MiD DAY: Story on Gift Economy

By Dhvani Solani | Sunday, 2 Jan 2011



EY Television has wannabe models slug it out in demeaning tasks or choosing to stay locked in a spite- filled house for an enormous amount of moolah. The papers are filled with accounts of robbery. Cash, not love, seems to make our world go around. Or does it? DHVANI SOLANI shows you a different set of individuals across the country who gift specialised services for free. Why? Just because they believe life’s meaning doesn’t lie in their bank balance

IF METER Jam was any indication, we’re sick of our rickshawallas and cab drivers. They’re rude, refuse short fares, overcharge, and generally give us a hard time. Why then, are we singing paeans to a rickshawalla in Ahmedabad? Because Udaybhai, and the burst of sunshine yellow that his rickshaw is, sport a smile and an alias that he loves: Ahmedabad No Rickshawalo ( Ahmedabad’s Rickshawala). This mustachioed, Gandhi topi- wearing rickshaw driver is laid claim to by an entire city, because his meter stays at a constant Rs 0. Yes, you read that right. Inside Udaybhai’s modest vehicle, you will spot a mini library stocked with magazines and tourist guides of his city, a bin to throw your waste into, an MP3 player, two boxes containing snacks and drinking water, and a mini fan directed towards the passenger. Hold those eyebrows shooting to your hairline, because there’s more. “ I do not charge my customers anything,” Udaybhai tells us on phone in shudh Gujarati in a way that you know he is smiling at the other end of the phone line. “ Instead, I just hand them a cover and they can put in whatever amount they would like to. I know someone up there will take care of me and adjust it all.” Feel that warm, fuzzy feeling spreading inside you? Yes, nice people are still for real, and they care little about a stash of cash.Priceless gifts In a society where money is often our primary raison d’être, these people give their products or services for free — not as charity, but as an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. They live by a new paradigm of social service known as ‘ gift economy’. As Wikipedia which practises the concept and defines it: “ Gift economy is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.” Do you paint? Have a way with words? Know the numbers game? Then, do up someone’s mural, help pen a stranger’s wedding invite or assist someone to do their taxes. For free.

“ In the existing market economy, we are conditioned to believe that money means security and it has a direct bearing on the time and quality I put into my job,” says Vinod Sreedhar ( 35). “ The reason I don’t charge for my services is because it helps me trust people more and believe that if I create value for the world, it will create value for me in return.” Sreedhar does a bunch of things: he organises ecological trips to Ladakh, the North East and organic farms, composes music, conducts workshops on self- awareness, does photography and writes. For the eco trips, you are given an estimate of what it will take to cover the cost of your food, travel and accommodation. The footnote here is not a bunch of conditions — it just reads that you can pay him whatever you feel like. As his mailers read – Anything from Rs 0 upwards is welcome but not at all mandatory. Anything offered with love will be accepted, even if it’s just a warm hug or a nice conversation over a cup of tea. “ Some people pay back in ways that would surprise you — one of my friends bought me a subscription to a Flickr Pro account to help out with my photography,” he says. It’s the pleasant surprise in not knowing what you will get for your services that drives Bandra- based Neesha Noronha ( 32) who conducts gift economy yoga lessons. “ The other day, someone took me out for lunch at Indigo as a thank you gift. I wouldn’t have been able to afford one otherwise and even if I would, isn’t it boring to know that it’s always within your reach? It’s not like I don’t need the money; it’s just that I am not deciding for you what value my service should hold for you.” Truth, love, no stash What happens when you can no longer afford the onions in the market because some miser decided to avail of your service for free? Is it not natural to feel the pinch when you put your soul into something that goes unappreciated or unpaid for? “ Of course,” says Sreedhar. “ But we have to start believing that all of us are inter- related and that we need to take the focus away from a transaction to a relationship. It all evens out at the end of the day.”

What if what goes around does not really come around even till the end of the month when bills pile up? “ You need to reassess your needs and figure out if you can incorporate elements of gift economy, if not the concept in totality,” says Chandni Parekh, a psychologist who conducts workshops on sexuality, gender and sexual abuse in schools. She throws open the choice to determine the monetary value of her sessions and urges the schools to do the same with the parents of the kids. The note she sends out to the schools reads: ‘ I would not want students from some schools to be deprived of what I see as indispensable sessions, simply because their schools could not afford my charges.’ That kind of spirit, simply put, is priceless.




VINOD SREEDHAR has a three- point plan: 1. GO EASY. It’s a good idea to start with random acts of kindness — spend a day with the aged, pay the toll for the cars after yours — and gradually build up levels of trust. Do things that are a little outside your comfort zone.

2. DEVELOP a network of people over a period of time who support your ideas and encourage them, especially in the local community.

You live in a capitalistic society and practising gift economy will not be possible if you are doing it all alone. Be practical to an extent too — you cannot be working for free all the time. You need other people following this culture so you can avail of their services and viceversa.

3. DO NOT THINK of money as your only resource.

Look for other options to support yourself. Do not focus on the nobility of the idea — it seems radical but is actually very simple and basic.

Just do what you love and offer it as a gift — if you have a large enough base of people, everybody’s needs can be met, including yours.


Life is short and if there’s one person who knows that, it’s NIPUN MEHTA. He had everything going for him — his family moved from Ahmedabad to California when he was 12; by 17, he was playing competitive tennis, and dreaming of turning into a Himalayan yogi at some point. When the dotcom boom was at its peak, he got a job with Sun Microsystems while still at college, and made more money than he ever needed.

So, as he says on his blog ( www.nipun.charityfocus.org), he started to give it away. As money ran out, he gave his time and as time ran out, he gave of himself. He soon quit his lucrative job to work full time for CharityFocus, a nonprofit technological organisation that he and his friends had started as an experiment. Today, he has built over 4,500 free websites and taken the concept of gift economy to another level altogether. We caught up with Mehta over e- mail and came back inspired and moved.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

How is life when you rely on the kindness of strangers? When you rely on the kindness of strangers, you start shifting from ‘ me’ to ‘ we’. You start to see the deeper interconnectedness between giver and receiver, and ultimately, how we are all part of a giant chain of gifts that starts with nine months of an unconditional gift from our mother. Bit by bit, you lose the idea of strangers.

Take us through a typical day in the life of Nipun Mehta.

I don’t have much of a typical day. My life revolves around two key values: service and stillness. To practise stillness, I meditate every day. To practise service, I volunteer with CharityFocus, which is an ecosystem of 3,00,000 members, so there are endless ways to be helpful. I build technology, I meet with likehearted people daily, I organise community events every week, and I make it a point to engage in small acts that can never be measured.

Are there times when you feel like you should’ve got back something for your efforts when you didn’t? Sure, many times. Not only that, sometimes you get negativity in return for your efforts. That’s the real work, though. If you do any action fully, its satisfaction doesn’t come from the appreciation or its impact. The joy resides in that very action itself. So, whenever my mind seeks something in return for my action, I pause to reflect — would a Nobel Prize or a million bucks really validate this act of kindness? The answer is always no.

Have you fulfilled any materialistic dreams? Own a nice car, go on a cruise…? When I was young, I wanted a Ferrari. As I grew older, I realised that I wanted all these fancy things to show others that I’m worth something. In my early 20s, I thought to myself: should I pursue these material dreams for my confidence, or should I pursue a kind of inner growth that puts an end to this insecurity? I chose the latter. I never achieved material abundance, but I never felt the need to. Of course, I haven’t put an end to my insecurity either but I still feel way more confident and connected than I would’ve been with just material success.

Do you read the news? I do. But I prefer DailyGood. org kind of news.

In the news business, they say, “ If it bleeds, it leads.” That is to say, fear gets you attention. That may be partly true, but I tend to think that love begets affection — and that is a far more powerful a resource than fear.

Tell us about your journey through India in 2005. How was it living on $ 1 a day? Six months into our marriage, my wife and I dropped our plans, went to the Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat and decided to walk south on a pilgrimage of sorts. We had no plans and no end date.

Humanity’s poorest billion live on a dollar a day, so we decided to do the same. We would serve wherever an opportunity showed up, from pushing stalled cars on the highways to helping old farmers carry loads to sharing stories of every day heroes. We ate whatever food was offered, and slept wherever place was provided. Sometimes, things didn’t work, and that gave us an opportunity to grow in renunciation; sometimes things worked out miraculously, and that gave us a chance to cultivate gratitude. After about 1,000 kilometers, we ended up at a monastery and flipped a coin to see if the pilgrimage would continue internally or externally — we ended up staying, and meditating a lot over the next three months. “ Just jump and the net will appear,” they say. That was our experience. We happily discovered a net of compassion that we were previously blind to.

Can a person be ambitious and still practise this approach? If ambition is about having a strong determination to pursue a goal, that can be a real asset. You start climbing the ladder, but at some point, you have to look at the wall that the ladder is on. In my dotcom days, I remember reading a billboard that read: “ He who dies with the most toys, still dies!” So, one has to introspect and look at the direction of that drive.

What will you have written on your tombstone? He gave with reckless abandon.

YOU DON’T TRACK THE MATHEMATICS OF GIVE AND TAKE; YOU GIVE WHAT IS TAKEN AND TAKE WHAT IS GIVEN. EVERYONE STARTS TO FEELS LIKE FAMILY. NIPUN MEHTA runs CharityFocus, a nonprofit technological organisation that builds free websites for charities


COMING SOON: A site for exchange and lending is to grow bigger in our country. Need a massive saw to chop off the legs of your armchair for your grandma? It would be a waste to buy the saw — after all, you would barely need it again in the near future. On the Freeconomy Community , you can run through a list of things provided for free by other members — a skill, tool, space or member, and borrow it for free. In return, you can also put up a list of the stuff you would be happy to share at your convenience. So, the next time you need something, you will be presented with a list of everyone living somewhere near you who is willing to share what you need.

You can then send them a mail and meet for real.

Though there are not too many active members in India, you can help build a world that lives on exchange rather than hoarding by signing up ( for free, of course) on www. justfortheloveofit.org

Join Freecycle.org, a website that connects local residents who want to get rid of old furniture and household items with people in the community who will take them. Unlike goods listed on other popular e-commerce sites like eBay and Craigslist, everything listed on freecycle.org is free.

They’re doing it too!

Seva Cafe also runs a store called Wisdom Crafts that lets buyers determine the worth of gift articles. Items sold under this brand are made by the disadvantaged, including slum children and the visually impaired

SEVA CAFÉ located on the posh CG Road at Ahmedabad, gives you the best dessert to end your meal. You will receive a bill stating that you have to pay Rs 0 for what you have eaten. Your bill, it would turn out, would’ve already been paid by the diner before you. The café runs on a pay- itforward economy model where, to complete the gift of giving, you can leave a donation for the person after you, just like the one before you did. The café is entirely volunteer- run and the profits are used to support social service projects. Drop in if you are in the area — we promise you will get more than just yummy meals.

VIPASSANA, a 10- day residential meditation course brought back to India by SN Goenka has been the defining moment in many people’s lives. You do not pay a penny — not even for your food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people who have completed the course and have experienced the benefits of it, and wish for others like you to experience them too.

PRITHVI THEATRE charges a nominal amount for the plays performed in its space, has many that are absolutely free of cost, apart from free book readings, seminars, workshops and platform performances. For the longest time, it held free shows over the weekends at Horniman Circle. You could put in whatever you felt was fine in a sack that was passed around.

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  1. […] the original post: MiD DAY: Story on Gift Economy « MAM Movies Posted in Ashrams, Gujarat, IT, ashram, de, el, india, living, of, plan, us | Tags: ashram, […]

  2. […] naturopathy these days.  Many others like Chandni were featured in this popular article — Don't Show Me The Money Sheetal in Pune, Madhu-Meghna in Ahmedabad and Sachi in Bombay are hosting Wednesday meditations […]

  3. […] naturopathy these days.  Many others like Chandni were featured in this popular article – Don’t Show Me The Money Sheetal in Pune, Madhu-Meghna in Ahmedabad and Sachi in Bombay are hosting Wednesday meditations […]

  4. Hello,

    Some members of our “Local Currency Group” in the South of Austria organised a film screening of “Living Without Money”. It’s a movie about an 68 year old woman from germany who decided voluntarily to live without money – only in exchange.


    I think its interesting to share this experience.

    Love and Light,

    Sabine Jakosch

    Community Activist

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  6. Mario Ganey says:

    Really informative blog. Will read on…

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