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  Volunteer Tales >> Breed apart: Dumping dollar dreams to work for the heart

Breed apart: Dumping dollar dreams to work for the heart

By Archana Sharma /TNN

Mumbai: No one expected Avantika Akerkar to return to Mumbai after spending almost two decades in the US. But one morning, soon after her graduation, she was back. Her friends were surprised, but that was just the beginning. 

More surprises were in store. Instead of becoming a part of the swish set (her father Rahul Akerkar is the owner of Indigo), Avantika took on the role of a crusader. She formed Netra (Networking for Transport Alternatives), an consortium of likeminded NGOs campaigning for a better mass transport system. Her earlier work with high-profile NGOs in the US such as Elizabeth Taylor’s American Foundation for AIDS Research will obviously help. 

 Avantika is among the new breed of activists who could have landed a plum corporate job with its dollarperks, but chose not to. These foreign-returned youngsters, who have redefined the image of the typical jholawallah do-gooder, prefer instead to join NGOs and work for the uplift of society. Their motto is to follow their heart—be it in slums or urban conservation, protecting public spaces or crusading for animal rights. 

 Consider 23-year-old Aditi Thorat, who decided to join SPARC, an NGO working for slum-dwellers, after completing her masters in Oxford University. While most of her classmates have landed highflying jobs in the financial institutions, she settled for the “non-profit sector’’. “One can have a meaningful and fulfilling career in this emerging sector as well,’’ she says. Her aim? “To act as a bridge between financial institutions, government and the informal world of slums.’’ 

But the decision to pursue altruism is usually met with questions and scepticism. “People keep asking me if this is not a part-time job. They want to know when I will take up a proper job,’’ says a peeved Aditi. 

Sheel Desai’s decision to join People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on a full-time basis met with a similar reaction. The 26-yearold, who did his post-graduation in international relations from the US, manages PETA’s membership programme for a meagre salary of around Rs 5,000. 

Sheel’s close ones also raised their eyebrows when they heard that instead of joining high-profile policymaking institutes, he is working for animals. “I had a lot of answering to do,’’ he admits. “Though not a diehard animal lover, I identify with the cause PETA stands for. Money is not the sole driving point in life.’’ He is looking forward to a massive enrolment drive, to be kicked off next month. 

Similarly, Devika Mahadevan, who did her undergrad at the States followed by a master’s degree in development studies from the London School of Economics, chose to work in the slums. She also has been working with SPARC. “It’s a humbling experience,’’ says Devika. “You live in two different worlds in a way. Without having to change your social status or denying yourself, you have a role to play in changing the life of those not very privileged.’’ 

 Asked what drove her to form Netra, Avantika says, “Strangely, I got sensitised about the environment around me after I left Mumbai. Until then I was just a boarding school brat.’’ 

Chief functionary of PETA, Anuradha Sawhney, says they are in the process of selecting a woman who studied in Harvard and wants to work as a campaign co-ordinator. “She heard one of our leading campaigners speak at Harvard a year and a half ago. So when her marriage to a Mumbaikar brought her here she decided that she will work with us.’’ 

Neera Punj, convenor of Citizens for Protection of Public Space (Citispace), feels living outside your country brings out the patriotic instinct in you. “Also, once these kids live out of India, they find the system working there. They immediately ask why can’t it work in my country.’’ And that triggers a conviction to make a difference. 

Concurs Sawhney, “They don’t just work because it’s their job. They ignore plum assignments and join our NGOs to follow their hearts. So they are more dedicated.’’