By QUEENY MAHAJAN
Empathy Connects conducts travel programmes to rural India that combine recreation with cultural events, social movements and experiential learning
The joys of travelling are multifold – it broadens horizons, challenges notions, and offers avenues to meet new people.
The love for travel, when combined with a social purpose, can create enriching and enlightening experiences, which Nitesh Sachan and Nitin Dhakad, engineers by profession and social entrepreneurs by passion, aim to offer.
Their enterprise, Empathy Connects, was formed in 2016, and organises experiential travel programmes that connect and engage individuals with existing social development movements and cultural events across India.
“Our mission is to create informed citizens with an experience of grassroots realities. Motivated individuals are connected with these movements through travel, internships, and cultural immersion programmes,” says Nitin.
A typical package costs between Rs 5000 and Rs 10,000, and gives participants a first-hand experience of issues encompassing three components over a span of three to four days.
The main components are:
Social Exposure: The programmes offer extensive interaction with social movements and local leaders.
Cultural Exposure: Offering an insight to the daily routine of people in rural areas, the travel programmes have home-stays, and a showcase of local festivals, traditions, dance, music and food.
Personal Exposure: The programmes have group activities to explore answers to questions faced by the youth, such as personal ambitions, career goals, challenges, and the art of balancing one’s passion and responsibilities.
“The primary nature of the participants is that of social-consciousness. We think that travelling is the best way to learn it experientially and henceforth we want to give motivated youth a chance to travel to grassroots and learn about realities,” says Nitin, explaining the idea behind the programmes.
Nitesh is a graduate from the Vellore Institute of Technology, and was working with Wipro as a software engineer in Gurgaon, when he observed the anti-corruption movement in 2011. In a bid to explore opportunities to contribute to the development sector in the country, Nitesh left his job and was selected in the first batch of SBI Youth for India fellowship.
For a deeper understanding of complex social issues and to strengthen his skills, he pursued a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and worked in Kolkata-based Parivaar Education Society before starting his own venture.
An electrical engineer, Nitin hails from a small village in Rajasthan where his family is involved in farming. While studying at IIT Roorkee, he often visited other rural areas to understand grassroots’ problems and development models of different initiatives. During his summer internship, he travelled to tribal villages in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh.
Nitin and Nitesh met when both were seeking work opportunities. They decided to create a platform to bridge gaps in people’s perceptions of varied societies and realities. Nitin went on to complete his graduation, and was placed in Cognizant as a data analyst. However, he chose not to join and started Empathy Connects with Nitesh.
Bridging the gap
The educational system comprehensively describes and explains rural life, and the culture and customs, but it offers no opportunity for students to experience it.
“Socially conscious youth of the country plays a crucial role in development of the country. Their decisions in the fields of policy making, civil services, engineering, businesses, product design and various other fields affect masses. It becomes really important for them have an empathic understanding of the masses on other end,” says Nitin.
It was the commitment to make people sensitive and not just aware, especially the youth, that built the foundation for empathy connects. “Today, we are living in a highly mechanical world. Empathy is what differentiates us as humans,” adds Nitesh.
The journey so far
Nitin and Nitesh’s Empathy Connects executed travel programmes under Halma Yatra and Uttar Yatra for 30 participants each in March and May this year.
Halma is a tradition of the Bhil tribe where the community comes together to help a member fight troubles. This concept was reinvigorated by Shivganga, an organisation working for holistic development of tribal areas in Jhabua district since the last 10 years.
To give an understanding of the Halma tradition, Empathy Connects partnered with the Shivganga team, which gave participants the opportunity to witness how individual and collective efforts are being channeled to solve problems on the ground.
As part of the travel programme, participants saw how tribal men and women made rain water harvesting structures, and observed the efficiency of day-to-day activities, their discipline, the dedication and their time-management skills.
“When belief in culture is very strong with a feeling of togetherness among individuals, it can do miracles and Halma was the live example of this,” says Mukul Kaushik, an IIT Roorkee graduate, who was a participant in the programme.
Empathy Connects’ Uttar Yatra partnered with Goonj in its rehabilitation efforts in the remote village of Syaba in Uttarakhand in the aftermath of the floods. An interactive session was organised with village dwellers and farmers to understand their struggles and challenges, as also experience their hospitality.
“It brought us to thinking together to change our identities from going as problem solvers to rather as perceivers, experiencing and sharing in an exchange to learn and build connections,” says Mohita Jaiswal, Software Engineer, Cognizant, a participant in Uttar Yatra.
The travel programmes saw participation of people from diverse backgrounds, including social workers, entrepreneurs, students, corporate professionals, stock traders, and professors.
“The best part was that the journey pushed us out of our comfort zone, broke out monotonous life and inspired us to work harder,” says Angad Singi, Founder and CEO of Lithos motors, Pune, another participant explaining his takeaway from the tour.