Gagan Sethi founded Janvikas, and has helped set up several strategic organisations in the country such as the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, Sahjeevan, Drishti, Centre for Social Justice, HID Forum to name a few. He was appointed member of monitoring group by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to monitor human right violations.
An experienced international trainer and consultant in organisational development (OD), planning and review, Sethi has worked in a number of international and national donor agencies, think tanks and development projects for over 20 years. His key areas of work include legal justice, women empowerment, conflict management, minority and Dalit rights as well as youth employment and education.
Sethi is well-acquainted with YUVA, having served as a Board Member for several years. We caught up with him recently to talk about his journey with YUVA and how he looks at the organisation’s vision playing out in the future.
When you look back on your early interactions with YUVA, what are the episodes that come to mind?
I started Janvikas in the 1980s; YUVA was born a couple of years earlier. We had heard of each other as organisations, so when I was invited to conduct an OD exercise I agreed but on one condition. First I wanted to come and visit the organisation’s field area in the city. When I came to Mumbai, I was taken to the bastis (informal settlements), and visited the pavement dwellers YUVA was working with. It was the monsoon season. I remember walking in knee-deep water, only it was sewage water. It was the first time I got really exposed to the extreme human indignity in Mumbai. I had known about this, but when you see it with your eyes it hits you very hard. I always give YUVA the credit of engaging me with that reality.
I had been largely working on rural issues at that time, so for me learning the challenges of the urban and how YUVA had articulated itself at that point was important. I had come from a Frierien and behavioural science background and was engaged with the entire OD process. Those who are part of the governing board today were young YUVA staff then. What struck me very sharply was how they engaged conceptually, while working with communities as empathetic people. Ideologically, they had a sharp definition of themselves, and they were led by a strong governance structure.
The OD with YUVA was also where, you could say, I cut my teeth. This was one of my first memories with YUVA. After that I may have done hundreds, but the one that you do first is so memorable to you. Later on, I did a lot of leadership work with YUVA. We did these sensitivity labs and YUVA got into T-groups and behavioural science trainings for staff. So, in a way, opening up those methodological areas and then integrating that within their own training programmes has been a long process. A couple of years later I was invited to the Board and thus began my journey on the Board.
When it comes to the development sector, nowadays we see that attrition rates are high, and this does affect the kind of work that we do. How do you look at this problem?
You know, I think you’re right. This has become an issue in the development sector. A lot of young people come, commit to the work and then, after two years, they seem to have had enough. I think the dynamics of the organisation has to change to adapt to this new quick way of working. You know, when we joined work, ten years was the amount of time we gave ourselves to decide what we would like to do. Nowadays, in one year the young people are saying, no we want to move on. They have far more choices, which was not there earlier, which at one level is a good thing. YUVA should adapt to these challenges by investing in and skilling homegrown leaders. And then there are those who may be staying with the organisation for a shorter while who should also have a space here. It is important to check that institutional excellence does not go down, and yet the organisation needs to be constantly adapting.
What is your vision for YUVA in the coming years?
See, these are difficult times at the moment for civil society across the globe, especially India. I feel that YUVA’s work on helping communities do their own research and advocacy is important. Communities should be encouraged to build their own arguments. Infact, it is a combination of what I call protest, innovation but also having a care function that should guide us. There are new forms of vulnerability to respond to, whether it is gender or issues encountered by children, and community-led interventions are the key. I think we have to be very fast at adapting ourselves, be very creative all the time, but not lose our politics which has justice at the core. However, justice should not just be made explicit by shouting on the streets, but needs to be well researched, thought-through data and evidence-based ideas of action. These are the areas that I think we need to work at, to be relevant and of course the use of social media is important too. YUVA has always been technology-savvy and, centrally, it remains a young people’s organization.
And finally, your message for YUVA…
My message: have faith in people’s movements, support those movements, ensure that YUVA always has the balance of head, heart and hand. I think that just the head becomes the attractive part, like a research-based or a techno savvy organization, but I think development is about politics, and not techno-managerial solutions. You should be able to fight the streets as well as talk at various levels. I think these are the competencies we have to keep building.
The passion that I have seen at YUVA comes from the culture and also the kind of work that you do. So, I am quite confident that we have an institution here, not an organisation. An institution that constantly throws up quality people.