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October 28, 2007
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October 28, 2007

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Home > 2007 Issues > October 28, 2007

Open Forum

Combine social and national service to make it selfless

By M.D. Kini

Many Indians sacrificed their careers, wealth, and even lives to obtain Independence. This is a classic case of selfless service?nishkama karma. Even while fighting for freedom, Mahatma Gandhi emphasised the need for another kind of service-social service which is also selfless service. He called it constructive programme to make the poor of India self-reliant through khadi and gramodyoga (hand weaving and handicrafts). He promoted many organisations for this purpose. He believed in self-help and co-operation. His message was - protecting the livelihood of the people is as important as fighting for freedom. .

After Independence, the government has taken over nation-building and citizens? role has been reduced. Today, many people think that the citizen?s duty is over if he pay his taxes and votes in the elections. Of course, many people do not do even this minimum duty or responsibility of a citizen. This has not prevented our people from complaining about corruption and misuse of power by the politicians, bureaucrats and the wealthy. This limited engagement of the citizens with the society is the root of all our problems.

These thoughts came to me after reading the cover story, ? The Case for National Service ? by Richard Stengel in the Time Magazine (Sept.10). The author starts by quoting Dr. Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention in1787. A lady asked Dr.Franklin, ?Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy ?? Dr.Franklin replied, ? A Republic, if you can keep it.?

Indeed, our freedom and our republican democracy will survive, only if we can keep it ? work for it and fight for it.

? There had been only a handful of other republics in all history,? says Stengel, ? and most were small and far away. The founders? pessimism, though, came not from history but from their knowledge of human nature.A republic, to survive, needed not only the consent of the governed but also their active participation. It was not a machine that would go of itself; free societies do not stay free without the involvement of their citizens.?

Stengel then mentions the problems of USA today ? 38 per cent of fourth graders unable to read at a basic level; 47 per cent are uninsured; inept response to the hurricane in New Orleans; the Iraq war. Then, he adds, ?Polls show that while the confidence in our democracy and our government is near an all-time low, volunteerism and civic participation since the ?70s are near all-time highs?, and explains why it is so - ?People, especially young people, think that the government and the public sphere are broken, but they can personally make a difference through community service...The reason private volunteerism is so high is precisely that confidence in our public institutions is so low.?

Though we in India too have low confidence in public institutions, volunteerism is not very high. I believe it is so because we have not been able to harness the energies of our people.

Stengel favours universal national service, not compulsory, but voluntary, in the enlightened self-interest as a nation. He says, ? It is the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage?. He says that more than 61 million Americans dedicated 8.1 billion hours to volunteerism in 2002 and 27 per cent of Americans engage in civic life by volunteering. In a poll in 2002, 70 per cent of Americans thought universal service was a good idea. J.F.Kennedy had launched his famous Peace Corps. After 9/11, George Bush established the USA Freedom Corps.

Stengel has suggested a 10-point plan :

(1) A National-Service Baby Bond ? When a baby is born, the Federal government would invest $5000/- in the child?s name which would be $19,000/- when the baby reaches 20 years. That would be available to the person when he/she completes one-year of national or military service. Money is to be used for education, start a business or for housing. ? If you invest in your country, your country will invest in you.?; (2) Make National Service a Cabinet-level Department ? The Corporation for National and Community Service created in 1993 to manage AmeriCorps,Senior Corps, Learn and Serve America, is a small and independent department. By upgrading it to cabinet level, it would get importance - ? recognise that service is integral to how America thinks of itself?.; (3) Expand existing National Service Programmes ? Since 1994, 500,000 people have gone through AmeriCorps programmes teaching in urban schools, managing after-school programs, cleaning up playgrounds, schools and parks, caring for elderly etc.; (4) Create an Education Corps ? Create a cadre of tutors, teachers and volunteers who can help the 38 per cent of fourth-graders who cannot read at a basic level. They can also conduct after-school programmes to reduce teen parents and drop-outs ; (5) Institute a Summer of Service ? Summer holidays, especially between middle school and high school, to run summer programmes for younger students in exchange for a $500 college scholarship; (6) Build a Health Corps ? Nearly 7 million American children who are eligible for but not enrolled in government sponsored health insurance programmes. The Health Corps volunteers could assist low-income families accessing available public insurance offerings like the Children?s Health Insurance Programme; (7) Launch a Green Corps ? The Civilian Conservation Corps of Franklin Roosevelt put 3 million ?boys in the wood? to build the foundation of the modern park system in USA.The Green Corps could reclaim polluted streams, blighted urban lots, repair and rehabilitate railroad lines, ports, schools, hospitals, energy-efficient housing for elderly and low-income people; (8) Recruit a Rapid-Response Reserve Corps ? 9/11 and Katrina have highlighted the disarray and lack of coordination in emergencies.This Corps would help in coping up with these sort of emergencies; (9) Start a National Service Academy ? On the lines of West Point, but not for war but to learn how to transform a failing public school. The Academy would give undergraduates a four-year education in exchange for a five-year commitment to public service after they graduate ? to create a new generation of people who are idealistic about government; (10) Create a Baby-Boomer Education Bond ? In the next 10 years, 78 million baby boomers will be eligible to retire. Many senior citizens like to help people in their community. The baby boomer volunteers could designate a scholarship of Rs.$1000/- for every 500 hours of community service they complete. This could be used by the volunteer?s children/ grand children or a student they designate.

?The courageous souls who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged ?our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.? The least we can do to keep the Republic is to pledge a little time?, concludes the author, Richard Stengel. I may add, the Founding Fathers of our Constitution would be delighted and honoured if we in India too enlist the enthusiasm of the young and experience of the old to promote liberty, equality and fraternity propounded in our Constitution. It would be a better tribute to them than all the statues, roads and museums that we dedicate to them.

Of course, the ten-point plan would not suit our people and our country. We have to have our own priorities and our own plan of action. We have to bring together the strengths of the corporate sector, voluntary associations and the government to evolve programmes and implement them. We all know how the governments schemes meant for the poor have been misused by the politicians and the bureaucrats. This should not be allowed to continue.

Health, education and environment should be the focus. Primary education and primary health care centres should be set-up in all villages. The Corporate sector and the voluntary sector should be involved in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan as well as in providing health-care in all villages. Empowerment of villages through education and health would provide a good foundation for economic and social growth of the country. The Central and State governments should have Advisory Committees consisting of experts, representatives of the chambers of commerce and NGOs to formulate schemes and implement them.

We have to chanelise the energy and idealism of youth with the experience of the old. It is necessary for all graduates to devote one year for social service activities before being given their certificates ? legal graduates to provide free legal service ; medical graduates to provide medical service etc. All retired executives of the private and public sectors to be provided with retirement benefits after they serve one year in social service. This is a debt they owe to society which provided them opportunities to prosper in life.

We have to combine social service and national service. We have to combine individual compassion for human beings with the national goal of liberty, equality and fraternity. Every citizen should be provided opportunities to grow to his full potential, and this is the only way the country can grow to its full potential. This is the real foundation of a great country and a great society.

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