Interview with Dr. Ravi Chopra

Dr. Ravi Chopra is the Director of People’s Science Institute (PSI), Dehradun, and a Managing Trustee of Himalaya Foundation, New Delhi. PSI, a non-profit public interest research and development organization, is known for its innovative work in the areas of water resources management, environmental quality monitoring, and disaster mitigation and response. At PSI, Dr. Chopra and his colleagues have pioneered creative approaches to put science and technology in the service of India’s poorest people. A key element in their approach is to build the capacity of the poor, who plan their own development, implement projects and manage the assets created.

The younger generation has a tremendous sense of idealism...they have the guts to leap into the dark like none else

As a researcher, Ravi Chopra has focused on the interactions between technology and society, and environment and development. He first received national recognition when he helped produce the first citizens’ report on The State of India’s Environment in 1982. Dr Chopra has been a member of several committees of the Ministries of Rural Development and Water Resources, Government of India, and the Planning Commission. He is in conversation here with Sudhir Sahni of PRADAN.

Sudhir: Welcome to our series on CSO leaders. It’s a great pleasure to have you with us today.

Ravi: How do you know? You don’t know me that well. It may not be that much of a pleasure.

Sudhir: You’ve had your basic education at IIT and then you went abroad for further studies in engineering. How did you get into the area of the development sector and believe it to be more of nation-building? When and how did it start?

Ravi: "Ye jitne bhi hamare IITs, IIMs aur Indian Institute of Science hain, aam log wahan apni samasyaein lekar nahi jaa sakte. Woh bade logon ke liye hain" (Common people cannot go to big institutes such as our IITs, IIMs and the Indian Institute of Science with their problems. These are for the privileged). I thought we need to set up an institute for the common people, where anybody can walk in and say, “I have this problem; can you help me?”

I began to think about People’s Science Institute in 80s but there was no response to this idea until 1984 – the Bhopal gas tragedy. And then people came from Bhopal– somebody brought samples of soil, somebody brought some hair and some brought leaves, and said, “Isko analyze karke aap bata sakte ho ki wahan jo gas nikli thi, wo phosgene thi ki MIC (methyl isocyanate) thi?” We went to some of our friends in Delhi University, JNU, IIT, and other places… “Yaar, tum logon ke paas koi instrument hai– iska analysis karke bata sakte ho (Do you people have any technology to analyse which gas is present in these)?” Almost everybody said to us, “Yeh toh ban ho gaya, hai (This has been banned). The government of India has issued an order that all research on the Bhopal Gas tragedy will be coordinated by the Vardarajan Committee, so we cannot do anything independently.” That became a challenge and that is when I realized that it’s time to set up PSI.

Sudhir: : Is it usually the engineers who do some major work in this sector? What have you experienced over the years?

Ravi: "Nahi, main yeh toh nahi keh raha hoon" (No, I am not saying this). I think it helps to have something to give. Logon ke paas badi practical samasyaein hoti hain. Agar aap un practical samasyaon ka hal nikaal sakte ho toh wo aapke saath jud bhi jaate hain (People have practical problems and if you can find solutions of those problems then people associate with you). At that time, practical skills become very useful.

Sudhir: Obviously, this sector doesn’t just need a large or a brave heart but needs a specific skill or a sharp mind.

Ravi: Yeah. I would put it like this. The primary requirement is having some sense of righting the wrongs that are in society—a sense of justice.. a desire for justice. And, out of that comes empathy for the marginalized people. Then, if you have some good skills to offer, it helps very much in establishing a quick rapport. It is not essential; it helps.

Sudhir: Do you see this as an alternative career or do you think this is a more mainstream career with a lot of new people, talented, skilled young people entering the market?

Ravi: Yes, I would say that those people who don’t want to be sucked into the rat-race, who want a more holistic life, who want to enjoy what we were meant to do on earth…for those people, the voluntary sector offers a very good opportunity. Nobody’s pushing you to come here. Please don’t come here if you want to make money. Agar money aapka goal hai toh (if making money is your goal), the corporate sector and the government sector will give you much more. Lekin agar aapko lagta hai samaaj mein kayi cheezein galat ho rahi hain, unko theek karna hai (if you think there are many things going wrong in the society and you want to do something to set that right) and, at the same time, you want to live up to certain values in life and so on, then come. I tell a lot of my friends, “Yaar, main raat ko chain ki neend toh so leta hoon. Mujhe tumhari tarah chinta nahi ki kal boss ko yeh kehna hai, wo kehna hai (I tell my friends that I sleep peacefully every night; I don’t have to think what to or what not to tell the boss the next day). Also, you will find that the culture in the voluntary organization is far more understanding. We try and look into every aspect of our colleagues’ lives and don’t keep badgering them on this and that deadline. We work as a team. If one person has to opt-out or fall back, the others make up.

Sudhir: Why is it called the ‘voluntary’ sector? You mentioned that you may not be necessarily here for money; however, the challenges, the multi-layered tasks need a lot of thinking and working out. Why would anybody, who is looking to achieve something big and exciting, not look at that rather than see it just as a ‘voluntary’ sector?

Ravi: The reason we call ourselves and we prefer to be called the ‘voluntary’ sector ki hume kisi ne kaha nahin tha ki yeh karo jaa kar. Hum apni swechha se aaye the yeh karne ke liye. Isliye isko voluntary sector kehte hain. Ab jaise mere maa-baap ne toh mujhe engineer banaya. Maine engineering toh nahi ki. (Nobody asked us to do this work. We made this decision ourselves. That’s why it is called the ‘voluntary’ sector. My parents wanted me to become an engineer. I didn’t pursue it.) I made my choice that I don’t want to be an engineer, working for a corporation or government. This is what I want to do.

Sudhir: Many of the new generation are saying that we need to get into a start-up. Do you think some of them could be evaluating this as an option?

Ravi: Yeah. There are certain common characteristics. There is a desire to do something new—to innovate; to experiment; to do something out of the ordinary; to not be beholden and take directions from the top; to being your boss. Such a person would find it much easier to work in the voluntary sector.

Sudhir: What are the typical characteristics of a person who wants to join the voluntary sector?

Ravi: The primary requirement is that you must have some concern that, “This is wrong, it needs to be set right.” A sense of justice and fair-play. The second one is empathy. Jinke saath aap kaam karna chahte ho, jinke beech mein aap kaam karna chahte ho, unke saath aapke dil ke rishte hone chahiye (There needs to be a heart-connect with those who you are working with and for who you are working). Next, honesty, integrity and commitment. You can’t go and sell some dreams and then say, “Arey nahin, yaar, main toh ab PhD karne jaa raha hoon (Okay, now I’m going away to do my PhD),” and leave your colleagues or communities halfway in the lurch. You have to be there. You have to be ready to see things through.

Sudhir: Do you see the task becoming more manageable now or are the challenges bigger than before?

Ravi: The challenges are much bigger now. We’ve spared no efforts to destroy the environment. Environmental conservation and management are not in the decision-makers’ heads. That’s the last thing on their minds. I’m personally convinced that global warming and climate change are going to create such disasters that it will push our backs against the wall and that is when we’ll wake up. In the meantime, just think about the suffering the people will have to go through. I’m certain that this is all avoidable lekin kaun taiyyaar hai uske liye (but then who is ready for it)? Changing our ideas is not that easy; younger people, however, still have a tremendous sense of idealism. As we get older, we get set in our ways. They can take risks and leap into the darkness; the older ones won’t.

Sudhir: Do you mean to say that people may face more failure than success?

Ravi: The challenges are much more daunting; and to throw yourself at it, not knowing whether you’ll succeed…it’s much easier to join a company where there’s a system, a structure, set goals, resources and so on.

Organizations are also made up of people. Therefore, how do organizations succeed and why is this a problem?

Ravi: I would say that PSI, PRADAN, and many of the voluntary organizations have lots of successes to show. But the larger situation keeps getting worse. When I started working in this field, nobody ever said to us, “Aap bahar ke ho, aap kyun aaye ho yahan par (You are an outsider, why have you come here)?” Today, there’s a tremendous sense of this insider-outsider. Anybody who wants to damage your work and wants to destroy your credibility, the first thing they do is to spread the thought, “Why have these outsiders come here?” Arey bhai, hum bhi toh isi desh ke naagrik hain (We are also the citizen of this country). Therefore, if you’re willing to come with an open mind and are willing to experiment, and to face failures, sure! You can make a big contribution because you’re bringing in your knowledge and experience. I would not say ‘No’ to you.

Some thought or message to the youth of today? What would that be in the context of the development sector?

Ravi: Mujhe toh yehi kehna hoga ki (I want to say that) don’t be afraid to take risks. The greater the risk you take, the greater your reward and excitement when you succeed. If along with the risk, you commit to yourself, “I will see this to the end,” you are bound to succeed. I’m convinced ki zamana badlega (the world will change). Eldridge Cleaver said, “You have to decide whether you want to be part of the solution or you want to be part of the problem.” The choice is ours.


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