How many yuppies does it take to change a village?

M. J. PRABHU | Updated on September 08, 2011

Change makers: Biotechnologist Bala Krishna Reddy (left) is creating a value-supply chain for nontimber forest produce in Jeypore, Orissa, as part of an SBI fellowship programme.

A group of young urban professionals embark on a year-long discovery of rural India, to share and receive valuable insights.

“Give us the job and we will do it.”

This comment from one of the 28 young professionals taking part in a State Bank of India Youth for India (SBIYFI) fellowship programme captures the spirit and enthusiasm of talented young urban Indians who want to make a difference in the lives of their rural counterparts.

The year-long project — in partnership with the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai, BAIF Research Foundation and Seva Mandir — has attracted professionals from sectors as diverse as IT, biotech, education, infrastructure, healthcare and non-profit. The projects chosen by these youngsters, each of whom was earning upward of Rs 1 lakh a month, include building a value chain for ginger in Wayanad, Kerala; nutritional security of tribal people in the Jeypore region of Orissa; marketing linkages for vegetables produced in remote villages; and promoting sustainable coffee cultivation in Wayanad.

Opting to barter, for an entire year, a cushy life in an air-conditioned cubicle for the thorny and unsure path of rural life, participants such as Arun Purushothaman and M.C. Karthikeyan said the fellowship was too good an opportunity to miss. The two of them are working on climate change and energy consumption in the rural areas of Wayanad in Kerala and Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu. “We now interact with farmers and scientific institutions, collect and record data on ways to adapt one's lifestyle in the event of climate change,” says Purushothaman.

Corporates such as the Tatas, Mindtree and Capgemini actively support the SBI fellowship by sanctioning a year's sabbatical to the employees chosen.

Degree holders get down-to-earth

Out of about 4,000 applications, 200 candidates were shortlisted for interviews and 28, including five women, were selected to work with partner NGOs. “They include graduates and postgraduates from institutions such as IITs and IIMs. Most of the professionals have an engineering (15 are BE/B.Techs) or management degree,” says Dr G.N. Hariharan, Principal co-ordinator, MSSRF. Bharath Veenith is working on the nutritional security of tribals in Jeypore, as the incidence of malnutrition is high among them. He guides tribal families to set up kitchen gardens, grow greens and other nutritional crops. Omprakash Sahoo, working with the Orissa chapter of MSSRF, is creating a market linkage for vegetables produced in remote villages. He is not interested in returning to a city job at the end of the programme, and instead wants to continue working in rural areas through his own venture. His inspiration is a little village boy.

“When I was working late in the evening in Tolla Maliguda, a remote Orissa village, I came across a boy trying hard to study by a feeble kerosene flame, as there was no electricity. When I asked him why he was working so hard, he said he had observed me working in the village from dawn. He thinks that if someone from outside can do so much for his village, he should do something too. The idea that my presence has been the inspiration for someone made me decide immediately to work in rural development,” Sahoo says.

A career in agriculture

Some of the participants wonder why agriculture cannot be a career option. K Bala Krishna Reddy, a biotechnologist, who is working on creating a value-supply chain for non-timber forest produce in Jeypore, says: “The misery here is directly related to the dearth of agricultural expertise. The farmers are left on their own. We need agricultural graduates to come down and work in these areas.”

Pruthvi Raj, on a sabbatical from Tata Coffee, is promoting sustainable coffee cultivation in Wayanad. He feels educated youth should adopt agriculture as a profession.

To be a change-agent, however, one needn't necessarily possess agricultural knowledge; intervention can be made at any level. Shuvajit Payne, an IIM-Lucknow graduate, who is working on educating rural children in Vidarbha, was earning nearly Rs 2 lakh a month at an MNC in the UK when he was selected for this fellowship.

“My work is not restricted to teaching. I assist my co-workers in adopting efficient management practices. I also get my friends in different companies to answer career queries from people,” he says. He has become an easy link between the rural students and the information pool they could not access earlier.

A feel of ‘other India'

Midhun Rajgopal, an industrial engineer, now working on tribal development at the Community Agro-biodiversity Centre (CAbC) MSSRF, Wayanad, says, “The life of tribals here is miserable; most of them feel that only god can save them. If enthusiastic youngsters come to this area with no prejudices, they can bring in new perspectives.” Adds Purushothaman, “The SBI fellowship gave me a chance to walk the path I had always dreamed of, but never dared upon. After six months at the MSSRF, I realise that the knowledge I'll gain here by working with tribal and farming communities is more profound than the one got from classrooms. For the first time in my life, I realised I was not merely talking but doing something. For some it's a path of achievement, for some it's a path of self-discovery, and for me it's a journey of self-realisation.”

Santosh Choudhary, who is working on building a value chain for ginger in Wayanad region, rightly points out, “We have to have the guts to test it”.

Drawing valuable lessons

Back in the corporate world, the understanding and experience gained by these participants will be leveraged by the organisations they work with to identify business gaps and pioneer products for the massive uncharted rural markets. They have been discussing ideas on marketing micro-enterprise products, rural BPOs, microfinance, rural tourism and the like.

Decades after the Green Revolution, agriculture continues to be seen as the ‘sunk' sector. Indian village life has become synonymous with regressive — the place to move out of for a better life.

Though over half our population lives in rural India, its contribution to the GDP has been dwindling. The rural sector has long been starved of innovation. But how will there be innovation without fresh ideas? The country's intelligentsia is attracted to lucrative service-sector jobs concentrated within urban limits or, worse, outside the country! And youth comprise a significant chunk of the population in many developing countries.

Asked to comment on the absence of innovation and fresh ideas in agriculture, as Indian youth is attracted more to lucrative jobs in the services sector, Prof M.S. Swaminathan of MSSRF says, “Attracting and retaining youth in villages will be possible only by making agriculture and rural professions both intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding.”

Published on September 08, 2011

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