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Seva is the Secret to a Good Samaj

Active Citizenship | Jan 2, 2023

An op-ed published in The Economic Times

A few months ago, my team and I joined some flash volunteering to do a quick cleanup right outside our office. Arun Pai, an enthusiastic volunteer with Ugly Indian, a nonprofit that inspires ordinary people to develop civic pride, showed us how to roll back our sleeves, pick up any tools we could find and turn a space filled with debris into a thing of civic pride.

Neighbours came by to help. Passersby, including a security guard and a domestic worker on her way to work, joined in. When we finished and stepped back to admire our handiwork, with its bright paint and rangoli decorations, we felt a sense of camaraderie and joy that is hard to describe. We stood together for a photograph, promised to keep that space clean and thanked Arun, who had sparked off this volunteer action.

For me, that was a highlight of this past year, because it continues the very important story of the upsurge of volunteerism that was driven by the pandemic. Millions of people came out to do acts of kindness to absolute strangers. I believe this experience has fundamentally changed something in us, reminding us sharply what it means to be human. Now the challenge is to keep that flame alive post the pandemic, in more normal times.

Volunteering has always been held up as the highest personal ethic in my family. Babasaheb Soman, my paternal grandfather, gave up his livelihood as a lawyer to be a first responder to Gandhiji’s call for volunteers in the Champaran satyagraha of 1917. For him, it was a joyful duty. For us, it is a reminder that we all have the capacity to gift our time and selves. There is no exact synonym in Indic languages for “volunteer”, coming from the French “volontaire”, which means willingly, though “swayamsevak” is often used. To search for a common animating spirit that bridges the two, maybe we can use “ubuntu”, the Nguni Bantu word that concisely illuminates a universal truth — “I am because you are”. If I, therefore, give of my self for you, I am also enhancing the public good, and I, too, benefit from it as a citizen.

Seva, ubuntu, volunteerism is as old as humans are. Margaret Mead famously declared that the first sign of human civilisation was the healed femur in an ancient skeleton, because it meant that some old humans had actually volunteered to care for another tribesman, and not left him to die, a common occurrence in the animal world. This spirit is still burning in us all. UN Volunteers claims that 1 billion people volunteer globally every year.

I don’t know exactly how they define volunteering, but that is still 1/8th of the entire human population. Imagine what would happen if each one inspired another. That would make it 1/4th population and if they inspired just one more each, it would mean that half the world’s population was committed to spending a part, however small, of its life, doing some actions to increase well-being across this fragile planet.

It is critical to support more volunteering. It strengthens the samaaj, it powers up democracy itself. If democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people, then it is people’s actions that have foundational importance. It goes way beyond electoral democracy, way beyond being content as citizens who vote and pay taxes. It means co-creating the good society that we all crave, the freedoms that we do not wish to lose, the good governance that we cannot take for granted. It means reaching out, with our time, our talent, our resources to those more vulnerable than we are. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, maybe eternal empathy is the price of a good society or samaaj.

We just celebrated 75 years of our Swarajya. But not one of us would be sitting so comfortably as proud citizens of a free nation if not for the power of volunteerism. Tens of lakhs of people participated willingly in our historic freedom struggle, our unique satyagraha. In today’s India, too, there are hundreds of organisations that depend on lakhs of volunteers to give from their hearts and with their bodies.

Many are faith-based, many are ideology-based. They attract people from every sphere, every profession, every class. None receives financial remuneration. As Sherry Anderson said, “Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they are worthless but because they are priceless.” All of them do incredible work to relieve suffering, to build institutions and to respond to calamities.

But can we imagine a national movement of citizens that goes beyond faiths, ideologies and sectarian identities? Will that be the highest form of humanitarianism? Organisations like I Volunteer, Bhumi, Make a Difference etc., have rallied thousands of young people who recognise that unless they help build communities of resilience, the future may be tough to navigate. In one show of purpose, 25,000 volunteers came together under the banner, Hamara Station, Hamari Shaan, and painted 40 railway stations in 7 days! It worked out to a saving of `7 crore, but the community pride generated was immeasurable.

Yet, all these wonderful volunteers need support. Wherever I go, people ask me, “How can I help?” and I have no easy answers for them. We need to make it much easier to discover volunteering opportunities. But that takes philanthropic capital and commitment. The pandemic revealed the power of volunteerism. Now, to sustain it, here is a call to the wealthy of this country, many of whom read these pages. Let us all give part of our philanthropic portfolios to support volunteerism in India. Let us also volunteer our own time. Evidence suggests that it makes for more generous and more effective philanthropy. But, most importantly, it helps us rise to the idea of ubuntu.

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