A man and his mission

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

Sandeep Pandey, the winner of the 2002 Magsaysay award in the Emergent Leader category, is a man with a mission - of giving the poorest of the poor in India a chance to gain education.

LALPUR village in Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh is not very far from Lucknow. But in cultural, social and, most important, economic terms, Lucknow and Lalpur are poles apart. A village with a predominantly poor Dalit population, of landless families who make a living as agricultural labourers on the fields of the landed upper caste people, Lalpur is in the news today thanks to one person - Sandeep Pandey, who has been chosen for the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay award in the Emergent Leader category. Thanks to Pandey's initiative, Lalpur now has a school, a dispensary and skill training centres. Asha, the organisation he, along with Deepak Gupta and V.J.P. Srivastavoy, founded in the United States in 1991, came to Lalpur with a dream to provide education with a difference for the downtrodden.

The citation states: "In electing Sandeep Pandey to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognises the empowering example of his commitment to the transformation of India's marginalised poor." Pandey is the first Indian to be honoured in this category.

The Ramon Magsaysay awards were established in the late 1950s in memory of the former President of the Philippines, Ramon Magsaysay. The awards, which are mainly funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, honour individuals and organisations in Asia whose civic contributions and leadership "exemplify the greatness of spirit, integrity and devotion to freedom of the late Ramon Magsaysay". Until recently, there were only five categories of awards - in the areas of Government Service; Public Service; Community Leadership; Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts; and Peace and International Understanding. A sixth category, that of emergent leadership, was created three years ago. Other Indian recipients of the Magsaysay award include Aruna Roy, Rajendra Singh and Kiran Bedi, but these have been in other categories.

Pandey has worked not only in Lalpur and other villages of U.P. but also in other States. Asha has several volunteers from the U.S. who want to work for the education of the poor in India. The organisation does not have a hierarchy, or formal structures; it operates on the goodwill of several non-resident Indians. They primarily raise funds, and see themselves as an action group oriented towards helping the task of primary education in India.

At Lalpur, Asha helps to impart to village residents skills such as bee-keeping, making paper bags and screen printing on hand-made paper, and even basic training in homeopathy. Asha's medical centre building was constructed using ferro-cement to make it an earthquake-resistant structure (Asha built such structures in Bhuj too after the earthquake). The Lalpur Asha ashram has a sanctum sanctorum built of bamboo which serves as a meeting-cum-teaching venue. It also has a study made of mud, where Pandey stays when he is not staying in Lucknow. "I do most of my reading and writing here," he says.

The ashram is located on land that originally belonged to a Brahmin. When he made the land available for the ashram he was unaware that it would be used by Dalit families. Upon realising that this was happening, he complained that the land of his ancestors was being defiled by Dalits. But seeing the resolve of the villagers, he gave up.

Pandey says he tried to get the political class to take an interest in the affairs of Lalpur ahead of the latest State Assembly elections. "I wanted them to make some commitment to the villagers," he said. Although most of the candidates visited the village, they refrained from making any commitments to the people. Their indifference made the people of Lalpur boycott the elections.

Mahesh, who works with Pandey, said that the village had no higher secondary school before Asha came along. Not one resident of the village had reached the higher secondary school level. The plight of young women was even worse. But now classes are held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for those who have to work in the fields during the day. Drinking water had to be fetched from another village. There was no primary health centre. The current drought only worsened living conditions.

However, the Asha volunteers, in their efforts to alleviate the misery of the poor, have helped several Dalits pay off their debts. Unscrupulous moneylenders and landlords had exploited the Dalits' inability to repay debts and had made them work like bonded labourers. Pandey says that his organisation is doing its best to get Dalits out of the trap of loans and steep interest payments. But a system is necessary to deal with the problem in a more organised manner, he says.

The khadi-clad Pandey believes that the existing education system in the country is faulty. Although he is very much a product of the system that he now criticises, he hopes that the alternatives he is offering to poor children will inculcate in them self-reliance and integrity - qualities which he feels are important for the establishment of a just social order.

Pandey, who had a brief teaching stint at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, but left it to work with Asha full-time, says: "The modern education system desensitises us completely." He began his higher education at the Banaras Hindu University before moving on to graduate school in the U.S. It was while pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California in Berkeley that he founded Asha. Its objective was to support the education of poor children in India by enlisting resources from Indians abroad. This was one philanthropic mission that was fraught with challenges. Today, Asha has disbursed $1 billion to support philanthropic programmes in India.

Pandey laments the fact that the Indian farmer has not got his due place in society while technocrats and those in the service sector are considered indispensable. "We need to turn the system upside down," he comments. While Pandey is currently involved in the Lalpur project, other areas in U.P. where Asha's presence is felt are Kanpur and Ballia. Similar efforts are on in Mumbai, in Chennai and in Chitradurg district of Karnataka. In all the initiatives, the needs of the poor and the underprivileged children get priority. In the last 10 years, Asha has supported nearly 250 projects. Most of them are in south India, particularly in Tamil Nadu where it has a large volunteer base. Asha has 36 overseas chapters: apart from raising funds, they seek to understand grassroot campaigns in all educational matters. The campaign against the saffronisation of education was one such.

The award citation mentions Pandey's work in Ballia district where he had set up schools that aim to inculcate in pupils self-reliance and values for a just society. Ballia predominantly has a backward caste population. The youth and the schoolchildren of the village were motivated to acquire skills that eventually made them self-reliant and gave them a degree of self-esteem.

The citation calls Lalpur village a fuller expression of Pandey's vision. At Lalpur, basic education is imparted even to those who would never have made it to the formal system for the simple reason that there are not enough schools in the village. And for those already in school, the ashram, on whose pillars images of Indian social reformers are sketched, is a place where they learn some more. For those who could not attend school at all owing to financial reasons, the ashram is a boon.

The citation also mentions Pandey's denouncement of a "government plan to favour Hinduism in state schools" and his call for an end to the "politics of revenge that drives his country's communal violence". It also recognises his commitment to peace and reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Of special mention is the 400-kilometre march that he organised to protest against India's nuclear programme.

For Pandey, taking strong positions for a cause is nothing new. While teaching in IIT-Kanpur, he protested against the low wages given to construction workers and attempted to organise them. His latest stand relates to the issue of rising communalism in the country. Early this year, he was part of a march protesting against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's renewed attempts towards the construction of a temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. He was stopped in Lucknow along with fellow-protesters. Aghast at the wanton killings of the minorities in Gujarat, he sat on a fast in Lucknow for five days. He has also been active in the nuclear non-proliferation debate and has taken part in anti-nuclear protests. In May 1999, one year after the Pokhran blasts, he led the Global Peace March from Pokhran to Sarnath to protest against India's nuclear arms programme. Pandey, who is an activist of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, has always believed in the path of dialogue and peace.

Some of Pandey's recent statements against the ruling establishment have brought forth extreme reactions from some quarters - including a demand to arrest him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). But Pandey is undeterred. Despite political mobilisation, the social mobility of the lower castes is far from being achieved, he says. Even though Dalits were ostensibly represented by a Dalit Chief Minister in U.P., nothing much had changed in the way they lived.

Social reform in a State where caste and communal undercurrents reign supreme, is not easy. In order to make a difference, political, social and, most important, economic interventions have to be made. The challenge, as Pandey says, is to raise the level of consciousness and the difference will be felt only upon achieving this.

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