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India 44A & B
The Peace Corps was established in 1961. By 1966 it had grown to over 10,000 volunteers and had plans for expanding to a peak of over 15,000 by 1969. The program in India was one of the largest with over 700 volunteers with plans to expand to over 1,000 by 1968.
In was in this context that over 100 trainees reported to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee the summer of 1966. The group that formed there would be designated “India 44”. This group was unusual in two ways. First of all it was actually two separate projects combined to save training costs. India 44A, primarily but not exclusively female, was destined for a Community Health Program in the Indian State of Maharashtra, outside of Bombay (now Mumbai). India 44B, primarily but not exclusively male, was originally designated to work in poultry in the Indian State of Rajasthan.
The second unusual feature of this group was that they were part of an experimental “Advanced Training Program” (ATP). The concept behind this experiment was to recruit college Juniors who would return to their respective institutions after an initial summer of training where they could continue to receive additional language and cultural training before returning for a second phase of on-site training before being sent overseas.
The first phase of the training took place on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee from June 24th to August 26th. It included a field trip out to Indian Reservations in South Dakota the first two weeks August as an inter-cultural experiment.
During the transition phase of the ATP program when the trainees returned to their educational institutions to complete their senior year, the decision was made to change the focus for India 44B from poultry to agriculture. With this decision the Peace Corps also transferred the four remaining women from 44B to the 44A Community Health Program, leaving 44B as an all-male contingent from this point on.
There were a total of 23 trainees remaining in 44B when the group returned for the last phase of training, which included another four weeks at the University of Wisconsin (this time at the Madison campus) and a final four weeks of training in country. As the training wrapped up there was a final process of resignation and staff initiated trainee de-selections that eliminated another five trainees. In the end, only eighteen of the original forty-four trainees were left to be sworn in as volunteers. India 44A had a similar experience with attrition. The world that these two groups entered was a far cry from today’s “India Inc.” with its rapid economic growth based largely on corporate outsourcing. India in 1967 was not fully 20 years into independence, and fully deserved its reputation as a “third world country”.
Set up in villages outside of Bombay (now Mumbai) the volunteers of India 44A found a community health care system in the earliest stages of development. The gap between the ambitious government plans and the reality on the ground was appalling. Working in primitive conditions, with little direction, this group had to struggle to make an impact with little in the way of resources, and indigenous co-workers who sometimes seemed to lack the most basic training and understanding of modern health issues.Located in towns and villages around the city of Udaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan, the volunteers of India 44B found most farmers working as they had done for centuries, if not millennia, guiding a wooden plow behind a pair of bored bullocks.
The living conditions of the volunteers in this group varied widely, and with little apparent logic. Some found themselves in towns with a rail or bus connection, electricity (sporadic), and a vibrant marketplace. Others found themselves in remote villages where the inhabitants spoke local dialects not comprehensible to Americans who had received all their language training in either Hindi or Marathi. Given the conditions, it is not surprising that the attrition in these groups continued through their term of service, India 44B losing five of the eighteen volunteers before the two years of service were completed.
While they were there, India 44A & B were part of the largest Peace Corps contingent ever present in one country. But this was a situation that was not destined to last. Under President Nixon, the Peace Corps was to shrink to less than one half the size it had been under LBJ, and more specifically, the government of India was to decide that it wanted less foreign influence in its development. Within five years of the departure of India 44A & B in June 1969 the last Peace Corps volunteers would be gone from India.
Forty years after this project ended, more than two thirds of the volunteers for India 44 got together for a reunion in Oakland, California. During that three day event, the sharing of past memories revealed how little we knew of each other’s experiences in that faraway place when we were oh so young.