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Saturday, March 23, 2002

We are surrounded by myriad problems - minor irritations to crises of great magnitude. We are often upset about the way things work or don’t work. Many of these could easily be set right – like the traffic problems at intersections. All these problems bother us a great deal everyday; we talk about them at length and maybe hope that someone else will take care of them. But then their sheer number and complexity is enough to deter many well-meaning people from trying to do anything. And there are always the ‘cynics’ who dismiss the small individual efforts to make a difference.

People also shy away from involvement because they are afraid to commit themselves. This fear is not unfounded. We think that to be community oriented we have to become a Gandhi or a Mother Theresa - that we have to give up forever all the fun things and small pleasures of life.

Actually many people think this is the only way to do it. It is this fear that one should give up everything that prevents others from coming forward to help. One does not have to become a monk or a nun to serve the people. Citizens can enjoy life and still render service. The whole idea of making life better for somebody else doesn’t mean you make yourself and others around you miserable. Community service is meant to improve the life of those around us. Negation of life cannot be the basis for enduring community work.

People also do not have to give all the time at their disposal to a cause. It’s enough to give few hours each day or on alternate days, or set aside only a day or two each week. Part of the work can even be done from the comfort of one’s own home. The only important thing to remember is that whatever time is given, should be given with regularity and sincerity. There are some who join ‘social service’ only to be able to get their names alongside celebrities and influential politicians. That will be both revolting and counterproductive. Community work is not charity. It is for building our own social capital and improving public goods.

Take for instance the plight of schools in Hyderabad. There are 780 state schools and 304 state-funded aided schools. The annual expenditure is about Rs 100 crores. And yet we have very few youngsters fulfilling their potential. There are teachers without pupils, and schools without teachers. If a small group of educated citizens adopts a school each, and gives a few hours of quality time every week, we can make these schools very productive institutions for human development.

This applies to many other fields – healthcare, garbage clearance, graveyard maintenance, park preservation, and traffic management. In the US, parent-volunteers regulate the traffic near schools at the beginning and end of the school-day. There is no dearth of meaningful community work.

What we need is the concept of kar seva – not the ‘kar seva’ that promotes destruction and begets hatred, but the true kar seva of love and fulfillment. We need not sacrifice anything, except may be our ignorance, prejudice and false sense of elitism.

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy”

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