We hardly ever question why we are doing something – especially if that option provides most of our material comforts. But if one were to think beyond these material comforts, there’s a lot that’s waiting to be explored. I learnt this while working comfortably at an IT firm as a software engineer for four years. In my third year, I began to realise that the job was not for me. So, I started exploring what gives me happiness. I volunteered with some NGOs to teach kids in slums. I worked with people in orphanages and old age homes. I donated blood, and finally, pooled in funds to support the education of more than 50 kids. This was a journey of discovery! So, I thought – why not extend this just beyond volunteering to a way of life?
That’s when I joined a fellowship. So, in the fall of 2010, I went to work in the hinterlands of Odisha in Kalahandi, one of the lowest human development index regions of the country. I worked with my host organisation Gram Vikas (which is quite reputed) on thematic issues like water and sanitation (includes building toilets); large-scale watershed projects, a horticulture-based livelihoods programme for tribal farmers and micro-hybrid projects to light up a tribal village in the Lanjigarh block of Kalahandi district. Of these, the last is really close to my heart, because I finally got to apply my mechanical engineering knowledge.
When I see a micro-hydro project, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Bollywood movie ‘Swades’. But a micro hydro-power project requires a lot more effort, time and commitment than one can imagine. While working with the organisation’s team in Kalahandi, this became quite evident. The technical part of the project inspired nostalgia in me as I’m a mechanical engineer by qualification but never applied the knowledge anywhere before.
I was involved in turbine fabrication, and other technical and social aspects of the project – right from community interactions to help motivate them to work on constructing a dam, tank and power house etc and liaising with government departments for mobilising NREGA funds to working with local machine shops for turbine fabrication and other mechanical parts to field visits.
In a country as big as ours, there exists a huge gap between need and skill. I knew how a turbine worked, and was trained to do exactly this. But the chances that I would have used my knowledge as an IT professional in a Tier 1 city was almost zero. On the other hand, the chances of a Lanjigarh kid one day becoming a turbine engineer and setting up the micro-hydro project is sadly also dim, if not impossible. The serendipitous coming together of the village and my skill set did a great deal of good for both of us.
The joy of using one’s skill for something beyond just the self or earning money is unparalleled. A village, which was in darkness one night was lit up the next. It is a feat I am going to remember with a lot of pride for the rest of my life. As I write this, I feel hopeful that the electricity in that village will enable them to read this article.
My years at the fellowship proved formative and gave me a clearer vision. I saw first-hand, the stark face of poverty and realised how impact at a mass scale can be brought about by working at the very top, with the knowledge of happenings at the extreme bottom. I worked in one of the nearly seven lakh villages in our country. The number of young people needed to even start getting things to change in a country as big as ours is much more than now.
As I write this, I await the results of my recently completed UPSC exams and I am hopeful of joining hands with many others who are trying at their respective levels to make India a better place for all of us. Above all I improved my happiness quotient and realised that giving time to the grassroots community work will not just make us better citizens and potential leaders, it will also bring about that elusive social change we all want.