. After acquiring a master’s degree from Harvard and a B.A. in Economics, he got involved in a UNESCO program, “Learning without Frontiers,” which inspired him to start his organization Shikshantar. To carry his ideas further on a large scale, IDS provided seed funding to Mr. Jain to start Swaraj University that trained “khojis” (explorers). There is no degree or certificate required to join the Swaraj University nor does the University award any degree or certificates after the course work. The university promotes “Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease,” a national campaign to say “NO” to degrees and certificates and promote a better evaluation framework that is based on experience and portfolios. The self-directed leaning process invites the “khojis” to identify their heart’s vision and engages them in developing the skills, relationships, and practices they need to manifest those visions. Since 2010, more than 60 “khojis” have been trained.