Kameshwar Upadhyaya


Deep Joshi: An Authentic Leader

Kameshwar Upadhyaya

Cover Web_Deep Joshi_PRADAN

India and Bharat are two different countries located in the same geography. 50 miles outside any metro city, you will find ‘Bharat’, oblivious of and untouched by India. If India, as a nation, wants to surge into the 21st century as a leader of the world order, it must soon establish an engagement with Bharat. Deep Joshi, a social activist through his NGO, Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), has made significant efforts in this direction.

PRADAN recruits educated youth from university campuses across the country and grooms them for work at the grassroots level through a rigorous year-long apprenticeship that combines formal training and guided practice on the field. These professionals in 33 teams work with over 317,734 families in 5,577 villages across seven of the poorest states in the country to enhance the livelihood capabilities of the poor and give them access to sustainable income earning opportunities.

This is no easy feat to achieve and in a conversation with him, we tried to find out his approach to leadership.

Creating a Sustainable Institution

With a formal education in management from MIT Sloan School of Management, Deep Joshi believed in complementing empathy for the rural poor with a professional approach. One of the most important things he did right was to put in place systems that not only helped him put this belief in action but also institutionalise it.

The initial days of PRADAN were not easy, to say the least. While the urban educated youth in universities, inspired by PRADAN’s vision, were ready to work in villages for the rural poor, they remained ill-equipped to handle the challenges involved in working at the grassroots level. Their university courses gave them the skills to work in India, but working in Bharat was alien territory for most. Their lack of training was clearly evident in the way they often failed to understand the ethos and sensitivities of rural India. Moreover, recruitments being done in an ad-hoc manner through personal contacts and word of mouth publicity also did not help. To resolve this problem, Joshi initiated a formal recruitment system and instituted a rigourous apprenticeship programme for new recruits. The idea was to create a force of development professionals who had the right mix of head and heart — knowledge and empathy. These two systems, whose rigour was unheard of before in the development sector, led to the foundation of an institution that continues to grow long after Joshi retired in 2007.

Web 2_Deep Joshi_Retired Executive Director_PRADANDuring the recruitment process of PRADAN, candidates are explicitly told about the challenges they will face in their jobs in lucid terms. It includes showcasing a short film and presentation about PRADAN and the work it does. There have been times when after the presentation not a single candidate applied. Those who apply are evaluated using multiple tools that include administration of a psychometric test, two group discussions, and extensive personal interviews. At the end of this process, candidates who have a firm resolve to work in villages with the rural poor, backed by competence to actually do that, are selected.

The litmus test for these selected candidates does not get over yet and in their yearlong apprenticeship programme, they are presented with real work challenges. For beginners, each apprentice is assigned to one of the 5,577 villages in which PRADAN projects run. They are guided there by an experienced and trained field guide. During the programme, they go through a systematic learning process that includes two fieldwork segments, two foundation courses and visits to another team in a different village and another NGO. To experience the life of villagers and their key stakeholders, the apprentices also live with a family in the village.  All these put together help the apprentices to explore their preparedness – intellectual, physical, emotional, and social – in taking up a career in grassroots development. Since there is no binding contract, apprentices are allowed to leave the programme anytime they wish to even though they receive a monthly stipend.

After the apprentices graduate, if they choose, they get absorbed by PRADAN. As executives, they participate in different projects of PRADAN for three to five years and those who excel grow up to take project management roles. After spending 10 years with PRADAN, individuals are expected to lead a function or operations in a particular geography. With such a clear growth path for each of its members – supported by processes of mentorship, peer reviews, and collective leadership – PRADAN enjoys a healthy leadership pipeline that yields sustainability. In fact, other organisations in the development sector are already successfully emulating it.

Creating Sustainable Livelihoods

The degree of Deep Joshi’s empathy matches his degree of pragmatism. “Development professionals need both head and heart. If all you have is a bleeding heart, it won’t work. If you only have a strong head, then you are going to dictate solutions that do not touch a human chord,” he says. Naturally, while he sought to enable poor rural families to live a life of dignity, he chose to do so by impacting their livelihoods. This approach to ground-level development work is institutionalised in PRADAN. Development professionals from PRADAN work towards enhancing and strengthening sustainable livelihood security of the rural poor in villages.  Their programmes in organising village women for self-help, microfinance, agriculture, forest based livelihoods, livestock development, and microenterprises. have helped many families develop a sustainable livelihood for themselves and escape the clutches of their gloomy circumstances.

The CallingHowever, while these programs using modern knowledge and technologies are introduced into the harsh terrains of the most backward of Indian villages, it is done with careful consideration of the circumstances of the villagers. Failure of a programme is a luxury no poor family in the backward countryside of India can afford. Therefore, implementation of a livelihood programme of PRADAAN in a new location always follows detailed and reliable experimentation. Pilots of these programs are first conducted with a few families in order to master and adapt technology, identify training needs, develop training programmes and create a successful prototype before promoting it as a large-scale intervention. Once a programme is deemed fit for large scale implementation in a village, PRADAN facilitates the engagement of the participating people with the government programmes and banks.

When many other NGOs routinely receive and channelise funds, the rural poor remain dependent on their support. However, when they engage in the process of receiving and utilizing funds from the government and banks, the rural poor enhance their capabilities in handling large amounts of finance as well as in dealing with these powerful resource institutions.

Empowering Women

PRADAN begins its work in any new village with promoting women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs). In fact, it has been a pioneer in the promotion of SHGs in India. PRADAN formed the first few SHGs way back in 1987, in the Alwar district of Rajasthan. These SHGs become the ground zero for bringing sustainable development to a village as PRADAN’s development professionals help SHG members pool up their resources, arrive at common agendas and train them to take up ‘public roles’.  This experience of working together in SHGs to create value for themselves, their families, and the entire community empowers local women. In addition to SHGs, PRADAN has also helped form other types of community organisations like watershed committees, cooperatives, producer companies, and mutual benefit trusts.

Web 1_Deep Joshi with women fron SHGs at PRADANIn the villages where PRADAN works, women have started realizing that they need to stand up against domestic abuse; they have started realizing that their daughters have the right to education, just like their sons.  They are now beginning to demand what is rightfully theirs. Joshi told us, “A school in one of our villages was not functioning properly because the teacher used to come at 11am instead of the scheduled time of 9am. To put a stop to it, the women of the village locked up the school and firmly told the teacher to come on time or else the school would remain shut. The next morning, the teacher did show up on time,” recalling a story of how empowered women are becoming more assertive.

However, it is not a walk in the park to go to an Indian village and directly involve the women in an enterprising SHG. There have been times when women in villages refused to come up and interact with Joshi and his team. But Joshi understood that changing century old norms in a patriarchal society is not an overnight affair. He understood that rushing to confront existing norms would be counter-productive and it needs empathy and patience on their part to bring about a change. At the remote Kudu and Sneha blocks in Lohardaga district of Jharkhand, PRADAN wanted tribal women to take up dairy as a commercial venture. “The trouble with this was that tribal women considered it a sin to deny a calf of its mother’s milk,” Joshi recalls. To overcome this problem, PRADAN’s team spent time with the local women, won their trust, and in a non-confrontational manner, challenged this traditional wisdom. Soon, 450 tribal women joined in to form a cooperative milk movement modelled on Amul.

Helping the Government Reach Naxalite Areas

Originating from Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, Naxalite violence has spread over nine states in India and has claimed over 13,000 lives. There are areas in the states of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha where government machinery cannot reach because of threats from the Naxalites. With a motive to help the villagers in certain districts of these states, the Ministry of Rural Development signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with PRADAN in 2013. The mandate was to support the implementation of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) in the Naxalite controlled areas and PRADAN was designated as the NRLM Support Organisation (NSO). It included formation of SHGs with a focus on issues like ending women trafficking, helping women with sustainable livelihood options, enabling them to fight malnutrition and ensuring proper sanitation.

This was easier said than done. These Naxalite controlled areas, though falling under the dominion of the Indian Republic, do not have any presence or influence of the Indian state. Since the PRADAN team would have stood out as outsiders in these villages, their lives could have been at risk. When I asked Joshi about his secret of being able to work in such circumstances, he smiled and said, “PRADAN would innocently go and start working in these villages as if we did not know that Naxals were controlling these areas. The Naxals are very well connected and they were aware of every action of ours. When they saw us working there and helping the villagers without asking for bribes, they realised that we were different and did not bother us.”

This happened because Joshi and his team from PRADAN were able to manage people’s perceptions about them well. Even though they were representing the government and implementing its scheme, they did not let it become their pitch. They did nothing to rock the boat and fight, or for that matter, explore the networks of the Naxalites. Through their communication and actions, they created an image that the Naxalites did not feel threatened by. “Sometimes we were even told that the Naxalites asked villagers to cooperate with us as we were trying to do some really meaningful work” Deep Joshi recounts.

The Deep Joshi Way

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