When Social Responsibility was Risky Business!

Philanthropy has been garnering headlines in the world media for some years now, with the most successful entrepreneurs speaking more about their giving initiatives than their businesses. And it has indeed set off a virtuous cycle.  

But lest we think giving by industrialists is a new phenomenon …

In continuation of last week’s blog which marked 13 November (designated as World Kindness Day), and November 16 (International Day for Tolerance and Peace), here is a look at a few examples of Indian industrialists whose philanthropy exhibited a sense of enlightenment and responsibility that was path-breaking . The critical thing to remember is that most industrialists of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries saw building up India’s industry and infrastructure and supporting the freedom movement as their most critical social responsibilities. They were flying in the face of the Raj in doing this, and the Raj had the power to destroy them! But that did not stop them.

The Vision of Jamsetji Tata

Shri Jamsetji Tata was a pioneer in setting India on the path to industrial self-reliance. But it was not just about technology. His vision for the well-being of his workers was truly enlightened. Way back in the 1880s, he offered facilities like crèches for workers in his mills, as well as short working hours, properly ventilated workspaces, fire safety, etc. In 1886 he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, began to pay accident compensation.

The story of Jamshedpur is another testimony to his vision. The work on this township for housing the workers of the Steel Mills was commenced in 1908. Shri Jamsetji dreamt of more than basic housing for his workers. He wanted to build a proper modern planned city. His instructions regarding the city were:  “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches.”

It was private philanthropy that led to the creation of institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore and Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, Mumbai. It is said that Jamsetji mooted the idea of contributing to an institute like IISC as early as 1898, long before Carnegie’s endowment to set up a Technical School (today Carnegie Mellon University).

From Temples to Gods, to Temples of Education

Shri G.D. Birla was a strong supporter of Gandhiji and gave considerable resources to the freedom struggle. Many of us would have at some time or other visited a Birla Mandir–many a large town in India boasts one. Apart from this charitable activity of temple-building, a landmark contribution of Shri Birla is the creation of one of India’s best higher educational institutions—the Birla Institute of Technology. This was started as a school for G.D. Birla and R.D. Birla by their grandfather in 1901. It grew into a high school  in the 1920s. In the forties, the Birla Education Trust was founded and the institution went from strength to strength, adding degree and post-graduate courses in a variety of disciplines.  In 1964, taking advantage of a Ford Foundation grant, the institute formed a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, and was well on the path to leading India’s achievements in technical education.

Gandhi Ashram is Saved!

When Gandhiji  first came to Ahmedabad, he set up his Ashram at Kochrab. He invited a Dalit family– Dudabhai and Danibehn–to come and live at the Ashram. This led to considerable agitation among the Ashram’s neighbours as well as many funders, leading to a financial crisis, which forced Gandhiji to think of shifting the Ashram.

Kochrab Ashram

And then one day, in Gandhiji’s words: “A car drew up near our quarters and the horn was blown. The children came with the news. The sheth did not come in. I went out to see him. He placed in my hands currency notes to the value of Rs 13,000 and drove away. I had never expected this help, and what a novel way of rendering it!”

This gift saved the Ashram. It is well-known that the ‘Sheth’ was Shri Ambalal Sarabhai, one of the foremost industrialists of the time. However, neither he nor Gandhiji ever admitted this!

Jamnalal Bajaj: Exemplary Patriotism

Jamnalal Bajaj was considered Gandhiji’s fifth son, and adopted all his values—from Ahimsa to his dedication to the poor to his commitment to locally made goods and his patriotic spirit. He fought for admission of Harijans into temples, and in the face of strong objections, opened up his own family temple in Wardha—the first temple in the country to do this.

Shri Bajaj was an active member of the Congress Party, and gave up the Rai Bahadur title conferred on him by the British Government and joined the non-cooperation movement.


Importantly, Jamnalalji, in line with the trusteeship concept propounded by Gandhiji, felt that inherited wealth was a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people, and dedicated most of his wealth for the poor and under-privileged.

On the shoulders of giants….

–Meena

 www.tata.com

https://jamnalalbajajfoundation.org/jamnalal-bajaj/about

Gandhiji’s Wisdom on Education

As we approach Gandhi Jayanti with the New Education Policy (NEP) now a reality, it is an appropriate time to re-visit Gandhiji’s philosophy of education as encapsulated in his Nai Talim (New Education)—Basic Education for All.

The fundamental premise of Nai Talim is that basic education is a holistic process, where all aspects of the individual—intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual—are given opportunity for development.  The curriculum seeks to impart learning through hands-on skill-based work that prepares young people for the real world, rather than creating islands where education has nothing to do with the surrounding community. The centrality of skills aims to reinforce the dignity of labor, the value of self-sufficiency, and strengthen local culture. In this approach to education, craft-skill serves as the center of the holistic development of the student. Other skills such as literacy and mathematics are learned in the context of their craft, and subjects are taught in an interdisciplinary way and never separated from their practical application in the world.

Some other perspectives that under-pinned Gandhiji’s thinking on education were:

  • That education should include a “reverent study of all religions.”
  • Education meant lifelong learning
  • And a re-definition of the role of the teacher, which is summed up by him as : “A teacher who establishes rapport with the taught, becomes one with them, learns more from them than he teaches them. He who learns nothing from his disciples is, in my opinion, worthless. ..In this way, a true teacher regards himself as a student of his students.”

A national education conference held at Wardha on 22–23 October 1937 wherein Gandhiji shared his vision of education led to the setting up of two model schools at Wardha and nearby Segaon.  A few years ago, I was in Wardha and sadly, it did not seem that the school was doing too well, or that it was at the forefront of educational innovation. It would seem that it is not easy to implement the philosophy of Nai Talim in a way that is relevant to today’s world.

They say the NEP has some influences from Nai Talim. How far these elements are implementable or how seriously they will be implemented is yet to be seen. My feeling is that it will take very creative re-interpretation of the philosophy of Nai Talim, if we want the spirit of it to infuse our education system. And as of now, I am not aware of any exciting experiments in this direction.  

I often find myself returning to these two quotes from Gandhiji after discussions and debates on education. To me, they are the touchstone by which any educational initiative must be evaluated:

“By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man–body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education.’

“The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.’

 

–Meena

My Gandhi Year

One of the first assignments that marked my transition from Environmental Educator to Editor-at-Large as it were, was to work on redoing an exhibition gallery at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. The Gallery aptly called My Life is My Message was a chronological walk-through of Gandhiji’s life. I had, long ago read Gandhi’s Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. As a student of political science, I had also studied Gandhi’s role in making an independent India. Now I was excited to be a part of this project because I felt it would give me a better understanding of the entire life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi.

And it was indeed a year when I discovered the many many facets of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi!

These facets were revealed in Gandhi’s own words through the incredible collection of over 34,000 letters, articles and speeches, which have been complied in 100 volumes titled Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG). They have also been published in Hindi as Sampurna Gandhi Vanghmay and Gujarati as Gandhijino Akshardeh.

As fascinating as the contents, is the process that culminated in the volumes.

The mammoth project on translating and compiling all of Gandhi’s writings and speeches covering the period from 1884-1948, and almost 60 years of very active public life, in South Africa, England and India, was launched in 1956 by the Government of India under the supervision of a one-time advisory board formed of Gandhi’s closest associates. Most of the works were collected between 1960 and 1994 under the chief editor the late K. Swaminathan—who started the project when he himself was 64 years old. He continued on the project till he lost his eyesight when he was in his early 90s. The English CWMG project closed in 1994 with the publication of the 100th volume.

Gandhi wrote and spoke in three languages—English, Gujarati and Hindi. So the project involved not just collecting but also translating from the original to the other two languages. The compilation was to be published in all three languages. For each individual version there was a 25-35 member team including proof readers, translators and editors carefully handpicked for their knowledge of world literature, world religions and world history besides their professional expertise. They took around 40 years to translate the collected material.

The arrangement of materials is chronological with all items of a particular date, whether article, speech or letter being placed together. This gives the reader a picture of how Gandhi functioned and how he dealt with issues as they came up—dealing on the same day with matters of great public importance as well as concerning himself with intimate personal problems of individuals.

It is also astounding to find what a prolific writer Gandhi was, and how much writing he could manage in a tightly-packed day. For a great period of his life he did not take the assistance of any stenographer or typist and used to write in his own hand. When he was physically unable to write with his right hand he trained himself to write also with his left hand.

The 100 volumes of the English edition run into more than 50,000 pages; and CWMG has long been recognised as one of the finest examples of editorial and translation work undertaken anywhere in the world.

I had the incredible experience of working with the tireless and dedicated team in the Archives at Sabarmati Ashram, to track what Gandhi did, said and wrote day after day, through the original editions of the CWMG. To flip through the fragile yellowing pages and to read about the amazing variety of topics that Gandhi could think over, and write about, on any single day was uplifting and at the same time humbling. (We who feel so smug at turning out a 500 word piece in a day!).

It was the year I discovered Gandhi—a friend to children and the challenger to the Raj; the gentle nurse and the Satyagraha planner; the nature cure experimenter and the shrewd negotiator….and so much more.

Today this awe-inspiring treasure is available at the touch of a button through the Gandhi Heritage Portal—a digital platform that hosts the all the works of Gandhi, writings on Gandhi by other authors including books, tributes, journals and other media such as videos, photos, among others in 28 different languages from across the globe.

This in itself is a project that is as big in scale as the original compilation. Take a look at the world’s largest digital repository on Mahatma Gandhi www.gandhiheritageportal.org

–Mamata

Swadeshi and My Ratnam Pen

“(Swadeshi) means production and distribution of articles manufactured in one’s own country.”

“Swadeshi is that spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote…  In the domain of politics, I should make use of the indigenous institutions and serve them by curing them of their proved defects. In that of economics, I should use only things that are produced by my immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient and complete where they might be found wanting.”

Mahatma Gandhi

For Gandhiji, swadeshi was the key to independence. To him, swadeshi had several dimensions including the political—revolving around revival of indigenous institutions and their strengthening; and the economic—as a powerful tool for local production and therefore decentralized livelihoods.

Which brings me to the story of my Ratnam/Guider pen. Inspired by Gandhiji’s call for swadeshi, K.V. Ratnam started manufacturing fountain pens in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh in 1932. Mr. Ratnam sent one of the pens to Gandhiji in 1935, and Gandhi wrote back to him (presumably with the gifted pen).  The shop(s) proudly display the quote: “I have used it and it seems to be a good substitute for the foreign pens one sees in the bazars.” Nehru is said to have made a trip to the shop during one of his visits to AP, to get himself a pen or two. One wonders which of his literary works were penned with a Ratnam! Ratnam pens were symbols of self-reliance and national pride!

My Rajahmundry Trip Helped Me With an Innoavtive Birthday Gift for My Husband

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Today, Rajahmundry boasts more than one shop which are offshoots of this legacy of hand-made pens—two Ratnam Pen shops run by Mr. K.V. Ratnam’s two sons, and the Guider pen shop which also claims its lineage to this.

I have had the fortune of visiting Rajahmundry and two of these shops. It was an experience to go to the back of the shop and see a workman turning the pen and shaping it by hand! I bought more pens in more sizes and colours than I know people who still write with fountain pens! But those to whom I have gifted them, cherish them.

Not only for the historical connection, but also these pens write beautifully and are beautifully hand-crafted. They are highly prized by pen collectors and orders come in from across the world.

I may not be written about in history, but I can write with a piece of history!

–Meena

P.S: Even as the nation gears up to mark Gandhi Jayanti, here is a sad piece of news:

97-year-old school founded by Bapu closes as funds dry up – https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/rajkot/97-year-old-school-founded-by-bapu-closes-as-funds-dry-up/articleshow/65987400.cms?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=iPadapp&utm_source=email

 

Well Spun!

Ponduru, a village in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, arguably produces the best khadi in India. Well, at least Gandhiji thought so. He was highly impressed with the fineness of the khadi produced here and preferred it to other khadis. The best dressed (khadi-mode) contemporary politicians even today get their saris, dhotis and shirt material from here.

Ponduru khadi is hand-carded, hand spun and hand woven—truly khadi in letter and spirit.

What makes it special? Well, more than one factor, it seems. For one, the raw material itself is of a special quality—it is made from special varieties of hill cotton and red cotton which are grown in Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts. For another, Ponduru khadi is very smooth, especially the higher count variety. This is because the jawbone of the Valunga fish found in Srikalkulam is used to comb the cotton  fibers to separate them from the seeds, and the process lends a soft sheen  to the cotton.

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There was a time when every home in this village had a loom. But like in most of India, the number of khadi workers in Ponduru is falling. The low remuneration is of course a major reason. Those involved in the sector do not want their children to follow them—they would much rather they got a ‘professional’ degree and got a ‘secure’ job.

Fortunately, there are some efforts to improve the situation, including dedicated NGOs working in the sector. Chitrika is one such which has been working closely with the Ponduru khadi sector for over a decade now. They are helping the workers organize themselves into Producer Cooperatives, find newer markets, and improve their capacities. New and innovative designs are being brought in. All this is enhancing the incomes of the weavers, almost doubling them in the last decade.

But without a pull from the market, no government subsidies or NGO efforts are going to lead to sustainable results. An eminent Gandhian once mentioned that if every Indian bought one khadi garment a year, the sector would thrive and all our khadi workers would be able to earn decent incomes.

A small thing to ask! And this is in our hands.

So this piece today is a call to action. We are about a month away from Independence Day. Go out and buy some khadi! It is a practical and easy ‘good deed’ for 15 August!

Buy khadi, and specially buy Ponduru khadi, best of all khadis!

–Meena