Charity means different things to different people. It is almost impossible to encapsulate the different meanings of the word under the umbrella of a single definition. It varies from person to person and from organization to organization.
John has been running a charitable organization for 10 years now which provides financial assistance for the education of the underprivileged Indian girl child. John envisages charity as an ongoing process which aims at building large sustainable communities wherein members actively participate in the production of all commodities that will help sustain and empower the community; from crops to clothes and everything in between.
For 58-year-old Grandmother Linda, charity equates with spending time counseling children who were victims of sexual abuse and violence. She manages to set aside her weekends in the hope of instilling faith in them with the promise of a brighter future. She did not want them to be known as “Survivors”. She called them “Heroes”, the ones who have fought innumerable odds. For Linda, charity is a very intimate business bordering on spirituality. This was her way of redeeming herself and an attempt to become a better human being.
Initiation into Charitable Work
24-year-old IT Professional Harika was always interested to get involved in some sort of charitable work but time and money were always constraints as one can never get enough of it. It always pained her to see other human beings in agonizing poverty, living in the most deplorable conditions. She wanted to save some money and start an orphanage or even adopt a child or two when the time was right. At one point she realized that her ideas were, in fact, far-fetched and might take years to translate into reality. That enlightenment dawned upon her after witnessing the inexorable yet ruthless eviction of hundreds of slum-dwellers near her apartment. Though the condition that they lived in was nothing less than abysmal, it was their only home. That property which once buzzed with life was now bare and barren. It reminded her of the fall that arrived uninvited, leaving the trees naked, stripping them of basic dignity. This was the vision of the post –apocalyptic earth she had harbored. Fortuitously, she chanced upon an article inviting volunteers for an NGO – Child Relief & We (which supported the cause of abandoned infants and old people) which was not too far away from her workplace. She had made up her mind despite her having her reservations. However, since they were not asking for money she decided to go ahead with her decision after doing some research about the NGO and its activities. After spending a day with the inmates, her eyes opened up to a whole new understanding of charity, charitable societies, and NGOs. She realized that neither does one have to be essentially rich nor have a lot of free time at one’s disposal. It was all about overcoming apprehensions as well those initial psychological inhibitions. Harika is now an active member of the Child Relief & We’s Volunteers Group and finds the experience exhilarating and immensely gratifying at the same time.
The Problem with Charity
Charity, we presume is the callous sharing of visually poignant and overtly disturbing WhatsApp messages or FB posts across different social media platforms and is often limited to it. Young Indians, especially the millions of IT professionals across the country find it quite disheartening despite their earnest desire to get involved in some kind of charitable work, thanks to their hectic schedules and dreaded corporate shift timings. Movies like Slumdog millionaire have made us skeptical and uncertain about donating money out of sympathy. Rumours plague the internet regarding how certain “spiritual leaders” and their charities are misusing the donations(amounting to millions of dollars) of compassionate people to quench their own avariciousness.The real dilemma is the underlying fear that our benevolence might be unduly exploited by some undeserving fraudster or agency. There is a perpetual war waging on between the heart and the head which often results in inaction.
One might also want to consider the notion of “misplaced charity”. This includes charitable services, donations unknowingly or rather unwittingly given to the wrong people.
A 32-year-old Mrs. Hari recounts how offended she felt when a very distant family friend gifted her newborn baby girl with used and worn out clothes(though not torn) which belonged to her children. Though she graciously accepted it, she was flustered. Mrs. Hari thought that though ‘hand-me-downs’ were a beautiful tradition signifying the love and unity between close-knit family members, it is not the something you want to gift a newborn baby of someone who is not very close to you. The better amongst those clothes could have been donated to charity. Needless to say that this act of charity was unrequired, inappropriate and futile. On another occasion, an NGO worker shared images of the filthy,unwashed-unusable clothes, utensils and even stale food that were donated to the organization.Charity is often an easy way of getting rid of useless items we simply want to discard or throw away.
Why is Charity so Important?
While the public discourse in our country is ablaze with topics such as nationalism, dissent and the politics of caste, we nonchalantly dismiss topics like charity and philanthropy because neither do they excite us as much nor galvanize us into action. Consequently, over 7000 Indians will die of hunger today. Occasionally stories like the one in which a cobbler stabs his two school-going children to death due to his inability to afford new shoes for them; suddenly and unceremoniously seizes our attention. Fed up with their constant nagging pleas for a new pair of shoes, the depressed, disillusioned and psychologically tormented father is unconsciously coerced into taking the most appalling decision. As unnatural as it may seem, such stories that happen every now and then are not anywhere as capable enough to open up the corridors of discourse about the undeniable relation between charity and societal well-being. It takes disasters in the magnitude of a tsunami or an earthquake to rein in the collective consciousness of the people to contemplate about getting involved in charitable work or else, we may continue to stoically glance over online or print materials requesting donations for various causes. With over 172 million people living below the poverty line, extreme poverty is India’s debilitating affliction with rural India languishing in extreme poverty. As per 2014 reports, 47% of our children are underweight and malnourished. To elucidate further, one in every two children in India is undernourished. Nevertheless, the stark inequality is exemplified by the staggering number of super wealthy Indians who own nearly half the wealth of the nation. This peculiar situation is unique to India making charity the need of the hour which calls for more result-oriented effective, innovative practices through engaging debates and discussions.
Anju Anna Alex is a self confessed perfectionist, fitness enthusiast and prefers to be a student for life. She is an alumna of The London School of Economics and Political Science and has two post-graduate degrees in Media and Communication. From Oxford to Harvard, from LSE to EFLU she has been associated with many renowned Universities across the world and is a published author and the proud mother of a baby boy.