Manasa Rao is a lawyer and development practitioner from India. She currently works with United Nations Development Programme in India and is deployed in the Covid War Room. She co-founded a non-profit organisation called’ Reachout’ when she was 19. Today, Reachout has branches in more than two cities. They have addressed over three thousand grievance calls from across the country through their legal-aid helpline, adopted government schools, and reached out to over 20,000 women as a part of their menstrual awareness programmes.
How did you decide to get into public policy and what prompted you to change gears?
Manasa: I distinctly remember the towering neem tree that I had seen in my neighbourhood as a child, being axed recklessly. The tree was ancient and an important fixture in the community. Aghast, I quickly called my friends and created a small group to protest it, even to the extent of going to the nearest police station to lodge a complaint. As a 12-year-old, I had managed to unite several children and adults alike to save the tree. This desire to work for the community and make a difference became deeper and more urgent with every passing year. By fourteen, I had made up my mind to pursue a career that would hone these instincts. The propensity to fight for the voiceless, and a burgeoning commitment to the public interest, eventually led me to pursue Law. In my third year, I had the opportunity to explore the complex nature of public administration and policy through the Non-Profit Organisation, 'Reachout' that I co-founded. We came up with several interventions focusing on children's education and women empowerment. This experience made me understand that in order to truly empower the grassroots, a thorough understanding of the legal world and the policy world was necessary. Another such experience that pushed me to pursue policy administration was my stint with the the Department of Women and Child Welfare under the Government of Karnataka where I worked with the Devadasi Community. Living alongside them, I served as a liaison between the Government and the Devadasis and was honoured to be part of the team that helped the women secure titled lands after a 20-year battle with the Government. My report to the Government recommended building them safe shelters, providing free legal aid, scaling up employment opportunities, and empowering them by increasing their abysmally low pensions. This truly cemented my belief in pursuing public policy and administration as my career.
How would you compare mainstream legal practice with your current profession?
Manasa: Law and public policy share an intimate relationship. The foundations that they are built on are similar. Public Policy lends a lot of its core principles from the legal world. Mainstream legal practice has helped me better understand the nuances in policy-making and implementation. A thorough legal understanding has definitely helped me become a better development practitioner and policymaker.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Manasa: I have recently joined United Nations Development Programme as a development consultant and have been working out of the Covid War Room constituted by the Government of Karnataka. I've learnt a great deal about emergency management in rural Karnataka. There's always something new to learn in this field. It keeps you on your toes. My work is nerve-wracking and extremely stressful, but I get to see the change that I advocate for happen right in front of my eyes and there's nothing more satisfying than that. My work allows me to engage with millions of rural-children, youth and women and make a *difference* in their lives. It gives me the opportunity to empower lives around me and create opportunities for those who are marginalised and oppressed. I derive a lot of joy from my work.
What advice would you give to young women lawyers aspiring to have a journey similar to yours?
Manasa: Go out into the field. Live with the people you want to advocate for - understand their struggles and their problems before suggesting solutions for the problem. As a lawyer, I struggled with the quantitative analysis section of public policy - so take a course on Statistics and Economics. And most importantly, take every opportunity that comes your way. Do not let go of opportunities because you think you're not good enough (remember that you miss 100% shots you don't take)!