Urvashi Prasad is a Public Policy Specialist for NITI Aayog, a think-tank of the Indian government to foster states’ involvement in the economic policy-making process. She studied at the University of Cambridge and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
1. Hi Urvashi! We are keen to about your work at NITI Aayog. Tell us what do you focus on?
I focus on the social sectors including health, nutrition, water, sanitation and gender. I am also part of the taskforce responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in India. I was fortunate to be a member of the delegation that represented India at the United Nation’s high-level political forum in New York earlier this year and presented the country's first Voluntary National Review on Sustainable Development Goals. At NITI, I also had the opportunity to work on the Three-Year Action Agenda which was released recently by the Union Finance Minister. The document details the key policy actions that need to be taken in the various economic and social sectors. Further, I have been involved with key policy and reform efforts being pursued by the institution such as the drafting of bills for regulating and promoting the Indian Systems of Medicine (ayurveda, yoga, etc.) and homoeopathy.
2. What does everyday at work look like for you?
There is no typical day at NITI Ayog. Every day presents new challenges and opportunities! On some days, I am engrossed in the analysis of Cabinet Notes or working on major policy documents. On other days, I have had the opportunity to participate in meetings and discussions with senior government officials, ministers and even the Prime Minister himself. Last month, I was responsible for facilitating a group of over 40 leaders from the private sector during the Champions of Change conference organised by NITI Aayog. Thus, it is an extremely varied and greatly enriching experience.
3. How did you first become interested in health and development work?
Well, health is wealth! I truly believe that no country can progress if its population is not healthy. Poor health destroys individuals, families and societies. I also however believe that health is connected with several other areas including nutrition, drinking water, sanitation and gender equity. Therefore, I have consciously made career choices that allow me to gain experience in all these areas. I also feel that there is tremendous inequality in our country with respect to health and related areas. While for you and me going to a hospital where we can access care that is comparable to anywhere in the world might be no challenge at all, there are still people in our country who have to walk for miles carrying a loved one in their arms in order to reach the nearest health facility. This inequality bothers me tremendously and serves as a source of constant motivation for me to work in the development space.
4. What excites you about doing direct work with the government? Do you ever feel removed from the ground reality, given that you work at the policy level?
I started working with the government after several years of working on the ground. During my tenure at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation where I managed their health, water and sanitation portfolio in India, I worked on programmes targeted at the urban poor in slums across the country. I subsequently worked in a tuberculosis control organisation, Operation ASHA, that operates in villages, tribal areas and urban slums. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in the field because, quite frankly, that is where the real learning happens. The opportunity to leverage the insights I have gained during my several years of experience in public health and associated areas for policy-making is what excited me about working with the government directly. However, I very much remain connected to the ground reality through regular interactions with grassroots organisations and stakeholders working in the development space.
5. You founded Every Voice: Stories from the Bottom of the Pyramid, a platform for people from low-income communities to tell their stories. Tell us more!
During one of my field visits to a slum in Delhi, a lady told me that the reason she wanted to construct a toilet in her household despite several generations of her family being used to defecating in the open, was so that her son could get married. During another visit to an informal settlement in Kolkata, a tuberculosis patient told me that he is willing to die but does not want anyone to know that he is suffering from this disease. Thus, the challenge was not that he did not have access to medicine. The problem was social stigma.
Those of us working in the development space can at times mistakenly assume that we know what is best for people in need. The reality however is that people themselves know best and often the most scalable and sustainable development solutions come from within local communities, instead of being imposed on them by outsiders. This is why I founded Every Voice because I believe that every story is unique and must be heard. It is only by understanding the challenges and aspirations of people from low-income communities in their own words that we can even begin to design effective interventions.
6. Tell us more about your years of study at Cambridge. How was that time helpful for what you are doing now?
I was fortunate enough to pursue my bachelors as well as two masters degrees in the U.K. I believe I gained immensely from those experiences. At Cambridge, I was part of a class of 26 students from 19 different countries. One really cannot ask for a more international experience! Academically, I learnt not just technical skills but also a range of transferable skills including those pertaining to communication, research and analysis. Beyond academics, it was hugely enriching to interact and work on assignments with people from such diverse backgrounds. This experience now helps me to engage in the multi-stakeholder interactions that my work necessitates.
7. You were selected to curate the Global Shapers Community in Delhi. Tell us about this network and what you have achieved so far.
The Global Shapers Community is an initiative of the World Economic Forum that encourages young people (between 20-30 years of age) to come together and undertake social change initiatives in their city. I was one of the first few Shapers to join the New Delhi Hub and subsequently had the opportunity to lead it as a Curator. One of the major projects I have been involved with is on promoting gender sensitisation and equality. As part of this initiative, I helped raise funds for Radio Mirchi’s Dilli Meri Hai (Delhi is Mine) Campaign which provided confidence-building and self-defense training to young women in the city. I also helped to organize a Shaping Davos event in Delhi on the power and potential of technology platforms such as Uber and Paytm during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting.
8. What advice would you give to young people who want to work in the development space?
Working in the development space requires a combination of passion, empathy and the desire to tackle intractable problems. The importance of gaining on-the-ground experience cannot be overemphasized. I would also however point out that it is at times very frustrating to work in this space because results might not be immediate or desirable and one can feel like giving up. But it is at such times that the ability to persevere and continue fighting the good fight becomes critical. Overall, it is one of the most rewarding experiences and we need many more young people with fresh ideas and enthusiasm to enter the space.