Annam Bahu Kurvita

When no one went hungry
The Tribune, Chandigarh, December 12, 1999
by Nancy Adajania

In my ancestral home in Gujarat, everybody was provided for. Even as hot water was poured into the morning dough, small balls of jowar were placed around the "thaal" for hungry ants. And in the blistering hot afternoons, water and food were given to the mentally ill, the orphans and old people from the village. At dusk, the cows nuzzled at the "chapatis" we held out to them, and after dinner, the bones were put aside for the dogs of the mohalla.

Before sleeping, my grandmother left a handful of grain in an otherwise empty granary jar, or a small piece of "chapati" in the steel box at night. I always thought that she was superstitious, repeating some ancient custom that has lost its meaning. Actually, she was practising the traditional act of giving: even non-living beings like vessels had to have their powers renewed with food; no mouth could go hungry. This act of giving was based on the principle of sharing, giving without expectation of return. A sense of wholeness was preserved in society by the act of sharing one's goods with others and constantly replenishing both, our physical and spiritual reserves. Here, there was no place for vulgar hoarding or investments made for future returns.

Sharing was institutionalised in traditional Indian society through the establishment of institutions of hospitality and learning. These institutions flourished all over India, from Kedarnath in the north to Thanjavur and Rameswaram in the south, as Jitendra Bajaj and Mandayam Doddamane Srinivas inform us in their book, Annam Bahu Kurvita. The chetrums, the charitable institutions of Thanjavur where people rested on their way to Rameswaram, were equipped with teachers and doctors. All the travellers, whether Brahmins or otherwise, were given boiled rice.

Today, these institutions have been replaced by the State, whose idea of giving is to perform spot-jobs in moments of crisis. What the State gives, through its ill-planned yojanas, can only be termed procedural giving. People live on subsistence wages, are underfed and thoroughly exploited; they just about survive at the margins of society. It is an ill-conceived charity that NGOs too indulge in. There are several voluntary organisations which function as disaster-management operators, confined to giving out the mandatory food and clothes to victims of some catastrophe or the other, and then moving on to worse-hit pastures.

On my field trips into the interiors of Maharashtra, it has been my experience that charity born out of ignorance leads to resentment, violence and anger in its recipients. It leads to despondency, a complete breakdown in the ability to think for oneself and finally, laziness and defeat.

The word charity comes from the Latin word caritas, concern. But charity today has come to mean nothing more than the system of doles, which will result in a generation that will never break this unequal contract of token generosity.

In the mid-18th century, British administrators made a detailed study of the traditional institutions of charity because they thought that large sums of money were being wasted on such useless activities. They felt that they could not extract revenue in areas where the act of giving was considered sacred. They systematically abolished these institutions which, for them, were a drain on the economy (that is, they cut into the profits that would otherwise accrue to the para-colonial British administration).

In the Report of the Indian Famine Commission, London, 1880, the commissioners worked out a neat transaction with the famine-affected people. First, put them on a 'dole'; then withdraw it, as soon as the people are fit to start work. This might seem like a logical solution, but the relief they recommended for the people was a hard day's work at specially organised labour camps in return for a subsistence wage 'sufficient for the purposes of maintenance but no more".

This situation should not come as a surprise to the recipients of the EGS (Employment Guarantee Scheme), especially in Maharashtra. The EGS is meant to support people during critical situations like drought or crop failure. But in Maharashtra, the EGS is employed for road construction, electrification and afforestation, thus limiting the employment opportunities of people who could have done the same work for higher market wages. Or take the ICDS, the Integrated Child Development Scheme, which provides khichri to undernourished children, but does not feel it necessary to construct creches so that the children of working mothers are not neglected.

An intelligent charity born of vision and compassion for its recipients is the only way out; nothing can be achieved by extending the leprous hand of condescension.

Courtesy : Humanscape