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A circle of good people

By Nicholas Paul Gill

The Ennangalin Sangamam (Confluence of Thought) is an annual event in Tamil Nadu that brings together neighbourhood volunteers. This year, around 500 volunteers shared their stories - of enabling eye donations, helping the disabled find employment or educating prisoners in Madurai

Ennangalin Sangamam (Confluence of Thought) is the off-shoot of a highly localised earlier movement called Nalloor Vattam (meaning circle of good people). This movement was first formalised and legitimised by the right-wing RSS in the early-'80s in an attempt to build a movement of grassroots groups across Tamil Nadu. However, in the process, they ended up networking a large number of neighbourhood people and institutions who did not necessarily subscribe to the RSS political and social views.

So, out of the darkness, light may come: The Nalloor Vattam now functions in most parts of Tamil Nadu as an apolitical organisation more concentrated on volunteering for a need in the neighbourhood and less inclined towards any political activity. Moving still further from its RSS origins, the Ennangalin Sangamam is the embodiment of a simple idea: Create a space in which these neighbourhood volunteers can come together and share their stories.

This year's Ennangalin Sangamam took place on Sunday, January 6, 2008 at Pattabiram on the outskirts of Chennai. This was the third year the group gathered and it has grown each year. The first year had about 100 participants, the second 152 and this year there were more than 500, some of whom had travelled nearly 500 kilometres to be in attendance. A directory of contacts was published at this year's Sangamam and it contains more than 300 names.

The only qualification that is needed to attend the Ennangalin Sangamam is a willingness to talk and listen. There is no formal registration or payment of fees -- the whole event is designed to sit within the context of volunteerism. The organisers themselves are volunteers, who have taken it upon themselves to create this space and allow the stories to be told.

And everyone had a story to tell. Two of the participants had taken it upon themselves to promote eye donations in their local community. They had convinced more than 100 people to donate their eyes after death, thereby bringing sight to many who had been blind. Another man had taken it upon himself to tell the stories of disabled people. He had spent time talking with different people with different disabilities, written down their stories and published them. His aim was inspiration -- to let the reader hear what can be done against the odds.

Another man worked in an HR consultancy company which focussed on finding employment for the physically challenged. He himself suffered from muscular dystrophy as well as a number of other ailments. He had first encountered the company when he himself had gone there to get help to find work. While there he had used his English skills to translate a conversation for a parent of a deaf woman. The manager of the HR company was impressed and hired him as a consultant there and then.

One speaker particularly impressed the audience as he told of his work facilitating better education facilities for long-term serving prisoners in the Madurai central prison. As he described the social stigma which is suffered by a prisoner's family he broke down with emotion. The suffering of the prisoner's family is immense and the burden is particularly heavy for the prisoner's children who, though innocent of any wrongdoing, often lose out on a fair education.

Many other groups provided support to disabled people -- either through housing, or by the provision of crutches or tricycles for mobility, or through education and work opportunities. A significant number worked on education related issues -- enabling children to go to school and supporting them in their school work. Another group of people were involved in `annadaana'; they volunteer to source, cook and serve free food to abandoned invalids, small village schools and other marginal sections in semi-urban and urban environments. The common thread that united all these groups was a belief that people should be given every opportunity to live a fulfilled life. And, more than a belief, they have a will that converts to action -- concrete outcomes for the improvement of people in their community.

There were hundreds of other stories like this that were shared throughout the day. Some people got up on the podium and told the whole group, many stories were shared over a rice meal (provided free by another set of volunteers) or while drinking tea.

So many stories, so what? Storytelling creates connections. The people gathered in this room were acutely aware that the work they did was important but also that it wasn't enough; that they couldn't do it all on their own. There was a sense that too many people in India are let down by the society in which they live - opportunities are denied and potential is unfulfilled.

What is needed is a web of hope that can run through society and which will help to support people in time of need. The Sangamam helps to spin that web. By hearing other people's stories, people gain inspiration and energy to continue their good work. By telling their own story people receive affirmation for what they have undertaken - it is a morale-booster. People gain knowledge and ideas that they can apply to their own context. Practical support structures are forged through conversation, collaborations are initiated.

All of this interaction is driven from below, from people who are at the coal face, not from ministers and officials at the top of some dubious tree. It was a pleasant change for me to go to a function which didn't involve a mandatory two-hour wait for some (invariably very late) minister to turn up, to be lauded and garlanded, and then to spend too long singing his own praises and describing his commitment to good works. Instead of this hubris, there was an impressive humility on display - this was a gathering of peers, not of passive spectators.

One false note was struck however. For some reason the organisers of the Sangamam saw fit to give an ex-government employee an hour of the gathering's time to promote the white elephant cause of "river linking". And so the stories stopped and the virtues of this idea were outlined (a process often enjoyed by the politicians of Tamil Nadu). The irony of course is that river linking is inherently a grand, centralised and government-driven plan and, as such, is very much at odds with the typical modus operandi of the Sangamam participants. Fortunately this session occurred immediately after a good lunch and so was largely ignored by the participants as they interacted with each other or rested.

It would be a shame if the Ennangalin Sangamam were to be hijacked by political agendas. There is a sense in which the Sangamam is necessary precisely because the other structures of civil society are not performing as they should. Provision for the disadvantaged has dropped so far down the agenda of government that alternative structures need to arise that will meet the need of people in the margins. But these alternative structures will not work if they are simply mirror images of the dysfunctional mainstream political system. Instead our hope lies in a different way of doing things- not by decree from above, but by sharing with those below; not blinded by grand and glorious schemes but immersed in the small, daily struggles of local people.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008