Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 11, September 16-30, 2021

A social activist with a difference

by R.V. Rajan

Imagine this. As you are walking on the road, you notice a crowd of people. You realise that someone has had an accident – you see a man hurt and bleeding, fighting for his life. An ambulance has been called, but there is no one to give the victim first aid. You feel a pang of pity for the poor man and move on. This is what most people do in this situation. For Kala Balasundaram, the helplessness and silence of bystanders at accident sites was so haunting that it prompted her to launch ALERT, an NGO that trains people to be first responders. Today, ALERT is 15 years old and has grown into an impactful organisation in the city.

Kala Balasundaram

Kala was born in Bangalore but brought up in Chennai. She completed her schooling at Bains School and graduated in English Literature from Woman’s Christian College. The ­story of her father V. Sadasivam is a classic rags-to-riches one. Born into a poor family, he worked hard to become a Chartered Accountant. His business venture in the textile export sector met with great success – he went on to serve as the Chairman of the Handloom Export Promotion Council (HEPC). Sadasivam was a close friend and associate of Dhirubhai Ambani, the legendary industrialist and his family. “The affection the Ambanis have for my mother even today is palpable,” says Kala.

Kala was blessed with a happy childhood. As the youngest of three siblings, the family’s attention was on her and she was pampered with gifts. Her father’s business had presence in London and Singapore, where the family had residential properties as well. And so, her holidays were spent in solo trips to these cities as well as other international travels with her family.

Kala has special admiration for her mother, a woman who built her own identity through her career – she ably managed a large export house before ­becoming the All-India Head for her Community, and also had a seat at the five-member Minority Commission during Kalaingar Karunanidhi’s regime. She is the founder of the Viswashanthi senior citizens home, which has been running successfully for the last 26 years.

“My mother ensured that all her kids were all-rounders. I learnt carnatic music and trained in Bharathanatyam for over 16 years. I even learnt shorthand and typewriting. “I was quite an introvert and couldn’t speak a single sentence in English without fear. I came out of my shell only after I started attending college,” says Kala, whose success today is due in large part to her excellent communication skills.

During her final year in college, her parents decided to get her married. She wedded Balu, the eldest of a well-known business family in Coimbatore, and moved cities. Though she was allowed to complete graduation, her mother-in-law did not give her permission to pursue her masters.

“Moving from Chennai to Coimbatore was a cultural shock. I was a city-bred girl, used to being a trend setter in college. I found myself in a most orthodox joint family, where I was not allowed to wear anything other than a saree – I could not step out of the room even in a night dress. I was not to speak with men, sit in front of my in-laws etc. On the flip side, my ten-year experience of being the eldest of four daughters-in-law in a joint family helped build a strong foundation in patience and courtesy. These qualities continue to help me till today.”

Kala was not idle during her time in Coimbatore. With the blessings of the family, she dabbled in some business ventures of her own. They had to be discontinued when her daughter was born. Her son arrived seven years later. During this time, Kala learned many new skills. She received a masters degree in French from Alliance Francaise and also completed the Madhyama, Prathmik, Rashtrabasha and Praveshika courses in Hindi; she obtained certifications in Oracle, SAP, MCP, MCSD, PMP, and ITIL; she also received an MBA degree from Annamalai University.

A new phase of life began when Balu moved to Chennai to open a garment unit. She accompanied him to the office in the early days until Balu suggested that she get a job in the IT industry. At that time, the sector was dominated by men and huge opportunities were opening up for software engineers.

“I was just a BA Literature student with some knowledge of computers. I was not sure if the idea would work. But Balu’s confidence in my potential and the support he extended helped me take the step. My tryst with the IT industry began with my first job as the Head of the Cyber Centre at the British Council in Chennai,” said Kala.

Though she had a late start, Kala made steady progress in her IT career. After spending a year and half at the British Council, she moved to Elim Solutions and went on to work at various companies like Pentasoft Technologies, Ford, Xansa, Karna Solutions and Certus. She finally landed a dream job with Hewlett Packard.

The HP job was a miracle, she says. “We were going through a tough time in the early 2000s because Balu’s business had seen major setbacks leading to heavy losses. The salary that I brought home was crucial for the family. Unfortunately, I lost my job since the company I was employed in was acquired by another. I was on tenterhooks. I went to the Saibaba temple RA Puram and prayed fervently for a solution. I was literally in a trance when my phone rang. The voice at the other end told me that my interview with HP had been successful and that the management had decided to offer me a job. I was asked to collect the appointment letter the following day. My joy knew no bounds. I profusely thanked my guru and the almighty for answering my prayers and came back home to share the good news with Balu,” she said.

She joined HP on July 30, 2007. She worked in People management, Customer management, Project management and Communication, eventually becoming one of the top executives of the company. It is interesting to note that her progress in HP coincided with the progress she was making with ALERT, which had started around the same time.

Kala and her ALERT team members.

In fact, Kala was involved in social service much before ALERT. She had taken her five-year-old son to the KCMH burns ward for a consultation and was moved by the agony of burn victims. She began volunteering her time at the burns ward along with a few colleague, providing patients with basic amenities. The organisation that she was working at, Xansa Steria, adopted the entire project. Kala has also volunteered at the Sathya Sai Trust and worked with Red Cross, Singapore as well.

As for ALERT, launching the organisation was not an overnight decision. “When I was in school, I saw a car accident near the Rajiv Gandhi memorial at Sriperumbudur. I could see the victim’s body twitching and his blood was spattered all over the scene. I asked my mom whether we could help, but she said there were people to take care of the situation. We didn’t stop our car,” she recalled. Many such instances went by before the proverbial final straw came about in 2005, when Kala was working in a company located in Siruseri.

“In those days, OMR was in an extremely poor condition. Accidents were very common – the victim was usually a young person in his two-wheeler. Some would try to help while others would simply stand by as vehicles sped past the scene. I would watch from the company bus that I was traveling in. My heart would scream at the onlookers – why isn’t anybody doing anything?”

One day, in a blow to her conscience, she realized that she was doing nothing about it as well. The wake-up call spurred Kala to get trained in first response (CPR, handling fractures, small cuts, fainting cases) and soon, she was joined by a few colleagues in her company. “The training we took from St. John’s, GVK EMRI took just a few hours and it was very simple. Anybody could learn it,” said Kala.

Her team realised that first response is a crucial task – lives could be saved by simply bridging the gap between the moment of an accident until the arrival of an ambulance. Kala thought of an initiative to help save lives through first aid. However, she was surprised to receive nothing but negative responses from her stakeholders. It was Dr J. S. Rajkumar of Lifeline Hospitals who recognised her commitment to the cause and pledged his full support, to her gratitude. He advised her to start a trust with equally committed people.

ALERT was registered as a trust on October 2, 2006 with Kala, Dr. Rajkumar, and Rajesh R.Trivedi as founder trustees. When the new trust was struggling it find its feet, it was the people’s President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam who advised them to create a community of First Responders by training “one person from every family in emergency care.” His words would go on to become ALERT’s stated goal.
ALERT creates aware citizens who can confidently handle emergencies. They achieve this mission through their sensitising programs and awareness workshops and by working with the government bodies on laws and systems that encourage first responders.

ALERT also conducts courses in academic institutions as credit programmes and deploys certified volunteers at events like marathons and congregations. They work closely with the Government of India and WHO to standardise the first aid curriculum in the country. Though there are other organisations that offer first aid training within India, ALERT is the only NGO that covers the entire gamut of emergency responses. It even has a first-of-its-kind simulation lab.

The ALERT VoICE (Volunteers in Case of Emergency) initiative is India’s first technology-based first response network. It bridges the gap between a medical emergency and the arrival of professional help by uberising the First Responders Network as a service. Certified VoICE’s rush to the emergency scene with their comprehensive first-aid kits, jacket and flash card on being notified by their mobile app to attend to the victim.

Further, ALERT has instituted a Good Samaritan award called the ALERT Being Award to recognise individuals and organizations going beyond the call of duty. Since 2017, ALERT has recognized over 8 organisations and 40+ individuals.

ALERT started with just a handful of volunteers. Today, it has over 2,000 registered volunteers and 50 active volunteers, as well as seven permanent employees. The organisation is funded through fund-raiser events, donations, corporate CSR, sponsorships, local and international grants as well as the commercial trainings for corporates.

So far, ALERT has trained 1,50,000 people in first aid and has partnered with 215+ institutes pan-India. ALERT volunteers have attended to over 1,000 victims in emergencies as first responders. ALERT is currently active in Chennai and Bangalore with plans to start training centres soon in Coimbatore, Madurai and Dindigul. It has an ambitious target of 1 crore trained community in the future. In 2019, Kala decided to quit her lucrative job in HP to focus on ALERT.

Among the several awards that Kala has received, she values the Mother Theresa Woman Leadership award she won in 2018 the most.
“No one in our country should lose their lives because people do not know what to do in an emergency,” says Kala with genuine concern. Kala’s dream is to make ALERT the subject matter expert in its domain and create a first responder’s network across the country. Armed with extraordinary determination and a committed team, I am sure that Kala will achieve her goals.

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