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Freedom to dream | Deep Joshi

Freedom to dream | Deep Joshi
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 08 58 PM IST

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: He was intuitive like me. Even if I sound too big for my shoes to be saying this, that’s one affinity I have with him. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: He was intuitive like me. Even if I sound too big for my shoes to be saying this, that’s one affinity I have with him. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 08 58 PM IST
When Deep Joshi was 8, a young community development officer arrived in his village in the hills of Uttarakhand, to teach its residents about the dry-bed cultivation of paddy. He wore trousers and polished shoes, and Joshi remembers thinking: “How is this sahib going to cope with village life?”
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: He was intuitive like me. Even if I sound too big for my shoes to be saying this, that’s one affinity I have with him. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
But he did cope. He worked with the earth, and he used shovels like everybody else, and he measured off distances with a piece of string, with Joshi holding on to the other end. “It was my first encounter with community development,” Joshi says. “So until I went to America, I would continue to think that development was only the government’s arena.”
The evolution of Joshi’s career—including with the sustainable livelihood NGO Professional Assistance for Development Action (Pradan), which he co-founded in 1983 and which helped win him a Magsaysay award this year—has been, in a sense, the evolution of the image of who should be working in development. Pradan was established because Joshi saw that NGOs were “bleeding hearts but little more”, and because he saw their crying need for top-tier professionals, or for graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs).
Joshi himself is an example of just that sort of professional. After studying mechanical engineering at Allahabad’s Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, he turned lecturer at the same institute out of, as he puts it, “some sort of idealism”. In 1971, the Union government announced a scholarship for overseas studies, which Joshi stumbled across and decided to apply for. “The idea was to do a PhD and return, so I took a sabbatical,” he says. “But of course, I didn’t come back there. So essentially, they fired me.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researching friction-temperature gradients, Joshi rapidly lost interest in his subject. Simultaneously, as he spent time with the small community of Indian students—“over beer, discussing politics and so on”—he acquired an interest in economics. So after completing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he switched to MIT’s Sloan School of Management, got an MBA, and returned to India with $200 (around Rs10,000 now) in his pocket, not entirely sure what to do with his education.
In 1977, Joshi joined the Systems Research Institute in Pune—just months after N.R. Narayana Murthy had left it—and was sent to rural Maharashtra on his first project, where he met the Aroles, a doctor couple. Joshi never fails to mention the influence of that meeting. “There was Mabelle Arole, God bless her soul, with a degree from Johns Hopkins University, sitting on the floor, talking animatedly with these Maharashtrian women,” he says. “The image of a doctor is the image of authority, and authority didn’t sit down with poor people.”
The Aroles, with their excellent qualifications and their zeal for village work, were the first shining examples that Joshi encountered of professionals in development. It is, he admits, a challenge to convince young graduates of this path. “Personally, if I hadn’t met Sheela, a (life) partner who understood that I’d be working with an organization with uncertain finances, that it would be modest salaries and third-class train travel, I don’t think I could have done it,” Joshi says. “People will always say, ‘Why are you joining an NGO?’ That tension is always there.”
Joshi met Sheela at the Ford Foundation, when they were working there in the early 1980s. “He’s a very different man,” Sheela says. “He’s very quiet—we’ve gone out for dinners where the whole occasion he won’t have said a single word. Once, some guy was going on about the New India, and how India was developing so fast, and so on—and then he said one thing too many, and finally Deep spoke: ‘Developing for whom?’”
“Deep has strong values, and he’s interested in their practical application—he’s not one of those armchair types that train the world while sitting in Habitat Centre,” says Vijay Mahajan, Pradan’s first executive director, now chairman of the microfinance group BASIX, and a self-confessed soulmate of Joshi’s. “And I have to say, in favour of Indian society and government, that whatever good work we did has, with some lag time, always been supported and recognized.”
Since Pradan’s first recruits, its base of employees has broadened beyond the IITs and IIMs into agricultural colleges and bigger public universities. But image-wise, development work isn’t quite into the safety zone yet. “My brother would ask me, even three years ago: ‘Are you okay? Is Pradan getting funded? Are the salaries coming?’” Joshi laughs.
Sheela knows, for a fact, that “many of Pradan’s younger hires—even those who have been there already for a few years—are still asked why they want to work for an NGO.” This summer, though, they found their answer. They simply printed out, and sent to their parents, copies of the citation of Joshi’s Magsaysay award.
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 08 58 PM IST