Choosing to Work in the Rural Sector: The Motivating Factor - Interview with Apoorva Oza

Apoorva Oza is the Chief Executive Officer of Aga Khan Rural Support Programme-AKRSP- (India). He is a mechanical engineer with a diploma in rural management from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). He has also done a course on Strategies for Change: Managing NGOs, from Cranford University, United Kingdom, and a three-month course from Cornell University, USA. Apoorva Oza started his career as a Deputy Manager (Projects and Engineering) with Gujarat Dairy Development Corporation.

Which other job gives you an opportunity to transform a human being or transform living conditions of a community in the positive sense of the term?

He joined AKRSP (India) as a Programme Coordinator in 1988 and moved up to the position of Senior Programme Executive in 1994. He was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of AKRSP (India) in 2001. He is also a trustee of several NGOs such as the Society for Women's Action and Training Initiative (SWATI), Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) and Arid Communities and Technologies (ACT). He is the founder trustee of many NGO networks such as Pravah (drinking water), Sajjata Sangh (agriculture livelihoods) and Charkha (media advocacy).

In conversation with Sudhir Sahni of PRADAN

Sudhir: Welcome to the series on CSO leaders, Apoorva. It’s a pleasure to have you with us today. You are a Mechanical Engineer who then got a Diploma from the Institute of Rural Management and have been in the development sector for more than 30 years. What was the inspiration for you to join this so early? Is there something that sparked the action?

Apoorva: I think a few things may have been, what you call, subliminal. My dad and mom, both, were in the education sector. My grandfathers were freedom fighters. So, there was that environment. After I did my engineering, I got a job at BlueStar. Meanwhile, I read an article on Verghese Kurien in Reader’s Digest. Kurien, I thought, had a middle path. Yes, the power to the people, and enterprise, wealth creation, and ownership of institutions in the hands of people. That made some sense to me, and I went to a few villages and saw a few cooperatives. I realized that they were on to some good things. Something was working.

Sudhir: This was before IRMA or after?

Apoorva: Before IRMA. This was in the final year of engineering during a break. I was the only person from my college to consider IRMA. Most of my colleagues thought I was talking of Nirma. And they said, ‘Okay! Not a bad deal’.

IRMA changes you. Suddenly from an urban background you go and stay in the villages. I was in Raipur area, the part of Madhya Pradesh that is now Chhattisgarh. I experienced abject poverty there.

Sudhir: And, this was during your IRMA days?

Apoorva: Yes, during my IRMA days, and that sort of changed everything. Whatever I took for granted changed, for example, what I thought superficially about, say, the monsoons. I used to think monsoon, ‘Ahh! great!’ When I was a kid, it was a holiday. When I became older, it was a nuisance. And then, I went to the villages. You see, there is this whole village just waiting for the monsoons. And I saw their eyes, full of hope and I thought I’ve never thought of the monsoons in this way. In fact, I never thought of most things this way. So, what got me into IRMA was part of the parental influence and, in a way, this ‘accident’ of reading the article on Kurien; then what kept me there was the number of field visits from IRMA.

Sudhir: How would you describe your journey in the sector? What were some of your early experiences?

Apoorva: When I went there, I read the initial 5-year plan documents. My dad said, “You are saying nothing is happening! Read those plan documents.” Planning Commission guys had thought it through and they are brilliant documents. These guys are bright, passionate, intellectual, some of the best minds of the country and yet there is nothing on the ground. There is this beautiful, romantic idea of what India will be; yet when one goes to these villages and there is like nothing there. There are enough people in this country who can think and write; the gap lies in the execution of ideas. There are no people on the ground who are converting these ideas into action. There is the government, which is supposed to implement these ideas but is caught up in its own thing. Kurien, however, is a good example of a person, who proved things on the ground. I entered the sector with the spirit of doing. At that time, AKRSP had just started.

In those days, life in the development sector was much more. One was assigned a group of people; one is told, there are those villages, just go and do something which makes sense. That’s how I started in a place called Veraval. It’s on the coast of Gujarat. Unfortunately, it was experiencing a drought of the century during 1986–88. My first field visit was very traumatic. I saw cattle dying, people selling their jewellery to pay for fodder, to feed the cattle they had; there was no water anywhere. I learned a lot.

I spent a lot of time at that time understanding the impact of drought and I realized that there was a value system operating there. Logically, why should you sell off jewellery to buy fodder for cattle that was currently not giving any yield; especially when you knew that there was the probability of another year of drought? The cattle was not going to survive and yet these people were doing what they could to feed their cattle.

I asked an old lady,“Why are you doing this? It doesn’t make sense to me.” She said, “You won’t understand… suppose your mother, who served you all your life and took care of you, fell ill and was not going to be very useful after 70. What would you do? Would you abandon her? What would you do?” I said,“No, that’s different.” She said, “No, it’s not different. It’s the same thing. These cattle have been our livelihood, we have been dependent on them and, therefore, when they are in trouble, we have to do the best we can.”

Sudhir: You must have had many such experiences. Yet, you say that you had fun and enjoyed what you were doing. How do you reconcile that? Isn’t there a contradiction?

Apoorva: I believe you cannot do anything for too long in life if you are not enjoying it. That’s my philosophy. The reality is, even if you are dead serious and gloomy about the poverty you encounter, the people are having fun. We used to go and celebrate Holi in villages and it was a ball. I mean, we enjoyed it and they enjoyed it too. Drought or no drought, whatever. I think that made sense. You cannot make anybody happy if you are not happy. It just doesn’t work. You just can’t do this out of a sense of duty. I mean, there is a duty; however, you have to enjoy what you are doing…that sustains you.

Sudhir: Do you get more professionals like you joining the sector?

A lot of them. As an organization, we have designed ourselves to be a mixed organization. So, we believe there are two very important key factors. One is context and the other is expertise or domain. If you have too much expertise, you become so techno-managerial that the institution is not contextualized and, therefore, it sorts of exists superficially; once you move out, it collapses. On the other hand, if it is all context, new ideas and new ways of working may not emerge. We have sort of designed ourselves in a way that in every team, there will be people who are very contextualized. There are, therefore, a lot of Biharis in Bihar, a lot of tribals in tribal areas. We have many context-specific staff and some professionals come in as consultants. This mixture creates something.

Sudhir: Do the professionals work with locals and empower them to take over the work?

Apoorva: Many of the locals have become very good professionals. We do a lot of capacity building, training of our local staff, and many of them have become as good as the professionals.

Sudhir: Are you saying professionals need to deal with multiple variables and engage with different stakeholders? Does it make the job or a career here very complex?

Apoorva: For some problems, the solutions are known; these have been tried out and you don’t have to reinvent them. Girls not going to school in Rajasthan or in many places is a known problem. The solution is to get them enrolled. Once they enroll, the quality of education can be improved. However, if they do not go to school, there is not much you can do. So, the problem is known and so is the solution. It has a very simple matrix of measurement to find out the number of the girls enrolled in schools. This can be easily scaled up.

On the other hand, when we look at complex problems like inter-generation poverty or the issues in PRADAN areas, for example, in Naxalite areas or where communities in forest areas and the forest department have conflicting claims on common property resources - these problems are not going to be solved by a “magic wand”. We need a very deep transformational approach. We need sharp minds because now we have reached a stage where simple solutions may not work because there are too many forces at play. Likewise, in agriculture, we end up spraying a lot of pesticides.

Sudhir: Have the challenges in the sector gone up or are they more manageable? How do you see it?

Apoorva: I think that new problems are popping up because of climate change. In agriculture, we could predict it earlier; now we cannot make predictions. If Barmer in Rajasthan can have floods, anything can happen anywhere. How then are we measuring and coping with and internalizing these new challenges in our solutions? Society is getting more individualized. That is also a challenge. The political interface with the community is increasing, thanks to the social media. Everybody now has strong opinions. Many of them are very decisive. When one is trying to create a united collective, there are enough unhappy forces all around for whatever reasons. These are the new challenges-socially, environmentally and economically.

Sudhir: What are the qualities required for an individual to be in this sector, if he wants to make an impact, on scale?

Apoorva: Foremost, a huge sense of optimism because one has to believe that what one does can make a difference. One has to believe in the ability of the community to understand its problems and give it some appropriate support so that it can become an agent of change. One needs to believe that, and that belief comes with doing. The second thing is passion, to sustain this optimism. The third, of course, is perseverance because each one of us is a small player. Let’s be humble about it. We know that the state is huge, everything is huge, and we are just tiny characters trying to make a difference. We need to take many players along—the government, the community, the Sarpanch, the MLA, the corporates—all of them because it’s a difficult thing we are attempting. If our focus is on getting credit or recognition for the work we are doing, the community will not come in because we will not allow them to own the process of change. We need to work with a spirit of generosity, identify the problem, and invite the community to own the solution.

Sudhir: What message do you have for people thinking of getting into this sector?
Suppose somebody told you that there is this job, with lots of freedom, lots of potential for creativity, and you can see the results of your work in about six months, and you will be so appreciated by those you help that sometimes you will be embarrassingly deified? Which job actually allows you that? The other thing is you will be transforming lives.

I ask my corporate friends, “What does a corporate do? A corporate takes a very thin slice of a human being. For example, the love for some aerated water becomes a multi-billion-dollar industry. Thousands of corporates… what are they doing? Saying, “Please buy my aerated water.” That’s all. Or you supply some atta or some soap? It’s a good life and maybe you get a good living. What do you do to a human being? On the other hand, here we are transforming the whole human being. We are helping prevent a man from beating up his wife. We are making the wife strong enough to raise her family. Which profession allows you to catalyse so much change? And what is our turnover? Suppose we work in 20 villages with 200 or 250 households each. That is a total of about 5000 households. We help raise all their incomes over some time by Rs 30,000 each. Just multiply the numbers. That’s our turnover.(


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