Anjuli Bhargava discovers how the Buddha Fellowship is attracting India's brightest minds to solve its problems.
When he started his studies at IIM Kashipur, the last thing Ravi Gajraj, now 32, expected to be doing was working with indigenous sources of rice, millets and vegetable seeds.
Like most of his seniors and peers, he expected to join the corporate rat race -- an MNC, bank, consultancy firm or the like.
But during the second year of his MBA, Srijan's Ved Arya visited his campus and made a case for students to do something for society at a large with their newly acquired skills.
To put their knowledge to use to benefit others instead of focusing narrowly on growing their own bank balance.
Gajraj liked what he heard. Although treading into the unknown, he started working with an organisation headquartered in Pune and is now giving the final touches to his brand Farming Monk, that sells indigenous rice, millets and pulses and aims makes these products reach urban consumers.
He earns a stipend -- not a very large sum -- while working as a Buddha Fellow with the Pune organisation.
Gajraj's parents were initially taken aback by their son's choices and even today would prefer him to adopt a more conventional path, but Gajraj is following his heart.
His wife -- he's recently married -- is supportive of his choices.
Gajraj's batchmate from IIM Kashipur and friend Darshan Doreswamy is currently working in Madhya Pradesh's (MP's) Anuppur district where 410 children are enrolled in 31 phulwaris (creches) and are fed every day at the facility.
This has led to a massive improvement in both their performance at school and their nutritional status.
Children in these parts -- like in many backward districts in India -- are often stunted because of a lack of basic nutrients.
Doreswamy had seen for himself the success of 101 similar creches in Chhattisgarh where 1,132 children are being cared for and thriving through 101 phulwaris in five clusters of a district in the state, a project he was associated with and delighted to see working.
It's after seeing the success of the project in Chhattisgarh that Doreswamy made his way to MP to replicate the model.
Unlike Gajraj's parents, Doreswamy's parents have a similar bent of mind as their son and are quite in sync with their son's choices.
Their son spends most of his time away from home and in remote parts of Chhattisgarh and MP, earns less than his batchmates, but they feel he is engaged in something worthwhile and rewarding.
He shares a very well-written blog on his experience with this writer which reflects how happy he is with the choices he's made so far.
Gajraj and Doreswamy are Buddha Fellows, a 'second wave of leaders' being shaped to act as agents of change for India's poor and less privileged, a sort of 'messiah'.
The programme is the brainchild of Ved Arya, a former IIT-IIM alumnus and a social entrepreneur who set up Srijan, an NGO.
Arya felt that "almost anyone could work in one of the established companies and MNCs or consultancy firms" but he wanted to convince the brightest young minds to solve some of the gravest problems we see around us today.
He also wanted to hone into the proclivity of the younger generation to set up their own ventures.
"The talented youth of today don't have any recent role models. People like Gandhi or Jai Prakash Narayan are too far back in time to be relevant in their minds," says Arya.
He argues that role models like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Sachin Bansal are of a different sort of mold than what India typically needs.
Once the idea took shape in Arya's mind, he spoke to his some of his colleagues and former contacts at IIM-Ahmedabad to see if they could help.
Would some of the brightest minds be willing to consider working on improving the situation of those at the bottom of the pyramid and solve some of the larger problems faced by society.
Can India be made more inclusive by channelising the best talent into bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Can we create a new generation of driven and socially minded entrepreneurs?
To start with, there were very few takers at any of the institutes.
Arya says that barely any students even came to listen to his initial pitch at IIM-A.
However, one of the IIM-A professors of the food and Agri-business management persuaded his students to come and attend a lecture by Arya.
The course already has a formal programme of immersion for students.
After this talk, 15 to 20 students signed up voluntarily, indicating their interest in the fellowship.
Soon after the Buddha Fellowship team started targeting other institutes.
Trips were made to the IITs and several of the IIMs and soon the first cohort of around 12 Buddha Fellows had signed up. Gajraj and Doreswamy belong to this first cohort.
Once students sign on, the fellowship team helps them do immersion programmes, work with organisations including NGOs that can help them learn more about the problems they are looking to solve and then hand-hold them as they branch out on their own.
Both Gajraj and Doreswamy are being paid a decent amount by the organisation they are currently associated with.
It's not what IIM graduates typically expect to earn, but it's enough to get by if one's needs are not unlimited.
"I may not be earning on a par with my peers but I look forward to work every day while many of them don't," says Doreswamy.
The response of students has been mixed with some of the first cohort dropping out of the programme as well.
"Trying to bring about a change in mindset is always very hard to do, but we have to stay at it", explains Arya.
He argues that for every ten students who realise this is not their cup of tea, there will be one that sticks and that one can make all the difference.
What's heartening is that slowly but surely the programme is gaining traction.
A second set of 42 students headed to Kumaon, Garhwal, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and MP in March this year to intern and some for an immersion programme from various IIMs and IITs.
The question the students need to answer is whether they feel passionate enough about solving some of the problems rural India faces and if this is where their future lies.
If the answer is yes, it has the power to eventually change the face of the country.