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Charity funds: From mandirs to mobiles

Charity funds: From mandirs to mobiles

Author: Shobhan Saxena
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 4, 2009
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/news/sunday-toi/special-report/Charity-funds-From-mandirs-to-mobiles/articleshow/5085269.cms

In medieval India, rich men would go to the temple, pray and leave quietly, dropping a solid gold necklace at the deity's feet. It was the age of anonymous charity. In 21st century India, everyone gets to hear about Bollywood icons and corporate czars doing the same. So has the notion of charity evolved in a country in transition?

A bit, replies sociologist Renuka Singh, who has written books such as Many Ways to Nirvana and Paths to Tranquility. She says India always had a culture of giving, but today, it's more secular in nature. "Now, people want to donate money, material and their energy to development-related work and not just to places of religious worship," says the JNU academic.

The trend towards secular acts of charity means more Indians than ever before, particularly the young, are volunteering for community work. Singh says it is noteworthy that "voluntary work has become a profession in our country. That's why you see many well-educated people going into it." Singh believes the biggest charity is for a person to "give themselves completely to a cause (because) it's easy to donate money and material if you have too much of it."

Singh is one of many who point out that words like 'development', 'social responsibility' and 'community service' are increasingly popular with Gen Y and young Indians are increasingly working with voluntary organizations and NGOs to raise money from individual donors. This militates against popular belief that NGOs are funded only by big business and international aid agencies. Social activist Rajesh Ranjan, who studied "philanthropy activities and religious beliefs in India" nine years ago, says many middle-class people "give money to NGOs now but, I think, to a large extent their philanthropy is still guided by the daan-punya mentality. That's why they easily give money or material for poor children. They think it will help their soul later."

But, he agrees that there is a new awareness of social causes and today's India views people who do community work with respect. "Even godmen in India now run charity hospitals and schools to win people's trust. Their godliness in not enough to sway the poor devotees, who actually want some change in their life."

Interestingly though, volunteering for a good cause may be 'cool' in urban India, but in the countryside it's the poor who perform the most charity - simply by offering their bodies every time there's a need to make a larger point. Indu Netam, a tribal rights activist from Bastar, says, "Whenever we call a rally for a social cause, poor people come in thousands. They lose their daily wages and spend their own money on travel and food for causes which sometimes do not affect them directly." Netam says it is these people "who are keeping the idea of community and sharing of resources alive in the heart of India."

Meanwhile, NGOs battle to find new donors in the new, more thrifty economic environment. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), for instance, is now using mobile phones to raise money for its mid-day meals programme. NGOs like CRY and Save the Children are trying to raise money online. Their target is Gen Y, hooked on to their mobiles and used to spending money on accessories and downloads. In this new mobile universe, charity can be as simple as pressing a button.

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