Selfish Or Selfless In The Social Sector?

by | Nov 6, 2018

Aavishkaar and Nari Gunjan, the two organizations I got to work with, are complete opposites of each other and yet, they co-exist as change-makers. While the founders of the former come from the background of exposed realities, where they got their inspiration and built on what they thought was the immediate need of the country – education; the founder of the latter got inspired by unexplored realities. She followed a path to fill gaps in the society. The work of one became the opportunity for other. It’s beautiful to see how they help each other flourish.

Nari Gunjan’s founder, Ms. Sudha Varghese, set up the Prerna Hostels for girls of Dalit Musahari community of Bihar. These girls are from the lowest castes and have been discriminated against, since forever. Their families haven’t owned land for several generations and have no property anywhere. The hostels provide an escape to these girls.

As Mohammad Imran Khan writes in this article,Bihar has nearly 2.2 million Musahars, according to the state Mahadalit Commission’s interim report. Community activists however claim the population of Musahars is not less than 3 million. About 96.3% of them are landless and 92.5% work as farm labor. Literacy rates among this community, which upper caste Hindus still consider untouchable, is only 9.8%, the lowest among Dalits in the country.

People in the Musahar community don’t cringe at the idea of eating mice. Instead, their eyes light up because for them it’s food, not a matter of shame. They have fun and enjoy the scorching sun alike, but getting the platform for equality, creative thinking and basic education are some of the biggest difficulties for them. While Nari Gunjan provides the greatest support for these girls through their sacred living spaces, Aavishkaar ensures that they get some educational perks in the process. In their goal of bringing quality education to the children of most backward communities, they have been able to reach these girls, to help open up their minds and their whole selves to opportunities that lie beyond the huge barrier of societal discrimination.

I, who has been air-dropped in the middle of this relationship, have been trying to explore this coexistence by being close to their work. What I see here, is the collaboration of organizations which doesn’t feed on competitive market rates to only build their own capacity, but also to channelize their expertise towards one large effort of bringing change. One would think that this is the work of legends who are selfless and have given a lot away for the betterment of the society.

“Oh wow! What a man. He left all his comforts to help these poor people.”, we often hear. But every bit of this sentence seems cringe-worthy to me. He hasn’t done anything of that sort, because firstly, comfort itself is so subjective. Who can say if comfort is an apartment with a washing machine, microwave and air-conditioners? Or the company of diverse people who comfort him in times of urban crises like existential oblivion, procrastination and Fear-Of-Missing-Out? Who can say that these people he is so “selflessly” helping, actually are in need of his help? Is he helping them or himself by quenching his thirst for exploration and experience? Who can even surely say that these are poor or under-privileged or backward?

I have started questioning if everyone from the founders to program managers and field staff are selfless and have given up their privileges for the benefit of social welfare. Are they all even working for the same “cause”? Maybe, not!
What are these privileges after all? Money? If you give up on your extra earning, are you really giving up on your needs and being selfless? I don’t think so.

Last 3 months have made me realize that money is the least of the privileges. In one’s work towards development, one uses all other privileges to the optimum, because without a privileged background, can one ever barter for change. You are respected if you have credibility and somehow that creates your privilege. It is then used to reduce the threatening gap between the backward and the “forward”. It could be one’s gender, education, caste, regional background, income, age or anything else.

But how is it selfless to use gender to break gender stereotypes. It is only selfish in the intent to combat a challenge which isn’t even your own. It just discomforts you in your own position, and thus to become comfortable, you take up this challenge, the size of which rests on your shoulder like the Dronagiri Parvat on Hanuman’s and then you fly all the way across lands just to satisfy your need for that comfort. Crazy enthusiasm, or what?

Every individual who works in this sector is said to be crazy but they aren’t crazy because they have given up on their worldly desires, but because their desires are world-ly. They are crazy to break norms, take up challenges, do the unconventional. They are fearless and some, even compassionate.

At Nari Gunjan, Sudha ma’am boards her two-wheeled chariot commonly known as a bicycle, and rides through the villages to inspire them to break caste barriers. In real life, she isn’t the cute loving bunny one might think of, with the above description. She is the fearless dragon who would fly across to get shit done. She would burn the defaulters until their chemically changed forms would remain.

With me, at one instance, she noticed the slightest misuse of her expensive mattress in the guest house where we were staying, and thrashed my poor ego to make me realize that she doesn’t give two shits about silly problems like not having a place to hang wet clothes and hence, drying them on a mattress. For her, it was more important to save the depreciating mattress in order to avoid spending money on a new one. I had learnt my lesson, to work and get work done. Sympathy, empathy, compassion and love; all are followers of pretense more than truth.

Aavishkaar is the norm breaker when it comes to the Indian education system. Sarit sir, the co-founder, challenges the views of his audience in an hour. He has the ability to change their mindsets by explaining the simplest things in a way they had never thought before. This is a gaping hole he escaped in the education system, but is now filling it up with his own privileges. Sandhya ma’am, another co-founder, researches math topics to an extent that even 8th graders can re-learn division and fractions. She challenge the prominent teaching methods in the country.

Bharat explores the world of mathematics and redefines concepts which we have otherwise accepted at face value. He does it in a way so that he can create content specifically for the girls at Nari Gunjan and for students of government schools here in Himachal Pradesh. Apoorwa challenges the belief that NGOs can’t be as efficient as corporate organizations, by building systems to incorporate more projects with the human resource available to deliver to the largest possible audience. She teaches us everyday to be better facilitators to the students of Aavishkaar and challenges herself to create teachers who aren’t B.Ed’ed into schooling Indian kids. Rajeev ji rides on his bike for Jugaad that no one else can do for the organisation which has roots spread in all directions.

Sohun ji runs errands for the housekeeping of the Prerna Hostels. His love and care towards girls can be seen in the way he works as their warden. Ramkali ji cooks four meals a day for 150 people not because she wants to change the world, but just wants to keep our tummies full. Julmu ji protects the crazy people at his organisation from getting too reckless, and then fixes to combat the urban procrastinators in us, whom he babysits.

For these people, each day is not a compassionate walk around the block, but a fearless bike ride which gives them the thrill to zoom across and astonish people. In reality, you will hardly find 2 people in a 10 people organization who hand-hold the community to ease them into change. Majorly, they think, create and innovate. They inspire to break out of their stalemates.

As I’ve understood, the battle in the social sector is not between the privileged and the underprivileged. It is not the lone wolf who is selflessly running the show, not even the star-idea that was jaw-dropping intelligent. For us, it is not important to lie down on a cash-bed, but to sleep knowing that we haven’t taken someone else’s share of the bed. Oh, and sometimes you just got to lift the entire mountain for the Sanjeevani that can save that one’s life. That’s an important lesson I have learnt.

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