Madait: The Adivasi Spirit Of Volunteerism And Cooperation

We live in an age where philanthropy has become an established profession across the globe, and volunteering is the driving force in the social sector. Be it NGOs, social movements, civil society, self-help groups, student groups, religious and political organisations or cultural troupes—all of them are able to function only because of people who commit and dedicate their time and effort towards a common objective without the consideration of monetary benefits in return. The people who choose to volunteer for any cause are associated with a certain set of personality traits—they are highly motivated towards a cause they sign up for with altruistic and benevolent intentions.

The act of volunteering is considered as a deeply personal act because various social and psychological researches link it to personal development, satisfaction and the key to a volunteer’s wellbeing. However, volunteerism is fundamentally a social act, as it is preserved and promoted as a value in certain societies, Indigenous communities across the globe have a deep-rooted association with the value of volunteerism. In fact, mutual cooperation and helping out members of the community is the hallmark of indigenous communities and very central to their idea of living a fine social life.

Adivasi communities in Chota-Nagpur region (parts of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal) have a strong belief in the value of volunteerism which has been sustained through centuries in the form of various customary practices. Different Adivasi groups define these volunteer practices by different names such as Madait, Sangat, Pancha, Pachait, Dihari, and so on. These customs are unique to Adivasis and are based on feelings of generosity, selflessness, and helpfulness. Members of Adivasi communities have a strong sense of belonging to the group and contribute voluntarily through their time, physical labour and other means.

Adivasis involved in Madait work during Ropa (rice transplantation) in Jharkhand. Photo Credit: Sunil Minz
Adivasis sharing their fishing catch for every family of the village. Photo Credit: Sunil Minz

Every customary practice of volunteering in Adivasi communities has a distinctive meaning. The practice of “Madait” is a system of getting help in exchange for a meal and drink for the helper and his whole family. On some special occasions, the cooperation of the whole village is required, for example during paddy transplantation, weddings, etc.

The custom of “Sangat” is a kind of labour bank from where a person in need of many labourers for some urgent work gets them from the villagers.  In the course of the year, he pays back the village sangat by his own labour. It is a system of mutual ‘give and take’ of labour. Similarly, the practice of “Pancha” takes place when someone wants a certain number of men to help him out to complete his work in a short time, he contacts the mahto.  The mahto directs men to help out the person in need of his work. It is a kind of social work. The unique system of “Parsi” means mutual labour exchange, by which, an urgent work of ploughing is done in exchange for ploughing.

Adivasi farmers contributing their labour to neighbour’s by helping in ploughing. Photo Credit: Sunil Minz

With the increasing changes in economic activities and Adivasi interaction with mainstream society, many such volunteering and cooperative practices have a tendency to become weaker or are disappearing. The change in the socio-political environment is increasing selfishness, individuality, and distrust. However, we can still witness and experience a unique, collective feeling of community with strong bonds in thousands of villages in the Chota-Nagpur region. Adivasi people still feel a sense of satisfaction, self-esteem, wellbeing, and personal growth in the values of cooperation and volunteering. Mainstream society can learn a lot from these unique practices of collective efforts, sustainable living and living a “fine social life” with volunteering and cooperation.

About the author: Dr. Abhay Xaxa has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University and recipient of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Programme. He works with National Campaign for Adivasi Rights and writes on issues of Indigenous Peoples in India. 

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