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         Volume 10 |Issue 41 | October 28, 2011 |


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The 'Give Back' Strategy

Winner of the Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2009, Deep Joshi, an Indian social worker and NGO activist, has been a champion of developing rural communities. He co-founded a non-profit organisation called Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) of which he was the Executive Director till 2007.

Three years later, he was appointed as the adviser of the National Advisory Council (NAC) formed by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They sit every month, give recommendations to the government mostly on social policies through the Chairperson of the NAC, Sonia Gandhi. The government responds to the recommendations.

On a recent visit to Dhaka Joshi talks to The Daily Star about his life and work.


How have you, an MIT graduate, become engaged in social activism, then becoming a National Security Adviser in the government?
I have grown up in a village and studied in a village school. I always used to think, while studying engineering, how an engineer could contribute to the lives of ordinary villagers. By chance, I visited a highly qualified doctor couple working in a village in Maharashtra. The couple studied at John Hopkins University. Seeing them work with poor women in villages, sitting on the floor, interacting with them as if they were a part of their own community and own family, I was impressed.

If more professional people did what these doctors were doing we could bring changes, we could remove poverty-- that's what inspired me, in a way that was kind of my calling at others like me who have the privilege of good education and can go and work in villages.

That's how I began to work and basically that is what the inspiration was - to start an NGO that I have been working for many years. My NGO, Pradan, brings educated people to work in villages. We work in seven of the poorest states across the central India.

I have retired from Pradan now. We have a retirement age of 60. When I turned 60 in 2007, I retired. Every year Pradan people will go to 60-70 difference campuses including agricultural universities, engineering colleges, social science universities, and would select people to come and join. There is an elaborate process of selection. Case study, group discussion, interview and anybody who has had either a bachelor’s degree in any of the courses or a masters degree in social sciences are recruited. Once they are recruited, there is a one-year apprenticeship programme, they are placed to a Pradan project where a senior person is designated to guide. Once they join the organisation as an apprentice, they have to spend one month living in a house of a poor family in a remote village and understand how poor people live and experience poverty.

Deep Joshi, Photo: Star File

Who are the members of the National Advisory Council and what does it do?
Well, the advisory council is an advisory body. It's a body of people who are not there by virtue of any official position they hold. They are all in a way citizens who have had some experience of a particular kind and are not part of the government. One of the members is a member of the planning commission also. In that sense he is a part of the government. But he is there [NAC] not because he is a member of the planning commission. At present we have two members of parliament. They are not there because they are MPs or members of planning commission. They are nominated MPs by the president. Some seats are nominated by the president in India on the advice of the government.

There are people from NGOs. Generally eminent citizens who have achieved something, such as artists or scientists– these kinds of people. They are not the politicians. They are not elected from any political party. They are highly qualified and respected persons. It's a mix of people from different fields of life who have in some ways done something notable. They are known to the people, they are concerned about social issues, concerned about poverty and social justice.

What are the roles of the National Advisory Council?
Basically, we meet once a month and give input to the government on various issues concerning social policies. When the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) assumed power in 2004, the coalition had Common Minimum Programme (CMP). And the NAC was constituted as a kind of citizen body, which consists of eminent citizens who assist the UPA in translating the CMP into laws, and so on so. For example they helped the government to draft the Right to Information (RTI) Act, National Rural Employment Guaranty Act. They helped in designing the forest rights act. There are other schemes, law and programmes.

There are already major flagship schemes of the government for example, the employment guaranty and the right to information. These are major things that have not passed in seven or eight years. So we will see how to improve their functioning.

So these are the three things—we work on social policies in general, work on themes that the president had identified, and also see the implementation already existing flagship schemes. For things we did, we helped drafting the national food security bill, which is right now before the parliament.

We helped to draft another law 'land acquisition and rehabilitation' that is also before the parliament right now. And many other things including how the Right to Information Act could be improved further, we try to see. We are working on how to improve the function of national rural employment guaranty programme and several other similar things.

Does the government listen to the National Advisory Council's suggestions?
Yes…For example the food security bill, what we were proposing was much wider coverage than what the government finally has proposed. When it finally came to the parliament, it was not exactly what we had proposed but it was significantly better than what the government had proposed. Similarly the Land Acquisition Act, the government was proposing a Land Acquisition Act and it was proposing a separate Rehabilitation Act. We said that the two needed to be brought together. So now the government has agreed that they will bring one single bill, which will deal with both acquisition, and rehabilitation of the people whose land is taken away. It's not that everything we say is accepted, but what we say so far has had some positive influence on what is eventually done.

Do the NAC members hold any office, status or enjoy power?
No. Absolutely not… when we attend the meeting, a token honorarium is given. And any expenses incurring in going to the meeting will obviously be reimbursed. Otherwise we have no official car, we don't have an office, bungalow or office staffs or anything. If we need any help we can go to the NAC secretariat and the office will help us.

Like Bangladesh, does the civil society sometimes play a crucial role on major issues in India?
I think that's true. In a way they work in my view, most of the innovations that has come in development whether it is in Bangladesh or India actually have come from NGOs. The work of Grameen here, Brac, Proshika, these are some organisations I am familiar with, a lot of innovative works have been done by them. Similarly in India, there are some organisations that have developed the idea of community health volunteers, the whole business of preventive health. A lot of work has been done on education, health, environment, livelihoods. Actually, the ideas have come from NGOs whether working in a constructive work or working through advocacy.

I think, in this time when poverty seems to be a huge problem, which the government alone cannot solve. There are so many issues concerning environment, poverty, inequality, which the government alone cannot deal with. I would have expected the government to be much more supportive of civil society for example regarding laws on taxation. There are various ways the government could be more supportive, more forthcoming of helping the civil society to function effectively. I think there is much more that they can do which they are not doing.

The writer is a Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.


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