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Working for change

Harsh Mander came into public view after he resigned from the Civil Services, post-Gujarat scenario. In his capacity as the director of Actionaid, he's now channelising his energy towards community development.

— Photos: S. Thanthoni

LIVING BY BELIEFS: Harsh Mander has stood up for what he believes in. — Photos: S. Thanthoni

HARSH MANDER, Country Director, Actionaid, and former IAS officer from Gujarat (whose resignation after the carnage placed him in the true tradition of dedicated `civil' service) was in the city recently in connection with the launch of Hyderabad4Change. Hyderabad4Change seeks involvement of citizens across class and professions to take active part in providing homeless with shelters, jobs, de-addiction services and protection from exploitation and sexual abuse, besides giving them access to better education and medical care. The idea is that people are capable of contributing in a big way to make better living conditions for people. Harsh Mander also presided over a Workshop on Aman Ekta Manch jointly organised by Actionaid Regional office and COVA at NISIET on February 14.

Several NGOs participated in the workshop with its central focus on communal harmony. Harsh Mander put forth the idea of setting up `Shanti Dals', or `Aman Jathas' at city, town and village levels to carry forward the message of peace. He also mooted the idea of inter-faith living and inter-faith schooling to break stereotypes of communities among children.

Post-workshop, Harsh Mander shared his thoughts - on bureaucracy, the scope for dissent in times of social and political crises, and the space for democracy in all kinds of establishments provided there are conscientious individuals.

Having been part of the Indian Administrative Service for a long time, do you think bureaucracy remains largely an arm of the State?

I have spent best years of my life in civil services and when I look back I don't regret a single day. We have a democratic space that is still alive. I also feel that before I took this decision to take voluntary retirement, I was able to pursue my beliefs to the fullness. I have very passionate beliefs on land reforms, women's rights, the communal situation, transparency, fighting corruption, and democratic rights in the context of the Narmada (andolan). These are issues where I have taken a stand successfully. In civil services, they say one cannot live according to one's beliefs. It is not true. I don't think there is any pressure. It has been my own personal experience.

The right of dissent, according to one's conscience, is one of the fundamental questions in any establishment. Not only bureaucracy. The question that I fundamentally ask is if there is conflict between the duty of obedience and the duty of conscience, what must prevail. I have no doubt that not only civil services but any democratic institution has to prevail ultimately on the conscience. There wasn't anything dramatic or heroic (in the resignation); it was a legitimate position and one that people have followed.

Do you think the selection procedure of civil servants in the country today is good enough to measure an individual's sensitivity to everyday issues ?

I think this has been debated for a long time. The army tends to recruit certain kinds of people with physical courage, expects them to ask no questions - that is one service in which obedience has to play a fair amount of role; it is incredibly successful. You see the success of the system in the battlefield. When you see the Civil Service, this is the test. It is fundamentally flawed; they are testing you not even for academic brilliance, but basically the capacity for above-average academic performance and stamina. It has nothing to do with any of the requirements - you need a person of courage and conviction, of compassion, who has empathy to poor people; a person who has belief in justice. You need a person who is willing to live with some degree of modesty, and so on. No one even pretends that this is tested. It is a question of random chance. It is like picking up a set of people almost by lottery, rather than men and women of character.

In the context of Gujarat, - do you think there is any scope at all for bureaucracy there today to be dedicated to conscience?

I think the scope is always there. But what I find utterly unacceptable is the fact that government didn't set up camps; people had no shelter, no cover in pouring rains, holding babies with no food, and came out in the clothes they were wearing. In the Shah Alam camp (which was supposed to be largest and best) there were no facilities. Nothing, absolutely nothing can condone what happened. At the most a transfer could have happened. Prisoners of war would have got a proper camp and food; you are not even treating them like a civilised country treats even its enemies! How can Civil Services have abjectly accepted this? I am a person who rarely despairs. I really believe in people. This is not about despairing about people, but about institutions.

Now that you are in the voluntary sector, one finds that today the voluntary sector is also different from what it was in the initial years . Your comments.

BREAKING STEREOTYPES: Mander mooted the idea of inter-faith living and schooling.

I feel that the voluntary sector is in as deep a crisis as civil services; I feel very alone. Of course, when you are pointing a finger at others you are pointing three at yourself. I merely say this in a spirit of introspection. It is also making one feel isolated in many ways. But you have a situation where the Gandhians chose not to speak out by and large and not to act, with the progressive movements, trade union movements. You can't go to the camps. What is the point of the whole notion of justice? In many of the tribal areas - where people did the worst atrocities - there are groups working on forest and land rights. Their members participated in rape and murder and these organisations did nothing to condemn, let alone to expel, or to introspect. Many organisations talk of neutrality (that they are not political organisations) in the face of injustice of this magnitude - being quiet is a hugely political act of siding with that injustice. I feel bureaucracy is in no greater crisis than the voluntary sector is.

Actionaid has changed its position in terms of being rights based and movements based. Would you comment?

Yes, it has moved, and for an organisation like Actionaid - as an international organisation - what we are doing is very different now, but I have a feeling that these are times when one's institutional spaces are less important than how we use them / what we use them for. I think that Actionaid at some level is a `politically incorrect' space for much of what my colleagues and I are trying to do within it. But I am happy there is solidarity among my colleagues - there are well-paid jobs with lot of money coming from overseas. So to some extent it looks illegitimate to do what one is trying to do. I wonder why. I think we need to break some of those stereotypes and actually say that every citizen wherever they are located needs to act in response to what is justice and truth.

In the context of this workshop and the concept of Aman Ekta Manch, how will this work, and what are your concerns?

I think that the ascendant ideology, based on hatred and division, is actually a minority ideology, but it is organised and powerful. Edmund Burke had said that it is basically the inactivity of the large majority of the good, which allows evil to prevail. It was never as dramatically visible as it is today. I have a feeling that today it is not just about specific battle of a political party or how people work, but our very survival as a society which respects diversity and that kind of worldview, and the kind of world we need to give our children. We need to look for a larger mobilisation. I am not alone in feeling this. There are a lot of others feeling the same way. We just have to put our acts together.


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