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Indian Train Journey

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Winding through the Indian countryside for several weeks on a train with 400 young people visiting innovative and successful social sector organisations was the summer holiday experience of two University of Melbourne students. Genevieve Costigan reports.

Commerce students Annabelle Davis, a Kwong Lee Dow scholar, and Jeff Li, an international student, were among the first overseas students to undertake this organised journey around India which has only been run three times.

“When I read about this program I got excited because I’ve always wanted to go to India and I found the idea of this train trip so interesting and ideas about social enterprise fit in with my studies in commerce,” Ms Davis says.

The train trip, called the Tata Jagriti Express (sponsored by the Tata group of companies who operate under the philosophy of returning wealth to society they operate in) aims to inspire young people to create jobs and encourage social enterprise by studying successful role model organisations in the social sector across India.

The newly established Australia India Institute and the University’s Leadership, Involvement and the Volunteer Experience Unit (LIVE) sponsored the two students to participate in the journey.

The majority of the 400 participants, referred to as Yatris (pilgrims), were aged between 20 and 25 and were young, middle-class and from all over India.

The journey began in Mumbai and the Yatris travelled over 9,000 kilometres in 18 days, first heading into southern India and then through to Delhi, into Rajasthan and back to Mumbai.

The train consisted of two air-conditioned carriages for meetings and presentations and 15 sleeping carriages with men and women situated at either end of the train. Mentors, Tata board members and artists from London’s Southbank Centre along with cooks, cleaners, guards and medical staff made up the group.

The Yatris were divided into cohorts, sharing carriages and meals and were given a particular organisation to study and report on in detail during the journey.

Ms Davis’s group focused on the Agastya International Foundation, a Bangalore-based education trust, which brings science education to rural government schools spread across the southern India states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh by using outreach programs such as a mobile van program “Science on Wheels” and science fairs. The organisation also has a campus where schools can bring their students.

“It is a fantastic organisation, the impact they’ve had in the area is quite amazing. In these rural areas most of the students’ parents have very low educational levels but Agastya has found that the children take their learning home and then the parents become involved in the programs,” Ms Davis says.

“Most people farming in these areas make about 20 rupees a day (approximately 50 cents) but after getting involved with Agastya this rises to 200 rupees a day. The education is what really makes the difference. The students end up getting better jobs, they discover different methods of farming, more productive ways and their parents also become more skilled,” she says.

Professor John Webb, Deputy Director of the Australia India Institute believes this trip gave Australian students the opportunity to have a professional life-changing experience during their university studies. “The students were also able to see an aspect of India which is unrecognised by foreigners – this extra bubbling of entrepreneurial initiatives and spirit of adventure.”

The trip was Ms Davis’s first visit to India and she expected to see great poverty. “I was struck though by the extent of the poverty, how obvious it is and how it sits side by side with wealth but spending time with 400 of the most motivated people I’ve ever met gave me such a positive sense about the future of India,” Ms Davis says.

“After this experience I would definitely consider how I could create my own enterprises – some of the Yatris at just 20 years old had already started their own NGOs.”

The first of the 15 organisations visited by the Yatris was Mumbai’s famous Dabbawalas, which literally translates as a box people. This unique industry consists of people collecting freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from office workers’ homes, delivering them to their respective workplaces and then later returning the empty lunchboxes home again. For a small fee about 200,000 lunchboxes are transported everyday by about 5,000 Dabbawallas. Interestingly, this successful business, growing at the rate of 5 to 10 per cent per year, has involved no advanced technology.

The Yatris also visited organisations such as Naandi in Hyderabad which focuses on children’s rights, safe drinking water and sustainable livelihoods while also delivering lunches to primary school children. Other institutions included Anshu Gupta in Delhi which organises the disposal of reusable resources from wealthy urban households, such as collecting and distributing clothes to remote parts of India, and the Barefoot College in Rajasthan which addresses drinking water quality, the education of girls, health and sanitation, rural unemployment and income generation.

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