“I was so scared of them, I thought they would rob me and take away all my things,” our 16-year-old volunteer said. “But they were really sweet. They spoke warmly to me.” The volunteer was talking about people she had met in a Delhi slum. Many were her age; she was helping with their English homework for a few weeks. This was about three years ago.

The problem was, and is, that hers was not a unique experience. The only poor people most volunteers at Chintan, the environmental non-profit where I spend most of my waking life, seem to have engaged with are those hired to work for their families. That aside, their gated, guarded, supervised upper middle class lives do not seem to allow for osmosis with the larger world. Unless they actively craft face-to-face engagement, say through a project for volunteer work, it just won’t happen. Joining such a project, however, is often to bolster their applications for college admission. That at least seems to be the case with Chintan, which attracts volunteers who are mostly interested in working for a month or two during the summer before they apply to college. We do get volunteers who come in because they are interested, curious and want to act. But they comprise only about 40% of the total.

This is not what bothers me. Year after year, I hear from volunteers – and more often from their parents – that spending the summer with Chintan is eye-opening. What opens their eyes is that the poor cease to be abstract entities. This is what bothers me. What have Indian cities turned into, I wonder? Gated enclaves? When the places we belong to comprise, like tight patchwork, those blocked out and those blocking out, are they even civilised places?

Initially, Chintan barely had any volunteers, save for those who helped us kick-start. But, over the years, as volunteers began streaming in, my colleagues and I debated whether it was worth it. Everyone who comes to work with Chintan typically gets a mentor of sorts, a specific project and, more recently, an orientation. This makes it very resource-intensive for us to welcome volunteers. After a season or two, we agreed it was worth it as it offered us an opportunity to nudge young people towards engaging with sustainability and inequity – with empathy and in a constructive manner – and not merely “the other”. For many of our volunteers, it is their only chance to get even a fleeting sense of another side of their world. That is why when a volunteer who has lived all her life in Delhi complains how hard it is for her to speak Hindi or that travelling by the metro makes her nervous, we treat it as par for the course.

Our less spoilt volunteers may not announce such challenges, but they too are surprised interacting with people unlike them. Compared to the 1990s, middle class urban youth leads a more insular life today – and that is the troubling, defining story of our younger volunteers. I wish schools in big cities would break down some of these boundaries.

Wasted opportunity

What I also find disturbing, and obstructive, are the overcompetitive parents of some of the volunteers. We know Delhi is not necessarily safe for young men and women. So, parents might insist on chaperoning them. That is fine. It is also understandable for parents to contact us directly on behalf of their children for the first time. But really, should your children do nothing for themselves?

Some zealous mothers call me and my colleagues almost every day and nudge their child to “perform better” than all the others (most of whose parents have the same demand of them). One parent would spend the entire day in our office, exhaling anxiety with every breath. A father would try to hold weekly reviews where he would try dictating what Chintan ought to do next for his offspring’s resume. One mother even dropped by to complain her child did not receive the ideal A Plus grade from us (We do not grade but her child’s school asked us to fill in some forms). Now we make volunteers’ parents sign an undertaking prohibiting them from trying to influence us.

I find it a wasted opportunity when volunteers do not stumble and learn to walk for themselves. They absorb so much less when their parents actively participate in their work for such parents are mostly focused on “getting it right”. Chintan does not give core work to its volunteers because we want them to learn through trial and error, without jeopardising our functioning.

Today, young middle class youth in cities do not spend time with the marginalised among our people, partly because the spaces they inhabit barely overlap. In this context, to convert into a scorecard the rare opportunity such youth get at Chintan of engaging with the wider world could do more harm than good: it may impede the ability of young men and women to explore the issue, to think critically, form an opinion and make sense of the inequity they encounter.

A volunteer can have a great stint us without intense parental participation, as I have learned from differently ambitious parents. An accomplished architect nudged her children and wards volunteering with us to behave appropriately on waste dumps and finish their work on time. A 15-year-old finance geek walked around dozens of butcher shops to teach waste-pickers about chit fund frauds; he thought of it as an adventure. His mother, who was between professions, asked him only that he let her know where he was going and for how long. A 13-year-old campaigning against plastic straws is learning to talk about the problem; his parents and I only offer ideas about organising his work more efficiently and help him connect with potential partners. A government official sent his son to us after merely asking, “He is painfully shy. Can he work out of that?” A lawyer said just this about his daughter: “Let her learn and contribute.” Such volunteers probably have a better time of it because their lives are not “projectised”.

I tend to follow what happens to our volunteers, largely out of curiosity. There is not much difference in their trajectory. Middle and upper middle class children have a lot going for them anyway. But when your parents shadow you, you lose the chance to make sense of your world on your terms. Helicopter-parents feel more accomplished, I guess, since they do a third of the internship themselves. Perhaps Chintan should give them a certificate, too.

Bharati Chaturvedi is the director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.