#AlumniConnect with Urmi Basu (M.A. Social Work: 1984-86) Founder, New Light India Nari Shakti Puraskar Awardee, India’s highest Civilian Award for Women
TISS: What made you choose to do an M.A. in Social Work from TISS?
Urmi Basu (UB): I was raised in a family of activists where raising your voice for the voiceless was more a norm than an exception. It would have been surprising if I did not choose what I did as my calling. After my first degree in sociology, I had the option to take my academic training right out of the confines of research and academia. Choosing to do M.A. in Social Work seemed like the natural progression. But certainly at age 20, no one knows what they finally want to do with their lives. And nor did I. Everything that followed took a natural course.
TISS: What were the TISS years like? Do share some vignettes of Campus life from then.
UB: Undoubtedly my years in TISS were the two most important years of my life. During my time there, a number of significant incidents took place. If I remember correctly, soon after the commencement of our session there was a riot in Dharavi. In December 1984, TISS sent a contingent of student volunteers to Bhopal to assist the victims of the Union Carbide industrial disaster. Our days there were very critical as most of us plunged into a disaster scene without the slightest idea about the individual health risks which we were exposing ourselves to.
During my days there TISS had a students’ agitation which certainly was the first of any such incident. The fallout was serious and impactful. It had life transforming consequences for many.
On a lighter side, the funniest rule for students living on Campus was that we could leave the campus by 10 PM and could return at any odd time of the night which we did routinely. Also at the gate register we would write names like Hema Malini, The Prime Minister or even the name of our Director, Dr. Armaity Desai which the sleepy gate keeper could barely read or even be interested in verifying. God the laughs we got out of those pranks!
I consider myself immensely fortunate to have had teachers like Dr. Sanobar Shekhar, Dr. D.R. Singh, Prof. Panakkal, Dr. Vimla Nadkarni , Prof. Parasuraman , Mr. Pravin Patkar and so many others. I also remember my field work supervisors during the second year, Ms. Anjali Dave and Mr. Ashutosh Dharmadhikari. Doubt if they remember me. Perhaps this interview will reconnect us.
TISS: What were the early years of working as a Professional Social Worker like?
UB: The early years of my professional life was not significant or satisfactory. Seemed like I was not doing things that I had aspired to do. It was not till 2000 that i actually felt the kindling of this passion or adopted this mission. I feel the same might be true for many young professionals. Social work is not where you see immediate results or the outcome which are up to your expectations. Prepare yourself for many disappointments right through.
TISS: Tell us about your organisation, New Light and the work it does.
UB: After 15 of professional work, I set up a small non-profit named New Light (www.newlightindia.org) in Kolkata in 2000 with a seed money of as little as Rs 10,000 along with two other young people from the Kalighat red light district. The mission of the organisation is to promote gender equality and fight violence and abuse of women, girl children and young people. That tiny initiative today provides care and support to a couple of thousand people. The organisation also works to fight against child prostitution and trafficking for the purpose of sex-trade, child labour and bonded labour.
TISS: How did the pandemic affect the work that you ’normally’ do? What did you do to adapt to the challenges that the lockdown brought about?
UB: No one anywhere in the world could have planned or prepared for the pandemic and its deep reaching impact on countries around the world. Likewise everything that was done at New Light had no prior blueprint. The actions were intuitive focused primarily on the safety of the children, the women and the members of New Light. It is a miracle that everyone survived and the children have been safe. Nothing brings us greater joy than to see kids returning to the schools.
TISS: You have won many awards and accolades over the years. Is there one that is really special?
UB: I have always maintained that receiving the blessings of HH The Dalai Lama is the ultimate recognition. How can anyone expect more from life after that ?
TISS: Can you share with us your experience of receiving the special blessing from the HH The Dalai Lama in 2009?
UB: The very presence of HH Dalai Lama fills a space with wisdom ,compassion and peace. Standing in front of him I was so completely moved that I had my eyes misting over. I shall always carry that energy in my life for as long as I live. The sensation of being in his presence cannot be compared to anything else in anyone's life I think.
TISS: Social Work as a profession has changed since the time you graduated. What would you like to say to the current generation of the professional social workers graduating now?
UB: If you are looking for money and comfort do not come to join social work as a professional. On the contrary, if you want to have a work life that is full of challenges, adventure, uncertainties and self-actualisation this is the place for you. When you see your work impacting the lives of others positively you rest your head easy on the pillow at night. And then there is always tomorrow to do things differently if you fail.