From living through experiences of first-hand poverty to rising well above its harsh effects, Dinesh Kumar Gautam chose to go back to his roots despite a lucrative career. Today, his foundation works towards educating poor children and empowering women with healthcare across seven States.
Leading an early life of struggle, Dinesh, 40, never had anything come easy. Born in Gubana village, Haryana, financial difficulties were a constant presence in the family. To better conditions, his family moved to the Najafgarh area in Delhi. But with losses in the family business, Dinesh was forced to join a government school and carry out petty chores as a teenager to support his personal expenses and education. Recalling the days that moulded him into the person he is today, he says “I worked in private buses as a helper, went door to door selling products, supplied pan masala to vendors. I've done it all. During those days, I interacted with that layer in society that only thought of survival and nothing beyond. This sparked a curiosity and a desire in me to help them.”
Going on to study journalism and obtain a diploma in the field from National Institute of Mass Communication, he took up a job with a leading Hindi daily and began working for the social issues beat along with crime reporting.
However, the memories of coming across sections that had nothing to aspire for from life, no quality education or even basic amenities constantly hung around. These thoughts together with the tough times he lived through triggered Dinesh’s desire to work for social causes while he just a teenager. “During my tenure as a journalist I visited many places like Alwar and Bharatpur, in the Mewat district of the Rajasthan, and it was there that I realized the lack of proper education, especially, for the girl child.”
Stunned by the dismaying conditions, Dinesh began working and educating the kids in 1998 and then established New Delhi Education Society, a free middle school in Alwar the very next year. At only 19, he worked to educate nearly 187 children while managing his job as a journalist up until 2003. “With the support of the Panchayat in the village, I undertook many initiatives for the empowerment of children through education, but my personal responsibilities grew. I got married and also switched jobs, as a result of which I decided to shut down the school with a heavy heart in 2004.”
A passion for social work had sprouted by now, and between the years 2004 and 2011, Dinesh undertook co-curricular activities for the slum kids in Delhi, also working on various other initiatives. Wholly invested in his interest of teaching underprivileged kids he also put in extra hours after work.
In 2012, Dinesh shifted to Ahmedabad determined to continue his work in a structured way and went on to establish Drishti Foundation Trust. “I named my foundation after my daughter to show the world that daughters are a family’s pride and not a burden. There’s a saying, ‘Bhagwan betiya unhi ko deta hai, jinki haisiyat ho unhe sambhalne ki (God blesses only those with a girl child who can afford to take care of them)’. I was blessed with a girl child, and only then did I find success,” he proudly expresses.
Today, Drishti Foundation Trust runs two schools in the Jawahar Camp slum area, Delhi, and Vatva slum, Ahmedabad. These schools help children understand different subjects and function in unused spaces offered by supportive individuals. “We have from nursery to senior secondary, and apart from academics and co-curricular, we also focus on personality development and skill training. Many of the underprivileged get the education, but, they are not taught the etiquette, mannerism, and other personality traits needed to get a decent job. So, we organise various personality development and image consultancy workshops for them,” Dinesh explains.
Apart from education, Drishti Foundation has also ventured into women's healthcare, with a primary focus on dental and oral health. Specifically choosing to work for dental care, Dinesh elucidates, “In rural areas, on an average, there’s just one dentist for one lakh people and medical insurance doesn’t cover dental expenses. Moreover, the fluoride content in the water they consume is so high that it is posing threat to all age groups. Also, dental check-ups and treatments are expensive, and because of this they have no choice but to suffer.”
This motivated Dinesh and his team of volunteer doctors to undertake the cause, zealously conducting free dental check-ups and care camps in the seven states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Mumbai and Sikkim. The Foundation has also set up a dental clinic in Sector-31 of Gurugram for patients who cannot afford treatment in private hospitals, also initiating camps and programmes on oral cancer.
What comes as the biggest surprise is that right from the stage of inception and up until now, Dinesh has managed every project with his own money, investing most, if not all, of his salary as the marketing head of a healthcare company, on the activities Drishti conducts. This is the biggest challenge Dinesh faces on a personal level with almost no savings, but with a supportive wife and daughter he considers himself blessed. “We do not accept any government grant although we have necessary approvals and the eligibility. Instead, I arrange for resources by collaborating with different organisations that can help in some way. We have a general understanding that everything comes with a price tag, which is wrong. There are people who are quite willing to provide resources without commercial considerations.”
With this, Dinesh opens up on the importance of bringing the community together to contribute in social work. “Drishti Foundation Trust does not have any employees, only volunteers. Also, we do not believe in cash donations. Instead, we are just bridging the gap between the donor and the needy. There are so many governmental schemes for the underprivileged and almost every company has a set budget for its CSR activities. However, they are not being directed in the right direction and that’s exactly what I am doing. Even for the CSR activities of the companies, I insist employee engagement so that they can see the ground reality, which motivates them to take up a social cause at an individual level.”
The entirely volunteer-driven organisation has over 1,000 volunteers who are otherwise engaged in full-time professions, and nearly 600 volunteer senior dentists, with five or more years of experience. Working on a rotation model, these volunteers teach children every day and tend to women suffering from social and dental issues. In doing so, they have made a difference in the lives of over 15,000 children and 20,000 women.
Currently, the foundation also trains the poor and illiterate on how to use their mobiles for monetary transactions, as part of their MobiShala campaign. The idea was conceptualised during the demonetisation, when the weaker sections were worst hit with no knowledge on to use technology for trade.
“It is easy to complain about the inefficiencies of the government for everything but citizens like us also need to chip in at an individual level. Change can happen in the long run with these small steps we take in the present,” Dinesh concludes.
Individuals like Dinesh teach us that to bring in change you don't necessarily have to be part of an NGO, you can step out and be an NGO all by yourself.