For someone who gave up a coveted and cushy government job to walk down an unsure, idealistic path, Harsh Mander, 54, is surprisingly unassuming. “Icons have become a short cut to understanding issues. To my mind, the biggest icons are people who stood up, ordinary people who have saved people’s lives despite crippling odds,” Mander tells me when we meet at his nondescript, open-air office in south Delhi.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: In many ways he’s more relevant to the 21st century than the 20th. His words ‘Be the change you want to see’ are pertinent in the personal and socio-political spheres. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
After witnessing the complicity of civil servants and police officers in the Gujarat riots in 2002, Mander resigned from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But not before he told the authorities exactly what was on his mind. In a scathing, emotional essay in 2002, he wrote, “There is much that the murdering mobs in Gujarat have robbed from me. One of them is a song I often sang with pride and conviction. The words of the song are: Sare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara… It is a song I will never be able to sing again.”
Now the soft-spoken Mander is a Supreme Court commissioner (i.e, he advises the Supreme Court) on issues of food security. He is a columnist who works towards bringing young people together to fight homelessness and communalism. Mander also teaches “poverty and governance” at IIM Ahmedabad—in the capital of a state he forsook a long time ago. He enjoys a bit of cinema whenever he gets the time.
“Hate, hunger and homelessness”, he says, are the three issues he feels passionately about. When asked to choose among the three, he fidgets with the recorder in front of him and says, “I think a life of dignity for people who are most marginalized, that is closest to my heart. It is the belief in equal dignity of every human being, an equal birth of every human being.”
In ways that only India makes possible, he is a powerful man despite the circumstances under which he quit the IAS. He has the ears of the Congress leadership on issues that he champions. His views have found place on the aam aadmi agenda of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. He and his team have also floated a draft on the proposed Food Security Act, the big-ticket reform the Congress promised in its pre-election manifesto.
Mander has a tough job on hand: to be an interlocutor between those who make the decisions and those for whom the decisions are made. But along with his colleague N.C. Saxena, another former bureaucrat, he has literally forced the food agenda into the mainstream of Indian polity. As Supreme Court commissioners on food issues, they have convinced a reluctant state to universalize the Integrated Child Development Scheme. They have got at least a part of the state apparatus to buy into their argument that one cannot allow middlemen and contractors to profit from the multi-thousand-crore food schemes which provide food for 80 million children.
Mander had to take on some heavyweights in the previous UPA government to win these battles. Very few survive a bout with Renuka Chowdhury, says a cabinet colleague of the erstwhile women and child development minister, but the Supreme Court commissioners defeated her in a battle she fought till the end—to introduce packaged food in nutrition programmes, especially for children.
But it’s young activists, not ministers, who have a special place in Mander’s plans. Mander is the convener of Aman Biradari, an organization that builds diverse local-level institutions for youth and women to strengthen bonds of tolerance, fraternity, respect and peace. “Young children of today are not less idealistic. But they don’t have space to engage,” he says. Mander, with his group of social workers, has built four homes in Delhi and Hyderabad for streetchildren.
But even after accomplishing more than his share, Mander fondly recounts one of his first encounters with the other India as a young, inexperienced civil servant armed with ideals and enthusiasm in Bharwani, Madhya Pradesh. He remembers how, mainly due to his efforts, a group of leprosy patients raised their hands in unison and vowed to quit begging. Even today, he says he is just as thrilled when he sees the raised palms of streetchildren as he was moved by the raised stumps of the leprosy affected that day in Bharwani.
As a young civil servant, Mander confronted such harsh truths for the first time. But as the son of an IAS officer, he wasn’t unfamiliar with the challenges. His school years were spent wherever his father was posted—the Andamans, the North-East and Sikkim.
Despite the journey Mander has already undertaken, he says he cannot understand why it is taking India so long to “walk” to the underprivileged. “Sometimes, I think, where our child sleeps and where that streetchild sleeps might be one kilometre (apart), but it’s a journey we never seem able to walk to that other child.”
To Mander’s mind, the ideal future is one where no one sleeps on the streets and no one sleeps hungry. “The idea of India is very important for the world; that in all our diversity, we can live together peacefully. We have the space to do that.”