My Wife, an inspirition for numerous people
Dr. Neela Mukherjee passed away on 2 June 2011 at Delhi, after a brief illness bravely fought and patiently borne. She leaves behind her husband, Dr. Amitava Mukherjee and son, Taponeel and numerous friends and well wishers all over the world. A Doctorate from Jadavpur University, Neela had a brilliant academic record being first class first throughout her academic career. She began her career in the Indian Economic Service in 1977, was Professor of Economics at LBS National Academy, Mussoorie, India; Commonwealth Fellow at London School of Economics, London; Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, Stanford and UNDP Fellow at London School of Economics, London.
The late Dr. Neela Mukherjee helped communities belonging to Lodha Tribe in East Midnapore, West Bengal, India to start 12 free primary schools called Saal Piyali schools for educating children belonging to the Lodha Tribe, without any donation from any donor whatsoever and without any support from the Government except in accessing mid-day meal scheme in some of the schools. She has created a corpus out of earnings from a Development Tracks in Research Training and Consultancy, for the Schools, which is invested in commodity trading by the community members to earn resources to run the schools
Considered an internationally recognized leading exponent of participatory methods, Neela wrote and lectured extensively on participatory development, across many countries in Asia and Africa and Europe. Of her numerous writings (see the tribute from Prof. Robert Chambers), her book on Participatory Rural Appraisal (first published in 1993 by Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi) has run into several editions and numerous reprints. Through grassroots level action research, she has developed an unique fully sustainable model for providing elementary education to poor children in rural areas through the 12 schools she ran (without any aid whatsoever) in Midnapore District, West Bengal.
She was at the time of her death, Chairman, Development Tracks RTC, New Delhi and Managing Trustee, Indrani Foundation. She ran and managed 12 Primary Schools in Midnapore District, West Bengal, India.
Leading Light of Development Science
What can I say? This will have been so devastating for you, Amitava, and painful stretching over weeks and months. I pause and feel for you, and for all the family. It is typical of Neela-ji, her consideration and courage, that I had no idea she was ill. The news, coming through Somesh, came as a total shock, to me, to Kamal Kar who is here just now and who was profoundly moved, and to Jenny. We all join in sending our deep condolences to you all.
My memories of Neela-ji are vivid. In 1991 I first met her when she came to the PRA orientation at ASCI in Hyderabad. From the start, in a polite and professional way, she was sharply critical, asking questions about statistical rigour and the like. I remember thinking to myself ‘this woman is going to be a bloody nuisance’. She wrote later about her search for new methods, and how of PRA she ‘felt that the methods were not relevant, interesting or rigorous’. She ‘ wanted to know what we would gain from using stones and so on.’ Then came the day for fieldwork. There were riots in the city and we could not go to the prepared villages. So we did a transect down to the village where Cyberabad is now, and met whoever we could to try out methods. Neela disappeared. I grew more and more worried. Everyone else was in sight near the main road. But no Neela. I walked around looking for her. And then at last she appeared, glowing and almost jumping up and down with excitement.
‘I was invited into the hut of a poor agricultural labourer in the most marginalised part of the village. We asked the old man in the hut to show the village in a sketch map and gave him some chalks. This was the turning point of my life. He started sketching the village, showing the poorest huts – the only ones he knew. I was amazed to see the professional expertise with which this illiterate man used seeds and chalks. I was also impressed with the wealth of information and how he was enjoying telling people his history. I got many answers to my questions from that one day in the field.’
From that day onwards Neela-ji became a champion and outstanding pioneer of PRA. She wrote more about PRA, in her numerous books, than anyone else in the world. Her influence was immense. One of her most outstanding feats was to apply PRA approaches and methods in context after context, and country after country. She was quite extraordinarily versatile. Her sustained curiousity, energy and capacity to innovate never ceased to amaze me.
What a legacy she leaves! In the books and articles which she wrote and which will be accessible and used, let us hope, for generations, and around the world. In the applications of PRA that she opened up which have encouraged and inspired others. In the people she has trained and influenced.
I treasure memories of my time with Neela-ji. Together with Sam Chimbuya we conducted a PRA training for Southern Africa in Botswana in 1993 and a workshop in Harare, and then again in the same year with Kamal Kar the first PRA training in Bangladesh. This was at a Proshika training centre near Mirzapur where she discovered that Kamal and I had a habit of diluting water with another colourless liquid to become what she called ‘Proshika water’. This became a source of endless jokes and teasing over the years. More seriously, her contributions in those trainings were vital to their success, and it was always a great pleasure to work with her.
I cannot begin to list her innovations. Many will not know that Neela and Meera Kaul Shah facilitated the very first Participatory Poverty Assessment in a PRA mode, in Ghana. The very first. Since then there have now been hundreds of such PPAs around the world. Many will not know that with Dee Jupp and Bangladeshi colleagues in 1996 Neela was involved in the highly innovative UNDP Bangladesh PPA. That it generated statistics in a participatory mode must surely have had a lot to do with her. And before and since then there have been too many innovations to recount. Innovators don’t stop. Neela-ji had an astonishing quiet confidence in treading where none had trod before. She never stopped. I shall remember her for all this, and for her quiet persistence, her twinkling sense of humour, her industry, her good company. I shall remember her for her unwavering commitment to those who are poor and marginalised and to enabling them to gain a better life.
I still cannot believe that she has left us. I have lost a treasured friend and colleague. India has lost a great unsung pioneer. The world has lost someone who left a legacy of participatory practice in many countries, a legacy that will endure. Let us celebrate the life of Neela-ji. And let us make the finest tribute we can by being inspired by her example. Let us reach out as she did, be daring, invent and experiment, and find and practice participatory ways of learning and of empowering those who are weak and powerless. That would be a memorial she would surely appreciate.
Director, Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Overseas Development Institute, UK
Thank you for your message. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed working with Neela. She was a great influence on the Uttarakhand watershed projects I worked on back in the 1990s. She got them going with a much more intelligent and participatory approach to village level development, was very thorough in her own work and in her training, with good results. Her enthusiasm was wide, and she always tried to draw out the positive, to good effect.
I know she has followed the work we have done in the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, and was always appreciative of that. So it was with great sadness I heard about her untimely death. You must both have been and still be devastated, and I do empathize with you. I cannot imagine losing the person I love most in the world. I hope you are managing to survive these difficult times, and find at least some solace in your son and wider family and friends.
With very best wishes, and my strongest sympathies.
Distinguished Development Expert, Manchester
Your tragic news was a shock and has deeply saddened me and my wife Catherine who also had the privilege of knowing Neela when she visited our home in Mottram. Sadly our last chance to have her with us again on her more recent visit to Manchester had to be cancelled and I will now always regret that we missed that opportunity.
Although I had reviewed her first PRA book for Journal of International Development ten years earlier, Neela and I met on our work with WIRFP in 2000 where we spent a few weeks introducing the Livelihood Asset-Status Tracking system to Indian Farm Forestry Development Cooperative in Pratapgarh. I remember the authority she held at those workshops, she only had to make a sound amidst the confusion and noise and would have immediate attention from all concerned. She would always insist on the maximum of participation which led me to jokingly call her a 'participation extremist'. I will always remember her drive, commitment to the poor, and great sense of fun; it was a privilege to have known her.
Please accept my deepest sympathies to you and your son, I will hold you in my prayers at this difficult time.
Professor of Planning, Environment and Public Policy, Director of UCL Environment Institute, University of London
I am so, so saddened that Neela is no longer with us. I have known no-one who brought such kindness, enthusiasm and appreciation to the world. She made people feel better. She cared so much about the people she was helping through her work and she invigorated others to do more. Her work was incredibly important in bringing the voice of communities to development efforts; she was true pioneer in PRA. Above all she connected one-to-one. I felt as if I had a sister the other side of the world through her. She will be sorely missed.
With all warmest wishes
Economic Advisor, Government of India in the Ministry of Labour
It is hard to believe that you are not here, physically, Neela. But i still feel your presence and always will. Yes, you will always live...in our hearts.
I remember that we first met almost 34 years ago in Delhi and had remained in touch ever since. There was a time we would talk to each other almost every other day, without fail...exchanging what had happened during the day...sometimes sharing our problems...sometimes advising each other. You would admonish me if i felt sad or regretful about something and say that life was too short and precious to waste it on things that pulled one down.
This was perhaps the reason why you did not want to share your last few days of suffering with many of us. I respect your decision for maintaining privacy and self dignity. But still some niggling regret remains that i could not bring you any solace in the last few days of your physical life.
There are many things that i will always remember of you and derive succour from – your innate courage and boldness, your fighting spirit, your light hearted tinkling laughter, your love of wild flowers and your huge, huge compassion for animals. And how can i forget that you taught me how to dance under the open sky to the tune of Satya Sai Baha bhajan!
You lived your life entirely on your own terms and derived your strength from Radha as much as Krishna, Shakti as much as Shiva.
May you be at peace always....
Conservator of Forests, State Project Director, Livelihoods Improvement Project for the Himalayas
Dear Dr. Mukherjee,
May I share here some of my thoughts on our beloved Madam Neela Mukherjee.
I knew Madam Mukherjee since the time she laid foundation of the participatory approach in EU funded Doon Valley Watershed Management Project team in 1994. I was Deputy Project Director in this project then. There was something special in her that immensely attracted me towards her. Her veracity effortlessly connected her with the project staff and the rural mass. Her ever questioning mind often gave us difficult times but led us have vast insights on micro level approaches to public participation. She systematically nurtured us to evolve participatory systems on the ground. Her input in Doon Valley Project used to be such an enriching and exciting experience that my team always used to eagerly look forward to her visit with our home work done. She had instilled the passion to understand the rural community in each one of us. She was a great teacher who took no time to realize the potential of practitioners to bring transformational change on the ground.
It was the moment of great joy for me when I was able to contribute two articles in ‘learning to share’ Vol.2 and Vol. 3 edited by her in 2001 and 2004. These were my humble tribute to her work with us.
Of late she wanted to revisit and review the villages of Doon Valley Project once again with me. This remained an unfulfilled task with her.
She was indeed a powerful inner wheel who set the foundation for transformational change in the way government handled participatory projects on the ground. She left a generation of students and practitioners who could bring out the results in multitudes of what she painstakingly sowed in them. This to me was her vital contribution to the society.
Over the years as I grew closer to her, I discovered her as an utterly caring, loving and upright person. Personally, I used to always go back to her whenever I used to face dilemma in my professional life and she never failed to give a genuine guidance to me. She always rebuked me and pushed me professionally for excellence. Where I stand today in terms of my experience and understanding of the rural community and specially the poor is because of her immense contribution in my professional life.
Her going has left a big void in my life. But she will always remain close to my heart and will continue to inspire me to do good work for the society.
Former Secretary to Prime Minister of India and Member, Planning Commission of India
My Dear Amitava,
I broke the news of Neela sad departure to Prabhavati only today. She just fell silent and for a long time would not talk. Neela's affection towards us and her friendship is greatly cherishedby us.
Her energy, passion and determination to contribute and improve the lot of the downtrodden was infectious. She was the darling of administrators and academicians from all over the world who came into contact with her. Both of us pray for her soul and solicit the Almighty to give you and Taponeel the strength to bear with the loss.
I look forward to meeting at the earliest possible occasion convenient to you.