The Sustainable MBA

Urmi Basu helps at-risk youth build skills in Kolkata

Urmi Basu portrait
Urmi Basu
Urmi Basu is the founder of New Light, a nonprofit organization in Kolkata, India, that works to save children from sexual exploitation.

In her work with New Light, a nonprofit organization in Kolkata, India, Urmi Basu works to save girls from becoming victims of sexual exploitation and to improve lives of the children of sex workers.

"On a global scale, the problem of prostitution is so complex and huge that I would be completely overwhelmed if I think about it." Urmi said. "I choose to reduce the aperture of my vision and concentrate my energy only on things that I can do."

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Sustainable Business Fridays conversation Feb. 27 by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe.

Bard MBA: Urmi Basu started New Light India in 2000 with in-kind funding from individuals at companies whom she had relationships with. From that point, New Light has grown exponentially and has been featured in the film "Half the Sky" and on PBS, as part of the movement against sex trafficking in India and internationally. Urmi Basu, could you tell us some more about New Light?

Basu: New Light is a project located in the red light district of Kolkata. It’s a comprehensive community development project that offers education, health care, nutritional support and HIV care, as well as microcredit and income generation opportunities for women. We have six centers and a shelter that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. We have 87 children at that shelter, from 1.5 to 16 years old.

We also offer educational support to our older kids who have graduated from the New Light program — many of them are in the universities or doing professional training. In addition, two years ago we began to work with the Dalit — or untouchable — community.

Bard MBA: What is the relationship of your staff to the community in Kolkata?

Basu: Years ago when we started, we had very little money, so many of the community people were invited to be a part of it and they joined the program as volunteers. As we started to get more funding, it was possible to hire people with better qualifications. But at the same time, many of the original members of the team continued to be a part of [New Light]. Because of the location [of the project] inside the red light district, the community has an incredible sense of ownership of the program.

Bard MBA: Last year you opened the Khela Ghar center for boys. What was your motivation for opening this facility?

Basu:  Actually right from the beginning, we did include young boys into the program. But the need for a residential facility came to our mind when we realized that if we did not address the issue of gender, then we would not be achieving our full potential as a project targeted at protecting and empowering women and girls. So it was necessary to create a residential home for the boys, where they would get the opportunity to have a full education, and life-skills training to create different opportunities in their lives.

Most of the boys who grow up in a place like Kolkata or other red light districts have very [few] career options. And most of the time they either grow up to be pimps or traffickers, or partners of women engaged in prostitution. We realized that if we were selecting a girl child from a family where the mother was in prostitution, that we could not achieve the results that we wanted without addressing the boy.

I think that we are still at a very experimental stage with the boys’ home. A lot remains to be experienced because the boys have grown up without having positive role models.

Bard MBA: What is the expectation that children from New Light’s program will become advocates for these issues outside of Kolkata?

Basu: I think that wherever they go, whatever work they do, they will always carry their experience of growing up in a place where women are in positions that command respect and dignity. The traditional role of men in our society is a position of control and respect; and women, no matter what level of society they come from or their education, are constantly dependent on the male members of their families. These things are so deeply culturally ingrained [that] it’s going to take us a quarter of a century to maybe, hopefully, impact the community that we are addressing.

Bard MBA: The caste system in India is very strong and women who are prostitutes exist at the bottom of the system, regardless of the caste that they are born into. Does gender transcend other forms of bias, such as race, religion or economic status?

Basu: We have seen that women in prostitution are actually not considered to be in any class at all. She might be from the upper class, but when she is in prostitution, that doesn’t [apply] anymore. She is just considered to be somebody who is at the bottom of the ladder. Therefore in this context, I am convinced that gender is what transcends the caste system.

Bard MBA: But it does not have a generational effect for their children, who are able to access other opportunities and education, correct?

Basu: Absolutely. There is no reason for the daughter of a woman in prostitution to assume that it is the only opportunity open to her. Most of these women have been survivors of trafficking; most of them have been cheated or lured into situations where they found themselves as slaves.

The way that we create the possibility of freedom is through education. Education, life-skill training and the elimination of poverty through access to economic systems in India are the three most important tools to have for comprehensive change.

Bard MBA: New Light has the support of Indian companies and universities internationally. Can you speak about that support, or need for support if there is any?

Basu: Oh, definitely, we need support all the time — in financial terms, but also in non-financial terms. A group of young people who are educated can be offered opportunities in different companies and would be integrated [into society]. At that point it really would not matter where they come from, or the fact that their mothers were in prostitution at some point in time. They would be judged solely on their merit and capabilities, and [by] the potential they have as human beings, as individuals, which I firmly believe is infinite.

Currently we are working with many corporations, including HPCL, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. They offer jobs to our young graduates as gas station workers. [It] is not a job that girls from a standard background would take up because they are fairly high-risk, laborious and also not that glamorous. But when our girls take on those positions they will gain courage and confidence — become empowered. This is what I would like our girls to access.

Bard MBA: You have mentioned the variety of careers that your students are either interested or engaged in. Would you mind explaining those briefly?

Basu: Our students can go ahead and choose any career that they want, and we have a responsibility to make those opportunities available. A student from our first group is hoping to go to the Tata Research Centre in Mumbai to study astronomy. We have graduates who have gone to universities to study social work and education, and some are nurses. Some students have gone on to study computer graphics and animation, and others are working in luxury hotels as hospitality management.

We are hopeful that one of our graduates will go to the Tamalpa Institute [in California] to become a dance movement therapist. Hopefully, she would come back and start her own school where she would create future leaders in that field of care.

Bard MBA: Do you think that at this point the government of India is supporting the development of girls in those industries?

Basu: If you look at the top 10 companies, we have always had the presence of women — whether they are engineer or technocrats, whether they are people in management — India has extraordinary women leaders. But if we take the total number of women who are educated and [who] rise to these positions, it would be totally negligible. Maybe we can rattle off the names of 500 men who are big players, as opposed to just three or four [women].

The corporate setup is heavily gender-skewed, and it trickles down to every level and every occupation in this country. [Imagine] you sit in a class with 50 boys and 50 girls, and when you get to the boardroom there are six women as opposed to 94 men. That is the kind of gender imbalance that we have in [India], and it permeates through every level of society.

Bard MBA: How does this skew affect the perception of gender from your students, versus other students and peers?

Basu: There is no documented research yet. But because these children are taught from the beginning that you cannot be aggressive to a woman, and that your sister or your classmate is valued the same way, they definitely have a different gender perspective.

In our program, there are many women in decision-making positions and who impact their lives on a daily basis. They grow up respecting women, even though their mothers are in the worst situation. We constantly try to engage [the boys] in a conversation about compassion and respect for their mothers. We always tell them: “Do not judge your mother because of what she has done. She has done it primarily to keep you alive and make sure that you have your next meal and a roof over your head.”

Bard MBA: What criteria do you use to decide which institutions to partner with?

Basu: We have a fairly large network of organizations [throughout India, extending to Nepal and Bangladesh] engaged in [the] conversation about gender equality. We align ourselves in the effort to stop cross-border trafficking in order to bring justice to the survivors and victims of trafficking; as well as all women who are subjected to gender-based violence. At New Light we are very hopeful that in seven to 10 years this project will be a replicable model that can be used to create synergy with local people between our work and the local people in other areas of India.

Bard MBA: I first became familiar with [New Light] through Half the Sky. How has that involvement changed the level of impact that New Light is able to make?

Basu: Half the Sky has been a watershed moment for New Light. Nick Kristof visited New Light years ago and he saw us at the time when we were truly a fledgling organization. As you can imagine, each of the team members from Half the Sky is intensely involved with the children, and the exposure that we received has been incredible. It has helped us to move intergalactic spaces and we are so happy for that.

Bard MBA: I was very inspired [by Half the Sky], but it also brought to my attention the issues that are prevalent in the world. How would you suggest that the average woman help in the impact that New Light is making?

Basu: I think that the most important thing that anyone in the world could do is to stay aware of what is going on in our world — and why is it happening. We need to start questioning ourselves and take individual responsibility to create a world where we can minimize, or absolutely eliminate, the gender discrimination that is so pervasive. We say that we live in a "global village"; we have the power to influence.

One could influence action toward international repatriation agreements that exist to send traffickers back to their countries, for trial. This would [enable] rehabilitation for the victims and the survivors. It is not always money; you could always donate your labor. You could raise awareness or small sums of money to contribute locally and globally. Even if you impact your own street by making people aware of what’s going on around the world — I think that is invaluable.

The full recording of this conversation is available.  

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