The incredibly successful ALS ice-bucket challenge certainly has its supporters. By the thousands, they have crowded Facebook newsfeeds and helped the fundraiser for Lou Gehrig’s disease go viral by filming themselves getting soaked. The initiative, of course, also has its detractors, who see it as “slacktivism” tailored to our egoistic, digital age.
In India – where millions still lack access to clean water and proper sanitation, drought remains a pressing issue for indebted farmers, and hunger remains a daily reality for children and adults alike – the ice bucket challenge seems remote, indirect and more than a bit wasteful.
Enter the rice bucket challenge – a “Desi challenge for Desi needs,” as its Facebook page says. It asks Indians to take a bucket of rice from their kitchen, give it to the “nearest needy person,” share a picture of the good deed on Facebook, and then challenge friends to do the same. It is a new form of an idea with a long history in India, which has a particular modern relevance given India’s income disparity and recent exhortations from the Prime Minister for Indians to give more of themselves, and ask less.
The grassroots initiative was started by a journalist in the Indian city of Hyderabad, who works for a rice research website. But it is already gaining momentum on social media, endorsements from politicians and the participation of at least one actor from Hyderabad’s Telugu-language “Tollywood” film industry. It is also, in exuberant subcontinental fashion, already sprawling from buckets of rice to cash donations for medicine, and from free rice on the streets of India to free meals on the streets of Toronto and rice donations at food banks in California.
“[S]ome good samaritans in India have given [the ice-bucket challenge] a meaningful twist (which, btw, doesn’t even involve wasting water or anything),” wrote Indian politician Subramanian Swamy on his Facebook page, which has 815,000 “likes.” His post was shared about 15,000 times. “If this catches on, a lot of poor will have food this month and we in return shall have the satisfaction of helping out the needy.
The rice bucket challenge is clearly part of a global backlash to the western fundraiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Some Palestinians, trying to raise attention of Israel’s war on Gaza, have issued a “rubble bucket challenge” online that involves dumping bits of their destroyed building on themselves. In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Orlando Jones, an actor, dumped shell casings on himself and issued a “bullet bucket challenge.” Some villagers in China upturned empty buckets to drive home a water shortage.
But the rice challenge appears to be more than just a one-off statement, and is an intriguing development for India. The country has a long tradition of individuals giving food in their communities, and of businesses establishing temples that would hand out food, as well as deliver health and education services.
“It evokes forms of charitable giving that have been around for centuries, and they are forms of giving that are about giving to your direct and local community, giving to someone that one is in contact with rather than to a generalized abstraction,” says University of Toronto historian Ritu Birla, who heads the Centre for South Asian Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
In the colonial era, Prof. Birla adds, British notions of donating to grander causes such as hospitals and universities led nationalist-minded Indian businesses to found institutions, but she stresses the local ethos of practical giving never really went away. At the same time, the subsidized distribution of rice and other grains by the government have become central to the modern Indian conception of the “Nehruvian” welfare state, starting in the post-independence era with Indian National Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru and culminating in the 2013 National Food Security Act, which guaranteed 5 kilograms of subsidized grain to about 70 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people.
At the same time, the country in recent years has witnessed an incredible growth in income disparity. There is a thriving new business class in major cities such as New Delhi and garish displays of excess from billionaires such as Mukesh Ambani, who has built a 27-storey home in Mumbai. And yet beyond this, India accounts for one-third of the world’s poorest people, with millions of underweight children suffering from hunger.
In his independence day address to the nation on Aug. 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the country that citizens have to stop acting merely out of self-interest and think more about the country’s poor. “Everything is not for self interest only,” he said from the ramparts of New Delhi’s Red Fort. “There are certain things which are meant for the country and we have to refine this national character.”