Instead of imposing its own standards on the impoverished villages of Rajasthan, a grassroots organization called Seva Mandir is trying to respect the villagers’ decision-making autonomy.

Neelima Khetan, chief executive of Seva Mandir, spoke to about 30 members of the Yale community at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea on Monday, during which she talked about her institution’s unconventional methods of service. The organization places a unique emphasis on empowering the communities it helps, encouraging villages to build up funds through their own savings and then decide democratically how to use the money, she said. Seva Mandir chooses not to regulate how the villages use these funds, but it does encourage them to make decisions that will benefit everyone, Khetan said.

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Khetan said Seva Mandir’s overarching goal is to combat poverty, increase literacy rates and empower women in Western India. Despite media portrayals of India’s flourishing economy, widespread destitution still exists in many parts of the country, she said — the average per capita consumption in Rajasthan is equivalent to 450 rupees per month, or about $11. Literacy rates are self-described at 26 percent, and full immunization among children is at a scant 5 percent, she said.

Faced with such drastic conditions, Seva Mandir is not discouraged by failure, Khetan said. Rather, she said she believes that glossing over failure is one of the worst things an organization can do.

“Often the pressure is to show that you are succeeding and nowadays increasingly that you are succeeding on scale,” she said. “But that is a trap.”

Instead of ignoring the problems it faces, Seva Mandir tries to use its mistakes to learn more about the complexities of the situation on the ground in India, Khetan said.

Michael Eastman, a Yale World Fellow from South Africa, said he thought Seva Mandir seemed more capable than other similar organizations.

“I thought it was encouraging,” he said. “The best intentions often don’t get carried out because [other organizations] don’t have infrastructure.”

When Seva Mandir was founded, the group focused on bringing goods such as money, technology and information to the villages. But when change did not come as quickly as organization members had hoped, Seva Mandir decided to focus its approach on increasing public access to land. When only 15 out of 600 villages came forward to claim that land, Seva Mandir realized that the real problem lay in conflicts among the villagers, Khetan said.

“Development becomes a matter of people exercising choices in all this,” she said. “How do you enable communities and people to exercise these kinds of choices?”

By figuring out the best approach, Khetan said, Seva Mandir learned to improve quality of life for the villagers by respecting their decision-making autonomy.

Gautam Kumar ’10 said he was glad the talk was able to provide information about India to a diverse group of students.

“It provides a new perspective for students here, and insight into a completely different world,” he said.

The talk was made possible in part by Ezra Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz’s increased effort to internationalize Stiles Master’s Teas, Schwartz said.