India is a country which, in the present times, is characterised by a dramatic division of its population into two sections: those who live above the international poverty line and those – 41.6% of the population, as per World Bank’s 2005 estimate – who live below it.
The economically secure and the economically impoverished sections live literally side-by-side in India – urban areas witness sprawling businesses, constant upcroppings of cyber-cities and shopping malls and a Westernised corporate culture; at the same time, rural areas are dependent on a failing agricultural system for survival – monsoons are moody, farming practices are outdated and government help, in terms of technical support and loans, is irregular at best.
Rural migrants to urban areas are not much better off, having to face cramped living conditions and dubious employment prospects, with no consistent supply of food and water to tide them through.
How is this gap bridged?
There are constant efforts on the part of concerned citizens who are comfortably well-off, with the aim of trying to make life for the underprivileged slightly more comfortable, even in a small way. The most common method of helping is volunteerism – donating one’s time, with no incentive of profits, to help a worthy cause.
NGOs in Delhi, for example, report that nearly 40% of their staff is composed of women from upper-middle-class society who spend two weeks in a month at the NGO offices, and these women also apply to take part in off-site projects in remote hinterlands of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkand, to name a few.
Volunteering, in the true sense of the word, is associated with selflessness – a desire to give to others without any reward at the end of the task. However, the privileged section of people seem to be volunteering these days simply for the sake of drowning out that pesky voice ringing in their ears that tells them to be worthy citizens and good people.
The indulgent consumerism and the unabashed opulence which most of high society lives in, seems to create in them a sense of guilt – or a need to justify their expenditure and way of living. So they volunteer their time, or donate their money, or offer their skills, to causes that surround them. One might argue that whatever their motivation, the end result is the same: help being given to those in need of it.
However, is it also not important to consider the intention with which they begin the task? Selflessness is lost to the wind as these acts of supposed kindness are just engaged in to satisfy themselves that they are now respectably considerate citizens of society – it is done with an “I Feel Good” sensation. They can now boast of their achievements in a pseudo-humble manner.
Of course, there are those from the well-off pockets of society who volunteer for the sake of helping others, and without expecting gratification or accolades. But are these altruists in a minority?
Can volunteerism really be considered selfless if one exits the venture feeling smug and contented – and after the sporadic bursts of human empathy, one goes back to living the same lifestyle only to feel the need for justification a few months later? How much is this helping anyone, and to what extent? Simply put – are you really helping someone if you are only doing it to feel good about yourself at the end of it?
It seems that the very essence of volunteerism is fading away.