Some things gotta give

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Why donate to the Leh relief funds but not to Kosi flood victims? Why give children but not the old? Meera Pillai untangles the mess that drives our generosity

Aid agencies have embarrassedly admitted that Pakistan is a ‘compassion blind spot’ — donors are turning them away empty-handed
Aid agencies have embarrassedly admitted that Pakistan is a ‘compassion blind spot’ — donors are turning them away empty-handed

WATCHING THE steady mounting of relief funds for the people of Leh after the cloudburst, it is difficult not to think of the Kosi disaster in August 2008. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar definitely lost the publicity war in 2008. That this was not the river flooding and retreating as it does every year, that this was a river violently changing course was not something Kumar was able to make most people — even the Central government — understand. Most people thought, “Oh another disaster in the general vicinity of Bihar, Bengal, Bangladesh,” and moved on.

The unfamiliar nature of the Ladakh disaster — a cloudburst in a rainshadow area — its popularity as a tourist destination, the association of Aamir Khan with the cause and his reputation of intelligence are all probable factors that loosened purse-strings for Leh. Across the border, Pakistan is struggling with floods that have left millions homeless, bigger than the Indian Ocean tsunami or the Haiti earthquake. But several international aid agencies have made embarrassed admissions that Pakistan is a ‘compassion blind spot’ — donors are turning them away empty-handed. Fund-raising, always a complicated process, is now becoming near impossible without social marketing.

The factors that determine the average Indian’s decision to donate can seem paradoxical. One, you donate for a disaster because you feel ‘it could happen to me’. Hence the Gujarat earthquake attracted a lot of generosity. Who could blame the people of Gujarat for the earth shifting under their feet? But storms and cyclones (including even the Super Cyclone of Odisha) do not receive as much. It is somehow assumed that this is a byproduct of living on the coast.

The second factor is contradictory. You donate to causes that don’t unsettle you by seeming like something that could happen to you. So you donate generously to shelters that look after children but not for the elderly. To encounter it would be to look at the universality of ageing in the face. You know there is no social security for the old and that without the kindness of friends and family, that could well be you. But you don’t contribute because it is too unsettling.

The Buddha said, ‘If you knew what I know about the power of giving, you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.’ He said when the impulse of giving comes, give immediately. If the moment passes, several things may change — you, your impulse or your capacity to give. Any of us — who have put down a newspaper article with the fullest intention of donating to a disaster only to give up after five minutes of thinking about the effort required to get a demand draft — would agree with him. But beyond the moment, our giving is tied intrinsically with our values, with our notions of who we are, our notion of ourselves as generous persons and also our understanding of who merits our generosity.

There are also marked cultural differences in philan- thropy. Our giving has traditionally been within a feudal or religious context. Little children knocking at the kitchen doors of their wealthier neighbours would ask for a handful of rice or tea or a coconut with a sense of entitlement, sure they would not be turned away. We are now in a state of transition as that particular kind of giving and its context disappears without being replaced by a modern notion of philanthropy.

In the US, for instance, average middle-class households donate regularly to causes or charities. One’s choice of charity, it is assumed, reflects the family’s values and politics. A mature form of philanthropy — we are not quite there in India — would imply not donating in a knee-jerk way. Responding to massive disasters like earthquakes and floods would be over and above your regular donations. It would be a considered choice of what cause you think needs support and resources. Educated professionals in India who donate tend to give without thinking too much about the recipient. Any noisily-marketed fund-raiser with a wellmanaged image that raises money for children is likely to mop up the cash. Most people do not have the time or the exposure or experience to examine the processes or ideologies of their ‘pet’ causes. The two populations that suffer because of this are the old and the mentally ill. These are both sensitive situations where a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Even if the government pledges money, what is required and rarely seen is a degree of personalisation from donors at the point of care-giving.

Today, young people in India deal with a host of contradictory impulses that can determine how generous they are. Unlike their parents, they have a sense of security that the world is full of choices and jobs. They have better incomes. So they are potentially great donors. Unlike their parents, who would have shared any little extra income with someone in the family, younger people are willing to be generous to strangers, to people far from home.

ON THE other hand, they are also likely to have grown up with instant gratification and inclined to be caught up with things — their own desires reflected back and forth a million times as if in a mirrored room. Not the best conditions for sharing. While incredibly aware of inflation, you complain bitterly each time your maid asks for a raise — the equivalent of a moderately priced restaurant meal for two. Technology and gadgets also tend to isolate you, using up your empathy in contexts without actual interactions. This might explain why more and more young people find it easiest to empathise with animals — hence the big vegan trend.

Information too orders society’s inclinations to philanthropy. A few decades ago, across the country, across class lines, everyone had access to the same newspaper and the same two television channels. The rich landlord and the man in the village teashop hearing someone read the paper out heard the same news. Today, what we watch — all 300 channels — is directed at ‘us’ and ensures we can’t see ‘them’. This information is not structured with the kind of liberal humanism I like to think of as preparing the soil for generosity and giving.

The poor in India can be astonishingly generous. A few years ago, I came across a self-help group of women sweepers in Hyderabad. They had through enormous effort won a municipal maintenance contract, thus cutting out the middlemen who paid them a few hundred rupees every month to do the dangerous task of cleaning roads in the middle of the night. Their individual incomes had just gone up to 1,500 a month. At this point they took the radical decision of donating some of their money. They identified 10 elderly people in their slum and decided to give them a pension of 50 each — not very much less than what the government would give them.

Recently, the newspapers seemed to indicate that the Warren Buffet-Bill Gates duo were heading to India to persuade Indian billionaires to donate to charity. It is an embarrassing thought.

(Pillai is a consultant in the non-profit sector)

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhur

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