Week of the International Student
Interview series

Interview with Aakarsh Shamanur

"Even people in the lowest social classes contribute to your education, and as an educated person, you should use your knowledge to help people out. It's like Mahatma Gandhi's talisman: with every decision you make, see if it positively impacts the lowest classes in society. If it does, it is by definition a good decision."

During the Week of the International Student (16-21 Nov), we will introduce you to five different international students who studied at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Today, we'd like to introduce Aakarsh Shamanur who studied a MSc of Urban Management and Development at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Dutch Design

When we meet Aakarsh in an online video-call, he is calling from India - where he currently resides. Aakarsh introduces himself as an architect, who completed his bachelor's in 2012 at R.V. College of Architecture, Bengaluru and ended up in the Netherlands for his master's. We were wondering: how does it feel for an Indian architect to touch ground in the Netherlands?

"I actually was in Netherlands one time before my studies, when I was visiting friends across Europe. I traveled to France, Germany, and also to the Netherlands. From the moment the plane landed at Schiphol I was amazed by the architecture and design. The most striking is the level of detail that there is in design. Even something as simple as the steps to get out of the plane: they were lined with solar panels! That was definitely when I first thought that the Netherlands might be the place for me. Later, when I came to Rotterdam, the surprises just continued. The stuff that you normally just design in university, but never gets build: that's the stuff that gets build in Rotterdam."

Stating that this was the first time the Netherlands was considered, we also wondered if there were other countries or cities that Aakarsh was considering. It turns out that initially, he was looking for studies in the UK or US.

"When I was looking for places to study abroad, I was in good contact with my cousin who is studying in the UK. I asked her what the environment was like there, and she told me there were a lot of Indian people studying in her community. That was sort of a bummer for me, as that would hardly be leaving my comfort zone. For me, getting out of your comfort zone is all about meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. In my class at IHS, there was one other Indian person - out of a class of 100+ people. That makes it easier to meet new people and not just hang around with people whom you already know."

One thing we know for sure, is that Aakarsh is up for a challenge - not only studying abroad, but also in the countless social initiatives he's involved in in India. Did his education as an architect spark this mindset, or does he have a more specific motivation?

"Good question. I remember, when I did my college, that a majority of my tuition fees were paid by the government. During the graduation ceremony, we had a keynote speaker who made an interesting remark about this. He said that we, all the people who were subsidized by the government, owed our education to all the tax payers in India. Even people in the lowest social classes contribute to your education, and as an educated person, you should use your knowledge to help people out. It's like Mahatma Gandhi's talisman: with every decision you make, see if it positively impacts the lowest classes in society. If it does, it is by definition a good decision.

#BePolite

This philosophy made Aakarsh choose to pursue a career in the governance of cities, because he believed that this was the best way in which he could positively influence the society. Inspired by a company he worked for in Amsterdam, Aakarsh launched an initiative called #BePolite. Once again, with Gandhi's talisman in mind.

“Right after my master's I had the chance to work for Metabolic, a company in Amsterdam, which worked in the field of the circular economy. We did a couple of projects in which we used solar energy for the entertainment industry, like for festivals at the NDSM Werf. We worked with solar transformers, which are solar powered generators. These generators generated so much power, I reckoned they could basically power an entire Indian village. With that in mind, I took that technology back to India and I thought about how to implement it here. After some research and with my philosophy in mind, I thought about street vendors. In Indian cities, there are many street vendors - and they play an important role in the economy. They are, however, informal. Not registered. That is why barely anyone talks about them, and don't realize they are crucial in the design of the city. With solar power equipment, I tried to supply as many street vendors with a light and Wifi charging point. With this light, they could make the city look better, be safer at night and they could extend their working hours. The campaign is called #BePolite: Polite stands for portable light, and Be Polite is meant for the Indian public - be more polite to street vendors, as they play a crucial role in society!"

Currently, Aakarsh is in the fourth year of the #BePolite campaign - and is currently focusing on women street vendors. Find more information about this project through this link. The organisation has grown and he has managed to provide solar powered lights to many different street vendors. When we conclude the interview, Aakarsh lets us know that he needs to go out again. In India, people are celebrating Diwali: the festival of Light. If that isn't meant to be, we don't know what is. We wish Aakarsh the best in his endeavors and hope to be able to meet with him soon!