I have been doing a course on Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) with SEE Learning India where I learned that our empathy is the highest for people with who we identify. What I heard in the Open Field last Saturday pushed me to think about how little I associate with an average Indian — probably a farmer, living in rural India — and as a result, how limited my empathy has been for them as the crisis has unfolded.
To expose me to the average Indian’s world, the team at Co.lab^x collaborated with the team at Goonj to help us all to listen to Anshu Gupta (Founder), Sheoji Chaturvedi, Arpita Panda and Imran Khan, all team members at Goonj who have spent many years enhancing the dignity of the poor in India.
While some trends on being nimble and responding to emerging needs have been consistent across different cycles of The Open Field (see footnotes for links), I had a few reflections that were standing out to me from this learning space:
This crisis is really different.
Usually, there is a visible crisis that happens with great intensity and passes and then there is the work of relief and recovery from the crisis. This one is different because:
- It is national and global, and not just local.
- The relief effort is running in tandem with the still-unfolding crisis.
- It is not going to be fixed by approaches known to us, like after a natural calamity or an economic recession.
- The severity of the crisis is going to continue growing for many months ahead.
- The health implications are a very small part of the larger unfolding crisis, which is economic, social, political, but above all, existential in the context of many groups of the population.
The crisis has held a mirror to our society.
Anshu shared “We have reached a point where there are two types of people — those who have food and those who do not. Those who have food are within their homes and those who don’t are on the streets. The people out on the streets have been contributing to food on the tables of the people at home. The ones who made our houses are now outside.”
The migrant daily-waged workers or farmers have spent years invisibly building our seemingly comfortable lifestyles. When the lockdown happened, they did not have the trust in our society to take care of them and support them even for a few hours. Their displacement and despair is a reflection of our failure as a country.
Relationships are at the heart of a nimble, collaborative response.
Transactional, exploitative relationships are at the heart of migrant families abandoning the cities for the refuge of their villages, despite knowing the challenges that are awaiting them back home. In the same vein, it is also the presence of trust and nontransactional relationships that allows people to come together to make a difference to those in need.
Imran referred to how the team members have stayed at their ration, mask and sanitary napkin processing center for days without going home for weeks so that they can serve their community while ensuring each individual and their family is safe. Arpita narrated a story of how a Goonj partner organization went out of the way to help migrant, tribal workers in far-flung northern Bengal locality to get rations, just on their request.
There were so many examples of how the two-way, dignified relationships that Goonj had built with its volunteers, partners, employees have played a role in them being able to adapt quickly to the situation and collaborate effectively with others. It has led to self-organized teams being able to take multiple, local initiatives towards helping those in need, despite the constraints imposed by the lockdown and the precautions require to keep their people safe.
You can give much more than you know.
This crisis is not going away soon and it calls for each of our generosity. All speakers shared that each of us should do whatever we can, wherever we can. While donating money or resources may seem obvious, Anshu also shared some other ways that I thought were useful to consider:
- Make a list of all your contacts — friends, families, colleagues — and encourage them to do something that will be useful to others in these times.
- Make a list of all your strengths (go beyond academic qualifications, job posting, positions). If you are good at cooking, engage in the exercise and help someone learn. If you are a good listener, go listen to a few people who you don’t know. People need sukuun (tranquility in Hindi) and you never know how your words or actions may offer them that.
Going back to CBCT, I recently discovered a chapter on “Happiness Ethics” by the Dalai Lama that spoke of three ethics to live a happy life. The three ethics were the ethics of restraint (to not harm others), the ethics of virtue (to strengthen your positive behaviour and inner values) and the ethics of altruism (to lead a life of giving without expecting anything in return). I felt all three of them coming alive listening to the Goonj team share. No wonder there was palpable joy in their voice, despite knowing that many families they have supported for decades have gone back to where they started.
Here are my other posts about reflections from The Open Field: