India, June 5 — 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.
“I have been working on ways to see how NREGA could be used for ecological restoration,” he says.