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Mumbai floods: How to help without harming


Suma Varughese is the Editor-in-Chief of Life Positive magazine



August 13, 2005

Probably one of the best fall-outs of disaster is that it brings out the giver in us. We saw it happening during the mammoth upheaval of the tsunami and we are seeing it again during the no less momentous Mumbai floods. People want to help the victims with all they have got. Survival guilt has something to with it, but much more has to do with the simple human need to reach out and lift those who have fallen. 

The consequences of and losses created by the Mumbai floods is truly mind-boggling. Almost all ground-level dwellings and warehouses have been flooded and their contents damaged or destroyed. As always, the poor have been most severely affected. The waters have ravaged their precious belongings, accumulated painfully and over time, and killed many loved ones. They deserve all the help they can get and itís wonderful that spiritual and social organisations, ordinary people, corporates and government bodies are rushing to their aid with food, water, clothes, medicines and other relief measures. Slowly, we are learning that each must support the other if we are to survive. That we cannot turn over the important task of managing our lives and our city to the government. We ourselves must step forward and get involved.

Yet it is possible that in our zeal and residual guilt, we inadvertently hurt those whom we help. How? Giving is a dangerous business, because it creates taking. And taking, unless it is accompanied by robust self-respect, can damage the moral fibre.

Those who give must safeguard against the possibility of turning their recipients into passive exploiters. How do they do this? By retaining balance in what they give and how they give it. When people receive more than the situation warrants, it breeds greed and soaring expectations. The more they get, the more they want. It also robs them of self-determination and self-respect. Locked in victim mode, they will expect the world to take care of them, which is both an unrealistic and damaging expectation.

The best thing to do therefore is to co-opt them into any help you give. If they need a certain amount of money to get back on their feet give them a sizeable share and insist that they put in the rest. Involve them in all matters that concern them. Encourage them to make their own decisions instead of creating a dependency on you. Be a support rather than a sugar daddy. Sometimes, in cases of those who are relatively well-off but temporarily incapacitated by the floods, it may be appropriate to give an interest-free loan that they can repay over time. 

The best kind of help we can give is the sort that will enable people to stand on their own two feet. In this particular case, many people will lose their businesses or jobs because of the huge losses. You could help to re-skill themselves or set up anew.

It is wiser by far to help those you know personally and in this case, there is no shortage. Your household help, chauffeur, gardener, the dhobi, as well as friends and acquaintances could do with some timely assistance. It is better to support them than to give money to a charity or NGO. We have no way of knowing how the money is administered and to whom it goes. If you do not know anyone personally, ask your friends and acquaintances. If there is no other option, give an NGO but choose one that you believe in and know to be principled and service-oriented. 

If the recipients wish to do something for you in return for your help, donít refuse. Give them a chance to retrieve their self-respect. There must be a balance in giving and taking for the transaction to be healthy. Go out of your way, therefore to see how they can repay you through services and kind, if not through cash.

Above all, clean up your own motives. Many give charity to feel good about themselves. The focus is on their own psychological need rather than on those who they help. Because of this, they encourage those they help to depend on themselves and in the process, cripple them.

We also give in order to have power over others. We exploit the obligation we put others under to control and run their lives for them. We enslave them.

Giving wisely showers blessings on the giver and the receiver. Let us strive to make the good that we do only reap goodness. 




God save the Malayalee

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