Sandeep Pandey: Grassroots Democracy
in India and the World

By Diane Swords

On July 19, Dr. Sandeep Pandey, a leader in the education rights and nuclear disarmament movements, gave two presentations in Syracuse. His talks were entitled "Fighting Corruption with Right to Information: Inspiring New Movements in India" and "Acting for Peace in a Nuclear Context."

After obtaining engineering degrees in the US (his Master's is from Syracuse University, his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley), Sandeep taught briefly at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. He left that prestigious position for grassroots work, based on his deep commitment to peace and the empowerment of marginalized people. In 2002 he received the Magsaysay Award - known as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is best known for co-founding Asha (hope), an international organization for promoting education among India's poorest children. He started this organization while in Berkeley, and a Syracuse University chapter soon followed. Asha expanded in India, the US and other areas of the world, to fund and establish centers for learning that emphasize empowerment of India's poorest, including Dalits, the ex-untouchables.

Sandeep has been intensively involved with peace marches for nuclear disarmament, anti-corruption campaigns, promotion of the right to food, and global justice work protesting Coke and Pepsi's groundwater depletion and pollution. He creates dialogue between Muslims and Hindus over heated political issues such as the status of Kashmir and the demolition of a mosque in the religious Hindu city of Ayodyha. He has established people-to-people interaction between India and Pakistan.

Right to Information (RTI)
The RTI movement is based on the effort of people to become aware of their rights and to find means for asserting them. The movement has increased the openness and transparency of the operations of administrative officials leading to improvement of services such as road construction projects, government schools, food programs and other services for poor people. Using official documents on projects implemented "on paper", activists and local people organize "social audits". This has helped bring out corruption in programs and in the process educates people about their entitlements. The solidarity built during social audits also contributes to social and political pressure on the officials. In Rajasthan where this process has been used for over a decade now, there are indications that corruption has gone down significantly on programs where social audits have been organized regularly. The method was pioneered by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan and is now being adopted across India after the passage of the Right to Information Act by the Parliament of India in 2005. Sandeep has been one of the pioneers to take it out of Rajasthan and has been involved in spreading the technique in his state of Uttar Pradesh and nationally.

Nuclear Disarmament
After India's nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998, Sandeep helped to organize an 88-day, 1500 km Global Peace March from Pokhran (the nuclear test site) to Sarnath (the birthplace of Buddha). Marchers collected 18,000 signatures for global nuclear disarmament and delivered these to the embassies of the seven nuclear states. Sandeep holds India responsible for the nuclearization of the subcontinent because of its 1974 tests. In an interview he said, "It was quite foolish to carry out the blasts because it gave Pakistan an opportunity to flex its nuclear muscles." He points out "…the more weaponisation programs are encouraged, the more insecure we become." He belongs to the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

In his speech accepting the Magsaysay Prize, he notes that trends towards nuclear disarmament in the '90s were derailed by India and Pakistan's escalation, which jeopardizes "the security of the entire area of South-Asia." Describing nuclear weapons as weapons "of zero military value," he notes the radiation threat of the entire process of its production and calls for the halting of nuclear energy because it is equally dangerous. Sandeep refers to the US/India nuclear deal as a trap that India has fallen into. He points out that George Bush wants India to adopt nuclear power, in which the US has stopped investing, to free up petroleum for more developed countries, and sees the deal as a major setback for the India/Pakistan peace process. Claims of peaceful uses do not hide the potential use for bombs, a cause for suspicion in other nations. Since "the act of making nuclear weapons or even nuclear power is highly irresponsible…there is no such thing as a 'responsible nuclear state'."

Diane is an anti-nuclear activist and an adjunct in Sociology and Women's Studies at Syracuse University.