Shankar Ghose retired from a full-time job at the National Foundation of India (NFI), the outfit which gives grants to non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—to relax, listen to Beethoven, Mozart and Rabindra Sangeet, finish partially read books, play golf and meet his friends for long lunches.
But, two days after leaving NFI in 2001, Ghose ended up joining Charkha, the development and communication network that his son had started in 1994 and which, until then, was being run by a board.
With long years in the corporate sector—Caltex, Godrej, Philips and Shriram Industrial Enterprises—and a stint at NFI, Ghose, who joined as president of Charkha, decided he had to continue the work of Charkha, which tries to empower rural people by giving them a voice.
Charkha had been started in 1994 by Ghose’s son, Sanjoy Ghose, who was abducted by Ulfa militants in 1997 on a work visit to Assam, and has not been heard from since.
Today, the septuagenarian works almost seven days a week holding workshops in rural areas, getting articles written by them in newspapers and magazines, and creating awareness among them to stand up for their rights. “It’s like an old father following his son’s footsteps, but I enjoy working for people at grass-root levels,” says Ghose.
Charkha’s Shankar Ghose says he takes pride in the popularity of the Urdu features service brought out by the organization.
His nondescript office in South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar area is cluttered with paper clippings in Hindi, English and Urdu, and placards of workshops held by Charkha. He speaks passionately about Charkha’s activities, and about his son, even as his tea gets cold. It isn’t an easy conversation. The pain of talking about Sanjoy in the past tense, and the persistent guilt that he could not stop him from going to the North-East are palpable. Charkha’s website describes Ghose trying to dissuade his son from visiting Assam only for Sanjoy to ask: “Then, whose son will you send?”
But, it isn’t all personal. Ghose is no less passionate when he starts talking about how mainstream media does not adequately cover development issues relating to rural areas. Among his favourite topics is how Charkha was in the limelight in the mid-1990s, and how it works now.
Charkha (www.charkha.org) provides a link between people in the villages, grass-roots level activists, NGOs working in the area and mainstream media. Ghose and his team of six in Delhi make sure that “positive” aspects of developmental works done in rural areas are reported in the mainstream media. Charkha tries to use conventional communication as a tool to empower the impoverished. In order to retain what people at the grass-roots levels want to convey, there is minimal editing and rewriting of articles by the Charkha team.
Its feature service provides a platform to activists and development journalists to get their articles published in Hindi, Urdu and English through papers and magazines such as The Indian Express, Civil Society, Rashtriya Sahara, Amar Ujala, Jansatta and Quami Awaz among others.
“Our Urdu feature service, which?started?only in end-2005, has got tremendous response and since India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, this is of special significance,” says Ghose who is actively involved in managing the Charkha-Sanjoy Ghose Fellowship for Peace and Development, through which the voices of the people in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh are brought to mainstream media.
Still, Ghose laments, mainstream media wants to devote more space to sex, glamour and consumerism, rather than talk about development activities in rural areas. “When Sanjoy started Charkha in Delhi, many editors were excited, the The Indian Express even gave him dedicated space, which was called ‘Village Voice’,” recalls Ghose who advocates a balance between stories from rural and urban areas, and would like for newspapers to devote at least one small window on their pages for the voice of the villagers.
Publishers and editors, on their part, say that articles submitted by Charkha should have good journalistic flavour to justify giving them the space. Umesh Anand, publisher of Civil Society magazine, which published articles from Charkha in the past says, “Though I would love to take articles written by activists of Charkha, they should be based on journalistic soundness.” He adds: “Activists may have their own agenda and tend to get repetitive and boring sometimes.” Besides, Anand feels considerable effort goes into rewriting articles from Charkha. Still, Anand agrees, the efforts made by Charkha need to be applauded and supported, and that Ghose is doing as good a job as his son Sanjoy had done.
“In today’s situation, I feel Sanjoy would have faced the same difficulties as Shankar in getting these articles published because stories organized by Charkha are boutique stories, and editors and publishers have much larger objectives,” says Anand.
So far, Charkha has organized 400 workshops in parts of Central and North India. But, these are not ordinary workshops as Ghose has a precondition for these sessions. “If 50% of the total people attending the workshop does not comprise women, we call it off,” says Ghose. “Not just that, we ensure that senior citizens and children are adequately represented.”
Apart from his role at Charkha, Ghose has had a history of philanthropic involvement. “Shankar’s activism dates back to his days with the corporate world,” says Anand of Civil Society. Indeed, since his days at Shriram, where he was senior vice-president and chief operating officer, Ghose has been involved with CanSupport, an organization for terminally ill cancer patients, following the demise of a colleague who died of cancer. Even in those days, “there was so much you could contribute to the society”, Ghose adds. As a senior official at Shriram Chemicals and Fertilizers, Ghose led literacy and cleanliness drives at shopfloor level, where workers participated along with their families. “Together we dazzled the quality-control team with each worker contributing his or her bit,” he recalls. “That too without costing the company anything.”
These efforts have come in handy now. Ghose notes that Siddharth Shriram, chairman of Shriram Industrial Enterprises, is actively involved with Charkha and has been giving grants on a yearly basis.
A follower of Gandhi, Ghose’s office has several pictures of the national leader as well as images of spinning wheels (hence Charkha).
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org)