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The Hindu on : Right livelihood

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, October 08, 2000

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Right livelihood

THE journalist-acitivist Dilip D'Souza recently wrote a beautiful story called "The Bulb Brought the Tears". The story opens on the banks of the Narmada. Khatri Vasave, an old adivasi woman, is weeping and waving as a boat carries away an outsider who brought electricity to her village.

In the boat is Anil Kumar, a tall young engineer from Kerala, who has lived in Khatri's village of Domkhedi for several weeks. Khatri's fondness, D'Souza writes, has its roots in a single bulb.

Anil and his colleague Madhu arrived in this hamlet in mid-July and after surveying the area, homed in on a small stream gurgling through the hills a few hundred yards from the village. Then, together with the villagers, they built a one metre high, four or five metre long, dam across the stream to create a small reservoir. This water was then conveyed to a pipe running steeply downhill to feed a small turbine which generated electricity.

Thus, D'Souza writes: On India's 53rd birthday, for the first time ever, an electric bulb glowed in Khatri Vasave's hut. As also in a few other huts. In a mere one month spent here, Anil and Madhu had given these villagers what 53 years, 636 months, of Indian governments had not. Electricity. No wonder Khatri weeps to see Anil leave.

That bulb in Khatri's home is not merely a symbol, and actual manifestation, of creative development. This is also right livelihood in action. Right livelihood is much more than the name of an international award which was given to the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1991. Right livelihood is an ethic, a value, a way of life and a key for building a better world.

This is not an ideology that has to be fought for. Right livelihood has to be lived. How do you attain ways of working and living that are true to right livelihood? A wide variety of people all over the world are struggling with this question.

Right livelihood means, firstly, earning a living in ways that do no, or minimal, harm to anyone. Right Livelihood comes from work which is rewarding, specifically because it serves other people. Such work will also deepen the individual through a continual learning experience. Most religions nurture these values as essential for personal and spiritual growth. The Buddhist tradition has most explicitly emphasised Right Livelihood as work that encourages moment to moment awareness. In some religious traditions, such livelihood is known as the "path with heart".

So is this some airy-fairy concept that is of little use to ordinary people in everyday life? Not quite. In some form or other, most people aspire to live by these values. But in contemporary life, it is difficult to find jobs and livelihoods that enable people to follow the path with heart. The struggle for creative development is an effort to alter this and make it possible for more and more people to find right livelihood.

Since 1980, such work has been honoured with the Right Livelihood Award. This award is given by a Swedish foundation on the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony and often called the Alternative Nobel Prize. Four Right Livelihood Awards are given every year for vision and work contributing to making life more whole, healing our planet and uplifting humanity.

The Right Livelihood Awards Foundation defines Right Livelihood as: being responsible for the consequences of one's actions, living lightly on the earth and taking no more than a fair share of its resources. Winners of this award include, among others - peace activists, organic and natural farmers, energy efficiency pioneers, ecologists, innovative educationists and economists who are trying to create more humane systems.

However, all the award winners are full-time activists whose work is financially supported in different ways. What about those people who do not wish to be activists but still want to tread the path with heart? For example, the two young engineers who built that micro-mini-hydel project at Domkhedi probably did it as voluntary work. The conventional form of employment for them would be with the contractors who are building the dam which threatens to drown that village. Such employment will not interest those professionals who realise that the big dam creates benefits for some only at enormous cost to others.

The real challenge today is for more and more ordinary people to be able to do the Domkhedi kind of work and also make a living from it. Those who are striving to do this are also showing that there are many different levels of good-living.

For example, a forum called the Friends of Western Buddhists Order (FWBO) sees Right Livelihood as the basis of viable businesses. Since the 1970s, the FWBO has been supporting "team- based Right Livelihood businesses", including whole-food shops and vegetarian restaurants. The largest of these businesses, Windhorse Trading, sells gifts wholesale and through a chain of shops. It employs around 200 people in the U.K., Ireland, Spain, and Germany, all of whom are Buddhists working together and seeking to make their work a part of their Buddhist practice.

According to information available on the FWBOs website, right livelihood has not been easy. Many FWBO businesses were started with more idealism than money, and more willingness than expertise.

But there has been dramatic progress none-the-less, and there are now many businesses that create working situations that are both personally satisfying and competitive in the business world.

In India, Mahatma Gandhi's concept of Khadi as a people's industry was rooted in the values of right livelihood. Today's Khadi industry bears no resemblance to that original concept. But there are many who are still energised by the prospect of building true people's industries that would make Right Livelihood commercially viable. Of course, this viability would be based on different measures of adequate profit. For the profit would not be purely monetary.

It is relatively easy to live and work by these values in small, cohesive groups. But the real challenge is to do this in ways that lend themselves to wider replication and emulation.

Take the example of Dastkar Andhra which is working with cotton handloom weavers. Their work is aimed at creating a replicable system which is beneficial for all involved - the weavers, the traders and the consumers.

This is a tough job which often involves one step backward for every two steps forwards. But as members of this group suggest, let us gain sustenance even from local, or partial, success.

For many of us, who are preoccupied with the larger scheme of things, that micro-hydel dam in Domkhedi may seem like an insignificant local success.

But for Khatri Vasave, and millions like her, that local is the world. Those innovative engineers have not quite found their way to a regular means of Right Livelihood.

But they are not waiting for the proverbial thousand mile journey to begin. They are several steps along on that long trek.


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