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In a country with the highest number of NGOs in the world, it is difficult to stand out. It is increasingly more challenging to stand apart from the crowd if your NGO is just a year old. However, Nilay Agarwal is doing just that! With his organization Vishalakshi Foundation boasting more than a thousand volunteers around the country, Nilay has been at the forefront of social work in multiple states around the country. Managing a prominent NGO and a full-time job as an ontologist, NilayAgarwal is a man of sheer willpower and perseverance.
Today, we sit down with Nilay Agarwal and talk about his life, Vishalakshi Foundation, and more…
Life As Ontologist
Ontology is a part of research and data science. An ontologist is a challenging and fun job. Do you see the small information boxes that come up in the Google search results? While most of it is automated, there is a lot of manual tasks involved too. As an ontologist, it is our job to make sure that the information that is displayed is unbiased and does not hurt the sentiments of any particular community. Everything is not acceptable to every community, and it is my job to make sure that nothing inappropriate shows in the information boxes. It is a very interesting work that requires a lot of attention to detail.
I have been involved in various kinds of social work ever since I was a kid. While my work with Vishalakshi Foundation has been going on for a year, I have done social work for a long time.
For a long time, I wanted to open up an NGO. I know that India has the largest number of NGOs in the world; I did plenty of research on this topic before I thought about opening a new NGO. However, I had my reason. Once, I wanted to join a reputed NGO. So, I gave my interview, and later, I found out that I was rejected. How can one be rejected for wanting to do good work for society?
This was when I thought of wanting to start a new NGO. I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to give back to society. Everyone has certain skills that they can utilize to do good work. What matters is the will to help people. This is why everyone is welcome to volunteer for the Vishalakshi Foundation.
For a long time, I wanted to open up an NGO. However, it was always delayed due to my career. I do not come from a wealthy background; therefore, I still waited to be successful in my career before starting an NGO. However, one particular incident changed the scenario for me.
A good friend of mine passed away in a car accident. She was just about to have her wedding; we were all happy and preparing for that. However, her passing away reminded me that life is indeed concise, and we must do what we want without waiting — we might not get a second chance. After this incident, I stopped delaying and started this NGO. My recently deceased friend was an inspiration for me. Her name was Vishalakshi, and I named my NGO as Vishalakshi Foundation to keep her legacy alive.
In the Vishalakshi Foundation, everyone is welcome to be a part of the organization. A volunteer in our foundation is not just a mere worker — he or she is a part of our family. While volunteering for us, anyone can pitch in ideas and do work that benefits society. When organizations treat volunteers as workers and order them around, it becomes challenging to retain them.
Due to our positive approach towards volunteering, we are proud to say that we have more than 1500 volunteers all across the country — a feat that few Indian NGOs have managed. Despite only being about a year old, we have spread over several cities like Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Banda, Lucknow, Amroha, and Fatehpur. Soon, if we are successful, we hope to have pan-India operations.
The Difficulty of Running an NGO in India
It is not easy to run an NGO in India. NGOs already have a very poor perception among the population because of the financial malpractices of many such organizations. Many NGOs take huge amounts of donations from the public and then just vanish. Therefore, when we started the Vishalakshi Foundation, we heard statements such as “Yet another NGO!” and the likes. However, we wanted to show the people that are more than another NGO, and we want to show it with our work. Our work should be the only thing that speaks for us.
The main problem surrounds the use of funds that we procure. NGOs have a bad reputation in India and are seen with wary eyes by the people. We try to tackle the problem but not accepting any large donations from the people. NGOs can only defraud people if they take large sums of money in the first place. We accept donations in little amounts and take only as much as we need. This is how we try to develop trust among the people.
We take, say, twenty rupees from someone and use it to feed a child. How can one steal such a little amount? I think this is one way we can promote transparency within our organization. Since we are a relatively new organization, we do not have huge funds coming in. But when we do, we plan to show the people how our funds are used and what they are used for.
Dream School and Other Works
During the lockdown, a lot of poor people around Gurgaon, where I am based, have been having problems with ration. I planned on helping them during these tough times. I went to the slums and asked the dwellers about their problems. They told me that they have not been getting the rations that they have been allotted. Most importantly, these people don’t even know their rights and the several schemes that the government has in place for them, including the free rice and grains for them. This is a big problem — these people aren’t even aware of their rights!
I told these people that I will help them out to the best of my abilities, although not many people believed me. Many people come here every day and make such false promises to them and then vanish. But I was determined to help these lot, so I collected raw food materials and turned up the next day. These people were shocked for good — they never expected me to turn up the very next day! But I wanted to do more than give empty speeches, and I fulfilled my promise. Over the next few days, my team and I returned to the slums again and again with raw food materials.
But I realized that more needs to be done. It is not just enough to provide food to these people; we have to provide a source of income for them. It is said that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life. Therefore, I thought of ways to provide an income opportunity for the people in the area. Earlier, we used to buy raw materials and have outside contractors cook it. We then gave this task to the local people — that way, they cooked their food and also got paid for it!
We have been doing other little things too. There is a tailor in my area, who is originally from Delhi, but was stuck in Gurgaon because of the pandemic. He was out of work and did not have any sewing machine to start work here. To assist him, we took him to the market and bought new tailoring equipment for him. Furthermore, we asked him to make masks which we then distributed to the slum dwellers. For each cover that he made, he was paid.
Anyway, while working in that area, I noticed a lot of kids playing around during the daytime. Intrigued, I asked the parents of those kids if they go to school. I learned that they do not. I asked them, “If I set up a school here, will you send your kids there?” They all said yes. But this is not just another promise, and I wanted to deliver on it. So I rented a small building in a nearby area for rent of ten thousand rupees, which I paid out of my pocket.
I hired a teacher from the local area and started the “Dream School.” Started in June, the school is now a fully functioning school with lots of students from the nearby locality. Soon, I plan to include projectors and other amenities in this school. This project was a dream project of mine, and therefore I decided to name it Dream School.
I realize that many people criticize the government for their apparent lack of effort. However, it is not enough to criticize the government while sitting on your sofa inside your home. Merely criticizing the government is never enough. Ultimately, the onus is on you to give back to society, and what matters is the person’s will to do something good. I have been managing my ties to Vishalakshi Foundation while having a full-time job as an ontologist without any excuses!
Nilay Agarwal, i for the last year, has been showing that to do good, you just need the willpower to do so. You do not need huge funds or immense manpower. What you need is the grit that is necessary to get down on the ground and serve the people. With the help of the Vishalakshi Foundation, he is doing just that. He dreams of an India in which no child has to go to sleep with an empty stomach. We can help him achieve that by following his philosophy!
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