Jagriti Yatra: 500 youth, 1 train & masala chai every day

A Frenchie walks into an Indian train, and stays 15 days

Dinh-Long Pham
12 min readAug 31, 2019
Our home for 15 days. Photo credit: Pramod

Along with 490 young Indian changemakers and 9 other international participants, I visited the pioneers of social entrepreneurship in India on a 15-day “Awakening Journey” (or Jagriti Yatra, in Hindi), last winter. It was an experience untouched by time and I realised 7 things that I try to keep with me.

Jagriti Yatra:

500 youth, 1 train & masala chai every day…

The 490 Indian youth came from all over the country — from the remote areas of Tamil Nadu to the capital Delhi or the tribal communities of Jharkhand — to embark on a collective journey that will inspire and empower them to build the future of India, through social entrepreneurship.

We’ll stay 15 days altogether in a non-AC sleeper train where we would sleep, attend conferences, drink chai and eat dal fry, play Uno and queue for the bucket showers every day. And we will travel 8,000 km to visit 15 role models in 12 different cities: Yaaron Chalo!

Our itinerary across India and all the 2018 Yatris!

… & 1 guiding question.

Throughout the journey, Shashank would invite Indian Yatris to reflect on the following question: “What do you want the world to remember India for and how can you contribute?” because that’s the same question Shashank has been reflecting on ever since he has created the “longest entrepreneurial train journey in the world”, more than a decade ago. His answer? He wants India to be remembered for a country that cares about sustainable development and leaving no one behind. So that Indians can all thrive together harmoniously, regardless of their hometown, caste, gender, wealth, job or education.

So… what do I remember India for?

I remember 7 things:

There is always time to pause.

January 6th — I wake up, along with the other 499 Yatris, to the melody of Hindi songs coming out of the train sound system. We’ve been hearing these wake-up songs every day, for the past 13 days — and I start to hate them as much as I know them by heart. I remove my eye mask, I check my phone: it’s 6 am. I go back to sleep.

What definitely wakes me up are my compartment bhaiyas (bros, in Hindi) putting more and more masala chais on my bunk bed: “Faci, wake up! We got you some chai”. The entire train also wakes up: I can hear all the people passing through our compartment in every possible direction. More and more Yatris are heading to the bucket showers, hoping that there is still water left. “Saaaayte, saayte” yell the chaiwalas, who are struggling to cross the train against the flow with their huge thermos full of chai and coffee.

I open my eyes. As always, Hitesh is already in a lotus position, doing his meditation routine. Sitting between a big suitcase and a sleeping Ramo, he is totally imperturbable and has yet to discover this morning chaos. As always, Rajiv had already opened the window and was staring at the moving landscape: this is his moment, one of the few moments when he can talk to himself during these crazy days. And as always, I get down from my bunk bed: it’s time for our daily group check-in, to set our intentions and share our expectations for the day. It’s also time to drink all my chais.

This is his moment. But he still spotted me.

Life in the train is hectic: the only moments when you are alone and have some me-time are 1) in the toilets and 2) when you force yourself to. Actually, during the first few days, I’ll always get a big FOMO every time I’ll go to the restroom! Because there is always someone to talk to or something to do and it’s easy to forget to breathe, to look at the surrounding landscapes or just to think about what’s going on. It’s the same in our everyday life; we barely have 20 minutes for ourselves. So relax, and enjoy the ride! There is always time to pause.

Each person is amazing.

After the check-in, it’s time to get out of the train! As soon as we step out, local musicians welcome us on the platform to the beats of drums and escort us to the buses. It’s around 8 am and most of the Yatris are already on fire, showing their latest Bollywood moves to the crowd. Dancing is a serious business here!

(it’s 7 am)

We board dozens of buses waiting for us next to the station, taking us to the role model of the day. During our almost daily bus rides, Yatris share with me how their region and culture is unique, how Punjabi weddings are the best, how India is unique, how there are so many Indian hardcore CEOs (Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Adobe, among others!), and how you must first study engineering before deciding what you really want to do (or it happens after your MBA!).

Above all, they are so excited to share their ideas and actions to change India. Bus rides during the JY are just full of people sharing their vision of India and how they aim to solve India’s social or environmental issues.

It’s overwhelmingly stimulating and I’m always like:

  • “shit, you are 20 and have launched 2 startups already!?”
  • or: “wooow, millions of Indians applied to that school and you were among the 100 people who got accepted!?”
  • or “you exited your first company at 14!???”
  • or even: “oooh you opened 50 learning centres in your community and you even organise every year a festival to preserve tribal communities’ culture and traditions and you are also married with 2 kids and you are only 20!?”.

If you feel tired or hopeless, just take the bus with some Yatris and you’ll get your shot of energy for the day — guaranteed! My secret game was to discover everyone’s proudest achievements and moments: from starting a business to having learned a Bollywood choreography from Youtube videos or writing poems every day. I know I win when people start to have sparkling eyes and cannot stop talking! People are amazing: the game is to find their amazingness!

Intuition knows.

Today, we are visiting Bunker Roy at his Barefoot College in Tilonia. Since 1972, they have been empowering women from the poorest villages in 96 countries with skills they would bring back to their communities, such as engineering, IT, leadership or financial skills.

Bunker Roy tells us about the Solar Training Program, their flagship initiative: they train illiterate grandmas (called “Solar Mamas”) to electrify their hometowns with solar panels. The Solar Mamas come to Tilonia from all around the world to follow a 6-month solar engineering course, mostly conducted in sign and body language — there is no common language! The Solar Mamas leave Tilonia with the technical skills and, above all, the self-confidence to install solar panels back home.

His talk is over — it’s time to thank him the Jagriti Yatra way: on the first day, we have to learn the Yaaron Chalo choreography and song that we’ll basically perform every day, to close our role model visits. Yaaron Chalo is a song that was specifically created for the Jagriti Yatra and is a big component of the Yatri identity during the journey. As much as I try to remember the lyrics, I always just end up singing “la la la” because it’s all in Hindi!

After the Yaaron Chalo, Bunker Roy invites us to walk around the Barefoot College campus. You can see solar cooking stoves, pictures of Solar Mamas, people selling handicrafts made onsite, and Solar Mamas walking around in their traditional clothes. I get the chance to chit chat with 2 indigenous women from Mexico (Nahuas) and 2 women from Ivorian ethnic minorities. It’s their last day; they will soon head back and change the life of their village — as 2200 Solar Mamas did before them.

I ask Bunker Roy: how do you select the Solar Mamas? He smiles, looks down to his big belly, covers it with his right hand and says: “he knows. I just feel it here”.

So follow your intuition, and trust your belly!

Left: My turban was falling apart while speaking to Bunker Roy! / Right: solar cooking stoves

Anywhere is a dancefloor.

Speaking about belly, it’s lunchtime. There are 100+ cooking staff who stay with us on the train, taking care of all the food we eat: breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. They either serve the food inside the train or on the platform. When we are out visiting role models, they just move everything where we are. But today is a special day: one of my group members actually lives on the Barefoot College campus! So we skip the JY lunch for a more intimate Group 5 team lunch with her family. On the menu: a lot (a lot) of homemade chapatis, Rajasthani dances, juggling practices and me saying all the politically correct Hindi I learned to impress her family.

I just love this

Indians have a very different relation to dancing than everywhere I’ve been (closest I’ve seen are Benin and Mexico): it’s in their blood. Dancing really is a serious business here! They just start to dance as soon as they hear music, regardless of where they are — in the premises of Aravind Eye Care Hospital, on train platforms, inside the train, on cricket fields, in the streets — and regardless of the time — 7 am, 4 pm, 11 pm, same same na.

Also, I could stare at Indians dancing for a whole day: yes, I’m hypnotised by Bollywood choreographies. Actually, they won’t let you just stare at them: they’ll add you to their circle, give you the “instructions” (like: “bhaiya, just pretend you remove a light bulb with the right hand and you open a drawer with the left hand”). It sounds cute, I know, but it’s really, REALLY, intense and I wonder how much calories you burn after removing thousands of virtual light bulbs.

All of this is so different in the 2 countries I’m from (France & Vietnam), where people usually don’t start to dance randomly in public (and in private). Why not? I just love that Indians dance anywhere, anytime, no matter what: it’s totally normal. Anywhere is a dancefloor!

Each person is amazing… and full of surprising talents.

Time’s up in Tilonia, we are heading back to the train for evening talks in the dedicated “conference room wagon”. Bus rides are also a special time to “book” people you want to chat with, and be sure not to be interrupted. I booked Justine, a French girl I met the first day but didn’t have time to have a 1-on-1 conversation with. The only thing I knew about her is that she graduated from a French business school and was working in a big French company in Delhi. And that everyone was impressed by her Hindi skills. I wanted to discover how she was amazing!

And damn she is amazing — more than I could have guessed! She tells me about the magic of the Burning Man, about her passion for things I’ve never heard of, about the consent workshops she organises in Delhi, about her past life in Bangladesh… She went from being a type of person I’m quite familiar with (“French” + “business school” + “social entrepreneurship”) to a type of person I don’t know at all!

I said earlier that my secret game during the Jagriti Yatra was to discover what made people speak infinitely… and it gets even more exciting when it’s totally not what I expected! Thank you Justine for the slap on the face. People are amazing… and full of surprises. I love when people have sparkling eyes and goosebumps. I love when I manage to connect with people’s hearts. I love when people unleash their uniqueness with me!

PS: Justine, you are achha! Still waiting for you to teach me the bolas :)

We get back into the train. Until dinner, there are some talks in the dedicated wagon: the “stage” is taken to speak about the role models we met, or by resource persons to share their stories and expertise on “impact investing in India”, “how to start a business”, “the art of storytelling”, etc.

After dinner, it’s time for our daily evening check-out session, which mainly serves to reflect on our day and share anything important for us to the rest of the group. We come up with a guiding question, then everyone answers, 1 by 1: “what did you learn today?”, “what was one inspiring conversation you had today?”. The check-outs became more and more intense every day — like “share 3 things you like about each person” — and today’s check-out question was: “if you had 2 minutes on national television, what would you say?”.

My answer to that question is different each time, but at that moment, I was really into my game to discover people’s amazingness. So I was asking everyone “what is one talent you have that you can teach to people?”. And many times, people would just tell me: “oooh hahaha nothing bro, I have no talent bro”, but a few minutes later they would be like “yeah so I won this beatbox competition” or “I launched the first maker space in my city”!!

We made “having a talent” something bigger than us. So if I had 2 minutes on television, I would just say: “we all have our own talents. Don’t be afraid to say it! It might be invisible to you but it’s there, and by the way, all your friends know“.

Late check-out with our extended group

Always carry a notebook.

After the check-out session comes the free time. If I still have energy, I would meet friends or new Yatris in other wagons, play Uno, or learn random Hindi songs. But that night, I was exhausted. Before going to sleep, I would always open my notebook.

I really forced myself to write every day: take notes during talks, write down ideas that emerged and keep a sort of diary with the interesting thoughts and events of the day. It became easier with the days once I saw most people trying to have the same habit. But some people had this habit anchored in their lives: Joséphine told me she’s always carrying a notebook with her, for several years now, and it changed her life.

Ideas can pop up anywhere, at any time. And we always think that we’ll remember them. But we don’t. Lesson learned: always carry a notebook! (and a pen).

To scale-up and replicate, you need to be process-oriented.

It’s almost the end of the Jagriti Yatra. So that night, I reflected on my overall journey and 3 things stood out the most:

  • Meeting role models is nice, but the best thing was just to meet other Yatris and hear their stories (and living in a train) (and having Indian food every day).

“Inspiration will come from the role models, but it will mostly come from your peers” — Ashutosh.

  • I finally understood the meaning of “process”: India is just so big that the challenge to scale-up and replicate comes in quite early. How to do that? By having clear and proven processes that you can copy-paste. Aravind Eye Care always wanted to be the McDonald’s of eye care and, from the beginning, they standardized the process of quick and high-quality eye operations for their doctors. By the way, they offer free eye care to 70% of their patients (the poorest) and still manage to be sustainable!
  • As I came in as a facilitator, I had to pay particular attention to the group dynamics and participation. The difference, from the first day, is HUGE. My group members became more confident, took ownership of every activity, won the Arts & Culture business plan competition, got tons of new project ideas… — they made this train their home!
My awesome Group 15 and compartment buddies! On our t-shirts: “We are India, we are change”

I start to fall asleep on my notebook, as usual. Goodnight! When I wake up (hopefully at 6 am), I’ll be in Ahmedabad, for the last day of the Jagriti Yatra.

Now, I have to get back to this notebook and add these 7 things:

  • There is always time to pause.
  • Each person is amazing.
  • Intuition knows.
  • Anywhere is a dancefloor.
  • Each person is amazing… and full of surprising talents.
  • Always carry a notebook.
  • To scale-up and replicate, you need to be process-oriented.

To know more about the Jagriti Yatra



Dinh-Long Pham

🌱 FBV, Social Gardener, Community Builder, Improv Advocate and Podcast Host (Life Line Podcast) - 🇹🇭 Youth Entrepreneurship Consultant at UNDP Asia Pacific