There's no shortage of India volunteer opportunities, but many involve agencies that require volunteers to pay high fees (thousands of dollars) for the experience. The fees cover administration, accommodation, and food but it can work out a lot cheaper if you deal directly with the volunteer organizations themselves. Some organizations and hosts even provide board, so it works out very inexpensive indeed. The following opportunities are either free, or there's minimal cost involved. And there's a wide range of opportunities to suit everyone!
WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), is a worldwide concept that's been steadily gaining popularity in India. The number of hosts has grown from just a few in 2000, to over 100. They include tea estates, coffee estates, and vegan agricultural communities. It's a great way to learn as well as experience life in the Indian countryside. Food and accommodation are provided. To join, there's a membership fee of $25 for singles or $40 for couples, for 12 months.
HelpX is short for Help Exchange. It's an online bulletin board where hosts all around the world put up notices for help required. The great thing about HelpX is the diversity of India volunteer opportunities on offer. You can do everything from helping run guest houses to teaching English, and working on farms. Accommodation, and at least one meal (often all), are provided to volunteers free of cost. You'll need to sign up to the website, and pay a membership fee, to be able to contact the listed hosts though.
Aaaah, fresh mountain air! Located in Kanda, a village near Bageshwar in Uttarakhand, the grassroots Rural Organization for Social Elevation works in the area of community development. They run projects all year round, for people who want to experience life in rural India and the foothills of the Himalayas. The activities involve teaching at a local school, farming, and construction. Volunteers are able to live with a local family and learn about culture while enjoying nature.
The Salaam Baalak Trust, conveniently located in Delhi's backpacker Paharganj area, provides shelter, food, and support to the city's homeless street children. Another inspiring initiative is its City Walk program -- tours along the back streets of Delhi led by children who have trained as guides. There's a huge range of opportunities for volunteers including education, creative expression, computing, marketing, and health care. Internships are also offered. The organization has a conveniently located flat for volunteers to live in at a minimal cost.
Those who have seen the documentary Born into Brothels will know about the red light districts in Kolkata, and the problem of prostitution and trafficking. The positive thing is that there are many non-profit organizations doing wonderful work to help rehabilitate affected women and children, and also prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. These organizations don't provide board and lodging, but neither do they charge fees for volunteering.
Ladli, meaning "loving girl", is a small organization that provides vocational training for approximately 100 abused, orphaned, and destitute children. It's located in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Volunteers work in child care, teach English, and lead children's activities. The organization doesn't charge any fees, but volunteers need to pay for their own accommodations and food. There are usually around 3-4 volunteers from around the world working there at a time. Some are there for a week, others stay for a year.
8. Seva Mandir
Seva Mandir is located in the white city of Udaipur, in Rajasthan. It's a large and well established organization that's been doing development work in rural Rajasthan for over forty years. Volunteers get to work on projects that match their experience and interests. Activities include assisting with day-to-day operations, conducting research, undertaking independent assignments, and developing training modules. Guest houses/dormitories, fully furnished and with shared kitchens, are provided for volunteers. Volunteers are responsible for all their meals.
The Mandore Guest House in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, is an excellent option for voluntourism. This bright and groovy guesthouse is run by a family who also operate the Marwar Medical & Relief Society -- a non profit organization that's adopted local villages to help improve their infrastructure and education. Guests can join its volunteer programs for durations of two weeks or more. The website contains lots of articles that volunteers have written about their experiences. This opportunity will particularly appeal to those who don't want to step too far out of their comfort zones (such as staying in remote rural areas in Indian style accommodations) to volunteer.
10. Human Wave
Human Wave is a Kolkata based organization that runs community development and health schemes in West Bengal, including volunteer programs in the Sundarbans and youth projects in Kolkata. Volunteer opportunities are available for durations from two weeks to three months. Volunteers pay a small fee for food and accommodations.