Inside a cramped rail car, the word ‘biriyani' peppered the stale air with a spicy aroma of mischief. Small clusters of brigands guarded their cargo suspiciously, discussing with whom they would share the spoils in hushed tones.
The arrival of Hyderabad's signature rice and and chicken dish aboard the train was something of a coup, but for the intrepid few who dared to buck the train's strict vegetarian meal code, the thrill was well worth it.
As the reconnaissance teams tucked into their meals, the bonds of friendship grew stronger with each delicious mouthful. However, these weren't pirates, but "yatris," participants in the 2009 Tata Jagriti Yatra - as the journey across India they were on is called.
Starting in Mumbai on Dec. 24, and touching all four corners of India, "yatris," (pilgrims) as participants were called, were out to discover how entrepreneurs are transforming India. The train made its final stop in Mumbai this past Monday.
On its third journey in its 13-year history, the Jagriti Yatra brought together 356 highly motivated, enterprising and change-making young people from throughout India for an 18-day, 9,000 kilometer rail journey to "awaken the entrepreneurial spirit." In Hindi, the name Jagriti Yatra means "awakening pilgrimage." This year there were also international participants from Australia, S. Korea, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States.
With a focus on enterprise-led development, the mission of the Jagriti Yatra was to raise awareness of and among the 500 million people who live in "Middle India" and earn $1 to $3 per day. Specifically, the focus this year was on encouraging female entrepreneurship, and 40 percent of the participants were female.
"Wherever there was enterprise flourishing, the hand of women was always there," said Jagriti Yatra founder ShashankShashank Mani. "They're natural creators, natural change-makers."
At each stop along the route, the young adults, ages 20 to 25, got to visit the facilities of many of India's most dynamic change agents, meet and interact with some of India's top business people, and hear from social entrepreneurs and the founders of NGOs tackling India's myriad social problems. Sampling India's varied local cuisine was just one of the side benefits.
While the Jagriti exposed young Indians to the many distinct regions of their country, it also played an important role in bridging gaps between nationals as well.
Yatri Suvarna Tapkir, an MBA student from Pune, said one of the greatest challenges facing Indians educated or otherwise was a lack of awareness about the other. "Literate people are also unaware about their liability to society," Tapkir said.
Yatris were selected based on a competitive application process that assessed qualities such as ability to "think outside the box," and "a genuine desire to be the change." While most yatris were still in college, or had recently entered the workforce, the social backgrounds of each varied considerably.
As manager of selections for the 2009 yatra, Vibha Joshi was responsible for selecting the final participants from a pool of more than 12,000 applications. Joshi said she chose one applicant who wrote that he spent 60 percent to 70 percent of his childhood without electricity. Another female applicant wrote about seeing women in her village carrying pots of water on their heads and she imagined that one day their daughters would carry laptop computers to school.
"Everyone thinks today's youth aren't focused, but I don't think so," Joshi said.
Twenty four-year-old Ambuj Anand left his home state of Bihar after the fifth grade because no school he attended stayed open for more than two years at a stretch. To complete his education, Anan moved to Maharashtra to live with his uncle. He said, "If you want to learn something, you will go to any extent."
In the future Anand said he wants to improve the quality of life in his native Bihar by improving educational institutions and access to quality schools. He also envisions the creation of a business incubator in his native town of Motihani, but proper education is a must. "It has to start with education," Anand said.
Outside of Bangalore, the yatra visited the Agastya Foundation, a non-profit educational organization whose focus is to inspire creativity and scientific curiosity in rural children. The goal of Agastya is to "teach children to teach children," said founder Ramji Raghavan.
Each day Agastya teachers in "mobile science labs" visit rural schools throughout the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The mobile labs are specially outfitted buses and vans that house models and experiments.
"Almost anything is science," Raghavan said, when asked by a yatri in the audience why he had chosen specifically to inspire scientific curiosity. "Science permeates everything."
During the question and answer session, Maduhar Reddy stood up and said was donating $10,000 to Agastya on the spot and that he was going to make sure his friends donated money as well. Reddy, who recently moved back to India after starting three successful companies in Dallas, said he was born in a tiny village and was inspired by what he had seen. The education students would receive from Agastya Foundation teachers would help them think independently, rather than being "yes people," he said.
Sponsored by the makers of the world's most affordable car, the Tata NanoNano, which sells for less than $2,000, the Jagriti Yatra also visited several Tata plants and facilities throughout India.
In Mithapur, in the state of Gujurat, where Tata has key chemical and concrete operations, yatris were taken on a tour of the plant and were briefed on the Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development. The society aids 450 women who make handicrafts, by marketing their products under the brand ‘Okhai.'
The Tata Group is a Fortune 500 company, with revenues of more than $70.8 billion in 2008-- 64.7 percent of that amount earned outside India.
Back in Hyderabad, CNBC, the television network, co-hosted a panel discussion on for the yatris on funding small entrepreneurs. Panelist Nandini Vaidyanathan, from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIM-B) told the assembled yatris, "Entrepreneurship is a pilgrimage, enjoy it." Then she cautioned, "Become an entrepreneur for the right reason, not because you want to make money. Become an entrepreneur because you want to create meaning and do good for your fellow person."
However, despite the focus on enterprise-led development, few yatris spoke of an immediate desire to start companies of their own .
"Most of us will not be starting a venture just after this journey," said Anand, who works as a programmer for Tata Consultancy Services in Pune. Instead he thinks now is the time for to let his ideas germinate. In perhaps 10 years he would be ready, he said: "Maybe today I will start thinking about building my team."