A Time of Change at Seva Mandir
This autumn will see two changes at the head of Seva Mandir. Shailendra Tiwari, General Secretary, pays tribute to the outgoing Chief Executive Priyanka Singh, and President Ajay Mehta, and introduces Ronak Shah and Janat Shah, who will replace them at the helm of the NGO.
Contribution of Priyanka Singh, Chief Executive (2011-2018)
One summer evening in 2005 at around 6.30 pm, I went into Priyanka’s office. She had just opened her meal box and started to eat. ‘Oh, you are having an evening snack. I will come back in a while,’ I said. She replied, ‘I am having my breakfast.’ ‘Breakfast at 6.30 in the evening?’ I said, surprised. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I could not eat it in the morning because today two children from our residential learning camp ran away and my colleagues and I spent the whole day searching for them in various parts of the city.’ This incident shows Priyanka’s level of commitment and dedication towards her work.
Priyanka brings a fresh and original approach to all she does. Seva Mandir’s education programme was struggling to achieve the quality desired in the late ‘90s. Priyanka joined the programme in 1997 and worked tirelessly with the education team to transform it. She tried many innovative ideas to improve the curriculum and pedagogy. She also introduced modern and more efficient ways of monitoring the centres, such as using cameras to ensure teachers’ attendance. She also motivated the school instructors and built their capability to teach the children with passion and efficiency. These efforts put Seva Mandir amongst the frontline organizations working in the field of primary education. She also successfully led the Badgaon block as its Secretary. This experience at the cutting age of implementation helped her to understand the nuts and bolts of grass-roots work and the nitty-gritty of day-to-day administration of programmes and personnel. Her programme and area experience proved valuable in her later stint as Chief Executive of Seva Mandir.
She became Chief Executive in 2011 at a time when the conventional funding of traditional donor agencies was disappearing fast. Corporate funding under the government’s new Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) law was on the rise. However, in this transitional phase, on one hand the corporate world looked at NGOs with suspicion, especially with regard to their ability to deliver quick results. On the other hand, the NGO world was not very comfortable working with corporate funding because of that sector’s entirely different orientation and value system. It had a problem with everything related to the corporate world except its money. Priyanka worked very hard on both these fronts. She worked to change the mindset towards the new style of working without compromising on Seva Mandir’s value system and culture. As a result of her tireless efforts, most of the Seva Mandir team were able to adjust to the new way of working to suit the requirements of the corporate world. She also persuaded corporate foundations to understand the constraints at the grass roots. She was able to explain to the corporate world that it is important for Seva Mandir to value socio-political and institutional processes, not least to ensure the sustainability of its development interventions. The results were remarkable; many corporate foundations started supporting Seva Mandir through various projects.
At a time when most NGOs were struggling to survive in the changed funding scenario, Seva Mandir’s budget almost tripled between 2011 and 2018.
Contribution of Ajay S. Mehta, President (2004-2018)
Ajay Mehta is always seen as a friend, guide and philosopher who believes in arriving at consensus through a conversation. He is sought out by people who are in distress. Some go to him when they have problems related to their work or career. Some approach him when they have personal issues, while some come to him when they feel low about themselves. Ajay listens patiently to all of them, trying to read their mind and soul. He helps them in whatever way possible, sometimes by giving advice or by connecting them to an appropriate individual. In this way, his efforts keep the spirit of Seva Mandir flowing through its workers. And Ajay’s approach has encouraged a culture of paying attention to all the issues pertaining to the work and life of staff in Seva Mandir.
Ajay loves dialogue: whether it is a formal conference or an informal discussion over a cup of tea or a dinner party, he is deeply and passionately engaged in discussions. These discussions mainly focus on issues which affect our societal context. He avoids blaming the state for the malaise in society. Instead he says that the onus for the current state of affairs lies with the citizen.
Ajay’s vision is holistic. Many a time colleagues have gone to him with very appealing proposals to make things better. After carefully listening he advises them to see things in the round, applying all possible angles. Once a couple of senior staff members suggested auctioning the produce of fruit trees at the M.S. Mehta Rural Training Centre in Kaya in order to raise revenue. Ajay was not in favour of this. He wanted the trainees, the children at the learning camps, the birds and animals to enjoy the taste of fruits in the natural environs of Kaya. Thus he has encouraged a habit of deep and critical thinking in Seva Mandir.
Ajay emphasizes functional equity within Seva Mandir. He puts it simply: equitable relations amongst the workers and community we work with are defined by the way we behave with each other. Other notions of equity (of wealth, power, position, caste and class) may not always appear to be of much practical significance, but workers at all levels can bring about equity through decent and respectful behaviour with their co-workers and community members.
Ajay is also a person who tries to practise peace and non-violence in day-to-day life. He emphasizes the use of persuasion and compassion to bring about social change. His continuity of vision has helped Seva Mandir stay true to its vision of constructive work leading to more just societies. He has been critical in grounding many of the organizational values and processes such as ensuring a harmonious and complementary relationship between professionals and non-professionals, and opening the NGO up to academic scrutiny and partnership.
Ajay remains on the Board of Seva Manadir.
Introduction to Chief Executive designate, Ronak Shah
Ronak is an alumnus of the University of Manchester in the UK, where he gained a Master’s in International Development in 2006. He joined Seva Mandir in 2007 in the Natural Resource Development Programme where he led the programmes related to climate change, drinking water and sanitation. After a spell heading the People’s Management School unit of Seva Mandir, in 2015 Ronak became Chief Executive of Udaipur Urja Initiatives, a producer company which had its roots in Seva Mandir but is a separate entity aiming to enhance the access of rural communities to clean energy technologies and to trading mechanisms for local agro-produce. The thrust of the enterprise is improving the lives and livelihood sustainability of its members.
In Urja Ronak successfully implemented a carbon finance project involving 19,000 rural households who were provided with improved cookstoves to bring down carbon emissions and also to reduce the consumption of fuelwood by almost 50%. Under Ronak’s leadership Urja diversified its activities and became a leading agency in the area of procurement and marketing of agricultural commodities.
Ronak’s wife, Riddhi, currently heads Seva Mandir’s Education programme.
We are sure Ronak’s enthusiasm, professional approach and years of grass-roots experience will enable him to take Seva Mandir to new heights.
Introducing President designate, Prof. Janat Shah
Prof. Janat Shah is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad, and is currently Director of IIM Udaipur, having earlier taught at IIM Bangalore. His areas of specialization include Supply Chain Management, Operations Management and Higher Education.
Janat and his wife Seema came to Udaipur seven years ago and are both deeply connected to the social sector.
He has been a Trustee of Seva Mandir since 2016. His contribution as an institution-builder, along with his interest in the social sector, makes him an ideal choice for President.
Janat’s academic excellence and command of management will add a new and contemporary dimension to Seva Mandir’s way of working.
Shailendra Tiwari, General Secretary