Social responsability revisited

TV’s prodigal child is three episodes old. I am talking of SJ hosted by a leading film star. I must admit that I was taken in by episode 1 as it touched a raw nerve though I did have my reservations. It was a little too glitzy for my liking and sounded a tad false and failed to address the real issues. Post episode 1, I learnt that the anchor was charging a whopping 3.2 crores per episode. I must admit I was saddened and somehow the show lost its charm at least for me. Seemed that social responsibility was the new kid on the business block.

Call it synchronicity but some days later I came upon an article entitle: How My Conscience Was Abducted in Dantewada. In the garb of social responsibility, the Essar Group recently organised a storytelling festival for the ‘benefit’ of children in this Maoist-dense area. What emerged most starkly was the stench of corporate propaganda. The article is written by a story teller invited to tell stories to a bunch of tribal kids in a language they did not understand and who felt his conscience was abducted. The scenario goes something like this-  the protagonists: a corporate in desperate need of a new coat of veneer, an event management company desperate to conjure a sense of celebration in an alien place, hundreds of bewildered children gathered to hear stories in a language they do not understand and a bunch of bored officials present to give the stamp of officialdom; the stage: hurriedly white washed hall with buntings more appropriate to an upmarket literary festival than a story telling for tribal children. The children were made to listen to corporate  propaganda and incomprehensible stories, feat made harder by the pangs of hunger as the organisers has miscalculated the numbers. Pictures were taken to adorn the CSR pages of websites and publications, a huge budget was earmarked for those in power to spend. All in a all a success except for the children who still did not quite fathom what was happening. The question that begs to be asked is: is such a farce needed? My answer is a big NO! Such efforts are to my mind pathetic and revolting. Corporate Social Responsibility at best eases some consciences, makes good photo ops and lines pockets. The supposed beneficiary is left bewildered and empty handed.

How the receiving side feels was best portrayed by one such recipient. We too have had our own first hand experiences be it the lady from a prestigious club who brought a few sweaters on a hot September morning and her personal photographer in tow. She insisted that the special kids wear the sweaters in spite of the sweltering heat, so that she could have a photograph for the newsletter of her club! Or how can I forget the man who in response to our appeal for help for Raju’s open heart surgery wanted to know why we were spending so much money for just a poor child. Charity has become a lucrative business.

On the other hand, call it synchronicity again, I stumbled upon another TV show called the  Secret Millionaire. True it is what is now called a reality show – the flavour of our times – but it rings true. The blurb of the show states: Millionaire benefactors say goodbye to their luxury lifestyles and go undercover in deprived areas to find out who needs their help. I was impressed by the part of the show I saw, but still a bit cynical and weary of reality shows I decided to catch a few more. It was truly inspiring. A millionaire spends 9 days in a destitute area to look for causes he may fund. It is bye bye credit cards and fat wallets. The protagonist is meant to survive on the minimum wage, often in a decrepit flat a far cry from his luxurious abode. He has to cook – or buy street food -, wash, clean and above all  find organisations worthy of his help. To achieve this he talks to people in pubs and other places and once he has a list of organisations he goes on to volunteer in them. This enables him to assess the real situation. At the end of his 9 days he reveals his identity and makes his donations.To justify the presence of cameras, people are told that a documentary is being shot to highlight the issues of the community. The show looks real and touches the heart. The millionaire is often shown coming back to the area weeks later to reconnect with those he helped. I must admit I too had a lump in my throat. If it is all scripted then it was a darned good job!

I could not help remembering a reality show that professed to get rich young Indians brats to experience life in a slum. Now one would think that they would live in an actual slum. Far from that. In line with the Big Brother set, a ‘slum’ was created for them.I remember watching one episode where the kids were in a large room with beds (I presume harder than the ones they were used to) and fans (no ACs). This was a bizarre depiction of slums as I know them. Wonder if any of those kids could have survived in Radha’s home which is a hole in the ground, about 12 square feet, with an asbestos roof and mud floor. In that ‘hole’ live 4 adults and 4 children. One must not forget that little Radha suffers from brittle bone disease.

 I also wonder if any of our millionaires would agree to give up their comfortable lives and spend even one night if not in a slum, let us say in the likes of a DDA Jantadesi version of the Secret Millionaire. I guess production houses knew it was doomed to fail as they would find no millionaires willing to participate. I guess we have some more growing up to do. Our rich are more comfortable with the CRS version of charity that does not entail dirtying one’s hand and is a perfect way to ease consciences.

2 thoughts on “Social responsability revisited”

  1. I too watch the 'secret millionaire' TV programme and it always brings tears to my eyes. It seems genuine and is not lauded as mainstream TV in the UK yet it continues series after series. I particularly like the way the millionaires are grounded from their lush lifestyles by what they experience and that it is a personal journey not a corporate exercise. My only slight reservation is how much is spent on production costs but this only mirrors the modern times of charity in the 'western' world where large sums are spent on admin and generating funds.
    That is why I like Project Why so much as I know it does not spend on admin or fund generation apart from giving a needy person a job as a school administrator or teacher.
    As to 'reality shows' where rich and/or famous people are shown to live in fake slums or jungle….well its just very unsavoury to say the least and leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. I can't abide to watch such trash and having visited Radha's home I would challenge anybody to live where she does. It is as tiny and cramped as you say, a dark little shack between other slum dwellings and a factory wall. What hit me when I visited her that day, to take her to the doctor, was that there was still pride and care taken by those that live in her slum area, the absence of garbage outside their 'doors', the order and organisation of what little possessions and resources they have. But above all what hit me was how they all had to be tolerant and minded of each other and organise themselves to live together in such a close and cramped area.
    The 'art' of giving in a fanfare of visit with photographer in tow is so easily a trap to fall into, I too have done the same. A few years ago when giving funds, raised for local chilrens' charities by my theatre company, I would stroll up in my suit with camera in hand, bring a cheque written on a huge piece of card, ask to be shown round and gather people together for a photo with the large cheque. My ego liked it under the excuse that we needed to show on our website where the money was given but I felt uncomfortable afterwards and realised all we needed to do was send the money, nothing else.
    And that is now what we do, post the small cheque and put a small message on our website/facebook page to inform people.
    That was one of the things being at the Project Why school in Govind Puri showed me. When I was in class and 'dignitaries' insisted on being shown round, it felt like the special needs guys and I were there to perform for them, dance for their photos. The best people, and a much better way, were those that just came in quietly, sat down and joined in.
    Project Why teaches so many things and probably much more, Anou, than you ever realised it would, how to give with humility being one of them.

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