Captured by Maoists, Andhra man gets life lessons, sets up NGO that teaches children

Sai Vamsi Vardhan, then a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow, was abducted by Maoists along with three Panchayat-level workers in one of the interior regions in Jharkhand. The Indian Express traces his journey from a software engineer to UPSC rank holder who runs an NGO that sponsors the education of underprivileged kids.

November 26, 2019 1:36:22 pm

It was the distinct sound of unlocking the safety catch and cocking the gun that broke the stillness of the forest in Jharkhand’s Giridih district. There were at least 10 Maoists, or perhaps even more, judging by the sound of bullets entering the rifle barrels. Sai Vamsi Vardhan and three panchayat workers stood blindfolded in a small clearing in the dense forest surrounding Parasnath Hills.

“It was the first time in the two days of captivity that I feared for my life. I thought this was it.. the end,” Vamsi remembers.

It was in 2014 that Vamsi, then a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow (PMRDF), was abducted by Maoists while organising a government welfare camp in interior Nakania village. Six years on, Vamsi is an Indian Revenue Service probationer undergoing training at the National Academy of Direct Taxes in Maharashtra.

The experience of spending two nights in the company of Maoists left Vamsi shaken but strengthened his resolve to enter public service. Between the years he was in Jharkhand as a PMRD Fellow and in New Delhi where was preparing for UPSC, Vamsi started a not-for-profit educational foundation close to his home in Timmanayunipeta village in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district.

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Sai Vamsi Vardhan helping school students plant sapling at one of Aakansha’s plantation drives.

Aakansha VFABS (Vision For A Better Society), set up along with a few colleagues from his time as a software engineer at Tata Consultancy Services, is at present sponsoring the education of close to 75 children in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and even Jharkhand. It has also given interest-free loans to some engineering and medical students.

“I completed my education with the support of others. I wanted to give something back to the society,” says Vamsi.

The idea to educate underprivileged kids took root when Vamsi was allegedly assaulted by the local MLA and his men in 2010. “I filed around 30-40 RTI applications to get work done in my village. When I raised an RTI request on the performance of my MLA in the Assembly, he took offence,” Vamsi adds.

“The MLA and his men first attacked my house and later cornered me in the village square when I was alone. Some 25 men attacked me with sticks. They tore my clothes and paraded me half-naked till my house.”

“This was a low point in my life.”

“Beneficiaries of my RTI applications were just eight, but around 30 people linked to the government including the sarpanch felt insulted. Those working in the system took it on their ego,” he adds.

Vamsi says it was at that precise moment that he decided to discontinue activism and do “something constructive”.

“How do I empower the people? I chose education as the path forward. There is no point in trying to woo the older generation in my village as they refuse change. So I chose to fund the education of the next generation,” he says.

Sai Vamsi Vardhan (in White T-shirt), then a PMRD Fellow, interacting with villagers in Giridh district.

His motivation to not just educate children but turn them into model citizens has stayed on with him even after moving away from his village to take up a job at TCS in Hyderabad. When the chance to become a Prime Minister Rural Development Fellow came along, he took it without hesitation.

A brainchild of then Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, the PMRDF is a two-year fellowship in which participants work closely with a District Magistrate to improve the delivery of government services in 60 selected tribal and backward districts.

The administrative experience, Vamsi believed, would be valuable in helping him chart a career in public service. Vamsi, who was among the first batch of PMRD Fellows, was sent to Giridih to work under the then District Magistrate Diprava Lakra. His work took him to remote villages, most of them affected by left-wing extremism, where he also ran camps to sign up eligible beneficiaries for government welfare schemes. On January 25, 2014, during one such camp in Nakania village, Vamsi and three panchayat-level workers stayed beyond the unofficial curfew hours to accept a few last-minute applicants. With the sun sinking fast below the horizon, a group of Maoists had them quickly surrounded.

Sai Vamsi Vardhan at a village Gram Sabha.

It was 6.30 pm. Jechonia Islary, a batchmate of Vamsi, who was working in an adjacent village, had already returned to the area block development office. After spending several anxious moments wondering what was taking Vamsi so long to report back, he informed DM Lakra.

“Vamsi knew the area pretty well. I was confident he would make it back even though it was already dark,” Islary says. However, there was no word from Vamsi or the others that night as calls to their phones went unanswered before being switched off.

The next 48 hours, Islary remembers, were the most stressful of his life. “January 26, the night after Vamsi was abducted, was Republic Day. There was already high police presence in our district. But hundreds of paramilitary forces were mobilised from across the state to join in the search operations after it became clear that they were all taken away by Maoists,” Islary adds.

“Jairam Ramesh spoke to then chief minister Hemant Soren, who made a public appeal on TV and radio to release them.”

Islary says informing Vamsi’s sister about the abduction was a “difficult conversation”. “She broke down several times but I tried assuring her that Vamsi would be released. I kept giving her hourly updates.”

The same evening, in the forest of Parasnath Hills, Vamsi heard loud sounds: “thap, thap”. His captors assured him it must be a hunter nearby firing at birds. But the noise could possibly be from the series of landmine explosions nearby. In the ensuing rescue efforts, a CRPF jawan lost his life and 11 others were injured.

Vamsi says the Maoists later distributed sweets saying their “objective was achieved”. The four were then made to wear blindfolds and told to keep walking. After an hour of stumbling through the thick forest vegetation, they were asked to stop. “I heard the Maoists accompanying take a few steps back and cocking their guns,” Vamsi says. However, they came back and continued walking till they reached a path that would lead to a nearby village. Vamsi borrowed a phone and dialled DM Lakra.

“I have never seen DM sir use the siren on his vehicle. For the time he probably used it to reach Vamsi and bring him back to the district headquarters.” Islary says. But there was no celebration on his return as a jawan had passed away.

Islari says the incident didn’t deter Vamsi from visiting interior areas. “After he returned he seemed stronger and happy, though it was a traumatic experience for others. Next day he said ‘bhai chalo’ let’s go. After three days we went to all the interior villages in our block,” Islary says.

Diprava Lakra agrees. “They are quite motivated that they would visit areas that some people would hesitate to go,” he says. “The fellowship gave them a deeper understanding of things. I would say Vamsi got richer by the experience,” adds Lakra who is now posted in Punjab.

Jechonia Islary (in black), Sai Vamsi Vardhan with District Magistrate Diprava Lakra.

Vamsi returned home after his fellowship ended in September 2014. He began work to expand Aakansha foundation while simultaneously preparing for the civil services exam. In 2017, he secured an All India Rank of 220.

In the last five years, Aakansha also steadily grew with support from his close friend Rajesh Battula, who like Vamsi quit his lucrative job as an engineer.

The foundation now runs a learning centre in Thimmanayunipeta village, where kids get free tuition, training in dance and sports. They have also raised money through crowdfunding platforms such as Milap and ImpactGuru to fund their Digital Aasha programme — to set up digital labs in several government-run schools.

“Aakansha changed my life. They gave me an interest-free loan of Rs 1,68,000 when I was studying electrical engineering in Vardhaman College. Thanks to the financial help from Aakansha I completed my degree and got selected in campus placement. I belonged to a poor family earlier now we are middle-class,” says Chandana Padma, a software analyst at NTT Data.

Maruti Sravan Kumar, who is doing his MSc from Sri Venkateshwara University, says Aakansha has been funding his education since he was in class 10.

“When I was in school I was working after classes to help my family financially. Aakansha came forward to foot my monthly expenses. With their help, I completed intermediate and graduation. They took care of everything. From tuition fee to hostel and mess bills, they paid for everything,” he says.

A letter written by a class 7 student thanking Aakansha VFABS for sponsoring her education.

Vamsi also became a father recently. His dream is to set up a school with boarding facilities which his newborn son could attend. “I want to establish a school with free boarding facilities and scale it to a level where no one could ask me why I am not sending my own kids to the school,” he says.

Ask him if he stopped filing RTI applications after being roughed up by local politicians, pat comes the reply: “RTI brings transparency, but we had used it to get work done. Now, after starting Aakansha, we are able to get work done without filing RTI as we regularly collaborate with local administration”.