On National Youth Day, January 12, we look at the trend of many young people quitting their plush jobs to work at the grassroots contributing to India’s inclusive growth story
It’s hard not to miss Delhi’s Azadpur Sabzi Mandi as you drive down towards Jahangirpuri from Kashmere Gate. The stench of rotting fruit, vegetables and stacked up garbage hits you well before you see the long double storey structure. It’s even harder to imagine a school, that too a primary school, functioning amid this noise, chaos and the ever present stench. During a recent visit, one could not but admire the spirit of 5th graders doing their lessons even as life surged
The students were discussing the “Importance of challenges in our life”. The atmosphere was upbeat and optimistic, quite unlike the usual government school classroom. Students were focused, unfazed by the continuous hubbub from the mandi. Manisha, 11, raised her hand to speak. “Bhaiya, challenges are an integral part of our lives. On TV, they show those heart rate monitors in the hospitals. Ups and downs of the graph mean that the person is alive. Only if one has faced the downs, the challenges in life, will there be ups in life. If there are no challenges, it will be a flat line, which is like being dead.” She spoke in her broken English.
There’s a loud round of applause from the students and a proud smile on the face of their teacher, Saurabh “Bhaiya”. Saurabh is a computer science graduate from BITS, Pilani. He was like any other software engineer until a Sunday visit to an orphanage changed his life. After teaching the children for about an hour, Lakshmi, 9, told him how she wished she had a teacher like him and she would miss him forever. Out of her collection of three soft toys, she gave him one as a token of remembrance. “I stood frozen there,” Saurabh recalls, “wondering how society in its quest of material pleasures has wronged these beautiful beings. She had every right to a good education, but we have attached a price tag to it.”
After much deliberation and introspection, Saurabh quit his job and joined Teach For India’s (TFI) two year fellowship programme, where fellows are placed in a government school or low income private school across seven cities. It’s a full time job where the fellows not only teach during school hours, they also engage with their students’ communities at multiple levels, like setting up learning centres, forming women’s SHGs, etc.
The rural touch
There are more than 2,500 young individuals like Saurabh who, over the course of seven years of the Teach For India fellowship, have impacted more than 40,000 students from disadvantaged families. While Saurabh is focused on the urban poor, Swati from Jadavpur University is hoping to do her bit in rural India. She joined the Gandhi Fellowship where she is helping to improve and upgrade five rural schools in Churu district of Rajasthan.
“Most of my schooling was done in a village,” she said, “I could easily observe that lack of quality education has kept the rural youth completely away from India’s growth story. They either end up working in farms or migrate to cities for menial jobs. Gandhiji used to say that the future of India lies in its villages. Seeing the condition of villages, that future looks bleak,” she says.
But that was then. She’s more positive now after joining the fellowship and taking up the responsibility of helping school principals transform village schools by creating a “model school”. She will be in charge of these schools for two years and will be able to impact more than 1,000 children. The fellowship has a well-designed curriculum spread over two years, which along with bringing change in schools and communities, also helps the individuals in developing their
The likes of Saurabh and Swati point to a trend among young Indians. Not all are content settling into their often mundane (although financially rewarding) 9 to 5 jobs. They have moved beyond the physiological and safety needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy and treading upwards. They appear more in control of themselves, know what they want and have a better understanding of the world around them. For many, development, equality, compassion are not just flowery words, but essential elements of societal transformation. They undergo leadership programmes that help them explore the potential leader in them.
Sociologist Meera Srinivasan says, “These programmes present a raw and unpretentious picture of the real India, which creates a whirlpool of questions in their mind and the zeal and optimism to find solutions to existing problems. This optimism is then channeled towards their personal growth and transformation, through support structures focusing on their self-awareness, pursuit of excellence and capacity building.”
But opting for the unconventional is never easy. When Akash Belsare decided to leave his job at Barclays Bank in Pune to pursue the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship (in which he would assist the Collector of a naxal-affected district in development work over a three year period), his father threatened to break all ties with him. His family even took him to an astrologer to check if there was anything negative in his horoscope that could be corrected with suitable prayers (after all, who could be stupid enough to leave
Akash was obdurate and looking back he says, “That ‘stupid’ decision has turned out to be the very best in my life. I spent three years in Dantewada and I have enjoyed every moment learning about myself, my society and my country. Of course, I had to spend countless nights without electricity amongst swarms of mosquitoes. I have this constant fear of Maoist attack, whenever I visit villages in the heartland of Maoist territory. But none of it has deterred me from earning a piece of the dawn which is about to come in India”.
For Anjali, an electronics and communications engineer from Delhi Technological University, the journey from Delhi’s highrises to Siwan’s green fields has been an overwhelming one. She is currently an India fellow, where she is undergoing ‘a 13-month experiential social leadership programme that lets you work with organisations involved in understanding and managing social issues at the grassroots.’ She is assisting Parivartan, an NGO based at Narendrapur village of Ziradei block (birthplace of Dr Rajendra Prasad).
She narrates, “A city dweller like me had a completely different picture of rural India. I came here with lots of biases and apprehensions. While working with these beautiful human beings, I have realised that our prejudices are a result of our own inner demons, which we fail to understand. The vibrancy of life I have seen here has helped me accept my own fallacies. I have started taking every single day as a challenge and I wake up every morning to transform myself.”
Short term journeys
Months into their work has helped many young ones like Akash and Anjali to accept their realities. Complementing these long duration programmes, there are many other short term programmes that focus on building awareness among the youth. The Jagriti Yatra takes 450 young yatris on a train journey covering 15 cities and 8,000 km. The yatris get to interact with activists, entrepreneurs and ‘change-makers’ across the country.
The Shodh Yatra conducted by Dr Anil Gupta from IIM, Ahmedabad walks participants through rural India, exploring innovations by village folk. In fact, it was after one such ‘walk’ that Ravi Gulati began to question the inequalities of the system and led him to set up Manzil that teaches Delhi’s underprivileged children in the upmarket Khan Market area.
Youth Alliance runs programmes like Gramya Manthan, ONUS, which targets to nurture young bloods through the immersion programmes and help them develop empathetic leadership skills. Its founder, Prakhar Bhartiya, has an interesting take.
“One perception that people have about social sector is that you don’t get money here. People still believe that it is a kurta-jhola kind of space and people don’t earn money. But the times have changed and so has the development space. Today we get good salaries and people lead a comfortable life.
It is not exactly comparable to corporate but times are changing, it will improve rather it has to improve,” he stressses. This is a strong divergence from existing mindset of society, which sees social work as just charity.“It is not just charity which drives these young bloods. They see a reason for their existence in the work they do,” Arvind Vijay, professor at Delhi University explains. He has mentored many of his students who have joined social sector. “Gratification is indeed a great push but it is not the only thing which drives them. They see a growth potential in the challenging work they do. Growing research in the field of leadership development will tell you, how emotional intelligence is behind the making of successful leaders. Working in social sector gives you more opportunities to work on your emotional intelligence than anywhere else.”
These are our new Arjunas, who chose Karma above anything else. The demographic dividend which India needs to harness in coming years will depend a lot on the participation of youth in societal building. The change they envision for the society will yield results in the long run, not only in terms of impact of their work but also in changing the mind-set of Indian society. The dream of an egalitarian society doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Till then, these Arjunas will keep doing their work, without being too much driven by the outcome.
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