Very recently, when IBM, the $ 100 bn plus IT giant, marked its centenary with celebrations and bonus bonanzas for its employees, its Chairman and CEO, Sam Palmasino asked an elite gathering in Bengaluru whether the remarkable talent pool that is in virtually every profession in India, has ever introspected about using its talent to benefit and transform education, health care or any of the problems ailing the less favoured in our society. The sad part was that when no one in the packed hall stood to answer the provocative question he simply said, “I rest my case”.
Dr. Devi Shetty, the famous children’s cardio-surgeon, remarked that India churns out the best and largest number of doctors and nurses and any number of state-of-the-art speciality hospitals across the country, yet medical care does not reach the masses that need it the most. While one reason is lack of money for treatment, the other more disturbing reason is the reluctance of doctors and nurses to serve the rural and economically backward in remote areas. Having paid lakhs of rupees for their medical/nursing degree they are in a hurry to recoup their investment. State governments have tried from time to time to enforce a two-year mandatory service in rural India; the result: mass absenteeism, as in the case of teachers in state-run rural schools and colleges.
Some 58 of America’s wealthiest families have pledged half of their wealth to philanthropic causes; names like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates are familiar. So are Tata and Birla in India, and more recently, Azeem Premji of Wipro. But how many know that eight years before the endowment that established Carnegie University was created in the 19th century, Sir J.N. Tata had created the endowment bearing his name which later established the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru? And that he also pledged half his wealth to philanthropy?
While all these great names had the means to give, what about the rest of us contributing our time, commitment and skills to the less fortunate in society? Some schools in India have one or two periods of SUPW (Socially Useful and Productive Work) in a week; many teachers treat this period as simply a break from monotony while students consider it a euphemism for “Some Useless and Painful Work”. The general tendency is to get the students to press parents or the neighbourhood for donations to a charity or some worthy social cause. Would it not serve the student better if he were to read to the blind or spend time with lonely old people or lend a hand in some physical work in a farm or village?
Now, suppose participation in a socially relevant activity became an integral part of a complete education? Suppose grades given for such participation added to the overall score in final exams? And, just suppose, every employer asked a potential aspirant to describe in some detail any social work he has done, and his answer played an integral part in the selection process?
Imagine the benefits to the disadvantaged living among us if the country’s youth in the 15 to 35 year age group (who account for nearly half of our billion plus population) were to give just one day in one month towards a philanthropic activity. What a profound impact it would have on the have-nots; doctors and nurses treating the poor in town and village, teachers aiding in child and adult literacy, techies guiding the uninitiated through the intricacies of the computer to assist in the daily life of a small farmer or a petty trader, housewives imparting the benefits of basic hygiene to illiterate and ignorant mothers, and the rich contributing some of their material wealth for the undertaking and completion of vital projects stuck in some bureaucratic logjam. There are already selfless people out there who have worked with the locals to build dams for storing rain water, teach bio-waste management for enrichment of soil and crop value, and help impoverished and marginalized women become financially independent by starting small group business enterprises.
Sharing our wealth, both material and intellectual, as well as our time, not only raises the quality of life of the poor, and helps develop a better and equitable social fabric, it also gives an immense sense of self-satisfaction to the giver who expects nothing in return other than the betterment of his fellowmen, and in the process, his own. So, let it begin with social work being a mandatory subject in school and college and an important requisite in the selection process for jobs. It is time for the more fortunate among us to be the social alchemists who will use whatever power and skills we possess to become instruments of change that will make a difference to a large section of our fellowmen.