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Small Talk With Ashok Nanda

CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Ashok Nanda, founder of Vikash.

Ashok Nanda felt drawn towards social activities since he was a student. While in college, he visited villages and tried to understand the problems at the grassroots level. During post-graduation, he got involved in helping people living in slums across Bhubaneshwar. “People were being exploited by leaders, police and government officials. They didn’t have anyone to guide them so I started organising meetings, listening to their problems and helping them negotiate with the officials and police.”

When Ashok graduated and started looking for a job, the slum dwellers he had helped – struggle to meet their basic needs -requested him to work for them. “They told me they will all pool in and pay me ₹1,500 per month. That really touched me and also made me realise how desperately they needed help.” He couldn’t take money from them but the gesture stayed with him.

So, when Ashok started Vikash to help leprosy patients live a life of dignity, he soon expanded it to support and empower slum dwellers. Today Vikash focuses on building an inclusive and self-reliant society where everyone has access to equal opportunities.

Small Change: Describe the moment of epiphany that led you to start this journey.

Ashok Nanda: Back in the 1980s, on a hot afternoon in Bhubaneshwar, I was forced to stop my scooter and take rest on a footpath because of the unbearable heat. It was then that I saw a man with leprosy. With no legs and disfigured fingers, he was struggling to move using a wooden cart.

A passerby threw a 10 paisa coin near him and walked off. The heat was so intense that the tar on the road had softened. The man tried to pick it up with his palm but couldn’t. Finally, after many failed attempts, he bent over and lifted the coin from the burning hot road using his tongue.

That really hit me. I strongly felt like I have to do something to make their lives better and ensure they are treated with dignity. I started working with leprosy patients at a charitable organisation in Bhubaneshwar. While working there, I realised that people with leprosy living in rural areas aren’t getting the support they needed and I wanted to expand our work to reach as many people as possible. But, the organisation said they can’t help me with that so I decided to quit and start my own NGO.

That’s how I founded Vikash.

SC: What has been the most uplifting part of this journey?

AN: When I see people with disabilities living a self-reliant life with dignity, I feel like I have done something good.

Also, recently after four months of fighting for land rights in Bhubaneshwar, 2,100 people living in slums received land without paying a penny. That was big for us.

SC: What is the one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

AN: I recently surprised a lot of people by writing books. I always wanted to write about philosophy and even did my post graduation in the subject.

I am also into working out and want to build some muscles!

SC: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose?

AN: I would definitely choose fish fry and grilled chicken. I love roasting meat near the beach. The other two would be lettuce and red wine!

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