It is 11 pm on December 24 at Mumbai’s Kurla station and a bunch of young people are milling around the ordinary looking blue train, searching for their berths, saying their goodbyes. But there’s nothing ordinary about this train or this journey.
For the last five years, every Christmas Eve, a group of 450 young people have been embarking on a 15-day train journey to find a purpose for their lives. During the Jagriti Yatra (literally, a journey of awakening), they visit 12 destinations across the four corners of the country, meeting entrepreneurs—‘role models’—in an attempt to learn more about the real India, its challenges, and also its opportunities.
As the 18-coach train winds through the 8,000 km route, the travellers learn to live and work with groups, adjust to a routine of sleep, eat, plan meetings, engage in group discussions and also give presentations in the train itself. They adapt to working with people from diverse cultures, experience the joy of winning competitions and also learn how to maximise usage of limited resources such as water and the ever crucial phone battery.
Singing their anthem ‘Yaaron chalo, badalne ki rut hai’, composed by Prasoon Joshi exclusively for the Yatra, the youth contingent inspires one another to keep the spirit of nation-building alive in their heart and attempt to build their own lives constructively.
The organisers’ aim behind the journey is to transform young job seekers into job creators. Together with mentorship from experts, the Yatris also build a network of friends during the Yatra, who help challenge and shape ideas.
It all began when Shashank Mani Tripathi, now 48, first embarked on a similar train journey in 1997 to commemorate India’s 50 years of independence. The seed had been planted in his mind years ago, when he saw the 1954 film Jagriti as a child, the story of a teacher’s quest to instil pride in the country’s heritage and values in children. An entire generation remembers the film’s song ‘Aao bachchon tumhen dikhayen jhaanki Hindustan ki’.
In 1997, Tripathi, a London-based consultant with PwC, decided to act on his inspiration. He took a sabbatical, raised funds and cobbled together a plan to travel across India in a train with 200 people. His purpose was to meet interesting individuals running enterprising initiatives and who were helping build a new India.
He penned these experiences in a book, India: A journey through a healing civilization. Released in 2007, the book gained popularity and inspired his friends and many others—some living abroad, others in India. They then put together a plan for a similar journey in 2008.
Jagriti Yatra has now become an annual feature. It is open to anyone between 20 and 27 years of age; 17,000 people applied for the December 2013 Yatra. A written test and interviews helped shortlist the 450 (40 percent women, and about 55 percent candidates from Tier 2 and 3 towns). Tripathi and his Yatra team aim to create a million entrepreneurs by 2020.
The Yatra is conducted under the auspices of the not-for-profit Jagriti Seva Sansthan, registered at Deoria village near Gorakhpur. Every year a group of 30 to 40 facilitators join the six-member core Yatra team to help manage the trip. Most of them are former Yatris who volunteer. They take on the tough task of negotiating with Indian Railways to hire an entire train and arrange for caterers who serve meals onboard. An Engine Room Club team ensures the train reaches each destination on schedule while the programming team organises role model visits, and even gets sponsors for the Yatra. The fact that Jagriti Yatra has done six such trips since 2008 without any major untoward incident is a miracle in itself.
The founding members of Jagriti Yatra—Tripathi, along with London-based Rewati Prabhu and Raj Krishnamurthy (innovations director at Rentokil-Initial)—have a clear goal of building an ecosystem of entrepreneurship for ‘Middle India’. “We can’t depend on government or corporate sectors only to create jobs, especially for those who are from Middle India (Tier 2/3 towns). The public sector will shrink in our time and the private sector won’t be able to offer employment to people from Middle India,” says Tripathi. “So we have to create entrepreneurs in small towns who will, in turn, create new jobs there.”
The Yatra founders believe that of a population of approximately 1.2 billion, the rich and the urban elite (top 250 million) have access to premier institutes, funding and knowledge on how to become an entrepreneur. The bottom 350 million are being supported by the subsidy culture of the government with schemes such as MNREGA, charity organisations and various NGOs. It is the 600 million residing in Middle India, the ones from villages and small towns who have educated themselves by going to a big city, who are now hungry for change and need attention. “Our thrust is on building enterprises in Middle India because there is a massive young demographic which runs the risk of becoming a huge disaster unless there is a meaningful employment opportunity for them,” says Prabhu, director of Frischmann Prabhu India, a multidisciplinary design consultancy.
The Jagriti team is confident that this emerging demographic has the potential to recast the economy. “There is a purpose behind what we have been doing for the last five years by organising this Yatra against all odds. It’s easy to promote entrepreneurship in upper India, but much more difficult to do it in Middle India,” says Tripathi. “Now we see that many more people feel the real action is where we are. Coca-Cola and Google are involved [as sponsors] because they think our instinct about replicating and scaling up ideas is very interesting.”
The team feels it’s not always necessary to have new ideas; at times aspiring entrepreneurs who meet different role models during the journey can also replicate the ideas and adapt them to their own needs, regions and requirements. Why reinvent the wheel? The Impact
Between 2008 and 2012, about 2,000 people have taken this journey with almost 300, or 18 percent of them, starting their own ventures in areas like manufacturing, health care, social services, technology, agriculture and online services.
At the end of the journey, a detailed impact study is carried out to map the outcome of the Yatra and also connect with former Yatris to keep track of their career moves. They are offered assistance by connecting them with experts who can train them on leadership, by arranging funds, as well as by training on how to make a pitch. This is partly done during the residential Biz Gyan Tree session at Deoria village a month after the culmination of the Yatra.
Take the case of Amit Kataria, founder of ROSE (Rural Organisation for Social Empowerment), who took the Yatra in 2009. Back then he ran a small computer academy in Choma village at Gurgaon in Haryana. Never to let his physical handicap (he is paralysed waist-down) come in the way of his desire to bring about a social transformation in his village, he took the train journey knowing well that the 15-day ride would be the biggest endurance test he would put his body through.
On returning from the Yatra he was motivated to take his small one-academy business and expand it to other villages. A Jagriti Yatra facilitator Sandeep Kriplani (who was earlier with Ernst & Young) worked closely with him for almost a year to build a professional business model. Kriplani also helped arrange meetings with funding agencies such as Unlimited India. Today Kataria runs five academies and has trained 5,000 people.
“During the Yatra I met Dr S Aravind at his eye care hospital in Madurai and was impressed by how it all started with just a 20-bed hospital. Meeting various other role models like Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy [founder, Barefoot College at Tilonia] at Rajasthan gave me the courage and inspiration to scale up my computer institute and now I plan to open 350 centres to reach 6,000 villages of Haryana. I also want to start a rural BPO so that villagers aren’t forced to travel to cities for work,” says Kataria.
Savita Mundhe from Buldana district took the train journey in 2012. She had become a Gram Pradhan at 21. The many people she met on the Yatra inspired her to develop her village by focusing on agri and education sectors. She now also focuses on women empowerment. Her company Rajlaxmi Soya Foods in village Takar Khed produces flavoured soy milk, soy paneer and mineral water. Mundhe spotted this opportunity as her village cultivates soybean on a large scale.
Over the last few years, inter-national participants have also started coming in. This helps provide even more diversity to the Yatra contingent. Subhro Sengupta from Raipur, who took the journey this year, says: “I thought I was a more liberal guy but during conversations with some of the Americans on this journey I got the feedback that we are the most conservative people they have ever met. That lent a global view on what outsiders feel about us Indians.”
The Jagriti Yatra concept has been replicated in the US by a 2009 Yatri, Patrick Dowd, and is being planned in France by Matthieu Dardaillon, a 2012 Yatri. Numerous smaller one-off Yatras have taken place across India, including one on a bus in Maharashtra (Jnyatra) and one in Odisha by former Yatris. Image : Amit Verma
Anshu Gupta, founder of nonprofit initiative Goonj, at a Yatra session in DelhiThe Next Leg
There are bigger plans mushrooming around this flagship initiative. More events are being planned through the year to create more touch points with the Yatris and keep their entrepreneurial passion alive.
The second horizon of the Jagriti Yatra is a comprehensive programme that aims to put together a district development plan by creating a network of Yatris, corporates, entrepreneurs and mentors who collaborate with gram panchayats and local districts to help create entrepreneurs and thus jobs in Middle India. A district ambassador programme is being stitched together for 150 districts where Yatris will work with all the stakeholders.
In the third horizon, the Jagriti team plans to set up four cutting-edge entrepreneurship training institutes in the four corners of India, hopefully setting up the first one in the next five years. These will target students from Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns who do not have access to premier institutes.
Their goals are audacious but the first few steps have been taken. The founding members work with the six-member core team during weekends to help shape the Yatra and all other initiatives. The core team works full-time to organise the Yatra, and is actively involved in raising funds (it costs about Rs 2.5 crore, with participants’ contributions amounting to Rs 50-60 lakh. Participants pay Rs 45,000 per head if they are able to, else their contribution is subsidised by sponsoring companies and bodies).
Says Ashutosh Kumar, executive director at Jagriti Yatra, “I am from Banaras, and all my relatives are in UP and Bihar, its small towns and villages. I see a big concern building there with employment; the youth is merely focusing on government jobs. The focus at developing the Middle India is what inspires me and keeps me going, because I feel this is a real issue that needs to be addressed before it blows up.” The 30-year-old Kumar is a former IITian who quit his job. “I was getting bored and frustrated working for a tech company, coding and programming all day in a cubicle. I heard from one of my seniors about the Yatra being organised all over again in 2008 after Shashank’s first trip in 1997. It sounded very adventurous, going around the country on a train journey, meeting so many different people. It excited me and I took the plunge.” He hasn’t looked back since.
(This story appears in the 21 March, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)