Pande belongs to a Kumaoni family that's as Nehruvian elite as it gets. He went to Doon School, to IIT-Delhi, and finally, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a PhD in mechanical engineering. Then, restless job-changing, including a stint, he recalls, at Cadbury's, smiling faintly at the incongruity of that detail. Then, he gave it all up, and went to Almora, the hometown where he'd never lived.
There were no ideological imperatives, no religious inspiration, no epiphanic events. "It's never one incident," says Pande, but an "internal dissonance, building up, going away, coming back. Questions in your head, like what am I here for? Can I continue in a groove?"
When he came to Almora, single, in his late 30s, Pande didn't know what he'd be doing next. Slowly, reluctantly, he got drawn towards ideas that were, he stresses, suggested to him by enlightened others. The focus on environmental education in The New Education Policy, 1986, opened the door for a Rs 2-lakh government grant. From a room in his home, Pande started the Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi (USN) and began grappling with how ideas could be made into something real.
Twenty years on, middle school students in 2,500 government schools across Uttaranchal are possibly the only ones in the country studying environment as an examinable subject on the mainstream curriculum. The revised and re-revised textbooks are not on the abstract themes chorused by metro schoolchildren like the ozone layer and global warming, but the realities of rural life: food, fodder, water, trees, crops, soil, manure, rainfall.... The course is deeply attentive to detail, crammed with rigorous exercises that require children to engage with villages around them, to value local wisdom, to ask difficult ethical questions. Over the years, USN has trained scores of government school-teachers to teach this programme.
Then, there are 300 balwadis (pre-primary schools) in villages, stacked with learning tools for counting, measuring, strengthening fingers, encouraging hand-eye coordination, sophisticated as the kits you'll find in the best montessories, but made of mud, paper, old bottles, bhuttas. Some of the children pegging away at them were once locked up at home, while their mothers went out to collect fuel and fodder. In the same villages, women's groups supported by the USN campaign against alcoholism replant forests on denuded slopes and guard them against predators, mostly human. And underpinning all of this is a message—brave, idealistic—for the droves of Kumaonis abandoning villages for cities: you don't have to be a menial worker in a city, you can make a life here.
It's all been done with very little noise. Though the quality of USN's work has been recognised in niche circles in India and abroad, there's little on Pande in a Google search. He used to raise awkward questions at seminars but does so less now. "Can you have a grey-haired enfant terrible?" he asks.
Yes, his views are definite, even controversial. He tears into development buzzwords and mocks at seminar etiquette. And questions his own achievements too. He has firm views on how NGOs should be run (eg, Rs 50,000 pay packets are too high) and seems to have no time for erratic do-gooders: "I prefer a good businessman anyday, he is more useful. " Strong opinions, but you can't dismiss them, because they're backed by something important. Legitimacy.