The best phrase to describe Sandeep Pandey's work is that it is pro-poor. His objective is to empower the marginalized so that the poor can have a voice. His actions - from education to grassroots democracy to peace to promoting local ownership of resources - are all guided by that basic philosophy, and governed by an ideology that is Gandhian and humanitarian.
The beginning of his work can be traced to when he co-founded Asha for Education with Deepak Gupta and V.J.P Srivatsoy while working on his Ph.D in Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley in 1991. Asha today has over a 1000 volunteers in 65+ chapters across the world and continues to work within the principles defined by the co-founders - democracy, the strength of debate and discussion, a non-hierarchical and egalitarian structure, and the spirit of volunteering.
Community Empowerment: On Sandeep's return to India after his Ph.D., after some initial work at Ballia in rural U.P, his work since 1997 has focused around the village of Lalpur, 60kms from Lucknow. The fundamental basis of the work there has been community ownership. Sandeep does not see the work he does, as something an organization "does" for the community - in his view the community is the organization and there is no line between the two. The community owns and directs the work, resulting in empowerment of the community to make changes in their lives. The work, which has included initiating educational centers and developing income generation options, has centered around awareness campaigns and is gaining momentum with the Right to Information (RTI) activities in the area. The RTI movement has resulted in openness and transparency of the operations of the pradhans (village heads) and other administrative officials in the area, resulting in better functioning of a variety of services from borewell and road construction projects to primary health care centers and government schools. The impact of the villagers' awareness over the last 8 years of their rights, and the changes they can bring about, has been such that in the current atmosphere in the area, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a pradhan to win an election without pledging to have open accounts and meetings involving the villagers. Democracy is being strengthened at the grassroots giving people a voice.
Education: Sandeep's viewpoint on education rapidly changed after he returned to India. To him, education should lead to self-reliance and values for a just society. It has not been easy to reconcile these goals with those of the conventional education system, which trains people for largely non-existent jobs, and aims to bring out the competitiveness in people. Education activities he has initiated include 14 non-formal centers serving the needs of 600 children in the Lalpur area and 300 children in Lucknow slums teaching reading, writing, math, sciences, and awareness of one's environment. All centers are run by community youth. Teachers' interaction and training camps are underway in the region to develop improved teaching methods and appropriate curriculum.
Peace, Anti-Communalism, and Nuclear Disarmament: To Sandeep, being patriotic means being true to the interests of the common citizens of India, a majority of whom are fighting a desperate daily struggle for survival. He opposes the whole idea of security based on arms and the military because it takes away crucial resources from the poor. To further this goal, he works on peace and harmony amongst all nations and peoples in South Asia. The philosophy underlying the work has been involving the common citizens of the South Asian countries, and his tool has been peace marches to provide a unique opportunity for people to intermingle and negate the destructive tendencies of distrust, hatred, and enmity. He and fellow activists undertook the Karachi(Pakistan)-to-Delhi(India) Friendship March in 2005, and in 2005, they marched from Delhi (India) to Multan (Pakistan). During these marches he initiates discussions at villages on issues related to peace between Indian and Pakistan. An offshoot of this work has been a group actively working on visa-free borders between India and Pakistan. In 1999 he walked over 1000Km from Pokhran, the site of India's nuclear tests, to Sarnath, the site of Buddha's first teachings, creating awareness of the impact of nuclearization. In 2002, he marched from Chitrakoot to Ayodhya in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage, to give the message that the common citizen is religious but not communal.
Globalization: Sandeep has been active in voicing the concerns of various communities against exploitation by various multi-national organizations and institutions in this era of globalization. In particular he has been facilitating the community protest against Coke at Mehindiganj, UP, where the ground water levels are being rapidly depleted by the Coke bottling plant. This struggle is gaining support from other world-wide groups fighting Coke in different parts of the world. As with the other issues, a key focus has been the common citizen - such as explaining the situation to small businessmen who will then voluntarily remove Coke from their shelves.
Affiliations: Sandeep's formal associations include:
(1) Volunteer, Asha, India (the work on community empowerment and education is part of his work with Asha)
(2) Government's committee 'Central Advisory Board on Education' (CABE) and its sub-committee on 'Girl Education and Common School System' of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India (Nominated Member)
(3) 'Gandhian Institute of Studies' in Varanasi funded by ICSSR (Member, Board of Management)
(4) People's Union for Human Rights (President)
(5) National Alliance of People's Movements (National Convenor) (the Coke struggle and peace and nuclear disarmament activities are as part of NAPM)
(6) Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (Member, National Committee)
(7) Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy (Member, National Committee).
He was awarded the Magsaysay Award (also known as the Asian Nobel prize) for 'Emergent Leadership' in 2002. The award recognizes individuals forty years or younger for outstanding work in the issues of social change in his or her community.