Hi Sanjay! Thanks for speaking with us. We are excited to learn about your role as the India Country Director of the Harvard South Asia Institute and your professional journey so far.
1. Will be great to learn about your roots – Let’s get started by learning where you come from?
Thanks for the opportunity! I am excited to share my journey with you. I grew up in Katihar, a small town in Bihar, with my parents and 6 brothers and sisters. I grew up in a low-income family - My father was a food supplier in a Railway Hospital and that’s how he supported our family of 8! My parents had limited opportunity as my father attended school only till Grade 6 and my mother was illiterate.
I studied in a local government school in my neighbourhood. There was no concept of private schooling at the time, so the school I attended was our only choice. As you can imagine, the school was overcrowded with limited infrastructure and facilities. The only saving grace was that some of our teachers were committed and taught us well. The environment I grew up in was one where people had limited aspirations.
2. Tell us more about the journey that this young boy from Katihar travelled which got him where he is today?
As I mentioned earlier, people had limited aspirations in Katihar. To give you an example, at one point, one of our extended family members proposed to my father that I should become a Security Guard in Kolkata. Thankfully my parents chose better! Since my elder brother was studying at Delhi University at the time, my parents wanted me to go to Delhi for my further studies.
What happened next was that I topped Political Science at the University of Delhi. I tasted success for the very first time. From hereon, there was no looking back. After finishing my Masters, I pursued MPhil and PhD in International Relations from JNU. While pursuing my Doctorate, I started working with SEWA, a grassroots organization that works for the empowerment of women workers in the informal economy. That journey continued for 17 years!
3. Seventeen long years - Why attracted you to SEWA's mission?
Joining SEWA was an accident. I was appearing for my Civil Services exams and I had some spare time between my prelims and mains, so decided to do a short-term project for the organization. As part of the assignment, I was asked to organize women street vendors in Delhi and help open bank accounts for them.
Once I started engaging with the women, I realized how much work had to be done. As I dived deep into this work, I got immersed with their struggles of dealing with the police, the municipality, simple things like opening a bank account and getting their children admitted in schools.
This experience was so overwhelming that I couldn’t help but spend the next decade and a half working working on expanding this work. Right from setting up an office for SEWA to organizing 60000 women workers in Delhi, I took responsibility for it all. I worked to strengthen SEWA’s work in 4 other states including Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttarakhand. My work focused on microfinance, livelihoods, access to government services and skilling of young girls by organizing and working with low-income women workers.
4. From living the life of a grassroots worker to attending Harvard on a full scholarship - How did this happen?
I was looking for a break to reflect on my work and learn more about what was happening in the world around. So, I looked at mid-career programs and found the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government as the best fit for me. Since I worked in the not for profit sector, I only considered programs which offered scholarships. The degree from Harvard has given me a greater responsibility to do more for the underserved and underprivileged in our country.
5. Tell us more about your time at Harvard and some of your key learning’s from that experience?
At Harvard - the ecosystem, teaching learning in classrooms, faculty, and peer group – All of it engages one’s mind in a way that’s hard to explain. There were students from 90 different countries as part of my cohort, coming from backgrounds as diverse as politics, military, journalism, entrepreneurship and activism. It was one of the most productive years of my life and this global exposure gave me confidence to take on bigger challenges.
6. From being a student at Harvard to now being the India Country Director for the South Asia Institute - Will be great to more how you travelled this journey!
After graduating, I came back to India and joined SEWA Bharat again and worked with them for another couple of years. I felt the need to push myself out of my comfort zone. So, I applied for the position of India Country Director of Harvard South Asia Institute, which was looking for its first Country Director. The rest as they say is history!
7. What is the current focus and how is the university trying to strengthen its presence in the region?
Our mission is to engage faculty and students - to advance and deepen teaching and research on issues relevant to South Asia. We want to strengthen our presence in the region through our new office by bringing the expertise of Harvard faculty through our programs. I'll share some examples - With the support of Tata Trusts, 8 faculty members from Harvard, MIT & Berkeley are currently engaged in an action research to promote livelihood and entrepreneurship in the region. Similarly, faculty members of various Harvard schools are engaged in a multi-disciplinary research on the Partition of India. We are also planning a seminar series to create a platform for the exchange of ideas and bring the best of Harvard to India.
8. What about your plans for the future?
When I reflect on my journey, I strong feel that I am a product of my education. We are witnessing the downfall of our education institutions, especially in my home-state, Bihar. Despite the circumstances I come from, I have received the best education. I want to work towards providing the same opportunity to students across India, who have aspirations, but limited means to realize them. For this, I strongly believe that the public education system needs to be strengthened, especially at the secondary and tertiary level. I’d like to work towards creating a community of change makers for strengthening the education system in India.
Sanjay Kumar Singh is the India Country Director of the Harvard South Asia Institute. He is based out of New Delhi, India.