When yuppies bridge the deep rural divide

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They came to change lives, instead their own lives got changed. Back in 2011, Shuvajit Payne, an IIM graduate working as a consultant in IBM in London, chanced upon an SBI youth fellowship with an opportunity to work in rural India for a year.

He took the chance, and today, turning his back on a lucrative career and the high, big-city life, he is now a programme officer with the fellowship, living and working in the deep reaches of India’s hinterlands.

Ankit Walia left his career with Capegemini and joined the Reliance foundation. During the fellowship programme, he set up a farmers’ helpline using IVR to know about commodity prices and weather conditions.

He has prototyped a model and tested with 100 local farmers and fisherfolk, and is now gearing up for an all-India implementation which is expected to handle more than 60,000 queries in its first year of operation. Same are the cases of Vineet Kumar Jain from Bhushan Steel, Chetan Gutham, a post-graduate in urban planning from Cleveland State University and Bala Kirshna Reddy, a molecular biologist.

They have all left high-paying jobs to work in the social sector in Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Chattishgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Three among the 27 fellows selected under SBI's fellowship programme in 2011 — Vineet Kumar Jain, Chetan Gutham and Bala Kirshna Reddy — are now part of the prime minister's rural development fellow scheme.

While some came on sabbaticals from their companies, some like Payne, have chosen to stay back and work full time.

The State Bank of India, which is spearheading the movement — SBI Youth for India — is facilitating well-educated urban youth to take a sabbatical for a year to work in rural India. Funded entirely by the bank, the scheme functions in collaboration with entities like the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and BAIF Development Research Foundation, among others.

As SBI chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya said: “We started this programme to reap the rich demographic dividend in the country by giving the youth an opportunity to contribute one year of their life in the rural areas so that their technical skills can be used to better the quality of lives of those dependent on the agriculture sector.”

Economic liberlisation has not touched 70 per cent of the Indian population. Agriculture which engages about 50 per cent of the nation’s youth is showing signs of an acute crisis and has led to large number of suicides by farmers. While economic opportunities have increased for people with education, skills and resources, there is still a large section of the population that seems to have missed the bus.

Geeta Verghese, coordinator SBI Youth for India said, “ Our endeavour is to bridge the rural and urban divide. It is very important that educated youth in the country see the linkages between the urban and rural areas. Agriculture in India is in dire need of technical upgradation and process improvement.”

Incidentally, out of the 27 fellows, 6 were from Tata group companies. And as Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Sons has stated in the programme’s website: “ I have been impressed by SBI Youth for India programme from its conceptual days. Most of us seem to forget that large part of our population is in the rural areas and most of them are affected by the prosperity or the lack of it in those areas. The contribution of agriculture sector to the GDP of our country has diminished and these young fellows could bring it back. As an Indian, and a proud Indian, I would commend the work done by these fellows and it is really positive for the country.”

Tata goes on to add that the satisfaction that you can get in that one year may be equal to the satisfaction that you get in five years in a corporate job. Those seeking such satisfaction would do well to check out the website as the the fellowship programme for 2014-15 opens from Tuesday.


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