Society | The year of the volunteer
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Even as we engaged in a larger debate on whether privileged Indians tend to treat their domestic help poorly, a group of volunteers, all residents living in Whitefield, Bangalore, went about making inquiries in November and then engaged with the state labour department to ensure that around 600 of their domestic help could get enrolled in the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY).
As part of a non-registered, completely voluntary group co-founded by Nitya Ramakrishnan and R.K. Misra in March, members of Whitefield Rising have only one agenda: to make Whitefield a better community space to live in. From waste management to cleanliness drives, the community has many volunteers who engage in different activities. “It took some 10-12 hours of work for a couple of weeks, sorting 300 mails and 400 hard copies, meeting the additional labour commissioner in Bangalore and requesting him to process our case even though the deadline was over. We wanted our domestic help and their families to have access to better medical facilities. It was an idea that one of the volunteers had, and then we all pitched in by talking to health insurance experts, etc., till someone told us about RSBY,” explains Ritu George, chief operating officer, Whitefield Rising.
On the face of it, Dinup Mathew, Munish Raizada, Parthiv Shah and Victoria D’Souza have nothing in common with George. Mathew lives in Mayur Vihar, Delhi and is a human resources (HR) trainer and consultant. Dr Raizada is a Chicago-based paediatrician whose extended family lives in Faridabad. Shah is a 16-year-old class XI student in Bangalore and D’Souza, or “Hurricane Victoria”, is a Bangalore-based freelance event manager. Yet each of them has played a little part in bringing about change in their community, in their city. They made an effort this year to take time out of their busy schedules to support a cause they believe in: not for the sake of power or money but because they believe change is the responsibility of citizens and not governments alone.
“Do you know that I was asked for a bribe of Rs.2,000 just to get my marriage registered on a particular day? I felt so disgusted and helpless. When I heard Arvind Kejriwal talk about corruption, I wanted to do something too. In April, I walked into the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) office, filled up a digital one-page form to become a member and volunteer and spent the first month just helping to answer emails,” says Mathew, who runs an HR consultancy, Nephenthus Knowledge Solutions LLP, and has done his master’s in business administration from the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi.
By July, he was working on AAP area surveys with Yogendra Yadav, a national executive member of AAP and a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi and in December, he trained polling booth agents for AAP. Instead of the three days a week he had set aside for volunteer work, he was volunteering on almost all days by December.
“September was the worst month for me business-wise but I had made a commitment to bring about political change and there was no turning back,” says Mathew. Since AAP has secured 28 seats in the Delhi assembly poll this month and his clients and friends found out that he worked as volunteer—a fact that Mathew had shared with no one expect his immediate family—his phone has not stopped ringing. “The number of people from my clients’ offices who also want to volunteer for AAP is amazing. People are willing to give up Sundays, work from home—anything that gives them a chance to be a part of this revolution,” says Mathew, who has now gone back to a volunteering schedule of three days a week.
Dr Raizada has returned to the US, but not before spending every day of his three-month sabbatical at the AAP office. “In spite of immense talent, on the global stage where is India today? I blame this on the lack of a political will to change things, poor governance and on us the people who are too busy with our own lives to make a commitment to our country. In Chicago, I was part of an NRI group that worked at raising awareness about AAP, but I wanted to do more. My wife agreed and we decided that I should be here in the middle of it,” says Dr Raizada, who intends to return to volunteer for AAP closer to the general election.
Parthiv Shah, a member of Whitefield Rising, volunteers only for causes he believes in, such as water conservation, and only on days he has no pressing school engagements. “My parents volunteer and I started because of them. Many kids in my school, when they hear about what kind of work we do, want to volunteer too but they don’t have such work happening in their community.” George, meanwhile, has opted for flexi hours so she can devote more time to her voluntary work. “What keeps me going is that I see how much difference we can make at the community level,” she says over the phone from Banaglore.
In the last year, the urban Indian has come to the forefront, wanting not just to be a spectator in change that s/he is demanding, but also as a participant in the process. Chairperson of Arghyam and Pratham Books and author of Stillborn and Uncommon Ground, Rohini Nilekani, says that while there is an upswing in volunteer work around urban India, it is still not a uniform trend. “But yes, in many cities people no longer want to wait. They feel like they have the agency, an internal locus which says ‘I can and I will’. For a long time in the cities, individual good and common good were not linked but now people are realizing that they have to go beyond ‘my good’ to ‘our good’; and that the two are linked. They know that with engagement and connection, things can work for a larger, common good that will benefit the individual too.”
D’Souza, who began her tryst with political volunteering in 2011 with the anti-graft protests at Freedom Park in Bangalore, is one such example of how people are thinking about volunteering even in different cities so long as it results in common good.
She signed up to be a part of AAP even though the party has no political engagements in Bangalore yet. Meenakshi Bharath, who stood as a Loksatta Party candidate for the Malleswaram constituency in the May 2013 assembly elections, recalls D’Souza storming into her office in early 2013 offering to volunteer with her. “AAP wasn’t fielding candidates in the assembly elections but Dr Bharath’s agenda to remove corruption matched AAP’s and I wanted to help,” says D’Souza who managed and organized Dr Bharath’s campaigning schedules.
Now, she hopes that Loksatta and AAP can come to some kind of agreement for the 2014 general election and support each other. “I have hope for this country. Politics is not dirty, it’s a service to the country,” she says, narrating how she spent time in Delhi talking to people on the streets about AAP. “In fact on 8 December, when the counting in Delhi was going on, I walked around with an AAP cap and it was amazing how people called out to me from buses and showed me a thumbs-up sign in support,” she says.
“This is not a passing phase, there is a fundamental shift that is taking place, and mainstream political parties will do well to take note. The anger that the urban Indian is feeling has reached tipping point, with people now wanting to make a difference by doing something about it themselves—however small—and not just staying angry and helpless,” says Swati Ramanathan, co-founder, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a Bangalore-based not-for-profit organization, and chairperson of the Jana Urban Space Foundation, a not-for-profit working on urban planning, Bangalore. But she cautions that this desire to participate is dependent on concrete and positive outcomes. “Volunteerism is one of the strongest foundations of any society. However, volunteers need successes to build up. They need to believe that their time and effort results in moving the needle on their chosen cause, they need both opportunities and hope if this gathering momentum of volunteering is to sustain.”
As someone who has worked with volunteers in the past, Ramanathan suggests that those who manage volunteers, especially youthful ones, should aim to give them “bite-size things to start with, so that they are not intimidated by the size of the problem; give them a tangible achievement. Connect them to the romance of the larger vision always, but also give them closure and a sense of accomplishment to say, ‘I created this outcome.’ Also, provide opportunities for some amount of grass-root community mobilizing or field work, which is always exciting; Finally, there is a strong sense of optimism and hope in youth volunteers. Don’t let that be killed, nurture it—because all change, especially for nation- building, is ultimately fed by large doses of hope.”
Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this essay.
Seema Chowdhry volunteered to file an RTI to find out which agency is responsible for fixing the sewage drain that floods her colony’s park.