How this activist from Kanpur is transforming youngsters into agents of changeSnigdha Sinha
Prakhar Bhartiya’s parents belonged to a small village near Kanpur. The year he was born, his parents decided to move to Kanpur to enroll him in one of the top schools in the city. It overlooked a slum where Prakhar would often see children just like him, but who never went to school. During his summer holidays every year, Prakhar’s parents would take him back to their village, which didn’t have electricity or basic sanitation. The stark differences began bothering the young boy.
Prakhar, now 30, tells us these observations were his first brush with inequity, especially when it came to education. Clearly, the seeds of what he does today and his unconventional career choices, were sown while he was a little boy.In the age where we’re moving from Wi-Fi to Li-Fi, Prakhar’s village still doesn’t have electricity and basic sanitation. How out of touch are we with that India?
While in college, Prakhar started Youth Alliance, a group for young Indians to do their bit for social causes. In 2009, Prakhar became part of the first cohort of Fellows at Teach For India. In 2011, he revived Youth Alliance and formally registered it to build a movement of empathic leaders equipped to innovatively solve India’s problems.
Prakhar went to Ghaziabad (Uttar Pradesh) to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
There were 2,500 students in my college and hardly 25 of them actually knew why they were pursuing engineering. You study electrical engineering for four years, and then an IT company recruits you to do Java coding! Where’s the logic in that? Then the other thing that always nagged me was the whole gap between rural and urban India. I thought it very odd that we have such a resource pool of youth who can do wonders for rural India but they are so far away from the harsh ground reality. I thought that once they become aware, they will want to do something about it
, Prakhar says.
Hoping to bring about change, Prakhar set up Youth Alliance (YA). They began with activities like tree plantation, cleaning drive, water saving campaign etc. Getting deeper into the scene in 2009, Prakhar associated with Janagraha’s (Tata Tea) Jaago Re campaign and took charge of the Ghaziabad region. The idea was to inspire the youth to sign up for voter IDs for the forthcoming general elections. The campaign was a huge success and it inspired Prakhar to start working with the youth and make them aware of the great divide between rural and urban India.Then, Teach For India came knocking at the opportune moment. It gave Prakhar a chance to work with underserved communities and understand their problems. He adds, “I joined TFI because I wanted to understand the needs of ‘Bharat,’ the real India. I wanted to connect with these people, be a part of their lives and eventually find a way to connect youth and this India, where they would be problem solvers.” The colleagues at TFI were young like-minded individuals, striving to make a dent as a change maker. It strengthened Prakhar’s belief about the power of youth.
The classroom and community gave him the opportunity to learn more about the basic issues that are ignored by the government and society.
Being a teacher is a phenomenal experience and one of the toughest ones. I realised that it’s important to ‘practice what you preach’. It was a kind of experimental lab for me and helped me understand my inner self,
says Prakhar. The most important takeaway from the Fellowship was that it is important to change from the inside in order to bring change outside.
Rejuvenating Youth Alliance
The two years at TFI gave Prakhar confidence, clarity and exposure to kick-start YA with more focus.
It has two flagship programmes: Gramya Manthan, currently in its fifth year of operation, is a nine-day residential programme to sensitise urban youth about rural India through village immersion and on-ground action in Kanpur Dehat, and the second programme is called ONUS. It is a year-long transformation journey designed for college students to enable them to go on an exploratory journey to discover their leadership and entrepreneurial skills. YA organises several workshops on design thinking, resource mobilisation, effective communication etc., as skill-building exercises. ONUS Fellows work on community projects aimed at solving a certain problem.
Award money has been a major source of funding – ‘Google For Entrepreneurs’ Awards, Rhodes Youth Forum, to name a few. YA has also partnered with organisations like Pravah, CYC, Goonj and has received financial support from them. Over last couple of years, YA’s programmes have been funded by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UNV, and National Foundation of India.Some part of the financial help comes from individuals and alumni. Prakhar adds, “Our advisory board has been a huge support. We also charge fees for our programme and that makes around 25 to 30 percent of our total budget.”
The stories that inspire
Since its formal inception, YA has worked with over 350 people directly. Its alumni run around 35 initiatives of different kinds in different organisations. Eighty of them are now working in the social development space. Prakhar quotes examples of youth who strived hard to do what they want with YA. Pallavi, for example, was a girl from a rich family. She had to fight tooth and nail to convince her family about her decision to work in the social sector. Another such girl who was a part of the Gramya Manthan programme is now is working in education sector in Bihar.Uphill climb
On challenges YA has faced, Prakhar explains, “Our work is purely around mindset change and it takes time. So, measuring impact becomes really difficult and hence funding becomes a difficult thing.”
Another challenge is explaining YA to parents, because the programmes lead their wards on an introspective journey to carve their own path which may differ from a parent’s vision. The same applied to his family as well, in the beginning. Over time, his family has seen the work he is doing, the joy it brings him, and they’ve supported him fully.Weaning off YA
Prakhar plans to hand over Youth Alliance’s reins to someone else after three years of full-time engagement. He explains,
The organisation should spread like an idea and nurture young role models and social entrepreneurs. After this I will work with youth only but on a more rigorous way by setting up an institution which will run a programme on ‘nation building’. May be an ‘Indian School of Democracy’ that becomes a fulltime residential programme for youngsters who want to strengthen Indian democracy by being part of its four pillars: Judiciary, Executive, Legislative and Media.
His life’s aim is to work for his dream of a more humane, dignified and just world. “It’s a long process and it might take couple of centuries or more to happen and I see my role as someone who can just plant the seeds with love, trust and hope”, Prakhar adds.