Religious tradition is turning a corner

Religious tradition is turning a corner

Mumbai: Normally, the Rural Development and Self Employment Training Institute (Rudset), a programme kicked off by the Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara Educational Trust, would have been viewed as a routine project, albeit a little different, designed to provide a launch pad to budding rural entrepreneurs. It isn’t actually. The joint venture, which includes Syndicate Bank and Canara Bank as partners, is unique because of its third stakeholder: the Lord Manjutha Swamy Temple. Based out of Ujire, Karnataka, it is a pilot project, started in 1982 that helps unemployed young men and women set up businesses in just 30 days. “We help them get the business model in place, help them get loans, teach them the concepts of running a business, and hand-hold them as they become rural entrepreneurs," said Veerendra Heggade, the chief priest of the temple.

Anecdotally, it is yet another example about how religious institutions, traditionally the principal drivers of philanthropy in India, are rethinking their strategies: teaching people how to fish instead of handing out fish. Empirically, it is difficult to establish. Not because of a lack of numbers. Instead, it has to do with the fact that there is no national database to tap.

Yet there are scores of examples to suggest that Heggade’s initiative is not the only one. According to him, the government now wants to take the programme national. “The bottom line is that if someone in the village wants to be self-employed, he should have help. We offer that help and monitor his progress for two years after," said Heggade, adding that he already runs 25 such institutions across India and is willing to train personnel for all the new institutes the government will set up.

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The use of religion to spur this new brand of philanthropy could be potentially powerful. According to the 2001 census, of the country’s 1.02 billion population, the proportion of Hindus was 80.5%, of Muslims was 13.4%, of Christians was 2.3%, and of Sikhs was 1.9%. Significantly, the anecdotal examples throwing light on this shift in approach to philanthropy is visible across all denominations.

Now, religious institutions are effecting another shift in strategy. “Drop by drop, a lake is filled…so everyone gives. Some give Rs10,000, some give Rs100, some give Rs50, some give Rs10… But everyone gives for social causes, even the poor," said Fr Alias Gonzales, director of the Center for Social Action, an archdiocesan body that is a wing for social work in Mumbai, Raigad and Thane.

Every year, the Catholic Bishops’ Commission of India (CBCI) chooses themes that will define the agenda for Catholic charities across the country. “For instance, we had a Right to Food project last year. This year, the theme is Right to Livelihood for the poor," said Gonzales, explaining a project that hopes to help poor entrepreneurs set up businesses.

But the scope of the programme extends beyond entrepreneurship to protecting the livelihoods of marginalized groups such as the fisherfolk of Mumbai whose villages and traditional fishing grounds are threatened by infrastructure projects. “This city belonged to them once. Now, even the little pocket they have will vanish, and then what will they do? We want development and (want to) help the empowerment of people, but we also want to make sure that groups of people are not left behind," said Gonzales.

His sentiment reflects the concerns within religious organizations, mirroring the ongoing debate on inclusion that is politically playing out across the country. For these organizations, the question is an important one as they seek to adapt to a new focus: how to balance charities that helps others help themselves, while continuing to help those who cannot help themselves? And as they choose to invest in individual empowerment, entrepreneurs and social causes that resonate with the masses, such as corruption and equal opportunity, the nature of religious philanthropy in India is transforming.

“Last week, on the NDTV show, We the People, they were talking about the ‘coming of age’ of philanthropy in India. One man said if he had Rs1 lakh and he had to choose between Mother Teresa and a businessman who would use it for education or entrepreneurship, he would give it to the businessman… People got upset with that. Rightly so... We cannot just forget the poor and the sick," Gonzales said.

The Aga Khan Development Network embodies the idea that both ends of the spectrum must be served. Since Islam requires religious leaders to interpret the faith and also shoulder the responsibility of helping to improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies in which they live, this network of private, non-denominational agencies has focused on global issues of health, education, culture, and rural and economic development. At the same time, it runs free clinics and outreach centres such as the Cancer Rehabilitation Centre, where care extends from physical well-being to emotional wellbeing.

At the Prince Aly Khan Hospital in Mumbai, volunteers and cancer survivors help patients regain self-confidence and the tools to take back their lives. “I had cancer. I managed well, so the doctor sent a few patients to me after their surgery to talk and we realized that talking to someone who had been through a similar experience helped them," said Anita Vesuwala, a breast cancer survivor who has run the centre since its inception.

Going forward, this trend will only accelerate, especially since the young demography—50% of India’s 1.3 billion is less than 25 years of age—would be ready to join the work force and opportunities may be hard to come by. By refocusing their focus on empowering people by providing them new skills, the philanthropy of religious institutions in the country could, if coordinated, provide an alternative path to economic inclusion.