As a teenager in the 90s, I was witness to a lot of talk about the ‘hopelessness’ that was felt by millions in India. The middle class trend was to leave the country and aspire for a better material life in the west… However, my inner resolve, to ‘do my bit’ somehow remained untainted.
A Delhi University alumnus, Sheeba Sen went on to get a Masters in History of International Relations at the London School of Economics, completed a course in Law Conversion at the University of Oxford, and then joined an international law firm. A qualified solicitor in London, Sheeba always had a yearning to come back to India and play her part “in the destiny of India’s development journey.” She set up The Strictly Coffee Company in 2010, a Mumbai-based social enterprise working with the coffee farmers of Karnataka, opening up direct marketing channels for them. The proverbial life-altering moment, however, awaited her in 2012 when she visited Aarohi, a not-for-profits grassroots organisation in the village of Satoli in Uttarakhand where she immediately felt a connection. Sheeba’s professional life has now, in her early thirties, entered its second innings as a social activist in the Himalayas – which, as a mother to a two-year-old, Tara (you’ll meet her as you scroll down!) has also resulted in a complete paradigm shift for her, on the personal level. She has now moved to Satoli for good and works at Aarohi as the General Secretary.
What about Aarohi resonated with you so deeply?
I first came into contact with Aarohi in July 2012 through chance. I found an immediate connection with the mountains, the forests and the physical surrounds of the organisation. I wouldn’t hesitate to say it was almost a bit uncanny. I found the people at Aarohi very warm and welcoming and there was a unique ‘openness’ about the organisation that also appealed to me. It was indeed ‘love at first sight’!
After my initial visit of 5 days, I learnt more about Aarohi’s work and a month later, I was volunteering remotely. Initially I helped out with editing of newsletters and proposal writing, through which I learnt a lot about the various initiatives of Aarohi.
What made you take the plunge, when you made the decision to move to Satoli and work with Aarohi full-time?
I had always known that I wanted to ‘play my part’ in the destiny of India’s development journey. As a teenager in the 90s, I was witness to a lot of talk about the ‘hopelessness’ that was felt by millions in India. The middle class trend was to leave the country and aspire for a better material life in the west. These were the influences I grew up with within my family too. However, my inner resolve, to ‘do my bit’ somehow remained untainted.
After resigning from my job in London, I moved to Mumbai to set up a social enterprise working with the coffee farmers of Karnataka and opening up direct marketing channels for them in Mumbai. Shuttling between Mumbai and the coffee farms, I soon realised that the hectic city existence did not appeal to me anymore. I wanted to be with the farmers and work with them more closely- their life and their challenges mattered to me more than I had initially envisioned. I also loved being close to nature and enjoyed the countryside. It was during this time of churning, in early 2012 (about a year into the start-up), that my father gave me the book, ‘Oona: Mountain Wind’. Oona had founded Aarohi in 1996. Four years later, in a tragic accident of consuming poisonous mushrooms, she and her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, both, lost their lives, leaving behind Sushil, Oona’s husband. Oona’s letters in the book resonated with my own feelings in many ways. I also felt an intense pull towards the mountains which culminated in my first visit to Satoli 4 months later.
So, I would say that Aarohi happened to me. The beautiful mountain countryside, the grassroots nature of work and Aarohi’s warm welcome all made it clear to me that my destiny lay in working for the people of rural Kumaon. I wound up my life in Mumbai, put all the equipment away in storage and started working to start my life in the mountains. The rest just followed.
Experience how policy makers deal with these issues too – work in think tanks, public policy organisations and if possible also try and work with an institutional funder to understand how aid works. Our country also offers many development fellowships (rural and urban), which are worth exploring.
Was it that urge of wanting to change the world?
Yes and no. The plight of another always affected me. Poverty, injustice and discrimination conjured a lot of sadness, especially when I was a young girl. I would often find myself crying while seeing a beggar on the road or a mother scavenging for food for her children. As I grew older, as a teenager and then later in university, a lot of this sadness changed into anger and uneasiness. These feelings would compel me to change the status quo. However, now that I am working with the very people I care about, I don’t feel a surge of ‘wanting to change’ but more about ‘doing my bit’. I realise now that change is beyond us.
What sort of education is an essential for what you do? What kind of internship or experience would you recommend to a young person considering this line of work?
In a broader sense, I would say that no particular degree is essential for working in the development sector. If one has empathy, believes in the ‘cause’ so to say, and has perseverance, one learns as one goes along. More than a degree, often one needs resilience and determination as a social worker. Grassroots work especially, demands a certain strength of character that formal education cannot always provide.
Development professionals come from all spheres – medicine, management, law, technology, education etc. However, as a second degree, a formal education in development can be very helpful as it gives access to theory behind the practical challenges that one finds on the ground. Bolster theory with as much practical experience as possible. Volunteer/do internships at the grassroots always – it is essential to ‘live’ the problem at a personal level. Experience how policy makers deal with these issues too – work in think tanks, public policy organisations and if possible also try and work with fund-raising institutions to understand how aid works. Our country also offers many development fellowships (rural and urban), which are worth exploring.
If you had to pique the interest of a young person towards your line of work, what would you say to him/her?
If you get a ‘kick’ out of making someone else’s existence better, then development is for you. As for my work, in particular, i.e. development in rural Kumaon Himalayas – the world is my oyster! The Himalayas, the lush oak forests, wildlife, the birds, and getting out of bed everyday knowing that my actions will give respite to someone else today – for me it doesn’t get better.
I would say that if you have the inclination, take the plunge now. If your intent is clear, the universe will conspire to support you.
Grassroots work demands a certain strength of character that formal education cannot always provide.
What are the new trends you notice that are changing the complexion of your work? And how do you see this profession faring 20 years down the line?
Technology and access to the world at large are the two forces that are changing the landscape of rural development in the mountains today. Use of mobile phones, internet and better infrastructure are helping connect people and places better. Areas that were considered remote 20 years ago are not the same today. Village Satoli itself, is much better connected, has internet access and that in itself has changed the way we work with local communities. With CSR regulations in place, donor profiles are changing too.
In 20 years, a lot of what we do as grassroots organisation today will remain the same. A lot of the needs of the region are basic and that will continue for some time. Technology and infrastructure will provide better connection between the rural and urban, but grassroots work will still be about being on the ground and working with communities closely.
I can only hope that with more accountability and initiative built into our government systems with time, there is more collaborative work with the state. The development sector too would then be looked at more professionally, as a viable alternate lifestyle.
What are the pitfalls of your profession and how do you mitigate them? Did you have any fears when you were just starting out, about sustaining this on a long-term basis, or any others?
To work as an outsider in rural communities will always remain a challenge in this profession. Being accepted by the locals only comes with time and it helps to acknowledge and accept that. When one works with communities, respect and confidence is gained slowly and there is little room for making mistakes. Hence, it is important to go slow and reflect constantly.
My fears were just these and shall continue to some extent – how to really understand the situation and work with people and earning their acceptance and respect. Now, I reflect more than ever before and try to listen more in order to sustain working in such a way.
What do you do when you are stuck with a problem?
I try and step back and refrain from reacting immediately. It doesn’t always come naturally, so I have to work on it. I have learnt through experience that it is best to observe, let the situation play out and experience it evolve; solutions will emerge.
What are your views on collaborative thinking?
Two minds are better than one. Collaborative thinking is essential to any work that involves problem solving. Ideas develop with sharing thoughts, often giving rise to much more innovative solutions.
What would your advice be to a young person at the start of his or her career and confused about pursuing passion versus being pragmatic?
Most people in the world don’t know what they are really passionate about. So if you are in the minority who knows what you love doing, then it is worth following that passion to its logical end.
Often confusion is not a bad thing. If one introspects in a state of confusion, then the answer emerges from the gut – which is always the right answer.
My assumption is ‘pragmatic’ decisions are usually based on financial considerations. Money usually has a way of working itself out, so give your passion a chance, always.
It is really quite amazing how the luxury to have time to yourself is inversely proportional to your age. Hence, make the most of it in your 20s!
If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17 and 25, what would you say to your selves then?
At 17, I would say that since the next couple of years are critical to the path your life will take, you must really think about what you’d want to do after school. You should also plan to take a gap year after school, travel the country, learn a new language and live in a village in India.
At 25, I would tell myself to meditate more and do more with my free time. To volunteer my time and services more and travel more! It is really quite amazing how the luxury to have time to yourself is inversely proportional to your age. Hence, make the most of it in your 20s!
How do you envision your role in Aarohi in the future? How do you plan to evolve in and with it? Are there new initiatives that you’re dreaming about?
Aarohi is my alma mater and has given me the best start I could have ever asked for in my journey in the mountains. As the Secretary of the organisation, my role will always be to ensure the organisation keeps true to its mandate – of bringing about development opportunities to the people of rural Himalayas, looking after the employees, responding to the changing needs of the region and ensuring the organisation is constantly evolving with time. With Aarohi, I hope to evolve to learn more, be more kind and devote my life in service of the people of the mountains.
Yes, I am always dreaming about new initiatives! The challenge is to make them happen. I connect deeply with the mountain woman and I would love to touch all aspects of her life in a positive way.
I connect deeply with the mountain woman and I would love to touch all aspects of her life in a positive way.
What is most rewarding about your job?
It makes my day when I know that my actions have a had a role to play in a positive outcome for someone – whether it is a pregnant mother delivering her baby safely in a remote village, a young person experiencing the joys of mountain cycling, or a child enjoying learning in his classroom.
Needless to say living in the forest and having the privilege to see the mountains everyday is just the cherry on the cake!
Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ How do you get over that, if you do?
Yes of course! Who doesn’t?! When they do, I meditate and introspect. Clarity emerges. 🙂