Sometime, in mid 2007, a worried Dr. Rohit Wanchoo, my Professor of Russian History, worriedly questioned me about my indifference towards the pursuit of academic excellence. I promptly replied “Dr. Wanchoo,I shall do the right things at the right time.” Honestly, I myself couldn’t make any sense of that sentence that I had, rather impulsively, let out.
With such kind of a callous attitude I managed to complete my 3 years at the St.Stephens College in New Delhi. Unlike most of my peers, I had neither been able to achieve academic eminence nor did I manage to gather a defined roadmap for my future. Interestingly, I have never felt the need for a structured plan for my own life.
However, everytime I am asked about my present work with children, I inevitably attribute its seed to my learning in college. It would be a tough task for anyone to comprehend the ancestry of such learning amidst the imprints of mediocrity on my University mark sheets. But somehow, it was inside the womb of that old cambridge institution, that I came to realize the very essence of being the person I am now. As Tharoor, an old Stephenian himself, in one of his articles, points out the lasting effects of the Stephanian atmosphere and rich history, its student body and teaching staff, its sense of itself and how that sense was communicated to each individual character in the Stephanian story.
When I look back, I remember the values the college had instilled in me, in the classroom and outside of it. For me, probably more important than attending classes, were the late night conversations on the middle eastern conflict, unending arguments over North India’s step brotherly treatment towards the Northeast, discussing the plight of children in the impoverished African continent, listening to the intriguing stories of the Tibetian freedom movement and understanding the cultural significance of Onam and Mim Kut. These are some of those valuable moments that helped me make sense of my own self in relation to this big world. In the midst of sleeplessness, I had learnt the meanings of inclusivity, freedom, justice and cultural expression.
My tenure as Vice President of Stephens in 2007-2008, afforded me the opportunity to travel to the US in 2008, as a part of a student leaders’ programme called the Study of the United States Institutes for Student Leaders, funded by the US Department of State. Apart from covering a range of subjects on leadership, this particular programme had community service as a crucial component. I had the chance to volunteer with the Kent Senior Citizens Center and the St.Leo’s Food Connection for people in need projects in Seattle, while gaining perspective on other aspects of community service in America.
Upon my return to India, after this over a month programme, there were several moments of retrospection that made me mull over the poor quality of services that my country had for all its people who are in need an comparing them with the outstanding social services in the US. I felt a deep sense of melancholy every time I saw little children begging on the Lodi Road traffic light junction, homeless children cleaning the platforms of railway stations and impoverished infants living, with their families, on the insecure pavements of Darya Ganj. On numerous occasions my call for intervention, to Government and Non Government agencies, fell on deaf ears. Without discounting the efforts made by the civil society, I felt my country still lacked enough service provisions to ensure justice to a huge section of its citizens who were in need of care and protection. Often dejected by systemic maladies, I got lost into a world of cavernous thoughts and endless introspection. Out of college for over four months then, I started missing the secure warmth of my friends, classmates and teachers. My Stephanian ethos were in constant conflict with the realities of the world outside. However, I did manage to keep myself engaged with an American community research project and a Senior citizens welfare programme for the next two years. Both the engagements also helped be gain deep insights into the complex issues faced by various communities in India.
Around October 2010, I had the rare opportunity of meeting the Former President of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, at his 10 Rajaji residence in New Delhi. Through the first half of this, over-an-hour, meeting I set myself upon an unremitting monologue expressing regret over the poor system of services in my country, the ineffectiveness of our government, apathy of the average Indian and how the idea of goodness had lost its value amidst the concreteness of Indian cities. After patiently hearing me out for over twenty minutes, Dr. Kalam, in his disturbingly composed demeanour, looked straight into my eyes and questioned me : “Miguel, what are YOU doing to address these issues of your own country?” I had no answer to his very simple question. Infact, it was most unsettling for me to realize that I didn’t have an instant answer, right and on time.
Before I could gather adequate words to construct a suitable response, Dr. Kalam instructed me to speculate and find a solution to the many problems that my country had been afflicted with. He made me understand that even though many things had gone wrong in this country, there were still other things that could go right. Those many things could go right only if young people, like me, understood the the right values and collectively got down to the task of Nation building. ” It is easier to sit in a drawing room, arguing about the illiteracy amongst Indian children, than to actually start teaching a group of children in the neighbouring slum area”, he remarked.
This valued conversation made me realize that without my direct contribution the idea of a developed India remains incomplete. I am an integral part of that marvellous edifice that makes India a great Nation. I also understood that a country’s destiny rests upon the effective contribution of each and every member of its society. With a sense of determination, I returned to Assam, my home state, and founded UTSAH, an Organization dedicated to the welfare of children who are in need of care and protection, in early 2011. Children being the torch bearers of the country’s future, I believed, needed to be nurtured in an environment of love, protection and care.
In a country, where thousands of children are having to live in extreme conditions of deprivation, where women are raped in every 20 minutes, where every 8th urban child (0-6) lives in a slum area, where a woman dies a dowry death every hour, where 40% of the total number of world child brides reside and where 50% of its people do not have sanitation facilities, I am morally obligated towards fulfilling my responsibility of helping my own kinds come out of such grievous predicaments. I cannot afford the luxury of sitting back complaining endlessly about the inadequacies of the system. Rather, I should be competent enough to take that extra step, walk that extra mile, to change the system progressively. Yesterday, I merely complained about the ills of child labour in Guwahati city and how the Government had failed to do anything about it. Today, in a small way, I savour a sense of fulfilment after personally rescuing over 50 child labourers and providing education for over 120 children living in the slum areas of the same city.
I believe, the civil society is one of the strongest drivers of change in any societal system. For a society to thrive, all its citizens must act as live agents of change, well versed with their responsibility of nation building. Being the power house of talent and innovation, the youth of our Nation can be an unimaginable vehicle of transformation. Each one of us should have the conscience to come out from the confines of our mercenary, individualized lives and contribute collectively to address the many issues faced by our society. Without disregarding the varied individual sense of achievement of every human being, I believe in a developing country like India, it is fundamental to realize the essence of collective achievement.
Civil society action or social work is not about having stylized degrees from reputed Universities. It is not a form of charity, delivered by the majestic haves for the base have-nots. Nor is it about establishing NGO’s with extensive MOA’s. Social work is about physically reaching out to the many that have, by accident of fate or destiny, been pushed into the dark margins of the society that we all live in. Such actions can only be guided by the values and education we’ve acquired in our respective academes and in the journey of our own lives. My education has taught me to empathize with the poor, to cry at every incident of abuse towards children, to extend my hand to the needy, to be angry with oppression and to raise my voice against injustice. An education system that fails to ignite compassion is no education at all. A qualification that fails to beget a sense of service has no quality at all. A human being that fails to understand humanity is no human at all.
In the development sector of Assam, we are in urgent need of energetic young people with pan-Indian outlooks, well-rounded education, eclectic social interests and a questioning spirit to challenge the status quo of the existing and deficient system. There are several moments of despair, specially in terms of funding opportunities, where we accept finite disappointment. However, with determined consistency, perseverance and hard work, there are infinite opportunities that pave the way out towards success and achievement. The need of the hour demands that we have more conscious young citizens committed to a life of social service. In a society where the social order is at the brink of a collapse, it is the right time for us to wake up from the slumber of apathy and start working collectively towards preserving the social health of our Nation, we call our own.
Imagine had the young Gandhi never returned from London! Imagine had the young Kanaklata never lead that march at Gohpur! Imagine the young Teresa mulling over the sad plight of Indian children sitting in the comforts of the Macedonian summer!
All of them believed in doing the right things at the right time.
I believe, so should you.
“You will never win if you never begin.”- Rowland.