Bring back the joy of giving

Much of Mumbai was built by philanthropists. But if the city’s huge inequities are any guide, we’ve become self-centred. We need to tap into the core of our traditions if we are to become a more giving city

Updated - October 02, 2016 09:33 am IST

Published - October 02, 2016 09:20 am IST

Illustration: Sanjay Tambe

Illustration: Sanjay Tambe

ahin building, kahin tramein, kahin motor, kahin mill

Milta hai, yahan sab kuch, ik milta nahin dil

Insaan ka nahin koi naam-o-nishan

(Buildings, trams, cars and mills

One can find everything here, but not a heart

There is no trace of humanity)

—Majrooh Sultanpuri, CID, 1956

Just 50 km from India’s wealthiest city, 5,000 children died of starvation in the last year.

Within city limits, in the forests of Aarey and in the notorious M Ward (Shivajinagar, Deonar, Mankhurd), poverty, malnutrition and disease prevail at staggering levels

Nine people die on Mumbai’s railway tracks every single day.

Encroachment of open plots, gardens, footpaths and other public spaces is rampant, leaving little if any space available for our children. Open defecation, garbage dumps, potholes and a plethora of civic challenges overwhelm us almost everywhere.

Our icons are not Saurabh Nimbkar, who plays the guitar on local trains to raise money for cancer victims, or Prof. Sandeep Desai who begs on trains to educate poor children. They are a Bollywood star who believes that pavements are not for sleeping, or a billionaire real estate mogul who made his wealth fudging “affordable housing” licences to create a tony township.

These may not be the most important issues we face; they are just randomly picked ones. And it’s not poverty or disease that’s the cause. At the heart of it all, it’s this: apathy. We just don’t care.

We vocalise this indifference with the popular Bambaiya phrase, mere baap ka kya jaata hai [what does my father have to lose]. And we lace that with selfishness and self-preservation at any cost.

So when a woman is raped in a train, fellow passengers watch and do nothing. When Mumbai’s famed traffic discipline is ripped apart by crazy bikers, we shake our heads and ask, police kidhar hai [where are the cops]? When someone spits on the street, we shrug our shoulders and say, iss desh ka kuch nahin ho sakta [there’s no hope for this country].

Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel recognised this as the root of all evil: “The opposite of love”, he said, “is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

Things need not be this way. We can fix it. We can draw our citizens back to start caring, to start taking responsibility, even if through small steps.

Will you permit me a plug for a project dear to me?

DaanUtsav — the Joy of Giving Week, a festival of giving held across India from October 2 to 8 every year — is a small step that encourages every individual to perform one small act of unselfishness. It could be offering tea to security guards at night to help them stay awake. Or giving your maid a day off to spend time with her children. Or visiting a local orphanage with a few pizza boxes. Under this initiative, a small group of organisations are piloting various activities to try and change things a bit in Mumbai. Look up please; there are plenty of ideas there for you to join in with.

What more can we can do?

These are just baby steps in the journey to make ourselves a ‘city with a heart’. Getting there will take a lot of other measures.

  • We need to back civic organisations like Mumbai First, Agni, Praja, Moneylife and others. These groups pick up important issues of governance and work hard to engage citizens. Citizenship in a democracy requires participation, tolerance, civility and loads of patience. That’s a lot of hard work. We’ve forgotten that democracy is not just for the people but also by the people. And making us take responsibility for our city as citizens is a lot of hard work. These organisations need our fullest support.
  • Organisations like Dignity Foundation, Harmony and Silver Innings could reimagine their role, looking at senior citizens not as people who need to be helped, but as people who can help us reinvigorate our city, by taking charge of civic issues and leading citizens’ groups on such matters.
  • We need hundreds of community-building events — like the Kala Ghoda Festival, Bandra Fair or Equal/Happy Streets — and to reinvest in the celebration of other festivals as “community events” that are less about politics or showmanship and more about getting people together, celebrating diversity and including everyone.
  • We need a deeper corporate engagement with the city from which companies make their billions: adopting public spaces and sponsoring community events, providing resources and support for civic initiatives, ensuring they ‘do no evil’ through better sustainability practices, and above all, being good citizens in every sense of the word.
  • The governance system needs to be decentralised to increase individual participation and a feeling of citizen empowerment. Advanced Locality Management schemes (ALMs) need to be strengthened, and possibly allocated significant budgetary resources. Rajesh Jain’s Free A Billion effort proposes a Draft Urban Governance framework that can help us take a giant leap in that direction. Imagine citizens of, say, Marol in Andheri getting together with their ward officers and corporator, to decide what to do with their Rs. two-crore civic budget for the year.
  • Citizens should be encouraged to identify one cause or social issue they feel strongly about, and dive deep into it, volunteering at least 8 to 10 hours a week. It can bring far greater joy than ‘yet another weekend trip to Alibag or Lonavla’. A thousand different causes or issues could each get 10,000 volunteers working on them, if only each citizen were ready to realise that the quality of life we enjoy is a function of the effort we put into making it happen.
  • Our biggest philanthropists (our billionaires) need to make bigger bets with their money. It would be nice to see one of our billionaires endowing any of the above organisations with a billion-dollar grant; they can afford it, and such a grant can potentially transform Mumbai. Or they can set up five large public hospitals, at a cost of Rs. 1,000 crore each, to provide free treatment to the poor not just from the city, but from all over the State. Or how about if one of our billionaires sponsored the construction of the Bandra-Versova Sea Link?

A slice of history

Do these ideas sound preposterous? They shouldn’t.

Here’s a fact: the Mumbai we see today was built in the last two centuries by philanthropists.

  • The Sea Link amazes us today. But did you know that the Mahim Causeway was built in 1845, entirely through a donation from Lady Avabai Jamsetjee? She was moved by the deaths from boats capsizing in rough seas as people struggled to commute from Bandra to Mahim, so she wrote a cheque that covered the construction cost of the bridge, including three cost overruns.
  • Jagannath ‘Nana’ Shankarsheth (to whom Nana Chowk stands as testimonial) contributed to the creation of the Elphinstone educational institutions, the Asiatic Society and various other institutions, besides playing a key role in eradicating Sati in Mumbai.
  • Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy was a legend who built the JJ Dharamshala, JJ Hospital & Grant Medical College, JJ College of Arts & Architecture and hundreds of other institutions.
  • Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney and several other philanthropists built hundreds of institutions.
  • Of course, we all know about the contribution of the Tatas — TISS, TIFR, Tata Memorial Hospital — and the Godrej family.

India has always had a strong tradition of giving. When the joint family system was in place, it was common for an elder to be devoted to social welfare. And because of the strength of the bond, the rest of the family would support the endeavour. With the introduction of the nuclear family, the security net has been broken and the breadwinner going in the direction of philanthropy leaves the spouse with the burden of bringing up the family.

A generation ago, children would grow up hearing stories of philanthropy. My mentor in the corporate world, N. Vaghul (the former chairman of ICICI), would tell us about how in his village, every family had to put out two jars containing grains at the end of the harvest season. One would be for pregnant women, and the other for landless labourers in the village. These are traditions that are dying. They have not even been replaced by modern traditions of philanthropy.

Why give?

Far too often, one is met with the argument that philanthropy cannot provide sufficient funds to solve the problems of our city or of society in general. But this argument is based on the premise that philanthropy’s contribution lies in its impact on the beneficiaries or on the problems it directly tries to address. That premise is flawed, at best.

Philanthropy has a much more critical role to play in society, far beyond the money it brings and the direct impact it creates. Its role, as Peter Drucker said, is “to satisfy the need of the people for self-realisation, for living out our ideals, our beliefs, our best opinion of ourselves.” Its role lies in making out of all of us, “someone who, as a citizen, takes responsibility. Someone who, as a neighbour, cares.” In short, to strike at the root cause of all evil: apathy.

Professionalising the non-profit sector is not necessarily a good thing, as it then starts to become a job. Being a volunteer is an integral part of being a citizen, and therefore of a democracy. It’s like, are we eventually going to outsource functions like parenting, or voting? To that extent, why should a non-profit even exist? Providing healthcare and education are government prerogatives.

Volunteers do not come with vested interests. To quote Peter Drucker again, in the preface to Managing the Nonprofit Organization , volunteers do not have the satisfaction of a paycheque; they have to get more satisfaction out of their contribution.

For this, you need to go back to our core ethos: not just what is prevalent in India, but across the Orient. At the heart of our tradition is how we can all become better individuals. You can’t always build a system-driven society that’s good; you need a society that has good human beings as the base. We have lost touch with this in the last 50 to 60 years. Post-liberalisation, we have also come to adopt the market economy model, and material pursuits have taken over. We are a society in transition. And we need a saturation before we realise that this way of living is unsustainable.

The easiest way to build caring in people is to get them to experience the joys of giving. This is something that helps us find the goodness within us. Small acts of giving over time become a habit. This can only come from inside; and not as a law or an imposition.

About the author

Venkat Krishnan N. is the founder of, a non-profit working to create a giving culture in India by providing people with opportunities to contribute to good causes, with very high standards of transparency and accountability. He is also co-founder of Educational Initiatives, a company that works on improving quality of school education in India. He spends all his time promoting philanthropy in different ways. Since 2009, he volunteers for #DaanUtsav (earlier called the Joy of Giving Week), a festival that aims to bring India together to celebrate giving. Held from October 2 to 8 every year, the “festival” is a platform that allows everyone, from India’s poor to its wealthiest, to give back to society.

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