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|July 31, 2002||
The Rediff Interview/Sandeep Pandey
A decade ago Sandeep Pandey quit his job at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur, and plunged into working for Asha -- an education programme for underprivileged children.
His years of dedication brought him the Ramon Magasasay award -- the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He was selected in the 'Emergent Leadership Category,' and is among five others to have won the coveted award this year.
At 37, he is also the youngest Indian to have been conferred with the award.
It was in the summer of 1991 that Pandey, along with two other friends, founded Asha during his student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Today, the organisation has 35 chapters in India, USA and several other countries. Volunteers in each of these chapters identify education-related projects in India, and support them through funds and other means.
Squatting on his drawing room carpet, at his modest joint-family accommodation in Lucknow, he spoke to Sharat Pradhan about his crusading journey so far and the goals ahead.
What led you to leave your career as a mechanical engineer and IIT professor to take up the task of a social activist?
It was a report prepared by MIT whose experts had found that more than 50 per cent of India's children remained totally uneducated and never went to school. I was still at California where together with two of my colleagues we decided to do something to bring some hope in the lives of that deprived lot. That's when Asha -- our voluntary organisation was born.
What brought you back to India?
Initially, it was the professorial assignment at IIT Kanpur, but soon realisation dawned that true service to the downtrodden could be rendered only by working physically at the grassroots level. So I decided to leave IIT after a year-and-a-half and headed straight for my paternal grandparent's village in Ballia district [in Uttar Pradesh] where the first Asha non-formal education centre was born.
Today we have three more such centres in Hardoi, Kanpur and Varanasi, besides scores of other such centres supported by Asha.
How did your family react to your quitting a prime assignment at an IIT?
My father, who had dreams of seeing me as a civil servant, was surely somewhat shaken when I took this decision in 1993, yet, he was always confident I would still do something worthwhile. My wife Arundhati, herself an associate of Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan, always stood by me.
What is your concept of non-formal education?
Conventional education is only oriented towards jobs, therefore it is based on competition, which in turn gives rise to pride, prejudice and conflict. My idea of education is based on empowerment by imbibing the spirit of cooperation instead of competition.
How do you propose to achieve your goal through a handful of your schools?
Firstly, we are not running schools. We have our centres where we see to the overall development of young minds. And it is not just four institutions, we have over a hundred institutions spread across the country where we are trying to promote our type of education.
How did you feel when your heard that you were selected for this prestigious award?
I did not believe my ears when I received the call from Manila. Initially I felt someone was trying to play a prank. After all, there were many more deserving people than me. Yet it was a great feeling to find your work being recognised at levels which you have never dreamt of. But all the same I must confess, it is not my lone effort. Much of the credit goes to my colleagues who had been with me in this mission all along.
I believe you have been involved in other social movements as well.
I participated in the Pokharan to Sarnath march that was organised to express our protest against the nuclear tests. More recently, I undertook a similar protest march together with my friends and coactivists from Chitrakoot to Ayodhya to express our concern about the recent happenings in Gujarat .
What plans do you have for the immediate future?
I am planing to undertake a peace mission to Pakistan because I strongly feel the need for peaceful ties between the two nations. This cannot be achieved through nuclear missiles and tanks, but through a genuine hand shake.
Design: Dominic Xavier; Photograph: Ajay Saxena
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