Voluntary Role

Full Title: *Role of Voluntary Organisations in Development: The Sri Lankan Case*

_Part of a talk delivered at the South West Asian Youth Conference held in Bangalore, Sept. 1968_

‘People’s power is the supreme power of all. It is called Jana Shakti because it emanates from the People and is sustained by the People, for the People. It eventually means that the People themselves decide their plans of development and what development means to them, put these plans into action by themselves, that is through their own participation. There is, therefore, no power above the People’s Power in which the Sarvodaya believes’

In 1960 we were informed of a village in my country where a highly criminally minded community was supposed to be living. Two of us set off for this village and just before we finally crossed the village border we encountered a young man who taught me a very fundamental reality in community development. This man, as we discovered later, himself an island – reconvicted -criminal, was extraordinarily disrespectful towards us when we first met him. He wanted to find out in the first instance who we were and what brought us to the village. When we asked him to make a guess as to who we were, he made three very interesting guesses. First he said, ‘You must be government officials who come to collect statistics and advise us. Many like you have come and gone but our plight remains the same. Go ahead. We are used to people like you’. His second guess was that an election would be coming round and we had come to canvass their votes. They also do seasonally come and go. When he was given a third chance he was quick to guess that we were ‘from the C.I.D. – the secret police.’

These three guesses give a general background to the true situation in our village life and an understanding of the implications of the same helps us to open up a new avenue in the development strategy that we have to adopt particularly with the involvement of the voluntary agencies.

Now who is coming directly in contact with our people and who is responsible for the social and economic reconstruction of our rural communities? First, the paid government official whose incentives come generally from his salary, promotions and other remunerative considerations; secondly, the politician who is motivated by the acquisition and retention of power, and thirdly, the police who are out to find the evils in men and get them punished.

There are always exceptions to all these categories of people on whom we depend to build up a new Asia, a new Africa. Naturally their achievements fall far short of expectations for by their very organisational nature they have ceased to be any more a part and parcel of the general mass of the common village people on whose drive, education, energy, initiative, labour and resources the whole strategy of rural development depends.

In planning and implementation of community development projects people have been left out as distant on-lookers. Further, instead of foreign masters, the white sahibs and colonial armies, rural people should not be made to look upon the local politicians, the brown sahibs and the police force as agents of national development. They must be made to feel that they are now free and are the masters of their own destinies. The State power which we call Danda Shakthi, the power to punish and destroy, should be replaced by people’s power of Jana Shakthi , the inherent strength, the goodness and creative talent of a people. In other words, we have to revert back to what has been natural to our people. Then only will their creative genius be evoked to improve their lot. Otherwise for a very long time to come we have to continue to be dependent, under-developed and poor.
If we are to get into the business of rural development seriously then there is no gainsaying the fact that we have to involve the very people for whom development programmes are directed. The rural people with all their physical and mental energies, with their culture and traditions, with everything that is theirs have to be totally involved in the development process. How can we do this? We have found by practice that youth with a purpose, initiative and training can do this.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example; again one out of the scores of experiences we have had in the Shramadana Movement. Epakande is a beautiful village situated right on top of a mountain. Over 1200 families live in this village. Along a winding sloping and dangerous footpath people of this village had to walk two and a half miles to reach the motorable road. Looking at the terrain which rises to an elevation of about 1000 feet within half a mile, it was hardly imaginable for any voluntary agency to cut a road to this village. All development programmes of this village were at a standstill due to the lack of an access road. However, for over fifteen years a young man of the village had tried to cut this road with voluntary labour. After some time he was left alone with about six others at this job and he earned the label ‘eccentric’ for trying the impossible.

It was at this stage that the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was called in by them to include this village in its Hundred Villages Development Programme. Immediately the preliminary surveys were made, the number of man-days needed for the job was roughly assessed, camp sites, food collections etc., were made, tools and implements were sent to the village and 300 volunteers from the Movement started work on this project. Over 700 people from the village and the surrounding areas joined them in this labour of love. In four week -end camps the project was completed to the thorough astonishment of the technical experts of the district whose instruments had indicated that along that terrain a road was a prohibitively expensive proposition for the government, leaving aside voluntary effort. Today a motorable road runs right up to the top-most point in the village for the government could not help but recognise the people’s efforts and they undertook the metalling and other technical aspects of the job. “The Eccentric Leader’ has hundreds of willing workers today, not only in his own village but also in the adjoining villages. He is the local Sarvodaya Shramadana leader.

This type of leader with a band of willing workers can bring about a total revolution in village communities. They fill an important gap which exists today between governmental programmes and the people. Though we are politically free still people are not free to participate in planning and implementation of their own developmental projects. There is a vertical line of authority coming down from the Parliament, Minister, Permanent Secretaries and Directors of Departments right down to the village level government official. It stops there and the responsibility of even the lowest official in the bureaucracy is not towards the people that he serves but to this superior official. To the people, the elected Member of Parliament is responsible, but in reality he has no authority over the bureaucracy. Hence to remain in power he has to arouse various sentimental and superficial feelings of people such as caste, creed, language and communal issues. This is a hidden but a very powerful obstacle to our economic and social regeneration particularly in the rural areas.

Under these circumstances, the youth, therefore, come in not only as a very effective bridge between governmental schemes and people’s participation but also as the most powerful mass force that joins all sectors of the community in a developmental effort operating above the still preserved colonial type of administration and a power and position orientated system of party politics. This is also a process of re-educating the educated, a process of throwing back to the people a challenge of initiating programmes to solve their multifarious problems by their own effort and initiative.

The youth has to have a clear and realistic philosophy of life both pertaining to himself and to his relationship with his village, nation and the world. The thought we advocate is the all-embracing concept of the ‘welfare of all’ expressed by the word Sarvodaya. Sarvodaya for the individual is nothing short of the fullest development of his personality. His target for himself is to possess a healthy and well trained physique, sharp and penetrating intelligence, a thirst for more and more knowledge, development of his mental faculties to get an all embracing view of his own life and his physical and social environment and finally to develop his emotional life so as to make qualities of love, service, equality, sacrifice and fearlessness a part of his total personality. All these things when practically and consciously realized result in an immense potential which is evolved in the youth’s personality which can initiate total social changes based on non-violence and spiritual motivation.

Our minds have expanded so much as to place in our hands vast scientific and technological resources and inventions which can either make this world a place of unprecedented happiness and prosperity or completely annihilate not only the human species but also the entire living world. Our hearts have to expand so as to embrace the entire human family if we are to survive. This is the challenge of our times and the youth have to be inspired and guided into this way of total thinking, feeling, and acting.

The second objective that is linked with the Sarvodaya concept is the awakening of our villages. Most of our people exist in villages but they do not live as self-determining and progressive people for the simple reason that all our administrative and developmental systems are city controlled. Therefore if nations have to be awakened in the developing world priority has to be given as to the awakening of village communities.

The irony of technological advancement with clearly visible evolution of mass destructive power demands that the future of the world lies not in centralized and big powers but in decentralized and small communities. Youth must take the initiative in bringing home to the village communities and urban intelligentsia this reality. Voluntary but well organized integrated programmes of community development involving education to fight ignorance, health programmes to fight disease, economic programmes to fight poverty and self-governmental programmes to fight dependence on external authority and coercion, must be undertaken by youth.

Shramadana means pooling together of voluntary resources both mental and physical on a mass scale and carrying out people-centred community projects. Through this media with little capital, great material as well as social progress has been made eg. in the villages of Sri Lanka.

Thirdly, the ideals and objectives with regard to the awakening of one’s own notion should be clear in the minds of youth. The concept of national re-awakening brings you face to face with essential problems such as national integration, administrative efficiency, political re-organisation etc. Programmes once again based on Shramadana where all sections of community, political, linguistic, social, religious and caste are brought together should be envisaged. Active participation of urban and rural people periodically in community projects as equals and partners go a long way in bringing the existing gap between these groups. Voluntary contributions in cash and material (sampatidana), sharing of skills in educational, technical, medical and other fields (Buddhidana), donation of land for the landless (Bhoodana), are all supplementary programmes centred round the technique of giving away the easiest one could part with – namely the shrama-physical and mental energy.

Fourthly, our world is a young world. It is a world of youth. Coming together from various parts of the world for organised community development projects centred round self-help opens up a new horizon for the youth of the world to meet, to plan for and to build a new world based on mutual respect, sharing and peace. As much as the Sarvodaya objective for the individual is his total development, for the villages their total awakening, for the nation total regeneration, so does it aim at a world free from hunger, disease, ignorance and fear.

With a little bit of cultural re-orientation these thoughts could be commonly shared by all youth both in developing, the developed and the decadent world. The third world I refer to as the decadent world consists of those countries and societies where with the advancement of science and technology, morality and spirituality have been lost sight of, and where the sensual satisfaction has been considered the end-factor of human life and existence. The youths have to experience and learn the fact that the whole world and much more are within their own minds and hearts and no human life is worth living if this inner man and treasures are not discovered and experienced. Personally I believe that no youth leadership training programme is complete if the youths are not made to understand the immense‘soul force’ which lies dormant in all of us. No development assistance partnership is lasting and effective if this human factor is ignored and lost sight of.

The very concept of the welfare of all – Sarvodaya -pre-supposes non-violence and co-operation as motivating factors. This is not the non-violence of the weak and indifferent. Neither is the co-operation that is preached by the privileged few on the exploited. Sarvodaya concept of non-violence is a very active and dynamic social weapon to fight against all forms of injustice and exploitation. No doubt construction activities such as cutting village roads, digging wells, building houses, lavatories and community halls, desilting and repairing of tanks and irrigation works etc., have great value for the community. But we cannot stop there. On the contrary these are not even the beginning of a total revolution to build up man and society. If, however , these lead to a total change in the outlook of man both towards himself and towards others in the community and also lays the infrastructure that is necessary for a self-generating progressive society then we may be said to be on the right path. Otherwise we will only be scratching the surface and not attacking the problem at its roots. Landlessness on the part of the majority of our people, concentration of wealth in the hands of few while the most are poor, large scale unemployment and underemployment inequality of opportunities for all, rural exodus, bureaucratic hold on the farmers, disparity between rural and urban sectors, are some of the basic problems that have to be faced realistically. In our desire to do social service or charity in the form of providing some amenities for the needy, we should not forget the revolutionary aspect of the youth movement, where social foundations have to be relaid wherever necessary so that all people have equal chances and opportunities to manage their own affairs democratically and independently.
Now let me elaborate a little on the implementation aspects of these thoughts particularly with examples from our own country. I said, we as a voluntary organisation have accepted the Sarvodaya thought and this thought is translated into concrete action by Shramadana. By its very nature Shramadana does not require outside aid to begin its programmes. We begin with what we have and from where we are. We have no machines that the developed countries have; but we have plenty of excess and unused labour which, if only organised and mobilised as a productive force, can create sufficient wealth for our people to take them at least to the take-off point in economic development. On a voluntary basis we organise this ‘shrama’ (labour) for well-planned out rural development projects. And gifting of labour in the service of others is a meritorious deed according to our religious tradition.
You may wonder, how people, particularly the youth, are recruited to gift their labour in the service of their country and people. Well, that is an art you have to learn and a science that you have to master. Begin with yourself as a youth leader. Gather all your courage and place your wholeself in the service of your less fortunate fellow beings. If you do it selflessly there will be thousands to follow your example. If you don’t do it then there will be none to do it. We have quite a few selfless workers like this and it is they who set the pace for others. Have faith in the goodness of the human being and tap him at the right point. He will respond.

Once we have decided upon a community where we are going to help a series of Shramadana camps, may be camps for two days – three days – seven days – or even of a longer duration, have to be organised. In these camps a psychological oneness between the people of the community and the Shramadana workers from outside will have to be brought about. This depends on the degree to which the group can identify with and adopt themselves to the life and culture of the community, and thus win their confidence. Let us not have a patronising attitude. Let us not go with an idea to teach but always with a desire to learn from the community. Let us not superimpose our culture and our ways on them. On the contrary let us begin with theirs and changes will follow. Let us learn to understand and know the community fully.

People judge us by results and not by promises and sermons. Therefore the surest projects are those that can be completed with labour-for that is the major resource we have. Every locality has its own raw material which have served them for generations to satisfy their needs. Let us first make use of them with better scientific skill. Rather than working for the people let the people feel that we are working with them as partners in a great national cause.
A few days of camp life in the village, if properly organised, can bring about a successful initiation of a rural development project. Six to eight hours of manual work, 2 to 3 hours of study, discussions, planning, evaluation etc., 1 to 2 hours of recreation, half an hour of religious activity and common prayer etc., can give variety yet purpose to the camp. The idea is to involve the whole community in all stages of planning and implementation of projects.
Once the community involvement is satisfactorily brought about, specialised activities can be gradually introduced. But we should never lose sight of the fact that ours is an integrated approach to bring about an all round development in the community. Socio-economic family surveys, health and medical surveys, land utilization, adult education and literacy, child care and maternity services, environmental sanitation, applied nutrition, food production etc., can be carefully introduced through skilled volunteers in those fields. Of course all these depend on how far the voluntary organisation itself is organised and is capable of getting the services of a cadre of trained and skilled workers.

If the voluntary organisation can prove its worth in the field of community organisation the services of government extension officers and institutions will be readily forthcoming. Without losing the freshness and the dynamism of the voluntary approach if governmental assistance and services could be channelled into this work with mutual understanding and agreement, I think, very effective results could be achieved. At least that is our experience. Voted expenditure of the government for rural development can be put to good use and the output may be many times multiplied if such a harmony can be achieved.

In Sri Lanka under the sponsorship of the School Youth Mobilisation Committee (whose Chairman is a Sarvodaya Shramadana Worker) of the National Freedom from Hunger Campaign, every year over half a million school youth are mobilised for weeding, transplanting and harvesting of paddy fields. This is an excellent example of a joint effort between a voluntary organisation and government.

I presume that you have grasped the spirit of what I have said. Finally let me conclude with one more example to complete my story. I said earlier that the future of our civilization depends on these rural communities. If they are helped to help themselves by pooling their labour for community projects they may go a step further. In my country in a village called Pubbiliya, the people decided to pool together their land resources also and work co-operatively. They have their Elders’ Council, Youth Organisation, Women’s Organisation etc., who play that leading role in programming for the village. One year ago they were the most backward community in that division. Today they are the most progressive and self-determining community. We from the outside have only to act as liaison between the village and central government and other assisting agencies. All assistance coming into the village is utilised to bring about increased production and not for charity or day to day consumption.