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WHAT’S RIGHT ABOUT INDIA?

The man who saw tomorrow

Sanjoy Ghose was a dogged catalyst of change. And he paid the ultimate price for it

Deepti Priya Mehrotra
New Delhi

Gentle Crusader: Sanjoy Ghose
 
The police offered him
protection but Sanjoy
refused, saying people
were his best protection.
Soon after, he was
abducted. He vanished
Sanjoy Ghose vanished on July 4, 1997. He was abducted by the ulfa because of his grassroots work in the largest river island in the world, Majuli, Assam. Last December, he would have turned 45.

In 37 years he had packed more into life than most people do in a hundred years or more. Says RN Haldipur, former director of Institute of Rural Management (irma), Anand, “Sanjoy was a positive and tenacious votary who functioned with single-minded purpose. Instead of joining the corporate sector, he took the hard path, full of difficulties and austerity. To him work was soul-satisfying worship. Transparent in his dealings, he was a man of great integrity.”

Sanjoy immersed himself in the lives of ordinary people. He observed, understood and wrote their stories, crafted like gems set in rustic metal.

He studied Rural Development at Elphinstone College, Bombay, and Rural Management at irma. He had worked in a health programme in Kheda, Gujarat, then moved to Bikaner, Rajasthan, to set up a primary health programme with urmul Trust. Sumita — his wife and comrade — recalls: “Starting from scratch in the middle of the desert, in a semi-feudal society, learning a new language, living in a different cultural milieu, where women were in purdah, where you were identified by your caste, was like having to start a new life almost… It was a period of growing up, when we realised that any change, however seemingly innocuous, is political.”

They learnt about the “systematic subversion of the rights of poor people”. urmul ’s work expanded to include weavers, peasants, migrant labour, midwives, girls’ education, water, food security, ecology and local governance. The group gradually broke new ground, it made a perceptible difference in the life and times of many people and villages in Rajasthan. And its impact can be seen till this day, as locals have taken over the trust, dalits run independent craft institutions, schools and panchayats, drought relief funds are collectively organised and the dairy movement flourishes across Bikaner and beyond.

Sanjoy and Sumita spent 10 years living and working from the rural campus at Lunkaransar, near Bikaner. This was where their two children were born and grew up.

When handing over the reins of the organisation in 1994, Sanjoy was aware that this was a step to transfer leadership and decision-making power to a local leadership. He spoke of urmul having provided him with roots, the lack of which earlier disturbed him. He had experienced “…the quiet confidence of the weavers emerging suddenly; the euphoria of the Nahar Yatra (canal yatra), hundreds joining in song and walking together; the deep spiritual understanding about the impermanence of life….”

In Phalodi, a landmark of the urmul movement, the beginning of Sanjoy’s dream, the weavers have consolidated the group. At Chattergarh, the priority was on pastoralism and animal husbandry. The Lunkaransar centre emphasised fodder, water and food security. The Nagaur group worked with migrant labour, to stem the tide by generating resources closer home. In Bajju, the focus has been on pre-schooling and primary education.

Sanjoy left Rajasthan for the Northeast to yet again start his “life’s work”. En route he set up Charkha in New Delhi — a developmental communication network offering grassroots activists and ordinary people in remote areas a space to write about their own lives, dreams and struggles. These writings were fielded out to various publications in English, Hindi and Urdu, so as to reach a wide readership. This was a unique movement in alternative journalism.

After moving to Majuli in April 1996, Sanjoy and his colleagues in avard-ne lived for a while with different local families. He spent a fortnight with Umaram Das or Kokai’s family in village Natun Kamlabari. He deeply felt the beauty of the place and the skills of people; and he knew there were harsher realities out there: “…there is another, more poignant side to this near ethereal beauty and silence. You can feel it in the people, catch a hint of tension in their conversation. Anando Hazarika, professor of geography at the college in Kamlabari, says that the island has shrunk by over 500 sq km in the last 20 years, as the Brahmaputra breaks against the shores and inexorably, but quickly, swallows the land.”

The group mobilised people to build embankments: local people contributed 30,000 person-days of labour to protect an experimental stretch of 1.7 km of the island’s banks. In doing so, they displeased a powerful contractor lobby that provided patronage to ulfa .

When posters came up asking avard-ne to leave Assam, many locals participated in a public meeting in solidarity with the constructive work being done. This was on June 1, 1997. The group had already engaged in flood relief and malaria prevention, design and production of weaving and bamboo crafts; it had also set up village libraries.

The police offered him protection but Sanjoy refused, saying people were his protection. Soon after, he was abducted. Sanjoy vanished.

January 29, 2005
 

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