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Engineering social justice

Ramon Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey gave up a respectable career at I.I.T. Kanpur to work for a just social order. His philosophy of `Jeevan Vidya', stresses on self-reliance and human values inculcated through education.

CHANGING LANES: Sandeep Pandey gave up a respectable career to embrace a life of hardship.

HE HAS no regrets about taking the route back to the roots. From an engineering degree from the famed Benaras Hindu University (BHU), a post-graduation and subsequent doctoral degrees from the prestigious University of Berkeley in the United States and then being a professor at I.I.T Kanpur, Sandeep Pandey's track record is impressive.

Appalled at the social injustice, Pandey renounced his achievements. "When there is so much injustice in society being meted out to the underprivileged sections, what good is a successful career if it cannot alleviate their woes," is what he religiously believed and still continues to do so.

As he realised the purpose of his life, a rebirth took place. From well-ironed Reid and Taylor to cotton kurta pyjama, the polished shoes kicked off for a pair of hawai chappals. And then began, an intense struggle to assuage the sorrows of the `faceless' labourer and fight for the `voiceless' illiterates.

From struggles for worker rights, communal harmony to nuclear non-proliferation, the man has been fighting for a just social order in the - Gandhian way. His life began to appear more meaningful.

Sandeep Pandey gave up a respectable career to embrace a life of hardship and challenges in remote languishing villages of north India. Winner of this year's Ramon Magsaysay award (the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for `emergent leadership' and outstanding work in social development, Pandey spoke to Metro Plus recently, during a chance visit to Hyderabadwhen he delivered a lecture on `The Challenges of Communalism' organised by Harmony Concepts.

Following are the excerpts from the interview:

What made you give up a lucrative engineering career to work for the poor masses in rural India?

I was always interested in social intervention since my under-graduate days. I used to contest in college elections since my engineering days and I won almost on all occasions. But I was quick to realise that politics was not the way to affect social change.

While at Berkeley, I formed `Asha' - - a non-profit organisation dedicated to socio-economic change through education of the under-privileged. Soon after, I returned to India to take up teaching at IIT, Kanpur.

The activist in me actually found voice after about a year-and-a- half of teaching when I got deeply involved with workers undertaking painting work in the Institute. I went on a fast to secure higher wages for labourers. . And that was the beginning. I gave up my job and thought it was more meaningful to fight for the causes of the underprivileged class, to earn justice for them by changing the existing social structure, than just earn money without any value-additions to life. My family was a source of immense support for me to take up the decision.

What kind of change did you aspire for?

I aspired for a just social, or rather human, order where there would be no injustice meted out to the illiterate or the underprivileged strata of society. Everybody could live a life of dignity and earn their livelihood. I aspired for empowerment of the people at the micro level so that executive decisions are taken after consultation with the poor farmer, peasant or mill worker who is actually responsible for production. To set up a planning commission in every village is what I still dream.

How did you feel you could achieve this end?

Initially, I felt that socio-economic change could only be effected if I could educate the illiterate. I started doing so through Asha. But I realised soon that education leads to dehumanisation as it generates a competitive spirit, which is again unhealthy for wholesome development of the human being and society. Moreover, there is not enough scope in the country for even educated people to get a job due to over-population. I started to believe in the philosophy of Jeevan Vidya more than just Vidya.

I decided to redefine my perspective about ushering in a just social order, as I understood that education is not the end but only a medium. I began to stress more on promoting vocational skills, required for self-reliance.

As mainstream education cannot fulfil everybody's aspirations, I think developing careers that can be of some use to society, is more plausible.

What are the salient features of Jeevan Vidya philosophy?

Jeevan Vidya is practically a new philosophy that was started by A. Nagaraj. It begins where science and spiritualism, by themselves have fallen short. Spiritualism is mystic and God-centric and the path is difficult and not necessarily replicable. Science obviously takes care of material needs, but not all needs. Jeevan Vidya is unlike spiritualism (not God-centric) and science (not material-centric), which puts the human being in the centre (human-centric). Jeevan Vidya stresses on two principles of education - - self-reliance (swawalamban) and human values (samajika). Education has to inculcate these two principles essentially for a just social order.

What does your institution - Asha - aim at?

Asha is a people's organisation working for an education, which inculcates human values for a just society and promotes development of skills for self-reliance. Presently, Asha is running its programmes in Ballia, Lucknow and Kanpur and is interacting with a number of organisations in other parts of the country. It has support groups in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, New Delhi and Pilani.

Most of the financial support for its activities comes from the chapters based in the U.S, which have evolved into large networks of socially concerned individuals over its first decade of existence.

Asha was formed on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley in 1991 and subsequently registered as a Trust in New Delhi in 1992.

Your recent winning of the Ramon Magsaysay award was shrouded in a controversy. What was it all about?

I was given the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for a new category called `Emergent Leadership'.

I was in the Philippines when I got the news. Just before the award ceremony, I attended a protest in front of the American embassy against the foreign policies of America. My presence in the protest was highlighted and I was questioned about my integrity of character at the ceremony. The reason being, America funds the award.

I felt that it would not be fair to take the prize money after protesting against American policies. But I retained the award, as it is the best recognition a person can ever get.

How do you feel about the award?

Actually, I feel very embarrassed. There are many more deserving people than me who should have been awarded before me.


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