Pandey, Sandeep

An Indian who followed Gandhi's path and supported education for poor children by tapping the resources of the Indian diaspora
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  • The enterprising founders raised ten thousand dollars in one year, an auspicious beginning for an organization that now claims thirty six North-American chapters and has disbursed nearly one million dollars for programs in India.
  • After launching Asha, PANDEY himself returned to India, doctorate in hand. He taught briefly at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and, in 1993, left the institute to devote himself full-time to Asha's larger purpose: to bring about socioeconomic change in India through education.
  • In the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, PANDEY confronted the impoverished world of low-caste families and dalits, or untouchables. With local volunteers in the villages of Reoti and Bhainsaha, PANDEY has created schools that instill self-reliance and values for a just society.
  • A fuller expression of PANDEY's vision is the Asha Ashram in the dalit village of Lalpur, outside Lucknow. There students live and study among traditional artisans and engage in bee-keeping, vegetable gardening, and cottage industries.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes the empowering example of his commitment to the transformation of India's marginalized poor.

It is a tradition exemplified by Gandhi himself. After years of sojourning abroad, an educated Indian returns home and, forgoing a comfortable career, applies himself to the great social questions. Mohandas K. Gandhi was a lawyer by training. These days, Indian sojourners abroad are more likely to be learning computer science and engineering and preparing to join India?s high-tech economy, or North America's. SANDEEP PANDEY was such a person yet he has chosen Gandhi's path.

Born to India's middle classes, PANDEY studied at Benares Hindu University before attending graduate school in the United States. While pursuing a Ph.D. in control theory at the University of California-Berkeley, he joined V.J.P. Srivastavoy and Deepak Gupta to form Asha (Hope), to support education for poor children in India by tapping the resources of Indians abroad. The enterprising founders raised ten thousand dollars in one year, an auspicious beginning for an organization that now claims thirty six North-American chapters and has disbursed nearly one million dollars for programs in India. After launching Asha, PANDEY himself returned to India, doctorate in hand. He taught briefly at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and, in 1992, left the institute to devote himself full-time to Asha's larger purpose: to bring about socioeconomic change in India through education.

In the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, PANDEY confronted the impoverished world of low-caste families and dalits, or untouchables. In this world, few children went to school at all; even those who did, grew up to swell India's vast unemployment rolls. With local volunteers in the villages of Reoti and Bhainsaha, PANDEY has created schools that instill self-reliance and values for a just society. Asha's teachers take no pay. Instead, they support themselves with sidelines such as making candles and greeting cards from handmade paper. Students, too, learn useful arts and crafts. Older youths participate in community improvement as volunteers and health aides. They are part of what PANDEY calls "the first grassroots volunteer base of Asha in India."

A fuller expression of PANDEY's vision is the Asha ashram in the dalit village of Lalpur, outside Lucknow. There students live and study among traditional artisans and engage in bee-keeping, vegetable gardening, and cottage industries. They follow a special Asha curriculum and fill the air with songs and stories that convey the school's philosophy. The ashram also serves as a retreat center for Asha workshops and provides simple health services for the community. It is introducing new technologies and livelihood projects. To break down caste barriers, the ashram community conspicuously violates upper-caste taboos against dalits and publicizes anti-dalit crimes and abuses such as bribe taking by local officials.

As these projects matured, PANDEY built Asha's network in India to twelve chapters and linked its grassroots endeavors to the larger task, as he puts it, of "shaping the socio-economic-political future of the country." He denounced a government plan to favor Hinduism in state schools and called for an end to "the politics of revenge" that drives his country's communal violence. Warning against militarist nationalism, in 1999 he organized and led a 400-kilometer Global Peace March to protest India?s nuclear arms program. These days he vocally supports reconciliation between Indians and Pakistanis. "The voice of peace has to be louder," he says.

Thirty-seven-year-old PANDEY shares his busy activist life with his wife Arundhati and their two children. He is soft-spoken but passionate, as he motivates Asha's volunteers and young people and shepherds a multitude of projects. How does a one-time aspiring engineer manage such a life? "I believe in the Gandhian thinking," he says, "that once the path is chalked out, the means will follow."

In electing SANDEEP PANDEY to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes the empowering example of his commitment to the transformation of India's marginalized poor.

Your Excellency President of Philippines, Trustees of Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, other dignitaries, brothers and sisters:

I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for selecting me for an award this year. I accept this award for the collective effort of the Asha team as well as of friends involved in Peace initiatives. Hopefully, this award will draw people's attention to issues like alternative paradigm of education, nuclear disarmament, communal harmony and peace that we have been working on.

My primary work is in the area of education. I believe there is a need for an education system which will help establish a just human order on earth. Education should not just be treated as a means for getting jobs but should play an important role in shaping the personalities of individuals which will make this earth a better place to live in, irrespective of categories they belong to which differentiate among human beings. Education should build on the basic value of "trust" with which a child is born, and impart values which will make the individual more sensitive towards fellow human beings. Education must teach skills which will help an individual earn livelihood for the family by being part of the production economy. Giving more importance to the service sector rather than the primary sector is bad for the health of any economy. People involved in primary production processes must be able to live with dignity. A criterion that the education system is on the right track is when an educated person is able to bring all the levels at which he/she has to live -- the levels of self, body, family, society, nature, larger universe -- in harmony with each other.

Work related to education is at the grassroots and belongs to the "micro" category. Here we are trying to experiment and build models which could be considered good models for life.

Then I am also involved with various campaigns which belong to the "macro" category. Here we question the larger level decisions which can impact human life adversely at the grassroots. Our campaign for nuclear disarmament and peace is meant to get rid of nuclear weapons from the face of earth. India and Pakistan have escalated a nuclear arms race, thereby jeopardizing the security of the entire South Asian region. In the case of nuclear energy, it poses serious threat due to its radiation hazard all along the process of its production. In fact, nuclear energy is equally dangerous and this programme must also be halted.

I believe that true security lies in a relationship of trust and therefore countries like India and Pakistan should endeavor to create a border which should not only be free of military on both sides but should also allow free access to the other country. The prerequisite for this is an amicable solution of the problem of Kashmir which respects the wishes of the local people.

The rise of right wing politics spells danger for the internal peace of India. We have recently witnessed one of the worst communal riots of independent India. And all in the name of a movement for the construction of a religious place. The monster of communalism is acquiring fascist tendencies and now for us it has become a struggle to save the core democratic and pluralistic values of Indian society.

India today is going through very troubled times. We have primarily been a culture of tolerance. Today, fueled by the onslaught of new economic policy and aggressive campaign of multinational companies, a belligerent ideology is being imposed on the nation. Violence is being glorified on one hand in the name of religious intolerance and on the other nuclear weapons. The former is creating bloody internal conflicts whereas the latter has created a continuous war like situation on the border. It has been a painful decision to accept the Magsaysay in such times.

I only hope that this award for our efforts will highlight the blindness of violence and make people see the light of reason and compassion.