Nidhi Pundhir may have spent a lifetime fighting for children's rights, but she doesn’t see herself as an activist.
Instead, the Director of HCL Foundation believes that actions, not loud protests, are the need of the hour. In fact, she has made it her mission to achieve just the right level of pragmatism and detachment from the causes she feels passionately about – something most activists have difficulty achieving – in order to effect real change.
Dedicating her career to building a better and kinder world, Nidhi has worked on actualising children’s rights at state, national, continental, and global levels.
Over the years, she has worked with Plan International (as a National Advisor on Child Rights and Protection), SOS Children’s Villages (as Director and Deputy Programme Development, Asia) and Plan International (Global Advisor on Child Protection in Development).
Today, at the helm of the CSR arm of HCL Technologies, 44-year-old Nidhi leads urban community development projects and employee volunteering programmes. During her career of more than two decades, Nidhi has positively transformed the lives of many.
Knowing the Value of Education
Born to a family of educationalists, in Alwar district in Rajasthan, Nidhi says that her upbringing has greatly influenced her perspectives and choices.
As a child, she would often accompany her father, who worked in the District Education department, while he conducted school inspections and literacy programmes across different states in the country. Nidhi’s mother was a school Principal.
Nidhi’s father led several adult literacy missions in Rajasthan, demonstrating to her how community-level impact is made. Talking to MAKERSIndia, Nidhi remembers, “During his speeches, he would make a case study out of me. He would put me in front of people and say, ‘Look, she is a girl and she is studying in school. We are not pressuring her for marriage’. Most families in my (Rajput) community used to start talking about marrying off their daughters by the age of 11.”
Nidhi grew up at a time when education was considered a luxury – craved by many.
She says, “I remember the neighbourhood girls going to government schools where the fee was low, and the boys from the same family would go to better schools (with higher fees). But my parents sent me to the best school in the district. It was a luxury.”
Her school was quite socially conscious and encouraged students to volunteer in literacy missions and natural resources conservation. “It taught me about education beyond degrees; it became a way of life. I think, quite early in life, I decided to do something different,” says Nidhi.
But ‘social work’ as the focus of formal education, as a stream, was unheard of at the time. Arts subjects were not as established as they are today. Hence, having performed well academically, Nidhi chose science. For her post-graduation, however, she wanted to do something different.
That’s when she saw an ad on Rajasthan Patrika for a PG course on hospital and health management (at Indian Institute of Health Management Research) and found it very unique. She cracked the entrance exam, and received a scholarship too. Her classmates were mostly senior government officials from India and Nepal.
Active Changemaker, But Not an Activist
Although Nidhi started her career as the hospital administrator for Indian Oil Corporation’s CSR project in 1998, she soon moved on to an NGO. Later, while working at Save the Children UK as Programme Coordinator, she pursued an M.Phil. (Health Systems Management) from the Birla Institute of Technology & Sciences, Pilani.
But wasn’t activism another obvious career choice when you are work in children’s rights?
Nidhi clarifies, “Health management is related to social development. At IIHMR, I got exposure to the technical way of doing developmental work. I don't approach things as a social worker. For me, hardcore technical management framework has to be precise. To do certain things, there has to be acceptable indicators of success, or scientific study into epidemiology and demography, etc.”
In fact, Nidhi defines herself as a ‘developmental professional’, who believes in completely transformative end-to-end programmes.
But, why not an activist? She explains, “My take is that if you actually become too loud in terms of raising voices against something, you have actually lost it. I have nothing against activism, but I believe in collaboration and providing solutions, and working with people.”
According to her, if you are not busy critiquing something, you can actually be a part of the solution instead.
Nidhi elaborates, “You can either crib about the problem or participate in solving it. I believe in the latter because by doing the first part, we are only further wasting resources and time. We may not be able to solve the whole problem but whatever we do can contribute to the larger picture.”
She adds that the choice to focus on children’s rights was a personal one. “I wanted to bring about a change in the lives of young people – them being the most vulnerable. Whatever happens in society will impact them. So if we can provide them with better developmental opportunities, it will define the nation’s progress eventually.”
Nidhi’s inspiration are all NGOs and UNICEF leaders working for children’s rights, as well as school teachers who work with children closely.
Nidhi’s commitment towards social development has taken her across continents to over 40 countries and most of India.
“I have walked sandy roads and sand dunes, staying with rural communities, eating the food they consume, and observing their way of life. In this sector, field work is everything. Otherwise, you will not know what you are dealing with,” she says.
In fact, when asked about her best accomplishment, she recounts the time she was able to bring the voices of very remote communities from Malawi and Africa to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “It was a three-year project, and it was a team effort,” she reminisces.
How emotionally exhausting is it to continuously interact with vulnerable communities?
Nidhi has a remarkable perspective on this. “If you're picking it up as a professional, you feel the same as anyone who’s chosen engineering, marketing or journalism. A certain level of detachment is important because if you start living the problem, you will not be able to solve it. So, you have to distance yourself, analyse the situation, go back with the solution, and then you live with a solution not with the problem.”
When asked what her dream is, she easily replies – equality, and says, “I would love for all communities to have equal rights.”