THE SANJOY GHOSE I REMEMBER

S. Ananthanarayana Sarma, November 1997

The media in the last few months has reported many events related to the unexpected demise of Mr. Sanjoy Ghose at the hands of alleged ULFA activists in Majuli island, Upper Assam. In the uproar over the errors and omissions in handling the Assam situation, the very human acts of Sanjoy have been left unreported I hope to fill in these details, for those like me who are professionally trained, and seek a career in the world of development.

My first encounter with Sanjoy Ghose was at a residential inter-school Interact club meet in Bombay in 1973. He was the President of the Interact Club of Cathedral School. I distinctly remember a small figure clad in white kurta pyjamas, delivering speeches in a spotless BBC (received pronunciation) English accent. His school club won all the prizes that were to be won at that meet.

I saw him again, at a Mathematics lecture class, in Elphinstone college, Bombay in 1978 (which I had joined for a degree course). He came into our class, and delivered a short speech asking us to vote for him as the Chairman of the College Union, and his slate of candidates for the various other posts. I immediately recognized him - the same white kurta pyjama, the same English accent. What had changed was a small beard that now adorned his face, and the voice which croaked a bit. He and his slate incidentally lost all the elected posts. That led him to get even, by organizing a sort of "cultural revolution" in the college. He organized dramas, readings of Shakespeare and Milton, wrote and read his own poetry, appeared on "Yuva Vani" of AIR, organized NSS camps into the tribal villages in the forested outskirts of Thana district (adjoining Bombay), and won all the prizes that were to be won in inter-college debates and quizzes. He also incidentally was a University topper without attending a single class.

I became one of his many followers in college. He initiated me into the world of inter-college debates, the world of tribal forest villages and into the world of CPI(M) politics. As I got to know him better, I recognized a curious consistency of virtues and vice: he was an excellent organizer, a great motivator of middle class youth - but a hopelessly naive and romantic figure in the world of politics. Both the candidates we campaigned for, Mrs. Mrinal Gore and Mrs. Ahilyatai Rangnekar, lost their deposits. (?) in the 1980 parliamentary elections after the splitup of the Janata party. But we did wipe out scabies from two Palghar villages. And Sanjoy paid the price for this success - he contracted scabies and battled constantly with amoebic dysentery, throughout his life.

I would never have joined the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) if not for him. Being a year senior to me, he organized a sneak preview of the campus - and brought his classmates down to college to convince us that IRMA too had sensitive, intelligent human beings. After his postgraduation from IRMA in 1982, he joined the only NGO job available - with the Tribhuvandas Foundation, at the lowest salary of his batch. In two years, he converted a sleepy family held trust into the largest rural health NGO in South Asia. He integrated "equity" concerns, and brought in economic programmes into what had been a health education effort, run by doctors. His success had predictable consequences. The Young Farmer Clubs he started for Harijan youth, raised wage labour price - as previously unemployed labour now started tilling village wasteland. This aroused the ire of the village farmer leaders, and the jealousy of the political activists who saw the Harijan cause as their own He was censured for interfering in areas unrelated to the development mandate of Tribhuvandas Foundation.

Sanjoy married and won an INLAKS scholarship to Oxford in 1984. He brought me into Tribhuvandas Foundation, to take over his job. At Oxford, he was the first INLAKS scholar to bring his wife with him. They somehow survived Oxford, leading a pauper's existence, to finish an M.Phil. degree in Development Economics. Sanjoy could have literally gone anywhere in the world with that Oxford degree. He chose to come back to the world of Indian villages. He wanted to refashion another health cooperative, this time without inquisitive political farmer leaders. He collaborated with the Uttar Rajasthan Milk Union Limited to start the URMUL Foundation, in 1986. In six years, URMUL became the most famous NGO in Rajasthan, eclipsing older established names. A bunch of young enthusiastic professionals, diversified URMUL into gender concerns, ecology, exporting of handicrafts made by local weavers, literacy and implementing of Government programmes. He paid the price for this success - he contracted tuberculosis for moving closely but not too wisely with TB patients while collecting sputum for testing.

Sanjoy received the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship for a Masters in Public Health at the John Hopkins University, USA. After finishing his MPH, again the world was open to him. He could have joined UN organizations, become an "expert consultant," joined as faculty of public health in well known universities. He chose again to come back to the deserts of Bikaner. In a move then unprecedented in the world of Indian NGOs he chose and anointed a successor - and completely left the organization, to ensure that URMUL health Trust, did not become "the elongated shadow of the founder." His interests shifted to media - and he worked to make mainstream papers more sensitive to development matters. His columns in the Indian Express "Village Voice" bear testimony to these efforts.

I last met him in Delhi in 1993. He seemed to have finally settled - wet nursing a father recovering from a bypass surgery, escorting his children to school and debating how to storm the world of Delhi academia. He was still convinced that my future lay in Bikaner if not in Delhi - with some difficulty I convinced him that my own personal commitments to get to know my motherland, overrode the larger commitments to development of the cowbelt.

I don't know what tragic fate pushed him to accept the assignment of AVARD Secretary General for the North East. By any standards he seemed to have done well. He mobilized twenty thousand villagers in Majuli to build their own flood embankments . He had organized and put in place a network of young professionals throughout upper Assam. By all accounts he would have continued to larger successes. But he underestimated the treacherous political currents of Assam. He paid the price for being a naive political romantic - believing that well meaning efforts by decent middle class professionally trained youth would solve all the problems of development.

I definitely learnt a lot from Sanjoy. He believed in living life intensely - he fiercely defended his friends and fought with those who did not share his vision for a better world. I was privileged to be amongst those whom he counted as a friend. It would be trite to conclude that the world of development professionalism would be never be the same without him. Instead can we console ourselves with this quote from the Bhagavad Gita? 

Na jayate mriyate va kadacin,
Na' yam bhutva bhavita va na bhuyah
Ajo nityah sasvato 'yam purano
Na hanyate hanyamane sarire.

(Chapter II verse 20)

The atman (soul) is never born, not does it die at any time,
Nor having once come to be will it again cease to be
It is unborn, eternal permanant and primeval
It is not slain when the body is slain.


S. Ananthanarayana Sarma
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