Voluntarism in Rural Development in India: Initiative,
Innovation, and Institutions1
The individual urge to extend one’s responsibility for social change beyond mandated or formal duties is far more pervasive than is generally assumed. However, not each individual with such an urge takes voluntary initiatives. In still fewer cases are initiatives transformed into innovations. Only rarely are innovations institutionalized in society.
This chapter is based primarily on a review of literature and my personal experience of more than fifteen years in the field of rural development and my involvement in extensive interactions with voluntary organizations and volunteers working in public and private commercial organizations. My contention is that the literature on voluntary organizations or NGOs has neglected the scope of voluntarism that exists among professionals working in mainstream organizations. Thus, I distinguish the phenomenon of voluntarism from the actions of voluntary organization. Given the fact that problems of rural development in India are complex and widespread, isolated initiatives of voluntary organizations (volags) may not be able to bring about large-scale social change. There is a need for linking the organizational space that volags provide with the urge for change among developmental volunteers (DVs). The DVs work in various organizations but find only limited opportunity for the creative expression of their urge to relate to socially disadvantaged groups. Donor agencies have also given lesser attention to developmental voluntarism than they have to NGOs in developing countries. Public and private organizations cannot sustain support to voluntary organizations in the long run without nurturing voluntarism among a minority of employees within.
The first section of this chapter traces the roots of voluntarism in the context of Indian culture. The second section reviews the trends in the growth of voluntary organizations vis-à-vis voluntarism in rural development and social change, and the third section draws some implications for research and action at both the global and national levels.
Voluntarism in Eastern Societies
It has not been widely appreciated that the roots of voluntarism are quite different in Eastern societies, in particular in Indian society, from those of Western societies. The result has been the implanting of an alien culture in most NGOs, no matter what their ideology is.
Aparigrah, a Sanskrit word, implies the value of non-accumulation or of not keeping anything more than is necessary for one’s minimal needs. The concepts of sacrifice and charity are also differently rooted in the Indian mind. When one gives away one’s dearest object to a needy person, the sacrifice could be considered charity. If giving away something is only for one’s own self-purity and not aimed at someone else’s well-being, it is tyag (sacrifice) but not charity. Contrast this with the Western notion of giving away something that one can do without, or that one needs less, or that one has much more of than one needs.
I am not implying that the motivations of voluntarism in India are in any significant way related to the notion of aparigrah. What I do suggest is that for strengthening voluntarism in Indian society, support systems and organizations cannot ignore the cultural anchors of the spirit of voluntarism. Even if few people believe in aparigrah in urban and middle-class society, there remains a large mass of rural people who do respect a volunteer who follows the principle of aparigrah.
Voluntarism based on agarigrah has another dimension, and this is the willingness to receive knowledge from whoever is knowledgeable. Thus, giving something away (pradan) is accompanied by the inculcation or assimilation of humility and duty toward others (grahan). Voluntary organizations that emphasize giving as the basis of a relationship with poor people are either seen as paternalistic by the people or seen as a source of external resources and skills. Hardly any voluntary organizations try to tap the historical reserve of knowledge (technical, institutional, and social) of the poor. The term resource poor masks the “richness” of economically poor people. The grahan or “assimilation” of knowledge from the poor does not constitute “richness” to many NGOs. Lest this richness of the poor become a paradox, let me explain it in cultural terms.
In Western society, there are only a few words, say, aunt or uncle, nephew or niece, for characterizing a whole range of relationships from the mother’s or father’s side of the family. In Indian languages, each class of relationship has a specific word. People thus have a web of relationships, many of which operate on different planes. Richness in the ability to maintain subtle differences in protocol and mutuality provides a “safety net” of kinship linkages.
In developmental paradigms the neglect of the role of cultural roots, religious identities, and the philosophical basis of social responsibility has led to a crisis among many voluntary organizations. At a recent meeting of voluntary organizations, mostly with Marxist-Leninist leanings, organized by the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur, it was admitted that despite one and a half decades of mobilization of the people around social and economic causes, there was still a wall of silence between the people and volunteers on the issues of cultural, religious, and caste/ethnic identities. The question “Where do you come from?” or “To which village or region do you belong?” was considered unacceptable in developmental dialogues as a basis of relationship (Aruna Roy, personal communication with the author, 1990). Any effort to build on spatial or other ethnic identities was considered reinforcement of parochialism.
Another cultural element of voluntarism is reciprocity. This includes both giving and receiving but not in the form of exchange. As Ellis (1989, p.1) puts it, “It is the giving and not the gift that is important.” Eastern as well as African societies have evolved ways of keeping track of reciprocities. Ellis adds that reciprocities are characterized further by (a) wealth being equated with one’s esteem or prestige in society based on giving behaviour, and (b) the assurance of good return because many people owe it to the giver.
Moreover, the poor use a longer time frame to settle reciprocities than the rich, and in high-risk environments, such as drought-prone areas, generalized reciprocities dominate specific ones (Gupta, 1981, 1984). Studies on voluntarism have not exploited the potential of reciprocal economics versus exchange economics for fostering collection action.
The extent to which initiatives calling for deviance from accepted norms, even for social good, are sanctioned by different societies also differs in the West and the East. Cultures that provide the concepts of aparigrah and tyag also contain codes of sanction against deviance from a certain social order. The exploitation of the poor may thus become possible not merely through the “selfishness” of dominant social classes but also through “learned helplessness” (the opposite of voluntarism) on the part of the poor people.
To illustrate how cultural codification of compliant and conformist behaviour takes place, a story from mahabharat, an Indian epic, may help. Droncharya was a renowned teacher who had an ashram (a type of school based in a forest) to which royal families considered it a privilege to send their children.
He had taken a vow to make one of the five royal brothers (Pandavas), namely, Arjun, the best archer in the world. One day a tribal boy named Eklavya hesitantly approached Droncharya to seek admission into the school. Droncharya refused admission saying that only the children of royal families could be admitted to his school. Eklavya returned home dejected, built an idol of Droncharya (whom he had accepted as his teacher in his mind), and started practicing archery.
One day Droncharya was moving in the forest accompanied by the Pandavas. A dog started barking and disturbing their conversation. Eklavya, practicing nearby, heard it. He filled the mouth of the dog with arrows. Droncharya could not believe it. He told the Pandavas that if somebody was such a good archer then he surely needed to be met. They soon found Eklavya and asked him how he had learned to be such a good archer. Eklavya, recognizing Droncharya, attributed the excellence of his skill to Droncharya himself. Droncharya was flabbergasted because he had never taught Eklavya. However, on hearing the story of how Eklavya worshipped Droncharya’s idol and practiced archery, Droncharya asked for dakshina, a sort of fee for providing that knowledge. Eklavya immediately agreed. Droncharya asked for the thumb of Eklavya’s right hand, which Eklavya immediately cut and gave away, becoming unable forever after to practice archery. Almost everyone in India has heard this story, which is essentially intended to ingrain two virtues obedience and deference toward a teacher and perseverance.
Whenever I asked students or professionals from developmental organizations to speculate on the dilemma of Droncharya and Eklavya, they admitted that their parents had never told them about these matters. With some effort, they could speculate upon Droncharya’s dilemma, for example, fear of (1) not beiung able to make Arjun the best archer; (2) not getting the children of royal families as students in the future because he might not be treated as the best teacher; and (3) the possibility of the tribal boy Eklavya passing on his skill to other tribal individuals, who might challenge the established social order, dominated by the “higher” castes and royal families. Yet nobody ever thought that Eklavya also might have had some dilemmas. Almost everybody argued that it was “natural” for Eklavya to accept the order because thus he is remembered; or he proved his excellence because cutting off his thumb was a sort of certificate of excellence given by the best teacher. He achieved his life’s objective. But did he?
Whether Eklavya had any loyalty towards his kith and kin, who fed him and spared him from the normal chores of hunting and food gathering, did not occur to any student or professional. The aspirations of other tribal members to have their children trained by Eklavya never seemed to matter. In other words, the professionals from voluntary agencies and commercial organizations and students from different disciplines completely failed to identify the dilemma in the mind of the dalits (downtrodden), for whom compliance and conformity to a given social order seemed virtually the only choice. Furthermore, deference toward a teacher was so ingrained that even unethical behaviour on the part of the teacher was not to be questioned.
The enculturation of compliance and conformity through such powerful metaphors gets in the way of people taking initiatives and questioning the given social order. Those whose social conditions need to be changed the most are the least likely to take initiative. This does not imply that the poor have no concrete alternatives for change. It simply means that innovations needed for survival are quite different from innovations needed for accumulation.
Just emphasizing the “giving” without “acknowledging” or “assimilating” the knowledge of the people often weakens people’s self-help potential and curbs the growth of voluntarism among the people themselves. The institution-building process in society suffers when outside volunteers do not plan for their redundancy by developing local leadership. In another meeting of voluntary organizations held at the Institute of Rural Meeting in Anand, it was acknowledged that building people’s own organizations to that eventually they would not need outside professional help was a distant dream (Jain, 1989).
My contention is that there are thousands of Eklavyas dispersed in different mainstream organizations. They have a strong sense of taking the initiative and achieving excellence in skills that may be needed in society. However, middle-class conservatism prevents them from becoming entrepreneurs. Voluntary organizations do not consider fostering or nurturing such initiative as part of their major role. The tremendous reserve of human energy that remains untapped by mainstream organizations generates frustration on both sides – the NGOs find bureaucracy stifling and generally unhelpful, and the “compliant” or “conformist” Eklavyas find no organizational or societal space for merging the pursuit of excellence with the search for socially useful innovations. If a linkage between volunteers in public/private commercial organizations and the enabling voluntary organizations can be forged, perhaps society’s institutional capacity for self-renewal can be increased considerably.
Trends in Voluntarism in Rural Development in India
My emphasis is much more on voluntarism than on voluntary organizations as instruments of social change. I do not disregard the niches that market forces and state and public agencies leave unfilled, but I argue that these niches can be fcilled not only by their third sector or voluntary organizations but by the “developmental deviants” or “entrepreneurs” or “volunteers.” These volunteers, while remaining in the mainstream public or market organizations, can create new alignments between social needs and institutional support. The excessive attention on voluntary organizations by aid agencies seems misplaced insofar as these agencies almost completely neglect the DVs.
By supporting only NGOs, agencies reduce pressure on public and market agencies for reform and self-renewal. NGOs led by managers or leaders who are often from an urban context, by their own creativity, suppress or fail to nurture the creativity of the local disadvantaged. Social change thus becomes more and more dependent on external leaders.
Rural development as par tof social change is defined here as a process of expanding the decision-making horizon and extending the time frame for appraising investment and consumption choices by rural disadvantaged people collectively, and not necessarily at the village level but at even higher levels of aggregation.
Sustainable processes will require correspondence between people’s access to resources, ability to convert access into investments (that is, skills for using resources), and assurance of future returns from present investment (vertical assurance) and about others’ behaviour vis-à-vis one’s own (horizontal assurance or collective rationality). The changes in the network of access, ability, and assurance for DVs and the people have to be achieved simultaneously.
Voluntarism may affect any one or more subsets of the developmental triangle of access, assurance, and ability of the people and thus may remain restricted in its impact. The propositions that follow deal with the way that voluntarism has been related to the process of social change in India. Given the range of experiences, it is indeed a synoptic account.
Process of Voluntarism
Voluntarism triggered by a natural crisis such as flood, drought, or cyclone may legitimize the entry of outsiders in a given region, but depending upon the mobilization process, NGOs that emerge in response to such crises often diversify into other areas of social development and remain community oriented rather than class oriented.
Several church-based NGOs came into existence when international aid agencies offered relief at the time of the Bihar famine in the 1960s. Most of the relief was in the form of consumables such as foodstuffs, clothes, and medicine. The organizational structure for the distribution of this aid was different from the structure for managing durable assets such as rigs for drilling wells, transportation, and buildings. The move from relief to reconstruction attracted many young people. Instead of going back to pursue their professional careers, they remained behind to organize people, manage food for work programs, drill wells, or provide health and education facilities.
Many aid agencies sought legitimacy through relief but subsequently indulged in other interventions. The reaction of state agencies was to incorporate such volunteers or voluntary organizations as appendages of public relief and development programs. Such incorporation also took place in many NGOs, which came into the picture much later. An interesting feature of these organizations was that having begun with a community approach (relief was needed by all), they continued to use an eclectic approach to development.
Social conflicts were merely noted by some and participated in by others. The institutionalization of voluntarism in intermediary support or funding organizations or grass-roots organizations gave a techno managerial start to the intervention strategies. A negative feature of such aid was that in regions prone to frequent natural calamities, people started losing their self-help initiative. State relfief in the form of employment or food was not linked with a mobilization of voluntarism among the people. Dependency so created made the task of many radical NGOs even more difficult. People could not understand why mobilization around a radical ideology should be a reason for forging immediate material benefits.
Voluntarism triggered by man-made disasters such as the Bhopal tragedy can get caught in the dilemma of legitimizing the state’s indifference by becoming part of urgent relief and rehabilitation vis-à-vis questioning the basis of the tragedy and the complicity of the state in its consequences.
Ravi Rajan (1988), while analyzing rehabilitation and voluntarism, observed four distinct styles: (1) intervening organization took on the provision of relief and rehabilitation as its primary task, became dependent on the government, and with the diminution in the governments’ own commitment to the cause, soon collapsed; (2) volunteers served as “conscience keepers,” pursuing change through systematic research reports; (3) trade union activists demanded charge of the industrial plant to provide employment through alternative use of plant and machinery; and (4) perhaps the most significant strategy by volunteers was to reject the idea of voluntarism as propounded by the state. Rather, voluntarism was redefined to include sustained mobilization, the struggle for better relief, access to medical data, questioning the scretiveness of the part of the government, legal activism, and questioning the right of the government to give such a low priority to the life of the poor. Voluntarism of this nature is difficult to mobilize in backward rural areas given the dispersed nature of settlements and weak social articulation, low media attention, and poor networking among interventionists.
Voluntarism as manifested in the 1960s by a protest against agrarian disparities (in the form of a violent leftist movement, known as the naxalite movement) and by social reconstruction (initiatives by students, professionals in the mainstream organizations, and voluntary organizations) has undergone a sea of change in the wake of recent economic liberalization.
Radical groups using violent means of social change have sought support essentially from Maoist philosophy. After the Chinese aggression in 1962, covert support to these groups increased, and income disparities intensified after the first phase of the green revolution. Technological change had provided the spur for a large number of young people, particularly from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, to plunge into the field of violent social change. The attempt was to annihilate rich farmers and other symbols of perceived oppressive classes or those considered class enemies.
Another stream of volunteers who entered the field of rural development came with innovative ideas for providing relief during the 1964-1966 drought in different parts of the country. These volunteers became crucial instruments of social dynamics. The war in 1965 with a neighboring country led to a slowing down of U.S. aid to India. The search for indigenous alternatives became intense, and the legitimacy of voluntarism increased.
The period between 1966 and 1972 was full of economic crises. The economic environment in the preceding decade had been aimed at the closure of the Indian economy through import substitution. Droughts, wars (1965, 1971), devaluation of currency, and inflationary pressure created an environment of social unrest in the organized and unorganized sectors. Death from starvation was supposed to have been eliminated (almost) after the drought of 1965-1967. Maharashtra started an employment guarantee scheme during the drought of 1972. In the wake of large-scale violence in 1966 and 1967 by left-wing radical groups, the report of a confidential inquiry committee by a committed civil servant (Appu) set up by the Home Ministry argued for an immediate thrust toward target group oriented programs of rural development suited to location or ecology and class-specific need.
The Small and Marginal Farmer and Agricultural Labourer Development agencies, the Drought-Prone Area Programme, and the Tribal Development and Hill Area Development plans followed. Decentralized development in the policy was accompanied by greater political centralization from 1970 to 1977. A movement based on Gandhian values that called for total social revolution was spearheaded by Jaya Prakash Narayan in 1973 and 1974. It attracted a large number of young people, particularly in Gujarat, Bihar, and Maharashtra, and many of these young people continued with voluntary work.
The government declared a state of emergency from 1975 until 1977, after a prolonged railway strike, and even urban people realized for the first time the implications of a non-democratic coercive state. Voluntarism was also sought out as a sign of despicable deviance. People has the option of being incorporated into the repressive state structure or being jailed or victimized. The post-1977 phase of change in political continuity through the single-party rule brought many Gandhians committed to decentralized development into the mainstream. Tax concessions for voluntary initiatives by commercial companies were introduced for the first time by the Janata government in 1978, and many innovative organizations came into being. A number of developmental volunteers who worked in commercial organizations found this an opportunity for exploring new organizational space. Some misused this option but many did not.
For the first time, professionals and young activists were offered competitive salaries in addition to autonomy for work unheard of in mainstream organization by and large. These events were also accompanied by a change in the policy of international aid agencies, which started shifting from funding better implementation of government programs bureaucratically to better implementation by NGOs. It was unfortunate that creative avenues in the NGOs. It was unfortunate that creative avenues in the NGOs got generally fossilized because of their proximity to the state and their participation in implementing standardized programs.
A change of government in 1980 and the restoration of rule by the Congress party led to the expected withdrawal of tax concessions; the centralization of voluntarism (companies could contribute to the Prime Minister’s fund for rural development and seek fresh grants from it for action programmes); the halting of the direct transfer of funds from a commecial balancel sheet to the social (less easy to account) balance sheet; the standardization of developmental programs such as the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP); the withdrawal of higher allocations to the IRDP for backward areas and putting them on par with other areas; and the merger of earlier adaptive or responsive programs into a standardized IRDP, with credit-linked subsidy as the dominant mode of relationship.
Another interesting development was the return of naxalite (radical Maoist leftists) underground workers to the mainstream was non-violent but articulate strategists of social change. For the first time, several ex-naxalites sought election in 1977 and some were elected.
The social space for alternative development was filled by volunteers with vlarying backgrounds; ex-radicals; liberal or social democrats who were dissatisfied with the workings of the state and wanted to influence the distribution of resources; enthusiastic urban activists who after looking for a career, failed to get one and returned to a mainstream profession rather quickly; young professionals with technical or other disciplinary backgrounds who launched action-research projects or supported other professional groups; retired civil servants, ex-Gandhians, lawyers, and so on, who formed independently or with the support of aid agencies large NGOs; and quasi-state organizations promoted to provide technical, financial, marketing, or other support to NGOs, artisans, and other beneficiaries of state-sponsored developmental programs.
At the time when social space for volunteers was widening, opportunities for career growth in mainstream organizations also began to increase. The first phase involved the growth of the banking sector after nationalization in 1969. A large number of bright young men and women with backgrounds in science, the humanities, or engineering joined banks, insurance corporations, and other such systems. “Brain drift” as opposed to “brain drain” took a heavy toll by depriving academic disciplines of bright students and luring some professionals on the margin away from other direct social development systems.
The post-1980 boom in the consumer goods industry and the continued growth of banking and other public and private ventures further increased the flow of young people toward such careers. The opportunity cost of those who chose to work in NGOs did indeed increase.
The question we want to address next is “What are the processes by which voluntarism in mainstream organizations can complement the efforts of NGOs not merely in bringing about social change on the micro-level but also in influencing public policy in favor of the disadvantaged?”
Implications for Action and Research
Generating extra-organizational space for developmental volunteers within mainstream organizations is a necessary condition for sustainable social development. One study on bank and NGO cooperation for poverty alleviation in backward regions noted that there was no NGO working in the fifty most backward sub-regions of Gujarat. State organizations like the National Bank could not gain credibility in supporting NGOs if they did not provide the opportunity for exploration and experimentation to volunteers within their system. NGOs often did not recover even the operating costs of many services from people. In the process, such NGOs remained perpetually dependent upon aid agencies. Moreover, accountability of the NGOs in regard to the poor was so low that most NGOs did not aim at inducting poor people into their own management structures.
One nationalized bank invited its clerks to volunteer for two years in a village development program in an area of their choice without any loss of seniority upon their return. This triggered numerous innovative experiments by DVs.
The hands of DVs in technology generation, adaptation, and diffusion system working on unpopular problems of larger social concern needed just as much attention. How can professionals who disregard professional rewards and devote attention to such problems but cannot put pressure for reform on their own organizations be sustained? Empowering them will require recognition of their voluntarism by a body of concerned scholars and activists. No national award has been given to date to any bank officer for initiating innovative schemes. So much so that about ten million rupees for new innovative schemes for rural development provided at the national level remained unspent because no system existed for identifying and recognizing DVs within the mainstream system.
Can the capacity of urban people to manage their own affairs be provided by urban volunteers who come from very different cultures? The poor do not cooperate with developmental organizations because they are not recognized as possessing any richness in terms of their cultural and moral fiber. The findings of our research are seldom shared with those from whom we collect data (Gupta, 1987a, 1987b). Involving the rural poor as co-researchers of social phenomena, building upon cultural roots of voluntarism, and showing respect for common property institutions can change this situation. Acknowledging local initiatives can spur their transformation into innovations. Documenting people’s knowledge and identifying the scientific merit of some sustainable resource management alternatives can rekindle people’s experimental ethic.
Institution building requires the dispensability of external leadership, the recognition of an inverse relationship between status and skills, and the discrediting of values that generate helplessness. “Lateral learning” among developmental volunteers and NGOs can be triggered to provide empirical basis for building a “theory in and of” action.
Concepts of voluntarism such as zakat among Muslims, gupt dan (anonymous charity) among Hindus, Kar Seva (voluntary labour for the common good) among Sikhs, and so on, are examples of the positive bases on which different religions build organic institutions. Different languages have words like andi (Haryanavi) and dhuni (Hindi), implying a person obsessed with ideas generally for the social good. Why has appreciation for this trait vanished? Anonymous voluntarism, a unique and long-standing tradition of the east, has been absorbed by voluntary organizations that believe that voluntarism can only exist in their types of organizations. This vision is limited, because it denies the possibility of institutionalizing culture throughout a full range of institutions, not just voluntary organizations.
Finally, neither NGOs nor the developmental volunteers can succeed unless those long-ingrained values that inhibit change among rural poor people are brought into question.
Voluntarism in rural development in India has not been accompanied by pressure for policy change except in regard to environmental issues. Often action at the local level has not been linked with lobbying at the macro level. Recognizing that the state and markets perform better if kept under constant check, developmental volunteers within the organizations will have to serve a sort of “insurgent” function so as to align, anonymously, with grass-root activists, NGOs, and professionals. International agencies can strengthen local social change by broadening local ideas and innovations into global thinking and by providing global space for developmental volunteers to validate their hypotheses. Right Livelihood awards constitute one such source of international recognition. If the rural poor of India could communicate with the homeless in America, surely the cultures of deprivation would provide the basis for collection action. Social innovators and DVs around the world are struggling for similar space in a society where one does not have to go through a phase of unbridled accumulation followed by guilt, charity, and benevolence for the have-nots.
Sustainability in nature and society requires players, whistle blowers, spectator rules, and creative chaos. DVs are arguing that the losers in a game should not lose the right to play on the same field again. Asking them to play only on separate fields (in the form of volags) will eventually rob the game of the chaotic waves of sorrow and joy. Should we let it convert the spectators into warriors?
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Source: Taken from “The Nonprofit Sector In the Global Community: Voices from Many Nations”, A Publication of Independent Sector, Washington, pp.422-437.
1 Published in The Nonprofit Sector in the Global Community: Voices from Many Nations, a publication of Independent Sector, Washington, pp.422 - 437, Chapter 24, 1992.