This is not a new retort of mine except that after having said it the nth time around I thought this should be recorded.
I was at an evening event at the US Consulate where over the course of discussions I met this lady who wanted to know what I did and on learning of my involvement with environmental activism was very appreciative and grateful that somebody in the city does this. It was maybe a first instance for her that at a networking event she had met somebody with such a vocation. She was a businesswoman running two successful businesses.
The conversation proceed further which is when the discussion came to where it usually does in such conversations. She wanted to know how such activities sustain themselves.
I told her how doing activism is a difficult path. About how I had over the past few years significantly reduced my participation for want of resources and was focusing more on my personal needs and profession.
About how one hopes and relies that the citizens at large all of whom benefit from activism – whether saving the mangrove forests or improving the walking infrastructure of the city – would at sometime respond with volunteering their time or giving small donations to sustain expenses. And then I added about how the public are so singularly disappointing in extending any support.
And bang as could be predicted came the standard grouse that one never knows how the money will be used and it is difficult to trust NGOs.
I gave her the analogy of Bollywood and how the same people never demand their money back if a movie from the Bollywood stable turns out to be an utter waste of their time and money. That their money value has been completely destroyed (and time value) is not as much a matter of concern to people as giving money to an NGO. I gave the example of Walking Project where the most nominal amount of Rs. 365 is an annual individual membership. It translates to Rupees one a day, something the poorest can also subscribe to.
But in one year to the Project we are still not able to get memberships in this bracket. Whereas people spend any multiple of that amount on multiplex, on movie tickets and all other associated expenditures. Yes, I understand that people want to be happy and entertained and our willing to be pay for it but does not something like a Walking Project not bring any value to their life and should they not have any interest in making even a small contribution?
Is there no happiness in enjoying a great walking environment in your city? And will you not do even a little bit to support a group of people who get on with it? Much as you would support Karan and Amitabh to entertain you (which can be of quite dubious quality a number of times)
Millions of people are more than willing to make their contributions from Rs. 50 to 500 towards supporting Karan Johar and Amitabh Bachchan, which is what sustains their ventures. These gentlemen do not put money from their pockets, which can end up being the case a lot of times in NGO work.
It is this large hearted public support which enables Mr. Johar and Mr. Bachchan to add to their stables of bungalows and cars, while Walking Project or mangroves with which I have been associated for more than a decade cannot even afford a full time project manager and a peon.
I think the example struck a very strong chord and the lady immediately realised what she had been doing with her money all along and Walking Project got a small donation.
She did not know me from before the evening and so was justified in her skepticism but this entry is not about her, it is about the abject lack of community service and philanthropy in the Indian middle class. It is about how they can and do crowd fund Bollywood and hundreds of similar activities but will not support community activities.
There must be 10,000 people who know me personally or my work in the past decade and no one (very few exceptions) has every bothered to engage in a kind gesture. Lokhandwala Complex where I have been housed for the past two decades presents a desolate dreary desert for any such goodwill. It is a complex of the wealthy and few of them who commit actually make a donation, not to speak about those who skillfully evade any such discussion.
The 300 acres of mangroves here (which were completely responsible for saving the complex from the flood of 2005) of which a 100 acres I was clearly able to save in the first half of the last decade , the saving of the Lokhandwala Lake in 1999 by and me and numerous other activities are clearly not as valuable as what Mr. Johar and Bachchan have to offer and need to be continuously justified.