Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

(This post was originally published on Dec 17, 2013.)

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Charity or Empowerment?

This post is in response to Indispire Edition 31: “Charity or Empowerment? Are charitable donations to feed and house the poor really the way out of the mire of poverty or do NGOs need to focus more on skill development? Should we as donors be more proactive rather than merely donating money?”

In reply to this question, many, maybe most of us would quote the proverb,
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” (For the record, I haven’t been able to get an authoritative identification of the source of this proverb.)

In other words, charity will feed a person for a day or a few days, but if that person learns a skill, (s)he will feed herself/himself for a lifetime. Skill development is probably the most important part of the long-term solution to a person’s poverty.

However, any person would be physically fit enough and in the proper frame of mind to learn any skill only if her/his basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, at least partially if not completely.

Most of us have been lucky enough to have been born into families where our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met adequately, maybe much more than adequately, and we also enjoy many luxuries. However, there are many persons for whom, for no fault of theirs, even partial fulfilment of their basic needs is a distant dream. Before such persons start learning any skill, their basic needs must be met, at least partially. Hence, NGOs first focus on feeding, clothing and housing the poor, then on skill development. It’s not about charity or empowerment. It’s all about charity and empowerment!

How can we be more proactive as donors? We must donate only to those NGOs that utilise most of their funds for their core activity. This need not mean that we donate only to large and well-known NGOs. There are quite a few smaller NGOs that are doing excellent work. We should donate to such NGOs as well after making background checks, directly or through any reliable person(s). Many NGOs allow donors to specify the purpose for which their donations should be used. Some NGOs have schemes by which a donor can sponsor the education of a particular child; reports on the child’s progress are sent periodically to the donor, and the donor can also interact with the child if (s)he so desires.

If we look around and ask around, we can find persons whose basic needs are met, but who do not go in for education or skill development due to financial constraints. These could be our domestic helps, drivers, security staff, etc. or their family members. We could help such persons by financing their training and/or by helping them to obtain financial assistance from various organisations that we may be aware of.

There are some highly skilled workers whose career growth is severely limited by their lack of knowledge of English and/or lack of exposure to computers/internet/email. Whenever we come across such persons, we should help them acquire these skills. Such persons can become excellent mentors for others in similar situations.

There are many more ways in which we can be ‘proactive donors’. The only requirement is we must be prepared to spend some time and effort to ensure that the money we donate is used well.

Pots and kettles

A customer and I had just completed a long discussion in his factory. Since it was our first meeting, he insisted that he would treat me to lunch. As we were walking towards his car, the talk turned to the building collapse in Thane in which over 70 persons died, and the reports of a nexus between builders, officials, police and politicians.

Very passionately, my customer said, “These scoundrels should be hanged! They know these buildings will collapse and kill the occupants, but all they are interested in is making money! If a person can be hanged for killing one victim, why shouldn’t these guys be hanged for killing dozens of people?”

“Who, in your opinion, is most guilty?” I asked.

Without any hesitation, my customer replied, “The builders, of course! They increase their profits by making concrete with more sand and less cement. They know it’s dangerous, but why will they bother? Their lives are not at stake. Only the people who buy their flats risk their lives. These builders are mass-murderers!”

To change the subject, I said, “Let’s not talk about them. Tell me, what kind of food are you treating me to today?”

He laughed and replied, “Sir, I am not a sophisticated person like you. I am a pure vegetarian, teetotaller and non-smoker. So, please forgive this simpleton for making you suffer an ordinary vegetarian meal without any drinks or hookah. Is a Rajasthani Thali OK for you? Or would you prefer something else?”

“Rajasthani Thali would be great! Have you never tried non-vegetarian food, alcohol or tobacco, even when you were young?” I asked.

Clearly enjoying the attention, he replied, “Never! Sir, these are our family values. We are very principled people. Apart from our simple lifestyle, we have a tradition of contributing at least 10% of our profits to charity. We are very grateful to God for his kindness, and we try to do something for society. We are not like these useless builders who only want to make money, even if it means their sub-standard construction leads to so many deaths!”

Again wanting to change the subject, I asked, “I remember you told me that you were the first person in your family to venture into the engineering industry. So, what business has your family been in before that?”

“We are in the chewing tobacco industry,” he declared, and proudly told me the name of the brand owned by his family.

This guy had been ranting about “useless builders who only want to make money”, and had labelled them as “mass-murderers”! But he had no qualms about enjoying the profits made by his family by selling carcinogenic chewing tobacco, which also leads to a large number of deaths. On the contrary, he was claiming to be virtuous on account of contributing 10% of these profits to charity!

A classic case of the pot calling the kettle black!

I wanted to ask him many questions, but I thought it would be an exercise in futility. Hence, I did not react.

Later, I wondered: Did I do the right thing by keeping quiet? Would it really have been an exercise in futility? Or did I keep quiet only to avoid antagonising my customer?

Whatever the real reason for my keeping quiet that day, I think I should have spoken up. If not anything, I would have poked his self-righteousness!

I am reminded of these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”