The life of Dr. Manibhai Desai is of great inspirational value. He was but one of the hundreds of seeds that Gandhi sowed to leaven India. But he is unique in many ways. His is not a name that jostles with the likes of Patel, Nehru or Azad. Though he was of rural stock, he came from an affluent family and was a science graduate. He began his public life as an anarchist and only later embraced Gandhian ways. And when he did, he foreswore a personal life and plunged into the work that Gandhi set him. Despite that devotion to Gandhi, he was not an unquestioning disciple. As he built BAIF as a modern institution he displayed a flexibility that orthodox Gandhians tend to frown at. Manibhai Desai was indeed an exceptional Gandhian.
The story of BAIF appears elsewhere in this site. But in this space Manibhai himself speaks about BAIF. The year was 1992 when BAIF had turned 25 and had grown to a 2000 strong organisation. Manibhai perhaps thought he should address his huge team in a voice other than that of the corporate head that he had become. Here he is, the aging patriarch sharing his nostalgia and vision. He talks of values his people must respect. He talks repeatedly of Gandhi. He talks --without any sentimentality-- like a man with a premonition. In fact he died within a year of writing this long essay.
Yes, this is a long essay -- over 9000 words. But it is a treasure house of native Indian wisdom. It is a corrective lesson for those who have doubted the ability of home spun leadership in development. It should almost be mandatory reading for students, planners, donors, managers and sociologists.
It is charming Indian prose, often quaint. It is the natural flow of a simple, practical man fully satisfied with what he has achieved. The passion and the modernity of the voice are striking. The passion, you may account under his devotion to Gandhi, India and BAIF. But from where did the modernity come to a village boy from Gujarat? Bottom-up planning, management of delivery systems, environmentalism, the centrality of profit as a marketing tool, primacy of technology, decentralisation, integrated development were all issues alive in Manibhai's instincts in the 1940's - way before they became buzzwords.
The essay is a treasure for other aspects too. It has delightful flashes of humour. It reveals the total clarity with which Manibhai approached the problems of the poor. But most of all, Manibhai takes you close to Gandhi himself and you feel as though you are alone with them. As a piece of history, as evidence of how self-less Gandhians had the doors of the Indian Government opening for their work, Manibhai's memoirs is invaluable.
The essay has not been edited except at about 3 places. Please remember as you read it that it was intended for BAIF's employees. With that reference, some of the puzzling passages would make sense.
This gem of a good Indian story appears here by the kind permission granted to GoodNewsIndia by the current President Dr N G Hegde. It is presented in seven easy parts.
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