Why do People Conserve Nature?

Credits: Baskar Manimegalai

Do you see this tree we are sitting under? What do you see in this?’, asked a Kurumba tribal leader as we sat to discuss about their livelihoods in the forest dwelling in the Nilgiris under a very large tree. The Kurumbas are one of the smaller tribal groups that are restricted in their habitation to the Nilgiris alone. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) has given communities dwelling in the forests like the Kurumba rights over farming and collecting forest produce in their land. It was in studying the impact of FRA that I was visiting their land and sitting in a dialogue with the leader. ‘You see this is a rosewood tree, I grew up with this tree, we relate to each other like a family, and the trees are part of our life. When people from outside come, they only look at the value of the timber and not the tree. Often, we have visiting traders and even officers eyeing the tree and talking about how amazing the timber can be. We don’t see it that way, for us the tree is part of our life. Otherwise, don’t you think we would have better doors for our houses than these?’, he said pointing to the dwellings built under government scheme, having cement sheets as a doors. Among the poor and ordinary people of this land seems
to reverberate the ancient wisdom that all things in nature are connected.

World over there is an increasing recognition of the healing nature of trees. Forest bathing has emerged as a therapeutic practice. Such forest bathing is prescribed for people in Japan. Scientists the world over have discovered that spending time in the forest and among trees is not merely good for stress but also building immunity in the human body. It has also been found that plants too like being touched and studies indicate that the plants develop better resistance to pests if they are touched and cared for with love.

Jadav Payang
Salamaradhu Thimmakka

When Jadav Payang and Salamaradhu Thimmakka were awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2015 and 2019 respectively, it was a recognition of the immense capacity of the ordinary person to conserve nature by planting trees and in the process even creating a forest. While the 64 year old Jadev is credited with single-handedly creating 550 hectares of forest in his native state of Assam, the 110 year old Thimmakka has planted nearly 400 banyan trees. Their humble and even poverty struck existence has not in any way diminished their conviction nor the impact of their work today in society.

Modern theories suggest that people get involved in social activity as a way of gaining recognition after their basic needs are met. Indians as a civilisation seems to have always proven this theory wrong. Today it is not uncommon to see small saplings of trees being gifted during functions and even during weddings. With increasing awareness, some of the domestic products are sent with a gift of a small bag of seeds encouraging people to start planting and conserving. While the modern environmental movement has emerged as a possible response to largescale destruction of the forests in the Western countries, in India it has and will remain always as a way of re-emphasizing and establishing the ancient wisdom that we are one with the trees and forests.

pic courtesy: Baskar Manimegalai

Dhamma Co-learner

Two years of proud association bonded by commitment to reviving dialogues on Ethics or Dharma. Free Thinkers in Society who challenge our assumptions and break our stereotypes through sincere efforts in their quest for Truth, fearless and regardless of how it is perceived are the ones who push the boundaries of our imagination and responsible action.

Happy to continue the path…

Consensus in Decision Making

In any decision that impacts a wider community or the whole society, consensus is very
crucial. The process of arriving at a consensus ensures that everyone’s view is valued. The decision arrived at, then gets the maximum adherence. Consensus is a democratic process of decision making in which the interests and apprehensions of all are accommodated or addressed. But impatient people look down upon consensus in societal decision making as a ‘slowing down growth’ or ‘inefficient’ method; this is true for smaller communities as well as large international communities.

The widening economic and aspirational interest in society is most visible in the process
of arriving at a consensus. For example, when a particular group wants wide roads for their luxury cars, and another group wants to sustain their food cultivation on the roadsides, there is a conflict of interests; while one group calls this conflict ‘impediments of development’, the other terms it ‘ecological suicide’. In such situations, consensus remains a distant dream and the ensuing negotiations often result in the sacrifice of the interests of the less powerful. The underlying reason is lack of common values.

But it is not always difficult to arrive at a consensus if people lived and worked together
in one place for a long time. That is what I learnt from my interaction with the village
panchayat in the village P.

P is a small, interesting village, very popular for its annual festival. I first heard of
the village, through the amazing dairy cooperative that was managed and promoted by
the community members. They had several innovative practices as part of the dairy cooperative – insurance, procurement of cattle feed at source to ensure quality, subsidized and credit linked cattle feed, unique milk procurement process to assure quality, timely
disbursement of money to dairy farmers, procurement centres managed by women,
weekly account management by different members of the council and the consequent
weekly reconciliation and many more. It is not easy to achieve so much — build a strong asset base and several enterprises — if not for a strong leadership, and co-operation among all its members.

I found out that the community institution which managed these was a village panchayat
(not to be confused with the ‘official’ panchayat which is the body of elected representatives of the village). I enquired about this village panchayat, piqued by the thought that this might be some kind of an autocratic institution parallel to the official elected body. Everyone assured me that this panchayat leader’s decisions were final word in the village. This made me more uncomfortable.

I finally got an appointment to meet the panchayat leader and also witness a panchayat
meeting. It was about a domestic violence dispute between a couple. Even as the case was being heard by the council, the leader stepped out of the medai (the raised platform for the panchayat to sit, beside the village deity’s temple) to have a cup of tea. Meanwhile, the business of dispensing justice continued. After hearing both sides some judgement was pronounced and the couple as well as the members of the panchayat council dispersed. I was surprised! I had assumed they would wait for the leader to return before pronouncing the judgment.

So, when the leader returned for the interview with me, my first question to him
was, “Ever since I entered your village, I have been hearing that your judgment is the rule
here. So, how come, in this case the judgment was pronounced in your absence?” He looked genuinely surprised at my question but not as surprised as I was to be, at his response – “How did you think that all of us at the council thought differently? Whatever the ruling, it would have been the same had I been present too; all of us think alike.” What he was saying was all of them shared the same set of values and since the judgment came from shared values, it would have been the same, no matter who pronounced it.

It also clarified another practice there, that I had earlier been befuddled by. A member could not be elected to the council unless he/she had been living continuously in the village for 10 years. When I enquired about this, the leader said, “Yes, it takes that long before someone can belong to the village and decide for it.” This was one rule they were strict about. Even if someone migrated from the village for only a few months, he would have to again have ten years of continuous living in the village to be eligible for the council. Late Gandhian historian, Dharampal often used to mention that in India consensus was always preferred over efficiency in decision-making because it ensured better participation.

Swami Vivekananda has warned us repeatedly against disagreements in a group, and of the importance of slow and steady work. In a letter dated 4 Oct 1895 written from England, he writes: “Purity, patience, and perseverance overcome all obstacles. All great
things must of necessity be slow…” Speed, as a mechanical process is contrasted against
slowness. However, as a social process, ‘speed’ could be construed as opposite to consensus, inclusiveness, democracy, or holistic thought. Often the mechanical value of speed is superimposed upon social processes as well, implying that having a ‘speedy’ social process will somehow deliver good to society. However, the truth is, great things are achieved slowly and by ensuring everyone is included — whether it be governance of a village or a community enterprise.

Gifting Culture – Becoming a Nachiketha

The Katha Upanishad starts with Nachiketha, a young boy asking his father why as part of the rituals and ceremony he was giving away as gifts unhealthy and weak cattle to the poor and what purpose will it serve them receiving such cattle.

I was reminded of this recently when we had a couple of young interns pursuing Entrepreneurship at the Institute. One of them came from a silk weaving and trading family from Kancheepuram. Kancheepuram is one of the most ancient towns of Tamil Nadu and is a hub for silk weaving. The intern hails from one of the weaving community families that also sells their products through exclusive shops that abound amidst thousands of historic temples. Walking around Kancheepuram one can encounter several ancient temples with superior aesthetics and architecture, arts and design.

When I spoke to the student, I enquired her about the quality of silk that is used in weaving.  I was aware that genuine silk has over the past two decades slowly been replaced by cheap Chinese artificial shiny yarn that is passed off as silk. Weavers regularly use these yarns as it provides the same finish and is cheaper.

When I enquired about the kind of silk being used, she said, “sir we mostly weave and sell genuine silk but also sell the Chinese ones, maybe it is about 30-40%”. When I asked her whether the Chinese silk is good for the person wearing the same, she agreed with me that it is a synthetic material and is not good for whoever wears it. Knowing how my question was proceeding, she said that ‘’people ask for genuine silk to buy for themselves whereas they buy the poor quality unhealthy synthetic material to be given as gift to others”, so the shop had to stock of both. Did she feel there was something wrong about it? I asked, she said, “that’s what people want, what can we do”?  

Human aspiration for better quality of life can never be challenged. But what does a human aspire for by gifting someone else poorer quality product?  Mom used to tell us a beautiful saying in Sanskrit which meant – vidya (knowledge) leads to discrimination, discrimination leads to character, character leads to wealth and wealth leads to sharing (dhaanam) and it is sharing (dhaanam) that gives one sukham (happiness). Gifting is a way of sharing what one has regardless of the quality. But, to have a quality for oneself and another for gifting is not sharing as in dhaanam, but, a hypocrisy.  We have created an entire industry out of gift giving and receiving in this country that is built such hypocrisy as the young intern acknowledged.

In the land that celebrates highest quality of fabric, metal work, arts, crafts and all kinds of material of a very high quality, anyone wants to really gift someone else with a superior quality product, can do so and if the other person uses the same. Every qualitatively superior product, – where quality is defined as workmanship, beauty, skill, artistry, design or functionality, – provides us with a deep sense of satisfaction of having encountered something superior, like walking into the town of Kancheepuram and witnessing all the beautiful temples. There is a sense of being elevated if the values are shared about what is quality. The best gift is done spontaneously and with gratitude. “Be thankful in giving”, says the Buddha. When we are given an opportunity to gift someone, we are expressing one of the most profound human experiences.

 In a world of excessive extraction and exploitation, every human experience has been commodified and expressed as some material or another. Today with the over doing of the extraction and exploitation, some people rightfully are asking the purpose of material based gifting itself.  Gift need not be a commodity, it can be a peaceful presence, listening to beautiful music, sharing a magical moment in silent wonderment, creatively engaged in a shared idea, working side-by-side in a field, sharing someone’s work without being asked, all of these are gifts.  Can’t we plant a tree or sponsor an animal care as a gift to someone? Why should we ‘’gift’’ and ‘’return gift’’ poor quality materials to people?

On gifting, let’s try adopting the question of Nachiketa, “what is the purpose of the gifting?” is a good question to ask and convincing ourselves of giving away toxic, unhealthy, poor quality and useless gifts is a way of perpetrating poor quality in the planet.   

Re-creating Dharma in daily life today starts with the question of consumption.

Freedom vs Technology

“We are happy Madam!” said a smiling farmer V to the visiting agricultural professor, as he stood along with his wife in the middle of a brinjal patch on his 2-acre family land. They were in work clothes and it was evident that they had worked long hours in the field. The pride and happiness at having another group of visitors at his successful field, was visible on his face.

The professor was part of a delegation that had been sent from the neighbouring state to understand the practice and benefits of nonchemical farming. Agricultural university professors from one state, visiting small and marginal farmers in another state is no
common occurrence; it had taken a visionary bureaucrat and a co-operative Vice Chancellor to ensure that it happened. One of the visiting professors was into developing new varieties of hybrid seeds and, like everyone else in the group, was impressed by farmer V’s confidence and knowledge as he explained the amazing transformation that had come about when they switched from synthetic chemicals to natural
farming practices.

When the discussion turned to seeds, the lady professor was intrigued to learn that he
used traditional seeds and that they were occasionally exchanged with other farmers
including his own brother who cultivated in another village. This was how it had been done for hundreds of years. She asked him, “What about using hybrid seeds? You can get better yields if you use hybrid seeds.” She was referring to hybrid seeds that were developed, and sold by private companies. These do have the capacity for better yield in the short term, but require the farmer to replenish seeds continuously at a higher cost, from the company. V smiled and said, “We are happy Madam!” The professor thought the farmer perhaps did not comprehend what she said. She turned to the interpreter and requested that her comment be translated. She kept repeating that he did not understand. What the professor did not know was that V had used hybrid seeds
at one time, got into debt trap like many others in the region, and had then returned to
traditional farming practices.

The professor who had spent all her life trying to create ‘improved’ varieties of seeds,
that she believed would solve farmers’ problems, had not considered their economic
viability. Often one single benefit of an institutional/technological product is used to
justify the difficulties it imposes on the beneficiary. Yield-centric thought in the
farming sector is one such. Modern technology workers do not think of the human cost and violence that technology brings. Divorce of ethics from the research, production and
marketing of the benefits of technology has a lot to do with it.
The professor later admitted that she had been ignorant of the larger realities related to
economics, in farming. She had only considered the obvious benefits she believed technology would deliver. She said, “We have conveniently worked with farmers who have been eager to try out new technologies and I realise many of these were rich farmers who could afford the cost of adopting such technologies.” An oft repeated question in the technology innovation circles is: “If technology is the solution, what was the problem?” Here, the professor’s notion of doing ‘useful’ work was challenged and that upset her very much. She realised that while for her it was a choice of technology, for the farmer
it was about asserting freedom.
The curriculum of many Indian universities is rooted in a colonial understanding of the sciences and their priorities. Much needs to be done to revise them to match our current priorities and understanding. For instance, the colonizer needed to show traditional agriculture in poor light so the superiority of his agriculture sciences could be established. Knowledge of traditional farming was thus kept out of the curriculum, and if at all included, was done so in a disparaging manner. Evaluation of agriculture on the basis of indicators like ‘productivity’, ‘speed’ and ‘efficiency’ replaced values such as ‘inclusivity’, ‘holism’, ‘selfreliance’, ‘diversity’, ‘resilience’ and ‘freedom’.
The diversity of various crops in India is even today unknown to undergraduate students in agriculture. Recently, a whole class of agriculture graduates and post-graduates were
able to name only 7 varieties of rice and were surprised to learn that till recent decades India had over 1,00,000 varieties. Even today, several hundreds of these varieties are cultivated across the country by farmers to enhance their capacity to fight weather uncertainties brought about by climate change, and also to meet specialised market demands. Some senior students acknowledged that they had heard of a few names of the traditional varieties of rice, but had not given it any thought as they had had no awareness about their relevance. Such knowledge gaps in learning later concretise
into major flaws in capacity to deliver services, or develop products or technologies for

As Swami Ranganathanandaji, the 13th President of the Ramakrishna Sangha, often
exhorted, freedom and responsibility go together. While the farmer enjoys his rightful
freedom to stay out of the hybrid seeds-debt cycle, it is his responsibility to grow nurturing and healthy food for humanity without harming the environment. Similarly, an agriculture professional, whether an academician, researcher, or an entrepreneur, has the freedom in his/her domain of knowledge to pursue research, develop newer products and
technologies, but with the responsibility to ensure that the same assures long-term
benefits to the farmer and the soil.

Compassionate Bank: When Farmers build values for finance management

I first heard of the village, we will just call the name as VP, not for the completely alien languages that they were conversant in rural Tamil Nadu, but, because of the community bank that the villagers managed. So, I decided to go and visit the village once.

Almost all families in the village when I visited it were farmers. Youth studied and did farming in the village. But farming didn’t pay them enough just like everywhere else. So, they needed some extra income every few years. So, all the youth in the village went abroad for a few years – ranging from two to five years – and earned their living by being manual labourers in Andaman Island, Singapore and Malaysia. The main labour work they were employed was to lay roads in these countries. They did this work and returned to the village with the extra money. The money was used to repair an old house, buy a two wheeler, have a family wedding or repay some long pending loan.

When I did manage to visit the village VP, I found the reason why youth went out and came back after few years. A beautiful village with many kanmai (traditional ponds in the village are called kanmai in southern Tamil Nadu) on the foothills of the western ghat mountains, it would any day qualify as a picture postcard village. It was also very clean, at the entrance of the village was a pipal tree, the villagers later told me that the tree marked the boundary of the village. They also mentioned that since long, they don’t permit any political party that comes to campaign to enter the village beyond the tree. Often the political party representatives spoke to the elders sitting under the tree and then were asked to leave. I was aware of a few villages that had similar norms in dealing with outsiders, particularly politicians.

It was while sitting under another tree near the temple, that I first heard two men speak in a language that sounded more alien than the Madurai dialect of Tamil. When I enquired further, they told me that they were conversing in Malay. They picked up foreign languages while working with people of different nationalities. It was under another tree near the community centre that I found the head of the community sleeping on a summer morning among several other people in a haphazard manner after the morning’s work in the field. He shared the amazing story of the villagers managed bank.

“We started this simple scheme the first time one of our youths was to go abroad. You see, we are sustenance farmers, we can’t afford the cost of the visa processing, air travel ticket or the expense of settling down in a new country for a job. So, we pooled in money together and started the small bank. The community provides financial support for the youth for all these expenses. The youth return the same as a loan once he (until the time I visited the village, this was only restricted to men and the women in the village didn’t seem to travel abroad for work) settles down and is able to return the funds. Then he also contributes a regular minimum amount towards the community”. This intrigued me, why would the youth contribute to the community after he had repaid the loan? “It is a goodwill towards the community and help others similar to himself to benefit as well”, said the village elder. Further he pointed out that the freshly painted temple wall, the community centre nearby, a public performance theatre and cleaning up of the village water tank, were all funded by such contributions received from youth who had gone abroad and had sent their regular contribution to the village. The youth didn’t earn only for their family, but also for the entire village as it were.

Just a few days before I had visited the village, the newspapers had carried article about how several youth had been taken abroad from the state by fake contractors under the guise of getting them a job and left stranded. I mentioned this to the village elder and asked him whether this happened to them sometimes. He agreed this was not uncommon either. Then I asked him what the community would do if any youth from the village was thus stranded abroad. He said, “we will lend him again to find a job”!! this surprised me, and I told him so. He responded, “you see there is no point in troubling someone who has already been cheated right? So obviously we need to help him”. Then, I had to push him and ask, what if he gets cheated again? “Well, we help anyone about three times, and after that too if he can’t find a job. Maybe he is not cut out for this kind of job, so, we bring him back”. But what happens to the loan against his name? after all it is a banking system that runs only on people repaying? He shrugged and said, “we can’t trouble a family that must have already gone through quite a lot of suffering. We have to write off the loan in such situations. That’s what we do!”.

Some years back it was reported that almost 10% of the suicides in India are committed due to the pressure of banking institutions harassing creditors to repay their debt. If the farmers of India managed a bank, it would be organized with far more sensitivity to the issues that plague the poor. “You see we educated Indians have never had the confidence that our farmers are capable of doing anything in this country. When have we gone to them and asked, ‘how do you think our institutions are to be organized?’, if only we asked, I am sure they would come up with an idea of managing things that would be far different from what we have”, said the late Gandhian historian Dharampal in one of the conversations we had long ago.

When institutions are created by those close to the soil, the ethos of the land manifests as values that guide the institutions – common good is prioritized higher, voluntary contribution is enhanced, and banks become compassionate. Swami Vivekananda who said, “…ethical considerations should play an important role during economic decision making ” would have appreciated the village economy model of compassionate bank.

Lessons on Ethics from the Roadside Vendors

Bu s i n e s s Ethics is the first subject that is dropped when there is a time constraint and faculty have to finish their classes”, said a desperate professor from a prominent MBA college while discussing lack of ethics in business. The business fraternity often views
ethics as an appendage, even as many research studies highlight the importance of ethics in business. The entrepreneurship education curriculum in India has no chapter on ethics!

Last year a private firm conducted a survey which revealed that though most large companies recognise the importance of ethics, they lack clarity on how to put it into
practice. “Sir, it is easy to talk about ethics but in reality, it does not work”, said a student of economics during an interaction some years ago. Later in the day, he was part of a team that was sent to observe how business is conducted by roadside vendors in the village market. The student returned excited and very eager to share his experience. He had sat next to a fish woman on the roadside. She had been doing business at the same place for thirty years.

When asked if she did not want to start a shop of her own, she replied that she was happy
selling fish on the roadside. The student observed how she haggled over the price with
a lady who seemed a regular customer. After some tough bargaining, the customer took the fish saying she would pay later as she did not have enough money. As the customer walked away, the fish woman called out to her asking if the guests she was expecting had arrived. When the customer replied that they had, she called her back and for the same price gave a bigger fish! Later, the student asked the fish woman if she noted down details of such pending payments and if so, how much was due. She replied that she did not write down pending payments, and even if she forgot, the customers would remember and pay! The student had the best lesson on ethics in practice from this
roadside fish woman. It challenged his notion that ethics had to be learnt from management books or big corporate manuals.

Such simple acts of ethics by roadside vendors are a common sight across India. At a
roadside eatery in Srinagar, the man did not count the money paid to him. When asked the reason, he replied, “After coming all this way, spending so much money to enjoy this place, why would you want to cheat me; my job is to make your visit pleasant!” Another roadside vendor in Varanasi handed over extra cold drinks from her matka; when the customer offered to pay for it she replied, “I do not want to benefit from your thirst; that is not correct.”

Similarly, a tender coconut vendor in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, gave a second coconut free to the customer as the first one did not have adequate water in it. He said, “It is not my fault that the first coconut did not have enough water; but it will be my fault if you go away from here still thirsty on a summer day.” Outlining the quintessential practice of ethics by common people in India, eminent management teacher S K Chakraborty says, “Thousands of selfeffacing ‘specialists’ in this sphere, mostly unseen or unheard in society, have been
secretly adding to or replenishing this stock for this land over the ages. This is the uniqueness of the Indian ethos. She will survive and blossom again…”

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, many roadside vendors in the tourist
town of Kanyakumari lost everything they had. They could not get adequate relief as they were not Government registered vendors and nor did they have any legitimate proof of their business. They approached a non-government organization which provided some small relief, leaving it to the vendors to share it amongst themselves. The NGO assumed that the vendors would share it equally. However, to their surprise, they saw the vendors assess the losses incurred by each of them and based on it apportion the amount of relief!

What is the watchword of all ethical codes? Swami Vivekananda points out it is ‘Not
I but thou’. Care and concern for the other person, ensuring justice even if it means one
has to sacrifice — all these are ethical principles upon which our society functions.
We see these practised all around us. If we become aware of these, it will create infinite
possibilities for us to shape our society in a nobler and more beautiful manner. It is because ethics is deep rooted in this soil, that practising it comes so naturally to common men and women. Swami Vivekananda says, “It is one of the most practical things in Vedantic morality, for it is the teaching of the Vedanta that you are all prophets…. The book is not the proof of your conduct, but you are the proof of the book.”

The Heart of Education

“What is the purpose of Intelligence?” – Whether this is a rhetoric or a genuine question depends upon the context in which it is asked, who asks it, and who is asked.

Once, a nonagenarian in a town in Southern Tamil Nadu asked me this question! The town has been educating most of its children free of cost through several schemes. As part of my research I was in that town to understand what motivated this particular community to subsidise education for the entire town and even its neighbouring villages. The nonagenarian was one of the senior most members of the community and had seen the growth of the small habitat into a major trading town in his life time. I was told that he may be able to articulate the motivations of the community far better than others. He himself was illiterate because education was denied to people of his community. The hardworking community members became traders, went from town to town trading, saved money, and build their own education institutions so that their children would get education. The community elder I met was among the pioneers who had established some of the leading education institutions in the town. When I visited the town, there were more than 25 educational institutions managed by the community alone, and they had made sure that no child in the district was denied education.

Sitting in his airy front yard when he asked “What is the purpose of Intelligence?”, I responded with silence; I knew well that often with community elders a question is a way of beginning a conversation and not necessarily meant to be replied.

“The purpose of Intelligence is to discern Truth!” he replied quoting a famous Thirukkural. The verse says that regardless of what is said by whom, the purpose of Intelligence is to discern Truth (Thirukkural, 423). He then fired the next question, “And how do we gain Intelligence?’’, and went on to quote another Thirukkural, not waiting for me to reply: “Digging deeper in sand gives one a well of water spring; similarly digging deeper into education provides humanity with intelligence” (Thirukkural, 396). I hadn’t expected this way of elaborating on the motivations for the community, drawing from the ancient scripture. But, he was not done with the explaining. He continued, ‘’And what do we expect from the generations of youth that we educate here?’’ This time, with the confidence that the answer would be another Thirukkural, I ventured to quote a popular Thirukkural, and we ended up quoting it in unison: ‘’Learn with clarity (without dross) and having learnt what needs to be learnt thus, behave according to such learning” (Thirukkural,391). Education leads to intelligence, intelligence is directed to discern Truth, and the purpose of education is to learn and stand by the Truth.

In this one conversation, I got the essence of what motivated the community to provide free education to every child in the district. Almost all the education institutions in the district offer highly subsidised education to the students and ensure that no child is turned away from the school if they can’t afford even the minimal fees that is collected. Today the community has business houses that were leaders in their own areas of trade at regional and even national level.

Another interesting fact was shared with me by one of the doyens of a family that dominates a food trade across the country and who belongs to the town. I met him during the school admission season and he said that he and other big family business leaders never leave the town during this season. The reason was this: some children from the neighbouring villages cannot afford even the minimal school fees; when they come for admission the school administration sends them over to his house (or that of others like him) with a small note about the student. He then personally speaks to the student and the parents, impresses upon them the importance of not dropping out of education for any reason, and sends across the

required fees to be remitted on the student’s behalf.
To ensure that they were available for such poor families, he and some of the business elders stay in the town during the school enrolment season! One can think of so many ways in which such support can be made easily accessible for the children. But the businessman pointed out that personal interaction with such poor students was as much important for him as for the students. And beyond the monetary contribution, he also wanted to utilise the opportunity to communicate the humanness of the act in person to the next generation, thereby participating in a value lesson as well.
Swami Vivekananda’s character-building and man-making education would resonate with such direct action in small rural communities. One of the challenges of the modern philanthropy is that often the donor doesn’t think of changing in the act of sharing. This change can only happen with people who define educational outcomes as character-building and Truth-seeking rather than career-building.


In t h e field of development , human needs and growth have been interpreted using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It states that humans evolve from physiological needs, to safety, then as social beings, self-esteem and finally self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy assumes that a human being will evolve as a social being and engage and contribute to the community only after his physical needs and security are fulfilled. But this assessment of man cannot be universal, and definitely not in a civilisation that has seva and tyaga at its root. Two stories illustrate this truth.

A mess in Indian context is a small eatery that can serve a few customers at a time. S managed a small mess with a cook and one helper in the town of Salem in Tamil Nadu. He served breakfast and closed shop after serving lunch. He would prepare food to feed about a hundred people every day. Food would be fresh, prepared in a healthy way, and affordable. Customers would get five idlis for Rs. 10, and one dosa for Rs. 10. One day a young lady with a dishevelled appearance, came to the mess when the breakfast time was almost over. She asked for twenty rupees’ worth of idlis. As the idlis were over, S offered her dosas. But she insisted on buying only 10 idlis.

Feeling sorry for her, S asked why she wanted only idlis. She hesitated a little and then told him her story. Her husband, the only breadwinner of the family, was admitted in the
nearby government hospital. Along with her two young children she was attending on him. As their savings was very meagre, she could afford only 10 idlis which the family of four would have as their single meal for the day. She came here every day as this mess was the only place that offered food so cheap. S, then made extra dosas for the entire family. Her story deeply rattled him. He realised that there would be several cases where young breadwinners were admitted in hospitals. He himself was the sole breadwinner for a family of four and could relate to their suffering. He decided to provide free food for at least 10 such families every day. “When you decide to do good, you shouldn’t consult anyone; they will put doubts in your mind”, he later told me. In order to select and serve the deserving customers, he decided to visit the nearby government hospital, seek out
deserving patients, give them Free Food tokens, and tell them how they could collect their food. Though they were tokens for breakfast, he ensured that the food given was adequate for the family for a day.

Around the same time when I was talking to S, I happened to visit an ashram on the outskirts of Coimbatore where I met L — a soft spoken middle-aged man who was introduced to me while I was having breakfast. To begin the conversation, I asked him, “So, what do you do?” He hesitated, then said, “You please finish your food. I will wait outside and tell you when you come out.” This intrigued me. When he met me outside, he told me his story. L was a mechanic who worked for daily wages, on long contract with a factory. To cut down expenses, many factories hire daily wage labourers instead of employees. L was a welder and earned enough to give his children a good education. But he always felt disturbed that other people of his caste could not afford good education. So, to support them, he decided to work extra hours. He noticed that the factory entrusted the maintenance of toilets to a contractor; he spoke to the factory-in-charge
and secured the contract for himself. With the money he would earn from this contract, he decided to give scholarship to students from castes and communities that were
discriminated against and traditionally deprived of education.

“How do you identify the students?” I asked him. “Look at me, do I look like someone who can offer a scholarship?”, he said with a smile, “l look like a mechanic.” So, at the beginning of the academic year, he would go to the college campus, hang around and look for students who appeared insecure. “I can identify them easily; these are students who can’t afford footwear, they often have handed down dresses and look very insecure to even talk.” L, would befriend them and enquire if they needed financial help. On getting to know them better, he would support them. When I met him he had expanded his toilet maintenance contract business to two more factories, with the help of volunteers, and was thus able to offer more scholarships! That year he had the District
Collector hand over the scholarships to the deserving students!

I am aware of charity organisations that have many staff to ‘identify’ the right candidates, ‘validate’ their need, workout the ‘process’, ‘design’ the package of support, and ‘administer’ the charity. Each of these requires personnel and salaries. Many charitable
institutions often end up spending a lot to maintain these staff than actually deliver to the
poor. Here were two people who had institutionalised charity by doing it through an
intuitive feeling of wanting to serve the needy, and doing it with great care and compassion. Swami Vivekananda in his lecture at Kumbakonam in 1897 had said, “…there is not in the world any other country whose institutions are really better in their aims and
objects than the institutions of this land.” Institutional aims and objectives when driven
by the values of service and renunciation can evolve into processes and systems that deliver better impact for the money spent. These values spring from the roots of Vedanta that has permeated every corner of this land as Swamiji points out. When driven with clarity of thought and purity of purpose, service elevates consciousness.


One of Swami Vivekananda’s oft quoted words is his comment that a hundred “strong, vigorous, believing young men, sincere to the backbone” can revolutionise the world. With immense faith in the capacity of Indian youth, he had thundered, “My faith is in the younger generation, the modern generation, out of them will come my workers. They will work out the whole problem, like lions.”

Experts in Sustainable Development were invited to sit together and deliberate for two
days on strategies, models and operational perspectives on how to make ‘development’
sustainable. Elders from neighbouring villages were also invited to participate in the
deliberations. The experts spoke of the environmental, social, and economic imperatives and how these were critical components of sustainability. Some shared the need for policy engagement with the government to bring urban amenities into rural areas. Others spoke of ways to harness the modern-day technological advancement to augment the energy, education, governance and healthcare needs of the community. Some experts spoke of adopting and replicating best practices from diverse parts of the world.

On the second day, one of the village elders was asked to speak to the audience on what he saw as sustainable development. He said, “You see, since yesterday there has been a lot of talk about technology, infrastructure and amenities which are said to make villages
sustainable. I don’t know if that’s correct. I live in a village. What we lack in our villages is
people; our young people are leaving us in large numbers. I think villages will be sustainable only if there are at least a hundred families living together in the village bearing a sense of sanctity towards all things around (the Tamil word he used was irai unarvu) and an understanding that their lives are dependent on each other and on nature. To me this is how a self-reliant village should be, this is what I want to see as sustainable development for the village and want to see happening.”

The long silence in the audience was an acknowledgment of the truth in these words. Experts in the hall realised that the village elder’s words carried far more wisdom and conviction than all their knowledge and experience.

It is important to consider this elderly villager’s statement as a definition and understand it. There are four aspects to it: (a) the village should have a minimum number of productive persons and (b) they should be engaged in joint productive activity, (c) they
should have an attitude of sacredness towards the resources around them, and (d) they should co-work and co-inhabit the village with a sense of mutual dependency. The arrangements that are required for these to be implemented are moral and value centric rather than economic indicators of development.

If one were to further break down the definition into actionable parts, it would, of course, bring other indicators into play. For instance, it would mean working towards retaining people in productive activity with satisfying levels of employment and returns; that they do so without destroying natural resources permanently around them; and that they have mechanisms to resolve social conflicts among themselves with an understanding that
they are dependent on each other. Such actionable items will include sustainable land
use and natural resources utilising mechanisms, conflict resolution methods at the village level and collective governance. Most importantly this would prevent the youth from migrating.

“Villages suffer from the exodus of the entrepreneur and the expert”, said the Gandhian
Economist, J.C.Kumarappa who tirelessly fought against the centralised and large scale
production oriented economic model that was pursued as ‘development’ in the post-Independence India. This exodus weakened the institutions of the villages as they did not have new people to carry forward the repository of knowledge that the village possessed as well as sustain the productivity of the village.

Kumarappa and his fellow Gandhians even in the 1950s had opposed a technology centred ‘model village development’ programme as they felt it did not address land reforms and food self-sufficiency. Among other things they pointed out that the technology centric model village development ended up undermining cheaper traditional knowledge, furthered inequalities in the village, came at an enormous cost, made them excessively dependent on outside forces and initiated them into an alien way of living. This resulted in an erosion of self-respect and sense of dignity among the youth that caused them to migrate to other places where they felt they were better valued. Discrimination and lack of dignified life has been repeatedly pointed out as social reasons for migration from villages in India.

The recently released World Economic Forum Global Risk Report 2022 projection for the next 10 years indicates social cohesion and environmental damage as the critical risks for
all of humanity. Such predictions and projections necessitate the world to re-think ideas of development and progress. Perhaps the definition given by the Indian village elder could be a starting point.