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Home is where the heart is

Sunday HT profiles young Indians who gave up promising careers abroad to come back — not to be part of a booming India Inc, but to make Swades a better place to live in.

india Updated: Nov 24, 2007 22:36 IST
Neha Tara Mehta

A lot, they say, can happen over coffee. This March, an idea was born over a cuppa that IIT-trained computer engineer Gaurav Kwatra, 26, had with his colleague and college junior, Sangram Kadam at Capital One, Washington, a
Fortune 500 company.

The idea was simple. Capital One had a large number of IITians on its payroll. Many wanted to do something for their "friends back home" — but did not know how to go about it. To address this, Gaurav, Sangram and another young IITian in the company, Devdatta Gangal, decided to form a group called My Friends Back Home (MFBH). To start with, they decided, the group would fund the education of a hundred slum children back home. And the projects would be monitored through the Capital One network in India — at zero administrative costs.

For the collection of cheques, Gaurav devised the '1-2-1-9-2-1' system. "By the 12th of every month — email reminders are sent out to people. By the 19th, the cheques are with us, and by the 21st, they are sent to the NGOs teaching the children," explains Gaurav.

But he wanted to do more. So this April, Gaurav left the US and the job he loved — designing financial strategies — and moved back to India to do more 'tangible' work. The computer engineer's career was rebooted with his current employer, the Public Health Foundation of India, where he is coordinating the setting up of seven public health institutes.

He has also started the Foundation of Blood Ailments. "By 2010, we aim to create a bone marrow databank of 2010 donors," he says. "Our Vision 2020 is zero Beta Thalassemia births in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Bangalore."

Every once in a while, the rank-20 IIT-ian steps out during PHFI's lunch hour to monitor schools run by NGOs Ssrishti and Sankalp, supported by MFBH. Working for a third of what he could have earned abroad, Gaurav has no regrets: "You are helping someone with each job. Credit cards help people make purchases. But this work seems more tangible," he says.

Public legislation, not private practice

A few kilometres away from Gaurav's office near Siri Fort, Harvard Law School alumnus Amlanjyoti Goswami, 29, is toiling hard on policy documents that aim to transform India into a knowledge superpower. Unlike many of his classmates, he chose not to work for stratospheric salaries in private law firms abroad, and after a year each at Harvard and Yale, he came to join the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) in India. Now, he works closely with NKC chairperson Sam Pitroda to draft legislations on public-funded research and policy documents on intellectual property rights, legal education, innovation and entrepreneurship.

"I am not a jingoist," says Amlan, who made the shift from New Haven to New Delhi. "I don't see myself as wearing khadi and going to Champaran." But, like Gaurav, he is fine with earning a fraction of what he could have, abroad. "My work has tangibility, relevance and immediacy in India," he feels.

But what about all the luxuries that come with being an overpaid legal eagle? "While money is important — my kitchen and car need to run and the books and music still need buying — I am not motivated by commercial considerations alone. If that means beating a different drum, so be it."

'Sacrifice, what sacrifice?'

On the 'wrong' side of law — and not regretting it, is Rachna Dhingra, 30, who left corporate America five years ago to move to Bhopal, to work for the survivors and families of the 1984 Union Carbide gas tragedy victims. As part of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, she initiates efforts for clean drinking water, generating employment and mobilising local and global communities to secure the rights of the survivors. In the process, she has been in and out of jail several times.

As a business administration student in Michigan, Rachna had volunteered actively with a group called the Association for India's Development (AID). "I had no clue that the Bhopal issue was still an issue," she says, "till a group of survivors came to Michigan to give a talk." It was perhaps a coincidence that soon after, Rachna joined Accenture — and her first client was Dow Chemicals, that had taken over Union Carbide. That's when she realised that her calling was in being
part of the gas tragedy victims' struggle.

It's been a long journey —from her plush office in the US to the dusty streets of Bhopal. But, as she puts it, "I haven't made a sacrifice or anything. This is the best thing that ever happened to me… If justice is done in Bhopal, we would set a precedent, and the world would be a safer place."

It's a similar passion that drives 28-year-old BITS Pilani-UT Austin alumna Madhulika Yelamanchili to live and work among the Bheel tribals in a Rajasthan village. The nearest email access facility for this telecommunication engineer is 30 km away. Over a crackling phone line, she cheerily describes a one-room house with a kuchcha floor she has rented from a Bheel family. 'Madhu-ji', as the Bheels call her, works with the Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan (MKS) and Lok Shikshan Sansthan, and recently, succeeded in getting minimum wages for families involved in construction work.

"I don't feel I am making a sacrifice at all — now. I did, when I was in the US for three years," she says. An active AID volunteer at Austin, she says, "I went to the US against my will — to make my parents happy." Her parents have now reconciled to the idea of her living in a village — but are not too happy about it.

So, will they quit India?

Mosquitoes, dust and open drains were UK-based IT consultant Min Amin's biggest fears when he moved back to India earlier this year. "If there's anything that can drive me out of the country, it will be the mosquitoes," he jokes. But since they seem to be biting him less these days, he's able to focus on promoting sustainable living and renewable energy in rural and urban India, and creating successful microfinance models.

Working out of Auroville, Min's earning a princely sum of Rs 5,000 a month. "Everyone thinks I am a raving lunatic," he says. "They say — 'You were making so much money there. You are crazy to have come back'."

Does he want to pack his bags and return? "Not at all. I returned for completely selfish reasons. I believe you cannot be happy if your surroundings are not happy — which is what I am trying to accomplish."