India’s New Age Arjunas

By Robin Keshaw

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 uncleared garbage hits you well before you see the long, low double storey structure.  Add to that, trucks of every description from neighbouring states (the mandi is Delhi’s biggest wholesale market for fruits and vegetables), handcart pullers, vendors and of course the aam aadmi picking their way through the refuse, cloth bag in hand, intent on that bargain for his kitchen.

 It’s even harder to imagine a school, that too a primary school, functioning amid this noise, chaos and the ever present stench. But this is India and this is a government school and during a recent visit, one could not but admire the spirit of 5th graders doing their lessons even as life surged around them.

The political churn in India with development ranking as top priority for the electorate is reflected in other areas. More and more young people are moving to jobs in the social sector, seeking to transform village schools, empower low income communities, or work on gender issues

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.

Khushboo, 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,” she said in broken English. “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 equivalent to being dead.”

 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 3 soft toys, she gave him one as a token of remembrance.

“I stood frozen there,” Saurabh recalled, “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 for it.”

After much deliberation and introspection, Saurabh quit his job and joined Teach For India’s two year fellowship programme, where the 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 full time during school hours, they also engage with their students’ communities at multiple levels, like setting up learning centres, forming women self-help groups, etc.

“Khushboo’s father sells ginger in the mandi, and she lives in a small room with six other family members,” Saurabh said. “Yet, when she talks of empathy and compassion, I can see a Mother Teresa in her. There are lakhs of Khushboos in India today, who can transform society but for the lack of excellent education. At least, I am doing my bit for a few of them.”  


There are more than 1500 young individuals like Saurabh who, over the course of six years of the fellowship, have impacted more than 27000 students from disadvantaged communities. Pradyumna Bhattacharjee joined the fellowship after getting his Masters from Delhi University. After completing the two year fellowship programme, he joined Teach For India as Research & Alumni Strategy Manager.

 “To give all children the education they deserve, and pave the way for a just, equitable, and inclusive India, we need a social movement that is no lesser in scale and spread than the movement to achieve India’s freedom,” Bhattacharjee argues. “So, when you join Teach For India, you are not only contributing to a classroom, you are sowing the seeds of a massive national movement towards education equity and contributing towards the country’s economic and social development.”

While Saurabh and Bhattacharjee are 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.

There are more than 1500 young individuals like Saurabh who, over the course of six years of the fellowship, have impacted more than 27000 students from disadvantaged communities

“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, the future looked bleak”.

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 1000 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 core competencies.


The likes of Saurabh, Pradyumna and Swati, points 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 and compassion for all are essential elements of societal transformation. Their idea of society is not an inherited one but construed over a period of time after much debate and discussion, seeking answers from mentors and seniors. They undergo leadership programmes that help them explore the potential leader in them and thereby give shape to their dreams.

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 Barclays Bank!).

 Akash was obdurate and looking back he says, “That ‘stupid’ decision has turned out to be the very best in my life. This is my third year in Dantewada and I have enjoyed each 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.”

 The Prime Minister’s Fellowship is a novel initiative by the Ministry of Rural Development where fellows work closely with the district magistrates of backward and remote districts, to help improve the lives of marginalized sections. During this period, the fellows also study or research for a post graduate degree (M.Sc/M.Phil) in Development Practice from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

During one of the sessions at TISS, Akash met Saranya Kothuri, placed at Khammam district in Telangana. Saranya told him about a similar experience with her family. “You are blinded by dealism right now. When the days of revelry get over, you will be struck by the realities of life and will regret your decision,” is what her father told her. 

In the two years since, Saranya is getting ready on a sultry Sunday morning for a visit to a sports academy along with the DM. The academy trains tribal girls in hockey and football and was conceptualized by Saranya to bring tribal girls into the mainstream, away from the naxal influence.

“The ‘so-called’ idealism has completely vanished now and I am much closer to my reality,” she says. “This is my reality and I want to live my whole life with it. It is difficult for parents to understand that their hopes and aspirations can be completely different from their children. I don’t blame them for this attitude. They have worked really hard in their life to provide the best of means for me and they still want the best for me. What they fail to fathom is that how can this be the best for me.”

But those two or three years of immersion in their work has helped young people like Akash and Saranya appreciate their realities.


Complementing the long duration programmes, there are many  short term programmes that focus on building awareness amongst the youth. The Jagriti Yatra takes 450 young yatris on a train journey covering 15 cities and 8000 km. The yatris 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 (of which he was a part) and led him to set up Manzil that teaches Delhi’s underprivileged children in the Khan Market area. 

Youth Alliance runs programmes like Gramya Manthan and ONUS that target young people for the immersion programs and help them develop into leaders with empathy. Its founder Prakhar Bhartiya has an interesting take about the attitude of people regarding the social sector. 

“One perception that people have about the 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,” he says. “But 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 the corporate world but times are changing. It will improve, rather it has to improve.”

The argument is a strong divergence from existing mindsets which sees social work largely in terms of charity.

“It is not just charity which drives these young bloods. They see a reason for their existence in the work they do,” says Arvind Vijay, professor at Delhi University who has mentored many of his students to join the 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 the social sector gives you more opportunities to work on your emotional intelligence than anywhere else.”

The times, they say are changing. And so is the youth of our country. The demographic dividend which India needs to harness in years to come, will depend considerably on the participation of youth in societal building. The change they envision for society will yield results in the long run, more so in transforming mind-sets. India’s modern day Arjunas have their work cut out for them but with idealism as their inspiration and conscience as their guide, they can set an example and show the way.


Anshu Gupta puzzled friends and family when he started talking about the importance of, and the need of, clothing for all human beings. Today, his NGO Goonj is a household word and his mission of transferring used clothes from urban areas to villages is well established. He’s also mentored young people and programmes like Jagriti Yatra and the Youth Alliance. He spoke to Parliamentarian upon receiving the ‘Magsaysay Award’

-Anshu Gupta, Founder, Goonj

Do  people still see Goonj as an organization for collecting and distributing clothes or as something more?

The work we do is divided in the urban and rural India. In the cities people take out all their underutilized material from their homes and give it to Goonj. We process that material with a lot of attention and care, to ensure that the person who gets this material, should a. get what he needs b. gets only wearable, usable material not some trash. So that’s the first part of the process and that’s what most people in the cities get involved in.

The second and the more challenging part is connect with grassroots organizations across rural India. We do their due diligence, to ensure their credibility. These organizations then connect us to communities they work with and tell us about their needs. Normally the material from the cities reaches slums, villages where its simply distributed as charity.

Goonj feels that the people in the villages really value their self respect and dignity a lot and that’s why when you give them material as charity you end up taking away their dignity. Our flagship initiative Cloth for Work is about asking the village communities about their problems, which they would like to work upon. These problems are different at different places, somewhere it could be water, or sanitation, school, road etc.

Thus people come together to work on their own problems with their own resources and then as reward they get the material under Cloth for Work (CFW). Every year more than 1000 development activities are taken up by village communities under CFW. People have built bamboo bridges, dug up wells, made schools, repaired long stretches of roads, cleaned and revived water bodies, taken up irrigation, plantation work and many such activities.  

How do you go about bringing mindset change in people regarding your work? What are the main impediments you face?

Changing mindsets is a slow and long drawn process. Goonj has been working on this aspect for more than a decade now.  There have been a lot of perceptional and mindset changes which have happened over the last 16 years of our work. Establishing cloth as a basic but ignored need of the poor, establishing winters as a annual avoidable disaster for the poor, where our surplus cloth could play a role. We have been speaking to the masses about these issues consistently through all mediums of communication. 

You have talked about how the sight of a small girl seeking warmth from a dead body on a chilly winter morning, changed your life forever and motivated you to value the importance of clothes, and hence Goonj came into being. What is it that still drives you today?

The fact is that what Goonj does today – more than 1000 tonnes of material dealing annually and more than 1000 activities of rural development activities is just a miniscule percentage of the country’s demand and supply and the scale of issues. Given this scenario, despite 16 years of work.. I know that there is still a lot to do and our work will not be complete till more organizations across India and Asia replicate this as a game changing model.

The youth are showing more involvement in social issues these days. It is something you might have observed. What in your view is the reason for this?

I feel the youth of today is in a much better economic condition than our predecessors. In our parents time the struggle was for basic existence and education of their family.. There was not time for anything else. Today, these basics are much easier to procure, thus the attention has shifted to the quality of our lives and to our rights and duties. And  then how long you will live or die like cockroach ? To live a dignified life and in a good clean, well managed country is in the hands of citizens ultimately !!

Do you think Indian society has reached a level where young ones see development work as their duty? 

I always say in my lectures to the youth that we all literate people  are a product of subsidies that the people of India are paying for and therefore its our duty to repay back to the country, by working for it. Also today’s youth can get the best education, get fat salaries and live in gated communities but when they step outside their secure world if the country is in a bad shape then all their personal prosperity wouldn’t amount to much really. They would still be a part of this country.

(In conversation with Robin Keshaw )  

‘I just have to do my bit in adding my little weight to the scale’

-Tarun Cherukuri, Founder, Indus Action

Tarun Cherukuri graduated from BITS, Pilani and joined Hindustan Unilever, later opting out to join Teach for India’s first cohort in 2009. He was a Fullbright-Nehru scholar who did his Masters in Public Administration in International Development from Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government. From there he returned to Teach for India as City Director, Delhi. He founded Indus Action under which Project Eklavya seeks to effectively implement the Right To Education Act. Tarun’s vision is that in five years, eligible EWS families across the country are made aware of their rights and EWS seats are filled to an optimal level.

There’s been a recent surge in young people entering the social/development sector. Is this a trend and why does it seem limited largely to city youth? To what can we attribute this to?

The generation born 1980-95 are looking for autonomy, purpose and fulfilment in the work that they do. Partly this is because they have been exposed to fundamental questions at an early age, and also partly because their entry into highly lucrative careers has led to financial security. Their access to information through technology has also bred loyalty to ideas rather than organizations.

My bet would be that the digital natives (born post 1995) will have scaled Maslow’s hierarchy of needs even faster than those born earlier (American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory was that man’s basic needs such as food and financial security once realized soon becomes less important to love, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization).  

It is said that “Poor people want to remain poor for the want of free food”. Your work in Indus Action deals with some of these weaker sections. What is your view?

I don’t hold that opinion and our work doesn’t indicate such a mind-set prevailing among the low-income families we work with. The World Bank’s recent WDR report referred to the cognitive tax that poor people have to pay due to their circumstances. There are too many psychological pressures on poor people to enable them to exercise rational choices in the multiple decisions they have to make.

We need to challenge our social stereotypes and create experiences that make us part of diverse social groups. If the privileged can have more chances to see the realities of the poor in an empathetic manner, it might help us build a more nuanced understanding of the reality.   

What further changes are required in the social order to make it more inclusive?

Any inter-cultural mixing at a social, professional or personal level will move us closer to an inclusive society. My international master’s education was instrumental in opening my mind to the idea of global citizenship. Intellectually I knew of it but it was the experience which accelerated the deepening of a belief.

Schools, colleges and organizations must think more critically about increasing the diversity of their mix. Even in natural biological systems, diversity is a better way to promote an adaptive culture.

What is your advice to our youth?

Our business and political cycles don’t let us imagine a future beyond a quarter and 5 years. It is essential that youth zoom out of that race and have a generational view of the future. What is it that they want to build/create 50 years from now? What actions are they taking for a sustainable planet? Anyone interested in social and political transformation needs to set a longer term vision for institution building and the youth are the best target group to have these generative conversations/ideation with.

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