Q-1 Sandeepji, it is nice to know the about the great work done by you for the upliftment of the poor in our country. What made you to leave a promising career and go for social service work?

It was the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi. After going through his autobiography 'my experiments with truth' completely while as a student at BHU i took the decision that i would like to live my life in a manner similar to what he did. the aspect about his life which impressed me most was how he de-classed himself and was able to work with and for the common citizens. i'm doing what i'm doing today is because this is what makes me happy. i would not have been satisifed in an engineering career. I don’t look at leaving a middle class career option as a sacrifice. I moved from what was an uncomfortable situation for me to a more stable situation.

Q-2 Please tell us more about Asha organization.

it is a non-hierarchical, volunteer based organization with no office and no staff. volunteers run this organization. some of them work full time, most are part time. we raise resources from among the people rather than seek government or institutional funding for our work. sometimes, villagers contribute in terms of food grains. we are increasingly becoming a people's organization. all decisions are taken in open meetings. asha was formed with deepak gupta, now a faculty member at iitk, and v.j.p. srivatsavoy, a ph.d. from TIFR, who is no more. the objective was to work for the education of underprivileged children of India initially.

Q-3 In what fields of social work are you actively involved with?

now, in addition to education we work for communal harmony, RTI, right to food, employment guarantee scheme, right of common people over natural resources, fighting against corporatization of our resources and lives, defending human rights, strengthening democracy at the grassroots, building peace and friendship at the people to people level between citizens of india and pakistan, working towards a visa free and peaceful south asia, for nuclear disarmament and global peace, etc.

Q-4 March 22nd is celebrated as United Nations’ World Water Day. What actions are needed to preserve the water source of the planet?

As you know, the world is facing a shortage of water - already the shortage has taken crisis proportions in some parts of the world. In India too, various parts face a crisis.
And yet, in many parts the government continues to allow powerful interests to pollute water. In Varanasi, for example, Coca Cola is dumping toxic chemicals to pollute rivers and water tables. And the government takes no action. Similarly in Plachimada, in Kerala, water around the plant has become contaminated. These companies are also depleting the water table by excessive withdrawal of water.
And now with the water contaminated, water and water supply is being privatized. Companies will be paid to get us clean water. That is ironic since companies polluted our water streams in the first place. These large companies are, in fact, bribing governments to privatize water and get contracts as RTI exposed in Delhi.
Water is a public resource - all people around the world share water. We should have the right over water - it cannot be given to corporations. It cannot be made a good over which people can make profit. All privatization of water must end.

Q-5 What are your views on current education system in India? What must be needed to improve it?

(The current system benefits only to few and is competition based instead of cooperation. Steps being planned by you provide education to rural masses and your philosophy/approach to the problem.) the education system is creating more problems than solving. it is creating more selfish, corrupt, communal individuals who loose the sensitivity towards fellow human beings in the process of competition based education. such individuals cannot form the basis for a just and humane society. we need an education which will instill the right kind of values so that we become more sensitive human beings and should impart us skills so that we may earn our livelihood by being part of the production economy. we must immediately do away with the system of competitive examination. it distorts human personality. quality can be ensured only in human relationships based on trust.

even in the very narrow definition of skill development, the education system is failing. it only serves to provide skills to a small fraction of the population. for most others, it provides no skills by which people may develop livelihoods and sustain themselves.

Q-6 You are also active in upliftment of Lalpur Village near Lucknow. What steps are being taken by your organization in this regard?

we are working for the empowerment of people at the grassroots. people are organizing themselves under the banner of asha parivar to solve their problems. more specifically they are demanding more transparecy and accountability from the administrative and political system so that the benefits meant for them through various government schemes reach them. The ashram activities are not just limited to lalpur village only. Our area of influence covers two blocks of hardoi district extensively – bharawan and sandila. Now we have begun to reach out to 3 more blocks – kothawan and bnehender of hardoi district and miyaganj of neighbouring unnao district. In addition two of our volunteers, keshav chand and jaishankar, after being in lalpur or 2-3 years have begun to develop two more areas of mass base – deoria + kushinagar and chandauli, respectively. A volunteer from deoria, mahendra yadav, would soon be moving to patna to take charge of the RTI campaign there.

Q-7 A section of press is not happy with you and they find objection with your stand on naxalites, minorities, Indo-Pak disarmament, etc.

problems like naxalism and terrorism can be eliminated only when there is justice in society. in our society human rights of a number of people are trampled upon which gives rise to anger and violence. i definitely don't support this violence but can understand why some people have to take up arms to defend their dignity. if you want naxalites or terrorists to integrate with the society you'll have to redress their grievances. as a peace activist i'm a staunch supporter of not just nuclear disarmament but all disarmament. arms don't provide security. human relationships based on trust do. the best way to eliminate your enemy is to make friends with him. spreading hatred and animosity, like the RSS does, will not solve any problems. RSS has done more damage to india than any naxalite or terrorist organization.

naxalism and terrorism are in fact symptoms. and yet the government attempts to address them as if they are the root cause - that is where it fails. in orissa, for example (or in bihar, harkhand, chattisgarh, mp), thousands of very poor people, mostly tribals, are being displaced from their lands and are losing their livelihoods owing to government policies. they live in a democracy (supposedly) have no voice in the policies of the government. when they present their concerns (and they usually do this non-violently), they are beaten up, fired upon, tortured, booked under false cases. when they are unable to express their concerns in human, democratic ways, and their existence is at threat, what options do they have.
in the north east, numerous groups are non-violently expressing their concerns. you must have heard of sharmila irom. such groups are being beaten up and put in jail. the government only seems to engage with groups that have taken to violence.
our work has a theme - that communities, nations, regions must be based on trust . when it is based on violence, power factions emerge and numerous people are oppressed. we oppose violence in all forms in all parts of society. Our demands for a nuclear free and peaceful southasia is based on that. While our governments spend 30-50% of our budgets on arms, and on nuclear development, we have among the worst social indices in the world. even sub-saharan africa is doing better than india - and we claim to be on the verge of becoming a superpower? Probably more people and children have died of hunger, malnutrition, farmers have committed suicides and citizens of India have been killed in fake encounters by our own security agencies than have been killed by our enemies in wars. The weapons and armies are there only to protect the interest of the ruling class, which is miniscule compared to the masses, who do not feel secure because of the government policies.
I would like to make a relevant quote here provided to me by my friend sanat mohanty -
’I cannot hope to work towards equality and justice, towards non violence, till I stop dominating other opinions, other voices.’

Q-8 Please tell us about your days at IT-BHU.

i could never generate an interest in the subject. there were very few interesting professors. i can only recall prof. n.k.das talukdar who made an effort to make his subject interesting. i developed interest in engineering only at the masters' level at syracuse univerity because of which i went on to finish a ph.d. but i did not want to do engineering all my life and hence quit 1.5 years after my ph.d. bhu was an educational experience in life. i learned more outside the classrooms than inside. long hours of sipping tea outside de hotel at bechu's or at mochu's (he is still there - i saw him the other day when i had gone to varanasi) and discussing all subjects under the sun was the most enlightening experience. there were very few good human beings among the professors. i can only remember s.k. kak, who was my warden. i had contested the election of IT councillor in my final year. i won but subsequently got disillusioned with politics and escaped to the US to gain some respite only to find that life there was worse than in India. Hence decided to return as soon as I finished my ph.d. from the university of California, Berkeley in 1992.

Q-9 What advice will you give to some one who wants to give up his promising career and plunge into the social service work?

listen to your heart. do what would make you happy. but as citizens, esp. educated ones, it is our duty to work for a better society. my definition of a better society is one which will be free of all artificial divisions created between human beings in the name of caste, race, religion, nation, gender, class, etc. we have to work for a society in which every human family can live and earn their livelihood with dignity. actually, the best way to ensure that you're on the right track is to use gandhi's talisman - find out if what you're doing is going to help the last person of society. if it is then your decision is right.

Q-10 What is Magsaysay award about?

it is named after a former president of phillipines but entirely funded by rockefeller and ford foundations of the US. it has somehow become a prestigious award. i returned the cash component of it because the magsaysay foundation was not very happy with my decision to protest outside the US embassy and the fact that I had called the US as the biggest terrorist state in the official press conference of the magsaysay foundation. a day after the award ceremony in an unrelated event some activists had decided to protest against the impending US attack on iraq. i participated in this protest. Next day, a newspaper challenged me to return the $50,000 if ‘i was the principled man that i wanted them to believe.’ i returned it. i did not return the award because magsaysay is like nehru of phillipines. it would have hurt the sentiments of ordinary citizens there. besides the award has earlier gone to some people who i consider my ideals - vinoba bhave, jaiprakash narayan, baba amte. it would have meant disrespect to them too. but i have told the magsaysay foundation that if they ever feel too embarrassed because of my activities they can tell me and i'll return their award too.

Q-11 Sandeepji, it was nice talking to you. Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to our questions.