Sanghmitra S. Acharya is a professor and the director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) recognised institution. It was set up in 2003, by academicians and civil society activists to understand the problems of marginalised groups, identify the causes of their marginalisation and suggest policies for their empowerment. Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, editor at large for South Asia at On Think Tanks, conducted this interview.
Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander: Can you please share a brief background about yourself?
Sanghmitra Acharya: My academic training in one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and my doctoral thesis on social area analysis initiated my interest in the issues around inequalities. My work experience in the Department of Development Studies at the International Institute of Population Sciences in Mumbai and at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, futhered my interest in this field. The opportunity to be part of a research project on social exclusion in multiple spheres undertaken by IIDS during 2006-08 polished my skills to understand social exclusion and discrimination. All these experiences collectively contributed to my becoming the director.
AR: What was your initial experience when you joined IIDS as an executive director?
SA: Overwhelming. A young organisation with extensive and robust research and publications! The contribution of IIDS in the study of social exclusion and discrimination is matched by no other organization. The work environment is highly cordial.
Space constraint and resource crunch were felt almost immediately after joining, but these challenges have not deterred the research output in any way.
AR: Did you foresee any challenges? If so what were they and how did you overcome them?
SA: Yes. With very little experience in administrative affairs, there were plenty of challenges. Understanding the governance structure and functioning; administrative hierarchy; roles and responsibilities of personnel; gearing resources for research and related activities; and adequate functional space were some of the challenges. Since social exclusion and discrimination is a sensitive issue, the other challenge involved sharing the research output with different stakeholders.
AR: In addressing these challenges did you get any support? If so from whom?
SA: The support of my colleagues and advice from senior colleagues and mentors helped me overcome these challenges. Periodic staff meetings with the staff and research faculty, the governing body, along with discussions with personnel on different issues (for instance, deciding to upload a matter on our website considering the sensitive nature of the work) also helped overcome some of these challenges
AR: What has been a key take-away as the executive director of IIDS?
SA: Be firm in decision making and assertive in understanding the challenges and when addressing them.
AR: How has your interaction and work with your board members been?
SA: The board meets regularly at least once a year. These meetings are the channel for the smooth functioning of the institute. They connect the day to day operations with the formal structures of the institute. Reporting of the activities and suggestions for change(s)/modification(s) if any, are transacted cordially.
AR: As an executive director, could you share some tips on how you manage projects at different levels and with different stakeholders?
SA: We have stringent and strict norms for how a project is conducted to maintain the high quality of research. All project proposals are discussed at length at various levels- internally among faculty members, followed by presentations in the research advisory committee. Conceptual framework and research design are worked upon before bringing them for discussion. Only then the project proposal is submitted to the funding agency or the study is initiated. In addition, periodic meetings are convened to deliberate on the progress of the project.
Periodic progress is communicated to the funding agencies. The findings are shared as they evolve through the study, and at the culmination. This communication happens through seminars, conferences, and roundtable discussions with the stakeholders cutting across grassroots level workers, researcher and academicians to policy makers. The institute also prepares policy briefs as part of dissemination of research outcomes.
AR: There have been projects where some of your work involves working closely with the government. Can you briefly share with us your experiences regarding this?
SA: The institute has undertaken many projects for the government- both state and central. Most of the projects have become the basis of policies in various spheres. Some direct influence on policy outcome because of IIDS research in recent times are: Procurement Policy for SCs and STs Micro and Small Enterprises, 2012; Prevention of Caste-based Discrimination in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations by UGC, 2012; NCERT Teacher’s Training Module to Address Caste-based Discrimination Inside Schools and Classrooms, 2013; Strengthening and Leveraging Panchayat Raj Institutions for Effective and Non-discriminatory Delivery of Public Goods and Services, 2013.
In addition to the above, the institute’s research informed the inclusive planning for Scheduled Caste (SCs) and Scheduled Tribe (STs) in the government’s 12th Five-Year Plan. Studies done by IIDS on the access and utilisation of Government National Flagship Programmes among socially excluded sections has drawn attention for the government to take steps to deliver services in a non-discriminatory manner. Based on the research outcomes on excluded groups, the institute has provided policy inputs to the post-MDG2015 discussion.
This is indicative of a positive experience working with the government.