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Social activist Deep Joshi wins Magsaysay award

Joshi, who has done pioneering work for development of rural communities, was named, along with five others, for the prestigious award considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize

In recognition of his pioneering work for the uplift of rural communities, 62-year-old social activist Deep Joshi was named one of the five recipients of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award.  

“The award is the acknowledgement of an idea that can be carried forward to help disadvantaged sections of society,” Joshi, co-founder of Professional Assistance for Development Action (Pradan), said a day after his name was announced as recipient. 

“Jharkhand has been my real karmabhoomi. I have learnt a lot while working among tribal women in Naxalite-affected districts of the state,” Joshi said in New Delhi, referring to the dairy project he helped initiate and grow in Lohardaga. 

In December 2005, Pradan was able to begin a campaign to convince tribal women in Lohardaga district to take up dairy as a commercial venture. “Tribal women considered it a sin to deny a calf of its mother’s milk,” Joshi recalled about the time his team began to work with 80 women from the remote Kudu and Sneha blocks in Lohardaga district. 

Around 450 women are now part of the dairy movement. “They can manage the cooperative and maintain their accounts with user-friendly software enabling them to issue passbooks,” said Lohardaga team leader Santosh Tiwary. 

“We challenged their traditional wisdom, helped them form self-help groups to raise funds to buy a superior breed of cows, trained them in veterinary care, and imparted skills for them to form a milk cooperative modelled on Amul,” he recalled. 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh congratulated Joshi and said he hoped his work would inspire others. “He has done the nation proud and his work will inspire others to dedicate their lives to the cause of rural empowerment and uplift through voluntary service,” the prime minister said. 

Joshi said: “Individuals do not matter. The award is for the whole team of Pradan. It is the celebration of an idea… of effectively combining the head and the heart for transformative development of rural communities.” 

Pradan started work, in 1983, in seven poor states including Jharkhand in erstwhile Bihar, promoting self-help groups, developing locally suitable economic activities and introducing systems to improve the livelihood of the rural poor. 

The organisation concentrated on Jharkhand’s Naxalite zones of Lohardaga, Gumla and Chaibasa, and in Bankura and Purulia in neighbouring Bengal. 

Working with a team of IIT and IIM graduates, Joshi, who has a double masters degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a management degree from Sloan School, says nowadays talented youth considered development work intellectually inferior to science, industry or diplomacy. 

“We want to prove that it is both a challenging and noble choice. We expect Pradan to evolve a model in which talented youth can work in both India and Bharat,” Joshi adds, alluding to the urban-rural divide. 

Born in a remote village in Uttarakhand, Joshi was drawn into public service after witnessing a sanitation project in 1977. His own humble beginnings are testament to the power of education to change lives, as he worked his way up from the small village of Gadtir in the interiors of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. 

One of the seven children of Harikrishan Joshi, a farmer, he pursued his early education at the local primary school and went on to top in engineering at Motilal Nehru Engineering college in Allahabad. “As kids we were supposed to do household chores like collecting firewood and grazing cattle,” Joshi recalls. 

“I never thought of taking up a government job even after I returned from MIT, and found teaching an ideal occupation. I joined an NGO in Pune that worked for public health in rural Maharashtra. That is when I met this doctor couple -- Raj and Mabelle Arole -- who worked for community health and educating villagers with utmost dedication. It opened my eyes to what a professional could do,” he says. 

The idea took root and Joshi founded Pradan in 1983 along with activist Vijay Mahajan. While Mahajan moved to the microfinance and banking sector in the early 1990s, Joshi remained active in Pradan for 30 years until he retired in 2007. 

The NGO recruits university-educated youth from campuses across the country and grooms them for grassroots work through a rigorous year-long apprenticeship which combines formal training and guided practice in the field. 

In its twin programmes of training development professionals and reducing rural poverty, Pradan has transformed the lives of over 70,000 families. 

Were Naxalites a hindrance to their activities? Not at all. “In fact, we faced problems only in recruiting youth to work with us in the Naxalite-hit areas. Sometimes we were even told that the extremists asked villagers to cooperate with us as we were trying to do some meaningful work,” Joshi points out. 

The biggest challenge is to choose the right staff. “I was in charge of recruiting and training employees before they were sent for work. Empathy and compassion are there in everyone. One needs a sense of fulfilment to remain motivated in this profession,” Joshi observes. 

Joshi hopes the award will convey a positive message and that more youngsters will come forward to work for rural communities. “The biggest challenge is to convince young and educated people that they can have a life even after devoting some of their time working for NGOs.”

Source: The Indian Express, August 6, 2009
            The Telegraph, August 5, 2009
            ANI, August 5, 2009
            PTI, August 4, 2009