Shodh Yatra – An Introduction to the Ends and Means

What is a Shodh Yatra?

The term Shodh Yatra was coined, to the best of my knowledge, by Professor Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in 1998.  The term literally means “search journey” or an exploration, but not in the geographical sense only –  the  outward journey has to be matched by an inward journey, for the yatra to be fruitful.  See more about the Shodh Yatra in Anil Gupta’s own words at

Though I am using the same term as Anil Gupta, my Shodh Yatra has a different aim than his numerous Yatra conducted already since 1998. My Shodh Yatra is an an extended grassroots enquiry into the lives and livelihoods of poor people.

It is NOT a padayatra (foot march).  It is a hybrid yatra – I will walk while in a village or a town, stopping by every once in a while to have a dialogue; and travel by other means (vehicle, boat, train, air) between habitations, as needed.

The Yatra began on January 30, 2011 Gandhiji’s martyrdom day, from Gandhiji’s Ashram in Sevagram, Wardha; near Nagpur in Central India.  The Shodh Yatra will end after 77 days, on April 18, 2011 (Bhoodan Day) at Pochampalli, a village about 50 km from Hyderabad, AP, where Vinoba Bhave started the Bhoodan Movement in 1951.

The elapsed days are 77 but as I plan to take 2-3 days off after every 10 days, it is a  60 day Yatra. At about 80-90 km a day of driving/train rides  and about 10 kms of walking, I expect to cover about 5000 kms in 60 days.

Why am I undertaking this Shodh Yatra?  With what ultimate ends in mind have I embarked on this?

My dear friend and “guru” of large system change, Dr GK Jayaram or Jay as I call him, always asks three questions about any significant action –Why? What? How?  While I do not have 100% clear answers yet, here is my initial formulation:

The answer is A, B, C, D

A is atma-shuddhi, which though literally can be translated as self-purification, but I mean it as enabling self-evolution.  It has been thirty years since I started working in development full-time. There are many things I do which are right, which need to be reinforced, and many others, which are wrong and need correction, or at least improvement.  The most obvious improvement in my case is related to my physique – paying attention to my body and my weight. If nothing else, I hope to lose 10-12 kgs by the time this Yatra ends, and then continue on that regime. I am conscious that by this Yatra, I am adding to the decades of distant presence that I have had with my family, but in a paradoxical sort of way, I expect to come closer to them.

Then I do need to improve my punctuality – my big flaw is that I am almost always late for everything.  I have a furious temper, and though I blow my top only once a month or thereabouts,, those who have seen it have wilted and many have been hurt. I need to control that.

Ruskin’s saying painted on a board in Bapu Kuti, Sevagram

The next point may surprise the reader – I don’t think I have as much courage and integrity as is needed for changing the nature of public life today.  One lies in various ways, and many of those who are complicit will know.

I also need to rebuild the stock of ideas I have.  The last academic sabbatical I had was in Princeton in 1988, and regretfully, in the last few years, professional responsibilities have ensured that my general reading has been lower than I wish, and I want to catch up on that.  My computer skills need upgrading and finally, I need to start working on my spiritual side, which is hitherto dormant.

B is the basics of BASIX and beyond BASIX – I would be fooling myself and worse, be irresponsible, if I say that I am leaving BASIX ( )  behind when I embark on this Yatra. Something that I have helped create and have nurtured for 15 years, cannot be left in times of a major crisis.  Yet, we know that we can use this microcredit crisis as a cautionary note and re-engineer the industry, and BASIX along with it.  That process will need deep insights about what the customers need, what they expect and also how their behaviour has changed, often for worse, by the doings of the microfinance industry, politicians and the government. We also need to once again figure out how to improve the lives and livelihoods of our customers, and whether indeed, the Livelihood Triad is the most appropriate strategy for it.  Many BASIX colleagues will be joining me in the Yatra for a few days each and I intend to exchange ideas with them on this issue.

BASIX is only part of the three overlapping fields I work in – microfinance, financial inclusion and livelihood promotion.   I have to continue to lead the industry’s response as President of the Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN, at a time the industry is facing a life and death crisis. In 2010, I was elected as the Chair of the Executive Committee (Board) of the global  Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP  In that capacity I have the responsibility as well as the opportunity to  lead the soul-searching and the re-engineering needed for the microfinance field globally.  So I hope the Shodh Yatra will offer me chance to think through these issues for India and for the world. For financial inclusion and for livelihood promotion, I will use this opportunity to revisit fundamental assumptions about customers and collaborators, about cost structures and revenue models, and more fundamentally, about how to do all this responsibly as well as sustainably.

C is Connecting with the Common Citizen – this includes an attempt to live a simpler, more frugal life, walking and driving around, and spending more time in conversations. My friend Rajni Bakshi has influenced me a lot by bringing out the distinction between the transactional market versus the interactional bazaar. While the need to exchange goods and services has been the need of man since he descended from the trees, the proper way to do that is the bazaar, because economic transactions are literally “put in their place”, and a lot of social exchange also happens.  I want to engage in deep conversations with as diverse people as I can, mainly those whose voices are not heard.  I hope to report the dialogue as faithfully as possible and hope that many others will draw their own conclusions out of it.

For myself, after the diagnoses, I am committed to action and I am deeply committed to action through institutional development (here I use the word institutions in the Douglass North sense of the term, as rules of the game). This is the way forward for humanity – applicable to the whole range of  issues  – those facing a village panchayat to the issue of  global warming. Yet I know that individuals make institutions.  Over the last three years, I have been working closely with Dr GK Jayaram of the Institute for Leadership and Institutional Development ( to develop a new kind of political leadership and building an institutional infrastructure for it.  That work is far more significant than anything else I have ever done and I hope this Shodh Yatra will definitely prepare me better for that.

D is Demonstrating that a Difference can be made – this is the most difficult.  As I go about meeting the people, I am bound to come across hundreds of examples where people need help desperately, and several hundred others of opportunities to do good work.  The question always will be – should one just have a dialogue, make notes, upload those in the blog and move on, or does one do something about it? My friend Girish Godbole helped me with this dilemma.  One should not feel burdened by the need to help every person one comes along who needs help, because that would stymie the enquiry.  But it would also be futile, or worse, if one did not do something for this class of people – whether it is the child labourers, the disheartened farmers, the Dalit women, the unemployed youth, the alienated tribal, or the disabled who are seen as a burden.

Thus the Yatra should trigger hundreds of initiatives by various people to address these and myriad other causes.  They don’t have to get my direct support, or even be in touch with me.  As long as I can demonstrate through word and deed that a difference can be made, by each of us acting in our own ways, and many people start acting on that faith, the Yatra would be safal (fruitful).   So that is what this Shodh Yatra is all about,

My Yatra began from Gandhiji’s Sevagram Ashram, Wardha on January 30, 2011


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