In the context of the present situation in our country, where Indians, particularly, the student population, lacks a sense of direction, it may be relevant to reflect on an aspect of my own youth.

Two weeks after I joined Leeds University, there was a lecture on Mahatma Gandhi, given by Muriel Lester, the hostess (with her sister, Doris) to Gandhi at her Kingsley Hall in the East End of London, where the Mahatma, a delegate to the Round Table Conference, preferred to stay, unlike the other delegates put up at the posh Savoy. At the end of Miss Lester’s talk, I, the new kid in town, dared ask a couple of questions, which attracted the attention of some among the audience. Thus began my introduction to many pacifist groups including the International Voluntary Service for Peace. The IVSP was the British wing of “Service Civil International”, ‘The Pick and Shovel Brigade’ was founded by the Swiss Pierre Ceresole to render voluntary service to communities not served by the governments or the local bodies, or to supplement their effort in cases of disaster relief. The volunteers, as expected, in order also to promote international understanding and peace, were drawn from young men and women from different nationalities. Incidentally, Pierre led an international volunteer group in the relief work, co-ordinated by Rajendra Prasad, after the 1931 Bihar earthquake.

Kindling noble ends

So it was that I devoted many of my weekends and vacations to work as a volunteer in many of IVSP work-camps in England (clearing bombed sites to create children’s playgrounds, assisting in old peoples’ Homes, helping clean up old folks’ houses after flood damage, etc); in Europe (like laying a road to a sanatorium in Finnish Lapland, where I was the leader for volunteers from 14 nations, including a Syrian and an Israeli, who got on gloriously); and also in India (in the Simla Hills, with 16 volunteers from six countries, in a camp led by a Swiss and a young English lady, laying a road, again, to a sanatorium). Interestingly, Indira Gandhi of the Youth Congress visited our camp and had tea with us. She hoped that this spirit would catch on in India ‘like wild blaze.’

The criteria for selecting a project were strict. Under no circumstances would we displace local labour. The well-needed project should have been abandoned, for whatever reason, by the local authority and by the community. Also, we should have the total approval of the community. The communities thus helped would provide the volunteers with simple food and youth hostel-type accommodation or tents.

I have often thought, why not mobilise our student force to become healthy and strong to be able to do manual labour. It gives them the chance to appreciate the dignity of work and the rudders to develop a social conscience while doing (local, inter-provincial or intra-regional) community service in their free time without affecting their studies.

An organisation, say, a student voluntary service, a kind of Peace Corps, on the lines of the disciplinary NCC, could be set up, with the co-operation of local governments (even of Central government, if feasible), universities, humanitarian institutions and even industrial houses.

In Japan, for example, the government, with assistance from the railways, sends, on a compulsory mission, across the country to do social service and community help projects. The primary school youngsters may spend one week in a year, the high school students ought to spend one month in a year, and university scholars would be expected to spend three separate weeks and another month every year in this activity as part of their curriculum.

There should be no exception or dispensation, and it should be made a qualification to score 10 per cent of the total marks. For 10+2 students and university scholars, as a requirement of their graduation, this kind of activity should be made a "must". Such outings will serve the young much better by providing a rich experience to complement their education.