Journeys for Change 4

This is the fourth of Tom’s five blogs from the Journeys for Change India adventure, November 2011.

Spiritual Cleansing

No one can understate the importance of Gandhi to India or the world. Throughout the ashram which he established in 1918 in Ahmedabad, from where he organised and planned for the next 12 years, there are quotes in his praise from the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. His doctrine of patient and passive resistance to oppression proved effective in his own country and has been taken up by many in the years since then. His words and his deeds, whilst maintaining the most simple of lifestyles, bear crushing relevance today.

In Satyagrahashram today prayers to the spirit within us all and respect for those of all stations of life, but especially the poor and deprived, underlie the work of Gandhi’s followers especially in the field of sanitation: defined as cleanliness in mind, body and spirit. The ashram’s centrepiece is a ‘toilet garden’ in which a score of different models, some more sophisticated than others yet none with a flush, are on permanent display. In a nation historically accustomed to moving its bowels in the corner of a field a not for profit enterprise operating within the ashram’s walls and spirit has helped deliver an incredible million toilet installations to Gujarat province alone.

But sanitation is not achieved by toilets alone.

The Gandhi-inspired Institute for Environmental Sanitation puts the cleanliness philosophy into practice. They deliver education to 9,000 children, both in a modern learning centre and in 27 outreach programmes in state schools. Whilst the teaching covers basic and life skills and English the principles and practice of cleanliness are at its heart and its professed goal is for the children to become ‘spiritually aware’.

I am in India with a diverse group of nine like-minded people from four countries on a ‘Journey for Change’. Our common passion is that social and community enterprise and entrepreneurship can contribute more to society than they do and can over time make a significant contribution to changing society for the better: more just, more democratic, more sustainable.

Meeting the Institute and its acolytes provokes some of our team’s sharpest divisions whilst strengthening those common beliefs: sanitation in India represents a failure of government responsibility, we argue, that there is a business case, a rational case for investing in sanitation, reducing health risks and thereby increasing human dignity and productivity. Yes, the spiritual side of life is important but when the Institute declines to act as advocates for social change it is ‘a deceit’ according to one of our number. An American member of the Institute, who rejected a legal career to work with leper children, smiles. We will achieve universal sanitation in India, he says, even if we have to wait two thousand or five thousand years. Meanwhile, suffering brings spiritual benefits; and he cites the Rwandan genocide as evidence.

I am more upset by this exchange than I let on. These people are doing wonderful work, inspired by a great leader, but they are doing it for the wrong reasons. ‘When I give you food I give you love’, they say, but this is the down side of charity; it is not sustainable. What the poor, the excluded, the exploited of India and beyond need is not food for today but ploughshares for tomorrow, a market at which and in which livings can be made through enterprises that they can mould, run and benefit from.

In the long term the giving of food is sustainable only in the way that a prison is. It is not progressive; sustainability must be seen in the sense of sustainable development, a sense of being where you are in the system and moving to somewhere better, somewhere in this world rather than the next.

Perhaps this idea jars in a society which still has a potent caste system, where karma and rebirth are the outcome of all actions. The philosophy of ‘I want our children to have something better than my generation had’, common in western countries, should not be condemned as materialist but be praised as an expression of love for our children and the children of others.

I am no student of philosophy but I cannot believe that Gandhi meant that acceptance was an alternative to ambition; that anger should not metamorphose into advocacy. Ambition and advocacy should co-exist with understanding our rational situation as well as our spiritual; otherwise charitable organisations of all kinds are doomed to last forever when their real aim must be to achieve a situation where their work is no longer needed.

Perhaps it is that questioning of infinity that really worries those guided in their work only by spiritual considerations.