Update: We are currently inviting applications for the 2018 cohort of the Data for Impact Fellowship. Learn more and apply here!
I remember sitting on what was then my first train journey on the Fellowship – the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani on the 4th of January 2015. Winter in Mumbai was at one extreme in comparison to the one that awaited me in Delhi. Anything below 20 degrees Celsius was unnatural for an inhabitant from the coast. But thoughts around the temperatures weren’t the only things running amok through my head that afternoon.
Was the fellowship a wise decision? Would I be able to see it through to the end?
What kind of people would I be meeting? What business skills did I have and more importantly how good were they?
How’d I travel solo through these places I’d be assigned? Yeah, I heard myself asking this question too in spite of being a solo traveller!
Worst of all was the voice that went on and on with: “OMG! Delhi. OMG!! Delhi.” To the voice in my head’s respite, Delhi would be no more than a pit-stop during this six month journey.
I had quit my desk bound job in Mumbai in December in pursuit of a higher order goal – something, anything that would let me travel while I earned my bread, butter and bacon. That’s when I stumbled upon the Himsagar Fellowship. I’d at least secured my bread and the opportunity to travel with the end of taking technology to the grassroots.
(Read to know about how I found a cure to my restless feet syndrome)
A few things worked in my favour. I not only had an academic background but also relevant work experience of working with NGOs. That and travel. In spite of my anxieties, my entire decision to quit my desk job back in Mumbai had been fuelled by the incessant urge to be on the move. And here I was – the first Himsagar Fellow.
So questions one, two and three had been answered as quickly as they had been conceived. Well, not exactly but you get the drift. There was a counter-voice going equally strong in my head: ‘If something doesn’t scare you it probably isn’t worth doing’
In turn, I was glad for the opportunity to see the country for what it was rather than what it was made out to be. Travel lends itself to a form of learning that formal education does not. Not just about the world around you but also the one within you.
For the most part I wasn’t being an expert during my meetings. I wasn’t one; nor was I expected to be one. I was merely essaying a facilitator’s role; one that was enabling the NGO’s understanding of how to digitize their data collection by using, Collect – SocialCops’ tool for data management. And in turn it is the NGOs who’ve taken me by surprise. The range in the innovation they aspire to layer on to their existing projects is immense – someone wants to measure and track the absorptive capacity of water bodies in the state whereas another wants to power real time data on the prevalence on tuberculosis across different states in the country.
Being intuitive seemed to teach me what I needed to know about this role on the go. I began to listen in to what was being said and what was being implied. The power of ideas is immense and as leaders within the NGOs I was meeting, grasped the transformative power of going paperless in their data management processes, they ideated and thought out aloud along with me.
“Can I peg my data to not just know of what has and is happening but also know of possible trends?” “Can I understand the prevalence of the issue we are working on across other parts of India?” I was learning how important it was to be mindful to these cues. After all this is what saw me through my interactions with CEOs and their deputies at the NGOs I visited. I was constantly meeting senior management whose organizations in all probability were as old as me. If there was a place to be a smart alec, this wasn’t it!
I was guided by nothing but the desire to reach maximum number of organizations at the grassroots which meant going beyond the capital city – going where I otherwise may not have considered venturing into. From organizations in far flung Kishanganj along the Bihar – West Bengal border, Bastar in Chhattisgarh and Kalahandi in Odisha I learnt of how they were making accessible government schemes and topping those with supplementary programs to ensure that services reached those who needed it the most.
(As I met with close to 50 NGOs over 5 weeks in Bihar, I realized that right there was a crash course on Leadership – a 101 module – for me. Here’s what I learnt)
My reward was in the warmth and hospitality that was extended to me everywhere – from Bihar to West Bengal to Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. From “You are like the breeze – going off from not just one place to the other but even travelling across states” to “It’s incredible how a company like yours sends you out like this. Thank you for coming all the way here to not just introduce us to this but also walking us through this solution” – I seem to have heard it all.
It’s true that not very many people can claim to have travelled through six Indian states in five months and meeting over 150 non-profit organizations at one go – that too solo. It’s a journey that’s involved 17 train journeys and innumerable bus rides. It’s been a journey celebrating food in all its diversity around the country as much as it has been of festivals – Pongal in Patna (who’d have thought?) and my first Holi ever at Santiniketan.
The conclusion to my travelogue? I say, if you step outside and give India a chance, you’ll see how incredible she is!
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