Two years ago, Nilay Agarwal was just another employee living in the corporate jungle of Gurugram.
But today, he is the face of an organisation that is leading over 3,000 youngsters to feed 5 lakh destitute across 10 cities. He has built five tin shed schools in slums, which are educating 500 children and counting.
Employed at GlobalLogic as a senior ontologist, he still finds time to devote to his initiative.
Taking the First Step
The 28-year-old says that he had always dreamed of doing his bit towards eradicating the bane of hunger but it was only after a life-altering incident that he dared to step out of his comfort zone to do something about it.
“In 2018, I lost a friend, Vishalakshi, to a car accident. She was young and full of potential, until her life ended in a single moment. It was then that I realised how privileged I was to be here with all the dreams that I had. So I decided to not waste a single moment and start contributing my time to a noble cause,” he relates.
With zero knowledge about setting up a social organisation, he simply made a few cookies and distributed them in a nearby NGO at first. Employing social media, he uploaded a video of the interaction online.
“At first, people laughed at me. They didn’t believe I was serious or had any long term plans. But I knew I was going to go on until my actions made a difference,” he says.
When one after the other similar initiatives by this lone warrior were noticed, netizens started coming forward to join him.
Sankalp Tandon, one of Nilay’s acquaintances, decided to help him upon seeing his work. “We would host weekend food drives and distribute ration kits to the destitute around the city. Even today, I devote around six hours a week to the cause,” he says.
That’s how the NGO Vishalakshi Foundation was set up in memory of his friend. With it sprouted its first programme — Project Hunger.
While working a job from 7.30 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays, he started spending all his remaining hours in the NGO. Whatever salary he would receive was spent on feeding the poor.
As he says, no one has a stronger will than the youth of a country. Considering this as his only resource, he started reaching out to students of Delhi University to join the programme. “I first appointed leaders in 22 colleges. They then went on to reach out to their peers and form volunteer groups in their respective institutions,” he says.
In 2020, the NGO was recognised by the Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Anandibai Patel for its widespread efforts.
“While distributing food at a slum last year, I happened to talk to its children. It turned out that they had never been to a school in their lives,” Nilay says.
This revelation initiated Project Dream School to provide free education, study material and mid-day meals to slum children. The first such school was set up within six months.
Parallelly, Project Dream Slum worked towards the overall upliftment of the slums by ensuring hygiene and employment opportunities among its population. “Our aim has not just been to give food or books, it has been to ensure that every child gets a happy childhood in a good environment,” he adds.
Shankar, the father of Mukesh who is a beneficiary of the project, reveals that before the NGO visited his slum in Subhash Chowk of Gurugram, he was barely surviving. He shares, “I earn an auto driver’s salary today, as they provided me with a vehicle. My son is getting an education that I couldn’t have afforded by myself. He now reads, writes and speaks English and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
Under the Microscope
Getting candid, Nilay reveals that walking this path has its ups and downs. Not all his fears at the beginning of the journey were unfounded, he says, for juggling between a job and social work does get tough.
“I’m working from home currently, but I haven’t gone back to my hometown because of the NGO. I choose to devote my weekends and free time to the underprivileged. It is hard work, but when you see the lives you are touching, it all becomes worth it,” he shares.
While he was driven, some families often refused to cooperate and allow their children to study. On-ground experiences made him realise that most of these people were migrant workers struggling to make ends meet. They felt the need to have all hands on deck and this included their younger ones.
“But the ultimate goal for them too is sustenance. I would often lure such people with the fact that their kids’ meals would be taken care of during school hours. It took a lot of effort to make them realise the importance of education,” he says.
When the pandemic struck, other spheres of operations suffered as well. Where almost 100 volunteers used to show up to feed a mere 1,000 people earlier, Nilay would distribute food alone during the lockdown.
Most of the students had gone back to their hometown, while others were unable to reach the sites.
Only school teachers who were employed on a payroll would still show up to teach the children.
But with a sense of pride he adds that support continued to throng virtually, as all volunteers worked online to accumulate funding and spread awareness about the work being done.
To date, Rs 40 lakh have been raised via donations that were used to fund all the organisation’s initiatives like ration, stationery, and other operational requirements.
With the team continually networking across miles, operations have expanded from Delhi NCR to reach 10 cities, including Lucknow, Mumbai, Ranchi and Jaipur.
Each of these cities saw the students coming back home at the onset of the pandemic and setting up projects on their turf. While Nilay undertakes back and forth between the sites to offer supervision, day-to-day handlings are undertaken by city-wise groups under their respective leaders.
Clearly, the perseverance of one man has created a wave of change that is now making its way throughout the country.
If you would also like to join or donate to his organisation, contact Nilay Agarwal at 8588805577.
Edited by Yoshita Rao