Joy and I met when we were 17, in the FYBA Economics Class at Elphinstone College Mumbai. Unlike the rest of us who were still figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives, Sanjoy was clear that he wanted to work in rural India. He opted for Rural Development, a subject which was offered for the first time by the University. Very few students opted for the course from our batch, and Sanjoy would disappear for days/ weeks sometimes on field work in rural Maharashtra. He did not talk much about these experiences, but I know that the vast inequalities between rural and urban India strengthened his resolve to work in rural India.
After graduating from college he opted in favour of pursuing a post graduate diploma in Rural Management at the newly set up IRMA – Institute for Rural Management Anand, by Dr. Kurien, instead of a Business Management degree at IIM. After graduating from IRMA he had the distinction of being among the lowest paid in his batch, opting to work for social change rather than on focus on economic growth.
When he was asked to start up the URMUL Trust, an organization he helped incorporate, for the URMUL Dairy in Bikaner, from a little known place called Loonkaransar he was up for the challenge, working day and night to establish a strong foundation for the work of the URMUL Trust. What started as primarlily a service delivery organization, focussing on maternal and child health, soon grew its reach to include marginal farmers reeling from drought, men suffering from Tuberculosis, making available safe drinking water, starting schools, reviving water harvesting structures, building new ones… the list was endless. He used the tools and skills he learned while studying in Agriculture and Public Health from Oxford and Johns Hopkins, but his guiding star remained the philosophy and work of Mahatma Gandhi – combining constructive action with struggle. He was instrumental in organizing the Nahar Yatra – to highlight the perils of large scale irrigation projects in the desert, facing the wrath of policy makers, the local administration among others, who felt that the model of the (not so) green revolution should trickle down from Punjab to the deserts of Rajasthan – despite all the visible water logging and land denudation. Realising that constructive action needed to be accompanied by raising uncomfortable questions he started writing – a column called Village Voice – where he placed before readers and (hopefully) policy makers, the challenges facing desert communities in rural Rajasthan – caste and gender dynamics, the politics around drought and drought relief, around water, in his simple, evocative style, no jargon for him.
Our team in Loonkaransar grew to include local professionals – local men and women who were venturing out of their homes to work for the first time, as well as young idealists from the larger cities. Sanjoy was able to inspire, motivate, convince like no one else! To encourage leadership and provide space for growth, he helped incubate several URMUL organizations, led by local persons, and with strong community involvement. URMUL Setu, URMUL Seemant, URMUL Jyoti, URMUL Khejdi, URMUL Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti, working side by side with the URMUL Trust, are testimony to Sanjoy’s belief in a participatory and enabling approach to holistic rural development.
After living and working in Loonkaransar for 10 years, he felt it was time for him to move on, having catalysed social change and social entrepreneurship in the desert. We lived in Delhi for a couple of years, where he started CHARKHA – a development communication network to help workers and activists working at the grassroots write and share their stories of struggle from the ground.
But his heart remained in rural India, and after a couple of years, decided to move to the North East – to Majuli in Assam. He felt very strongly that a combination of constructive action along with struggle, would provide an alternative to the violence in the region. We got fellowships and our small team of 4 people grew to 10 in less than a year, People of Majuli were ready for change for new ideas and new ways to tackle perennial problems… the main one being of land erosion year after year and people losing their lands and livelihoods and lives in some case… So it was no surprise that 30000 men and women worked voluntarily to firm up the river bank… much to the dismay of those like the ULFA and some politicians/ bureaucrats who benefitted from the lakhs and crores of rupees that were allocated and (mis) spent year after year under the garb of flood relief and environment protection.
When there were whispers of trouble with ULFA cadres, he was confident that he could convince them that non violent constructive action would pave the way for a peaceful and prosperous Assam…. And it was this belief in the innate goodness of people, and their potential to listen to an alternative route to change, that must have led him to say yes to a meeting with ULFA leadership in a remote part of Majuli. He was on a bicycle unarmed. I never saw him after the 4th of July, ULFA killed him, but in doing so sounded the death knell for their very own violent corrupt philosophy and practices.
Joys life, his vision for a just society, and his work remains an inspiration to everyone who has had the opportunity of working with him, or knowing him however briefly, whether in Gujarat, Rajasthan, or in Assam and in other states of the North East.
Miss you everyday Joy, Today we celebrate your life and your work. You remain an in our hearts, an inspiration forever.
[This was a Facebook post on December 7, 2020 by Sumita Ghose, wife of Sanjoy Ghose. The Facebook post has been reproduced on Sanjoy Ghose’s birthday with permission from Sumita Ghose]