When you’ve got a BTech degree from IIT-Madras, a Masters from the University of Maryland, and have worked as a Satellite Communication Engineer for nine years, it’s safe to say that you’re set in life. Kirankumar Vissa didn’t think so. Why else would he have ‘quit’ his entire life in 2008 and thrown himself into advocacy for farmers in the most arid corners of the country? It’s been close to eight years now, and the 42-year-old is still just as passionate about working for the betterment of farmers.
After graduating from IIT in 1995, he headed to the US to study Communications & Signal Processing. Round about then, he began visiting NGOs and got involved in social work through Association for India’s Development (AID). “I got my formative experience after getting involved in AID, where a large number of NRIs support sustainable development work and social justice. The organisation works towards empowerment of people rather than charity. I began a PhD programme, but found social activism more fulfilling, so I quit and began working with AID,” said Vissa, reflecting on how he got started.
The idea to come back to India actually formed a few months after he landed in the USA. A germ of an idea kept growing during his visit home in 1997, when he put all his experience into building an international solidarity movement for Narmada Bachao Andolan.
“Since 2001, I turned my attention to issues plaguing natural resources, agriculture, how we produce food and so on. I took four months off, travelled around India and met some good social activists. That was when I finally found what I wanted to work on: agriculture and natural resources. Thereafter I would come back to India every year and take part in collaborative work. Again in 2007, I took a four month break, and worked at the ground level,” he said. This time around, he knew for sure, “I finally quit my job in 2008,” he added.
After heading back, he worked on issues related to agriculture, agricultural workers, issues of adivasis and others. He somehow managed on a fellowship from AID which provided with around `25,000 a month — a pittance compared to what he would have earned in the US.
Growing up in a typically middle class home, with three other siblings, it wouldn’t have gone down well when he told them about his choice. “We did not have a home. With that kind of background, I was clear that I should take care of family’s responsibilities. But they did not oppose my decision. They did not object, but they were anxious about my future. Overall, it worked out well,” he said, adding that his parents are finally proud and tell everybody about the work he does.
His defining moment was when he played a crucial role in framing the Kisan Swaraj Neeti — a comprehensive framework on tackling agricultural issues. He, along with others designed it as part of Kisan Swaraj Yatra – which had them travel 71 days on a bus across 20 States, that ended in Delhi. Post that, the ideas of the Neeti found wider acceptance among farmers’ associations.
In his ongoing struggle to get farmers a better deal, he even took a stab at politics — contesting for Kurnool as an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate in the 2014 Parliamentary elections. However, he lost the elections. Talking about his decision to contest, he says, “I believe that I can make a much better contribution through social movements rather than electoral politics. But I admit that political change and participation of people in politics is necessary to actually foster change,” he conceded.