This month, the Center for Public Leadership awarded Ashif Shaikh, co-founder of Jan Sahas, with the 2022 Gleitsman International Activist Award for his work to protect migrant workers and combat sexual violence in India and around Asia. While on campus to receive the award, Ashif spoke with CPL about leadership, community, and his organization.

Your organization, Jan Sahas, began with just 12 volunteers. Today, there are more than 8,000 volunteers who work in 14,000 villages. Tell us about Jan Sahas and your mission.

Jan Sahas means “people's courage.” Our mission is to ensure dignity for all, particularly for those from excluded communities. Jan Sahas is deeply rooted in the communities we serve. a key driver of our success to date. We were founded in 2000 to ensure dignity for socially excluded communities. Since then, we have made significant contributions to address migration safety, forced labor, sexual violence against women, and manual scavenging.

Today, we work in around 100 districts across 13 states, directly reaching three million Indian households. Key to our approach is combining deep grassroots efforts with public systems transformation. For example, through our direct work, we helped more than 45,000 manual scavengers–predominantly women–leave the practice. Despite our greater scale, we continue to draw strength from our grassroots background and inclusive, community-centric lens. This approach is enabled by our staff, 80% of whom belong to the socially-excluded communities we serve.

We built the Migrants Resilience Collaborative (MRC) in 2020 to strengthen our social protection delivery systems and chart a path towards ensuring resilience and dignity for migrants by connecting them to existing benefits and worker protections. MRC builds on our two-decade-long experience of working with migrants through other initiatives to implement a targeted two-fold strategy:

  1. We implement last-mile delivery systems in communities, ensuring the most vulnerable migrants have access to existing social security benefits and worker protections.
  2. We work towards strengthening the social protection systems to function better for all migrants by supporting government initiatives to strengthen the systems’ infrastructure and increasing incentives and accountability for industry actors to enable social protection.

What challenges do internal migrant workers face and why is it so important that we address this in India and around the world?

Among the 740 million individuals migrate internally worldwide, more than a third, or 282 million, of these migrants belong to Asia alone. Internal migration is driven by economic distress caused by failure of traditional livelihood options, and economic shocks caused or aggravated by social exclusion and climate change.

The pandemic aggravated this distress across the region. The treatment of female migrants worsened after COVID-19. After the pandemic we found that women were 11 times more unlikely to return to work post-job-loss. Internal migration has not received the attention it deserves from policymakers and industry, even though globally it is four times more common than international migration.

Laws addressing internal migration are missing throughout most of Asia. In addition, access to social security remains very low: less than 50% of the poor have access in lower-middle-income countries, while just 18% have access in lower-income countries. Furthermore, since most countries do not design social security with internal migrants in mind, it becomes harder to meet their unique challenges. Exclusion among seasonal migrants is likely even higher. Their limited access to social security is characteristic of their social “invisibility,” particularly in cities.

As the world deals with the challenges of inequality, climate change, and the effects of the pandemic, safe and fair migration must be given its due importance by formulating policies that specifically address the needs of internal migrants. It is essential to understand that migration will continue as people seek better livelihood opportunities. Therefore, we must focus on providing workers with better opportunities and enabling fair working conditions, safe passage, and other basic support when they migrate. Ultimately, we can ensure that the people who have built and continue to build modern India are resilient, maintain their dignity, and are no longer treated as invisible.

How would you define a good public leader?

A successful leader not only focuses on the numbers, but also on the feelings of the community. In today’s world, where technology plays a very important role, there is a tendency to fixate on metrics. But metrics don’t always reveal a community’s authentic needs. Leaders should first understand the issues on an emotional level. Don’t try to effect change in a community before learning from its members first.

What would be your message to students and community members around the world who are searching for ways to search to serve others?

The students I’ve met at Harvard are so interested in learning: not just in an academic sense, but in learning from real experience. What kind of solutions are out there? What has worked, and what hasn’t?

  1. My first point is to understand the culture and practices of the community you want to serve before developing a solution.
  2. My second point is that technology does not solve everything. Emotional connection and personal touch remain crucial to creating change.
  3. My third point is that there is a prevalent understanding here at Harvard Kennedy School that big problems require solutions of scale, which is important, but cannot be the only way to understand solutions. People and institutions who work on a small scale also contribute to improving the quality of human life, and can provide insights into complex problems that can sometimes be missing from big-picture thinking.