On 24 December I boarded a train in Mumbai, India with 450 people, largely from across India, but also from all over the globe to participate in a train journey across the country. Jagriti Yatra is the largest train ride of its kind in the world. Most of the travellers or ‘yatris’ are aged between 20-27, with a passion to lead development by taking to enterprise. The journey is to nurture job creators and leaders rather than job seekers, and for the past 5 years this movement has successfully lead to the creation of enterprises in small towns, villages and cities all over India. The two weeks present a new story and image of india, one that goes beyond the usual stories of poverty, corruption, rape and inequality. What I am seeing is a lot of ambition, strength, passion, collaboration and love to built a better India for everyone.
The train stops at specific destinations for participants to meet inspirational change-makers in those places. These change-makers are role models who are pursuing commendable Nation Building work in their communities and domains. The Yatra is also joined by accomplished ‘Resource Persons, leaders from business and marketing, and the following areas of development:
- Water & Sanitation
- Arts, Culture & Sport
All yatris select one of these groups of interest for the journey. There are also over 60 facilitators on the train to support the groups and this is the role I play for the 15 days. I am also responsible for a group of 6 women in our carriage. We eat, sleep, and live in the same small space for two weeks. The ladies in my group are aged between 21 and 35 coming from Kerela, Varanasi, Mumbai, Kolhapur, Chhattisghar and Shanghai. Our friendships evolve over time whilst we laugh, learn, complain and joke around together. I am truly overwhelmed and impressed by each and every one of these women, to learn of their hardships, challenges and successes. They have many brilliant ideas of how they want to develop their communities, have enterprising minds and some of them have already set up projects that are making a real difference to the lives of many.
Almost every day we de-board to make a visit to a local project, so there are also countless bus journeys, lunch and tea breaks. During these busy periods we all have the opportunity to mingle with the 100s of other people on the train-this is the beauty of the yatra. There are people here from all over the country, and for those that have not visited India or don’t know a lot about it, India is like a continent made up of many different states where the languages, food, climate, landscape and culture are different. India is such a dynamic and vast country, that a train journey like this is unique in giving you the opportunity to meet such a grand variety of individuals, all with so much energy and enthusiasm for the future. There are 100s of conversations happening simultaneously between yatris creating new exciting ideas and collaborative ventures forming. It’s a real privilege to be a part of this.
Some of the projects we visit include Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan. This is an NGO that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities for over 40 years, to support sustainability. They have a range of projects and training course running in solar electrification, clean water, education, livelihood development and activism. From leaving the train and walking to the main centre through the streets thick with dust and a desert style ambience, I would not expect such a place to exist in the middle of Rajasthan. At the heart of their work is the empowerment of women to enable them to act as agents of sustainable change. Part of our visit is a tour around the site and it’s inspiring to see a room full of women from different countries around the world including Bolivia, Cuba, South Sidan, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar and Timor. They are in India at Barefoot College for 6-month placements to learn about solar energy and electricity so that they can return home and light up their towns and villages. Most of the women do not speak common languages but communicate with each other in other ways. This is a great experience for them and the trainer I meet has been doing her job teaching these ladies for more than ten years. Each of our visits includes an introduction by the founder, and their personal account of how it developed and the leadership qualities that enabled them to succeed. So of course this is a great way to inspire the yatris and give them ideas.
One of the things we talk about a lot during the journey is education in India not being of high equality in terms of variety of course available and not encouraging young people to think creatively and freely enough for themselves. I am amazed at the high percentage of participants that come from an engineering background. This is not because these applicants were specifically successful, but actually numerous Indians go on to study such subjects including MBAs that they may acquire from abroad. I also learn that having an international education does not necessarily mean that one will return to India and get their hands on the best jobs out there. In India its damn tough, and for many setting up their own business or enterprise is the way to go. And this group of people is not at all scared of doing just that. Many people may feel the pressure of being the elder or even an only child, with a responsibility to take care of the family. This increases the pressure to study hard getting the highest grades, sometimes in subjects they may not have felt that passionate about. By the end of the Yatra everyone has been part of a group to pitch a business idea to a panel to solve a problem in a small rural village in India. I facilitate my group to work together and come up with a solution that is selected by the panel to be developed as a real business idea in February, returning to the village where the idea was originally pitched. Spirits are high and my group is of course happy and bursting with enthusiasm.
Art and Culture in India
The country is bursting with creativity with a long history of dance, music, arts and crafts to name a few, but there is not an infrastructure for the creative industries on a national or even local levels to pull ideas, expertise, collaborations funds and contemporary ideas together in the same way as we have in some Western countries, including the UK that has had a lot of government support in the past. Many people are confused when I tell them I am an arts manager/producer, as it’s not something they are used to hearing about as a full time career. However what I do find within the group are numerous creatives either who are artists, or those who want to support the development of an arts infrastructure in the country through design, collaboration, developing arts hubs and villages, and providing a platform for alternative, niche and underground art projects. I’ve made a lot of new friends and contacts through the yatra all over this huge country, and I feel that my journey to discovering myself and the arts here is just about to begin.