How it began at Seva Mandir

Seva Mandir was founded by Dr. Mohan Singh Mehta. Born on 20th of April 1895, at Bhilwara (Rajasthan), Dr. Mehta belonged to a wealthy family. His son was Jagat Singh Mehta, the Indian politician and diplomat who also served as Foreign Secretary from 1976 to 1979.

Dr. Mehta has played an active role in both politics and social work. Starting off as Revenue Officer (1922-28) and Chief Revenue Officer (1928-36) of Mewar and then as Chief Minister of Banswara State (1937-40 and 1944-46), during the pre-independence time, he went on to serve as Revenue and Education Minister (1940-44) & Finance and Education Minister (1946-48) of Mewar itself, post-independence. He has represented the country as Ambassador to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and the Vatican; and as High Commissioner to Pakistan (1951-55). Later, as Vice-Chancellor of Rajasthan University (1960-66), he ventured into the field of education too.

Looking back in hindsight, it seems like the seeds of Seva Mandir were sown during his tenure as Chief Minister of Banswara State in the 1930-40s. As Chief Minister, he travelled a lot – that too to interior villages. He saw a lot of poverty in these villages. He also saw that the caste system was yet prevalent here; and noticed how it prevented many sections of society from availing opportunities. In fact, the caste system, according to him, was the cause of people’s poverty. But political life kept him busy till the age of 71 and these thoughts lay dormant till then.

In 1966, when Mr. Mehta retired from the post of Vice-Chancellor of Rajasthan, he became very active in informal citizens groups. Through these groups, he started interacting with the aam aadmi and got more and more involved in citizenry issues. Mr. Bhati, one of the few members, present today, at Seva Mandir who had the chance of interacting with Mr. Mehta recalls how Bhai Sahab, as he was fondly called, set up of a Charcha Mandal. It essentially was a group of socially conscious folks who used to meet regularly to discuss daily citizenry matters. Similar to the Charcha Mandal, he set up of a Natiya Mandal as well as a Mahila Sabha. All three initiatives got him closer to the aam aadmi.

His experience in the villages in 1930s coupled with interactions through the Mandals in the 1960s, made him realise that for real change, it was absolutely necessary for it to be participatory in nature. Without this, there lacked ownership, due to which projects were bound to fail. With this fundamental idea in mind, he went on to set up Seva Mandir.

The organisation’s preamble thus states, “Seva Mandir’s mission is to make real the idea of society consisting of free and equal citizens who are able to come together and solve the problems that affect them in their particular contexts. The commitment is to work for a paradigm of development and governance that is democratic and polyarchic. Seva Mandir seeks to institutionalise the idea that development and governance is not only to be left to the State and its formal bodies like the legislature and the bureaucracy, but that citizens and their associations should engage separately and jointly with the State. The mission briefly, is to construct the conditions in which citizens of plural backgrounds and perspectives can come together and deliberate on how they can work to benefit and empower the least advantaged in society.”

An old interview that I found at the Seva Mandir library has Mr. Mehta saying, “I had decided that whatever savings I had, I would put them in a trust and I purchased this land in 1930; then it was available for a small amount because nobody wanted to come and live so far away from the city. Today this land, which I bought only for Rs. 600 alone, would bring Rs. 3 lakh – the prices have gone up so much. Otherwise, we had no money.

At that time, you might remember there was a little comment in the papers about M.O. Mathai’s Trust, his mother and all that. So, I was careful and I did not appoint myself as one of the trustees. I had other trustees. Somehow or the other, the trustees whom I appointed did nothing with that money; they just invested it and in the meantime I became Ambassador and was out of the country. So, when I saw all this I was very angry. I said, “What is all this? This is my lifeblood. I have to build up an institution.” They said, “Oh, we have no idea what your ideas are, what you want to do. So, tell us what to do about the money.” I said, “Now, first of all, start some building here so that I can come and take residence.”

So the half part of this building was built. All the trust money that I had was consumed in this building; prices had gone up. If they had started building earlier, the cost would have been one-third. Not only was all that money exhausted but about Rs. 22,000-25,000 was left to be paid to the builders. When I came back to India, I had brought back a Mercedes car. I had to sell it and out of that I clear off the builder’s debt. If I had sold the car immediately, I would have got about Rs. 1 lakh, but I used it for 10 years and then I sold it and got much smaller money, Rs. 37,000.

Anyway, we started with a clean slate with no debts but no money in hand and no income. We started with these rooms.”

That’ s how Seva Mandir took off – with no income nor endowment. Projects came in from different institutions – from the State Government, from the Central Government, and later from Canada, USA, Germany, Holland and many other countries.

Later in that same interview, Mr. Mehta says, “When I started, there was not a single worker here. A man whom I knew – one of my old scouts – came and worked for two hours in an honorary capacity to help me.”

From a budget of Rs. 45 lakhs in 1983, Seva Mandir operates on a Rs. 16 crore budget today. Mr. Mehta lived in that room from 1966 till he passed away in 1985 – eating, sleeping and working out of there.

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