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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Giving it up voluntarily
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Giving it up voluntarily

For a society addicted since Independence to government largesse, the 'give it up' request poses an interesting dilemma

Photo: PTI Premium
Photo: PTI

Two score and 14 years ago, US president John F. Kennedy spoke these memorable lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

The purpose of this famous chiasmus was to awaken the American citizenry to public sacrifice and civic contribution.

In recent times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using his bully pulpit to encourage middle-class Indians to give up their gas subsidy. He recently asked banks and insurance companies to gently nudge their employees towards just such action. India is estimated to provide 153 million households with subsidized gas connections. Modi wants about 10 million of these to voluntarily give up their subsidy. He has said that this will directly be used to lift 10 million poor households from other inefficient forms of cooking fuel such as charcoal, kerosene and firewood.

For a society addicted since Independence to government largesse, this “give it up" request poses an interesting dilemma. India was born on the back of great sacrifice and voluntarism by a group of Mahatma Gandhi’s “non-violence" soldiers. Since Independence, however, Indians have gradually been receiving ever-increasing promises of entitlements. During the latest 10-year rule of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, these entitlements stretched to include the right to education, the right to 100 days of labour in rural India, the right to food and so on. Modi’s call is an attempt to reverse the trend of the last 60 years.

The history of the world is replete with voluntarist movements. These initiatives have most often been organized against tyranny or to improve the lot of unfortunate fellow men. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, a Quaker and pacifist, established an assembly of deputies to adjudicate disputes peacefully. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and chronicler of America, was impressed with the vast number of voluntary associations that were in existence there. One of the most impressive, and ultimately successful, voluntarist movements in world history was the one for India’s independence. Rallied by Mahatma Gandhi into a mass movement for freedom, many Indians elected to be part of a voluntary group that helped free India from imperial rule.

The term voluntarism simply means reliance on voluntary action to achieve an objective. Voluntarism is associated with free will and implies the absence of coercion. The study of free will has dominated philosophical enquiry since the dawn of man. Free will in Vedic philosophy is misunderstood to be predestination. The concept of dharma is a complex, multi-layered examination of the intersection of cosmic law, free will and man-made rules. Buddhism concerns itself less with determinism and indeterminism and more with how to sharpen one’s ability to exercise wise choice. Seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes examined the relationship between a sovereign government and its subjects in his famous treatise Leviathan, which established the study of social contracts. Two centuries later, Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, represented man’s will as all-important in the tradition of Vedic and Buddhist thought. In England of the time, Jeremy Bentham and his student John Stuart Mill recast a long history of voluntarism in the world as utilitarian in principle—the greatest good of the greatest number.

Surely, the giving back of something as mundane as a gas subsidy should not require application of complicated philosophical ideas—Eastern or Western. At its simplest, Modi’s justification for the “give it up", so it can help others in need, is utilitarian in principle. Hobbes would weigh in with the idea that the decision is born from a desire to help others. Reading our own Dharmashastras, we may conclude that it is the dharma of those well off to surrender the subsidy in favour of those less fortunate.

And yet, very few have done so (the best recent estimate is a few thousands). Why would this be the case? Can anything be done about it?

There are three reasons why fellow Indians have been slow in making this choice.

First, decades of governmental paternalism have made large-scale civic contribution and sacrifice an unknown habit. Second, everyone is looking at his neighbour to make the choice first. And last but not least, they do not trust the government enough to use the proceeds in the intended way.

And so we need to go from the realm of philosophy to the field of behavioural science to get this to happen. Time, repetition and positive nudges (of the type recommended by Modi to bank employees) will make a difference. Independent influencers arguing for change will be able to impact choice. The government, in turn, should provide line item accountability for this returned subsidy to re-establish trust.

The gas subsidy is one small step. The larger idea is to depend less on government and claim more responsibility for our actions. Ask yourself, what can you do for your country?

P.S. “Bahujanahitāya bahujanasukhāya lokānukampāya", said Gautama Buddha paraphrasing the Rig Veda (translated as: for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world).

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.

Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com. To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand--

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Published: 05 Apr 2015, 09:37 PM IST
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