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13 wise people

The new National Advisory Council headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi will push the UPA’s social agenda. What is on the agenda of the council’s members? HT explores.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2010 23:30 IST

In June 2004, almost exactly six years ago to the day, the first National Advisory Council was formed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The new body headed by Sonia Gandhi, whose idea it was, brought in civil society into government decision making in a formal manner. Its contributions in its first avatar included the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and the Right to Information. This time around, the NAC’s members, once again drawn mainly from civil society and academia, are expected to nudge the government’s aam aadmi agenda.

Gandhi herself has indicated some issues close to her heart. “The rise of Naxalism is a reflection of the need for our development initiatives to reach the grassroots, especially in our backward tribal districts”, Gandhi wrote last month in the party mouthpiece Congress Sandesh. The new NAC can be expected to work towards taking development to those who need it most.

Deep Joshi, 61
Founder, NGO Pradan

After getting educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, Deep Joshi didn’t hesitate to go back to working in the villages. He hails from a village in Uttarakhand and he knew the other India needed educated people like him. That understanding became the cornerstone of his work — “civil society needs to have both head and heart” — and fetched him the Magsaysay award in 2009 and Padma Shri this year. “I was educated not to go back to the village, a notion we have nurtured in the society. For educated, we only think of modern sector jobs. 70 per cent of our country is still rural and we should realise that they need us,” says Joshi.

In 1983, he had started an NGO called professional assistance for development action (PRADAN) that recruits university-educated youth and grooms them to do grassroots work (he is an advisor to it now). The Magsaysay citation credits him for “bringing professionalism to the NGO movement in India by effectively combining ‘head’ and ‘heart’ in the transformative work of rural development”.

His nomination to the NAC seems only natural. What issues would he take up? “I have no idea what the council is supposed to do. I keep giving inputs to the government whenever I can but this is a formal opportunity at the highest level to do that,” he says. What would he be looking to work on? “My interests have been the management of national schemes and social sector schemes. Schemes are good but the problem seems to be in implementation,” he says. What if he doesn’t have the kind of freedom, which he had so far? “If I can’t say what I feel like or give inputs honestly then I won’t be there.”

Harsh Mander, 54
Civil Rights Activist

The 2002 Godhra riots changed IAS officer Harsh Mander’s life forever. Unable to deal with the irresponsibility of his civil service peers about the Gujarat carnage, he gave up his 20-year-old career, only to speak out fearlessly against the riots and those who were responsible for it. Since then Mander has been working tirelessly to ensure that the victims have access to their rights, justice and equity. His agenda for the NAC-II is reflective of that.

To begin with, he’d like to see a different draft of the Right to Food Bill. “Currently the bill is very minimalist, and it needs to be re-drafted to ensure that no man, woman or child in India ever goes hungry,” says this first-timer on this advisory panel.

Next is the communal violence bill, an issue he holds very close to his heart. “The government has to ensure that something like the 1984 anti-sikh riots or the 2002 Gujarat riots doesn’t happen ever again,” says Mander. He is keen that the focus of the right to education must shift to helping children of migrant workers, the disabled and street children and child labourers.

Mander wants to bring back compassion at the centre. “A good government is that which provides for every citizen, especially the vulnerable. I have a three-fold plan: Constant vigilance on behalf of the people who are defenseless, a good strategy and then execution.”

Madhav Gadgil, 68
Ecological scientist

Madhav Gadgil’s name is synonymous with ecological conservation and research. In 1986, he had given the country its first national biosphere reserve of Nilgiris, which is now under consideration for UNESCO word heritage site status. It’s just one of the things he had done after he had returned from the US in 1976.

He was a member of the science advisory council under the Rajiv Gandhi government from 1986-90. More recently he has also worked on the committee that drafted India’s Biological Diversity Act 2002. Gadgil retired as a professor from the centre for ecological sciences, IISc. He’s been awarded the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.

But what would he push for at the NAC? “ I am a new member. I really haven’t understood what our mandate will be,” he says. Does he think an advisory council could bring about concrete change? “I certainly appreciate NREGA and RTI, the council has given evidence that it can be effective,” he says.

“I have been working on ways to see how NREGA could be used for ecological restoration,” he says.

Aruna Roy, 64
Civil society activist

In 2007, bureaucrat-turned-social activist Aruna Roy quit the NAC I stating that she was unhappy with the way UPA-I was implementing the Common Minimum Programme. Three years later, she’s back on the NAC-II and she’s looking forward to working on things that have been left “incomplete or rather, undone.”

As the chief architect of the RTI Act passed in 2005, Roy has never refrained from speaking her mind or criticising the government. “Over the last couple of years, there has been an assault on the RTI to cripple the act. Which is one of the things I am going to be looking into,” says Roy. “The NREGA act too needs to be strengthened so that it can reach out to everyone that matters.” Roy says there is a need for the Right to Food Bill to be passed as well as monitored. She has often said that the government makes no formal commitment to implement the council’s recommendations, but she feels that the council is a platform to take up people’s issues and discuss them. “It is a tussle between the public and political domains. But without the NAC bills like the RTI and NREGA would have remained bills. Now, we’re looking to continue that work,” she says. Roy says that an external push is always required to keep the issues in the limelight.

Farah Naqvi, 45
Civil Rights Activist

Farah Naqvi takes up a whole range of issues as an activist. From adivasi rights to minority and gender issues from the development and justice point of view. She has argued that our approach to the Muslim problem has been “strategically skewed” in the past. So it is assumed that she will be pushing for a fresh approach as a member of the NAC. But when HT contacted her to find out what causes she would take up, she played it safe: “The agenda will be set when the council meeting will be convened. Let the work begin.” For anybody familiar with her work it’s very clear that she will also take up another issue, one which she has been fighting for — the internal displacement of Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra genocide. The Communal Violence Bill is likely to be on her agenda.

Jean Dreze, 61
Development Economist, Activist

Jean Dreze, a Belgian development economist, was a crucial pillar of NAC I. But he had quit the council citing that NREGA — of which he is the architect — had been diluted. “It is difficult to avoid the impression that the council is being deliberately kept in this dysfunctional state,” he explained. There is a curiosity surrounding his reaction to the nomination the NAC II. HT tried to contact him to find answers but in vain. If the food security act is on the agenda of NAC II, he will play a crucial role. Apart from writing many seminal books, Dreze had edited a book along with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen called The Political Economy of Hunger. He has been a champion of the right to food campaign. He argues that country’s enormous food stocks should be utilised “to ensure that nobody goes to bed on an empty stomach”. He proposes civil disobedience for achieving that.

MS Swaminathan, 84
Agricultural Scientist

MS Swaminathan brought into India a crossbred wheat plant that produced more grain than the traditional varieties, paving way for the Asian economic miracle of the 1980s. In 1987, Swaminathan won the first ever World Food prize — $2,00,000 — and started the NGO MSSRF, which worked on strategies for economic growth and increased employment of poor women in rural areas.

In the NAC-II, Swaminathan is keen to contribute in the areas of sustainable food and agriculture. “I also want to look into issues like food security and climate change.” While he was also consulted extensively in NAC- I, this time around his participation will be more active. “As a part of an advisory council I can only suggest something, but it is our duty to give an idea that is not only right but also something which can be implemented.”

NC Saxena, 68
Former Bureaucrat, Forest Rights Activist

NC Saxena, a former Planning Commission secretary, now campaigns for pro-poor policies, which is what he has on mind for his second stint with NAC. “Non-implementation of forest rights, displacement of people, discrimination against women and the food security law are some of the issues I would like to raise in the NAC,” says Saxena, who also heads a government committee to review implementation of the Forest Rights Act. He was quick to add that the agenda for the NAC will be decided in its first meeting. The draft of the proposed food security bill, which has angered activists like Saxena, would also be discussed. Saxena, now a consultant with the UN, believes that the NAC-II has a lot to contribute in the backdrop of a spurt in Naxal violence.

Anu Aga, 67
Director, Thermax

Anu Aga, a director on the board of Thermax, is an avid social worker and has been involved in various social initiatives for which she was awarded Padma Shri. Aga has been associated with various corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives such as providing education to underprivileged children, initiatives on rural water management and to conserving energy and environment. She has written on subjects of corporate governance, value-based management and on CSR. “I would like our company to play a bigger role in community affairs with adherence to the tenets of good corporate governance. We will actively commit ourselves to initiatives that can improve the quality of life of the communities in which we live and work,” she says.

Narendra Jadhav, 57
Member, Plannning Commission

Narendra Jadhav is a renowned economist, academician and a member of the Planning Commission. “The purpose of the NAC, as I understand it, is to foster the social agenda for UPA II. For me the most important thing would be to play a mutually complementary role, where I can bring together my experience from my office at the Planning Commission, which I will continue to hold, to the NAC and the other way round,” says Jadhav. At the commission he looks at the social sector.

AK Shiva Kumar
Development Economist

A key member of the NAC I, AK Shivakumar specialises in development economy and has been credited with providing valuable inputs on the cost of social inclusion in policies recommended by the NAC. Kumar teaches economy and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a visiting professor at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. His extensive research on public health and education issues helped the NAC in recommending measures to improve the National Rural Health Mission and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

Mirai Chaterjee, 50
Director, NGO Sewa

After studying health science at the Johns Hopkins University, Mirai Chaterjee chose to return to India and work with women, who were struggling to feed their family. After joining SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), Chaterjee soon became the general secretary, succeeding the founder Ela Bhatt. She has since then worked with the poorest, weakest, and the most vulnerable women in India in the health care sector.

As a first-timer of the NAC, Chaterjee hopes to look into certain aspects of health, as well as women and livelihood. But, she says, “I am unable to comment on what I wish to do at the NAC, since I have still not received a confirmation letter from the government.”

First Published: Jun 05, 2010 23:26 IST