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From the forces to the farmland

Date : Apr 21 , 2020 | Alumni

ILSS alumnus Col Soumendra Pandey writes about his search for a second career and how he found his calling in rural India and sustainable farming.

My search for a second career began in early 2018 as I got close to my retirement date. Army officers retire young–and feel younger–thus offering a pool of “young”, well-trained, motivated and disciplined talent with a potential of another 15-20 years of useful service.

On pragmatic considerations and my wife’s advice (latter having the deciding weightage) I joined an Executive MBA program at MDI Gurugram to prepare for a corporate job. However, one week into the program I realised I did not want to become just another cog in the wheel of a profit-making machine.

Whether one believes in Maslow’s theory of ‘hierarchy of needs’ or not, there comes a time in the lives of most of us–so-called ‘beneficiaries of ovarian lottery – when we want to ‘give back’. So, here I was, back in discussion with my wife, with a request to consider my desire to join the social sector. She agreed, but on the condition that I do not take premature retirement–again, a practical piece of advice.

Preparing for the leap

I now needed to upskill myself to make a smooth transition from the regimented way of life in the armed forces to the complex world of social change. Thus began my search for training programs to prepare for the “big leap”. A few searches on the internet landed me in Cohort 3 of the ILSS Leadership Program in August 2018.

The beautifully curated nine-day program was exactly what I was looking for. Listening to various experts and resource persons widened my perspective. Some of the personal accounts resonated with my thoughts and others added vistas. When Ravi Sreedharan, Founder & Director of Indian School of Development Management, highlighted the importance of civil society action more than living room opinions, it just strengthened my conviction about the power of ordinary individuals in creating change.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s session on the relevance of Gandhi was the most impactful for me personally. His talk convinced me that the biggest mistake India made was to move away from Gandhi’s vision of independent India. However, I also found hope in the words that “it is still not too late; India can still shift focus on socio-economic and institutional development of rural society and salvage the situation”.

In addition to informing me what to expect in the social sector, the program helped me identify my knowledge and skill gaps. The immersion visit to a village gave me a chance see the rural set-up up close, including government policies and social structures in rural communities.

My major takeaway from the nine days was that the Government, civil society organisations and citizens together can possibly change the world. It also whetted my appetite for more immersion training and reading.

The path towards more learning

I soon enrolled in the Master of Social Work program of the IGNOU. On a trip to Wardha in the summer of 2019, I got exposed to the realities of water scarcity and farmer suicides; interacting with “farm widows” helped me understand the many factors responsible for farmer suicides.

That trip also gave me a better understanding of Gandhian thoughts on rural development. Visits to Anand Niketan (a school run by Nayi Taleem  Samiti, based on Gandhi’s vision of education for independent India), Gandhi Sevagram, Vinoba Ashram, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Rural Industrialisation (M-GIRI) and Centre of Science for Villages (CSV) at Wardha opened my eyes to the possibilities in developing rural schools, cottage/small-scale industries as well as social and cultural life of a model village.

I finally began to see the truth in why Mahatma Gandhi believed that the future of a self-reliant and economically stable India lay in its villages.

A journey that started at ILSS has made me introspect on several issues, including the mindless pursuit of economic growth and its impact on essential human values; the impact of market forces and mutual competition on peace and harmony; the possibility, if at all, of India reclaiming some peace and equanimity; and  localisation of production, distribution and consumption of goods and services at the village level (and linked to a few towns in the vicinity)  as an alternative model.

I am now posted at Bhagalpur, close to my native village, using this opportunity to engage in farming activities and engage with as many people as possible across caste and income levels to get my perspectives right. At a time when the  Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have exposed the fragility of globalisation, market economy and transnational supply chains, life in a village has been comparatively easier. Food is available at the doorstep, vegetables grow in small yards in every home, the barter system has got re-introduced to meet the basic needs, and sparse population ensures automatic physical distancing.

I have started my experiments with sustainable farming to create successful models for local farmers to emulate. I am fully immersed in my future work-setting and I am excited about the future.

I would like to end with these words I read on the walls of an institute at Wardha:

Go to the people
Live among the people
Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Work with the people
Start with what the people have
Build on what the people know
Teach by showing
Learn by doing
Not a showcase but a pattern
Not odds and ends but a system
Not piecemeal but integrated approach
Not to conform but to transform
Not relief but release”

Col Soumendra Pandey, an army officer, has three decades of experience leading soldiers in tough military situations. He commanded an Artillery Regiment on the border areas of Kashmir. Throughout his service he remained actively involved in social development activities, including running the Army Goodwill School in a border village in Kashmir, organising support for the unit’s war widows and running medical camps for people living with limited access to medical facilities. He is currently posted with the National Cadet Corps, where he looks after training and development of youth. Having seen the adverse impact of unregulated growth on natural resources during his postings in Srinagar and Uttarakhand, he has developed an earnest desire to make a contribution to the cause of rural development, farmer welfare and sustainable growth. He looks forward to transitioning to the development sector.

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