How Can India Revive Its Philanthropic Heritage?

To understand the real scale of philanthropy in the country, informal acts of charity by Good Samaritans must be encouraged, recognised and documented.

Malibu Town is a posh Gurgaon locality. Every day, hundreds of people, who are mostly construction labourers working in the neighbourhood queue up for free food outside the locality. Another small temple in the village of Chauma, on the outskirts of Delhi, is a much-frequented venue for those who wish to share their food with the poor.

Several kilometres away in West Delhi, at the beginning of every month, hundreds of visually impaired people make a beeline for a particular house in Paschim Vihar, where they are given Rs 100 each. A paltry amount, one would say, but it still is a ray of hope for the visually impaired, who unfailingly brave Delhi’s traffic to receive that ‘paltry sum’. Such acts of kindness can be found across the length and breadth of India.

Feeding dogs, cows, rescuing animals, planting and nurturing trees, helping a stranger – these are all ‘acts of random kindness that can change the world’ as Morgan Freeman rightly explains in the film Evan Almighty – the lesser-known sequel of Bruce Almighty.

Giving is a superpower that we are all blessed with. The prerequisite is simple – one just needs to be a human and more importantly humane. But the important factor that must be considered is that your contribution needs to be strategic. Does it strengthen the economy? Can it play a role in eradicating poverty and creating an equitable, healthy and inclusive society for all?

The act of random kindness must check at least some of the boxes, if not all. In a book titled Daan and Other Giving Traditions –India’s Forgotten Pot of Gold, author Sanjay Agarwal, painstakingly chronicles 5,000 forms of daan recorded in the Indian subcontinent, prescribed by various religious scriptures.

Also read: Are Philanthropic Acts Driven by the Human Desire to Cheat Death?

The book traces giving in India back to 1 AD, when India’s share of the world GDP was a whopping 32% according to British economist Angus Maddison. The subcontinent’s wealth shone like the Kohinoor. The GDP gradually came down to 24% in 1700 AD and then kept declining rapidly. Throughout these centuries, while the rajah, maharajahs and sultans tried to outdo each other when it came to gestures of magnanimity, ordinary people too, (merchants, courtesans and ordinary populace) participated in acts of charity.

What scriptures say

Scriptures of all religions prevalent in India have portions dedicated to the concept of donation and community work. They talk about the benefits of charity and the dire consequences of not being charitable.

In Hinduism, several forms of daan have been listed extensively, tailored to suit the needs of the donor. While daan comprises donation of material or wealth, utsarg involved community development work such as planting of trees, digging of ponds and wells, setting up of rest houses, schools etc.

In Islam the concepts of sadaqa, zakat and khums have been prescribed by the Quran. The concept of giving back to the community is also prescribed in Sikhism in the form of langar and sewa; and daswandh (a tenth part), which is very similar to the tithe among Christians. In Buddhism, daan paramita is described as the first step to becoming a Buddha (the enlightened one). Similarly, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Baha’i too have prescribed ways of giving back to the society.

Given the era and the status of the economy, these forms of donations could be considered strategic in nature. It made sense to connect a good cause to religion, in an era when superstition had an upper hand over rational thinking. The system seemed to work.

Also read: Is Philanthropy in India Growing?

After a severe blow from colonialism, India’s wealth suffered. Post-Independence, the divide between the rich and the poor. As across the world and in India, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing. While citizens hope governments will play a role in ushering in more equality, they can also make their contributions through stronger, consistent and more strategic giving. Donations must create the right impact on the economy.

‘Random acts of kindness’, are aplenty, but are not recorded anywhere and do not necessarily create the right impact. They do not necessarily check all the boxes that I mentioned at the beginning. Even today many often practice gupt-daan, (undisclosed giving), so as not to draw attention to themselves or their actions.

Langar at the Golden Temple. Photo: Haresh Patel, CC 2.0

Good, but invisible, Samaritans

Interestingly, it has been noticed that rural populations find more ways of helping strangers and engaging in community development work.

In 2001, when Gujarat was reeling under the aftermath of one of the worst earthquakes to ever hit the region, help poured in from all sectors. While I was volunteering for an NGO, providing aid to the victims with our emergency kits, I saw truckloads of people from a village in Punjab, who had travelled to Bhuj to help the survivors. It was heartening to see women cook chapatis for the victims on makeshift chulhas, while men helped in other rescue and rehabilitation efforts. These men and women were not rich philanthropists but regular farmers, who decided to lend a helping hand.

Much of our rural community infrastructure, such as places of local worship, community spaces, across rural India are built on the basis of people donating their time and labour along with money – this is called shramdaan. In recent times, this practice has been effectively used to address many development challenges – be it improving watersheds to protect environment, reviving water bodies to ensure water security or even constructing approach roads, and so on.

There are invisible players – Good Samaritans – who are quietly making a difference. Even within the structured framework, there are many donations and acts of charity that go unnoticed. This is because even after donating, under section 80 G of the Indian IT Act, people often do not claim the certificate that ensures a 50% tax benefit.

The way forward 

The recent World Giving Index, which measured giving trends across the world over the past decade, placed India at the 82nd rank out of 128 countries. The average figures for India over the past decade show that 34% of people have helped a stranger, 24% have donated money and 19% have volunteered or donated time. However, observers note that much of the informal giving that takes place in India is not necessarily captured in the survey questions.

Also read: Good Samaritans Don’t Help Accident Victims For Fear the Law Won’t Back Them

To understand the real scale of philanthropy in the country, these informal acts of charity must be encouraged, recognised and documented. The central and the state governments must create an enabling atmosphere, where people are encouraged to be more charitable and helpful.

Delhi government’s Farishtey Baniye appeal to citizens of Delhi to be Good Samaritans and help accident victims is a good example. If a Good Samaritan helps an accident victim, the Delhi government will bear all the medical expenses. Additionally, the new Amendment to the Motor Vehicle Act 2019 encourages people to help victims of road accidents and saves them from any unnecessary scrutiny that usually follows.

The government of India should come up with better policies that sustain an environment that enables more individuals to donate for social causes. To this end, reviewing the revocation of the erstwhile 35 AC provision for a possible reinforcement, could well be one such assured enabler. Under 35 AC, a donor could get 100% tax exemption for donations made to compliant NGOs.

Another idea would be to encourage local philanthropy and create an ecosystem where the moneyed classes from an area or a small town or a village come together to support a local cause. It could be anything from building a school or a hospital to planting trees etc. This decentralised model for philanthropic work will be in tune with Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of trusteeship and the decentralised polity or village Swaraj.

Meenakshi Batra is the CEO of Charities and Foundation, India.