Volunteering in India: Historical, Social and Traditional Underpinnings

Strong commitment towards the change one aspires to make or work towards, beyond oneself, is the key to effective volunteering. The process not just leads to external transformation but also changes and sensitises the volunteer towards larger realities. Here, the volunteer becomes an enabler of change, by bridging the gap between the subalterns and power holders /influencers.  Such voluntary commitments continue to be demonstrated through ancient times, when the rishis renounced worldly comforts, and stayed in forests; gave counsel to the king on matters of their subjects. Later, under the British regime, many Christian missionaries undertook various activities like medical relief and running schools in India. Subsequently, Swami Vivekananda gave birth to the Ramakrishna Mission, which continues with its valuable services across education, health, relief in natural disasters till present day. During the independence era, Mahatma Gandhi emphasised the spirit of voluntary or selfless service in nation building while leading the freedom struggle.[1]

Right motivation as the key to volunteering, and this is rooted in the historical, social and religious traditions of India. In religious contexts, Daanam – giving/ sharing, the equivalent of philanthropy was promulgated by the Upanishads. Concepts of volunteerism such as Gupt Dan (anonymous charity) among Hindus, Kar Seva (voluntary labour for the common good) among Sikhs, Zakat among Muslims, and Tithes among Christians are examples in which different religions encouraged voluntary giving. With time, these traditions guided the social movements that challenged social evils, such as Atmiya Sabha in 1815 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and others. People’s movements continue to be galvanised around specific social justice issues in present day India[2]. Many I/NGOs now engage volunteers towards sustainable development and changes in the society.

Volunteering and Sustainable Development Goals

Many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for long-term attitude and behaviour changes, and the UN recognises the indispensable role the Volunteers in realising the SDGs. The Youth Policy of India 2014 draws attention to youth volunteering for promoting youth development. The National Service Scheme (NSS) and Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), are both volunteer-based programmes since the 7th Five Year Plan. The State of Youth Volunteering in India 2017 – Report by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India (GoI), recognises the need for formulating guidelines for volunteer protection as well. The Digital India Volunteer Programme (DigiSevak) is one latest initiative of the Government of India to promote volunteering.

Volunteering Initiatives of Caritas India

Caritas India recognises potential of volunteering as a powerful and practical way to reach out to the most marginalised.  At its core, volunteering is a powerful expression of a people-centred approach to social change and development. Among many, some initiatives include:

  1. 70 dedicated volunteers from hazard prone states of India, trained on Emergency Response Mechanisms, and actively engaging in emergency relief works in recent disasters.
  2. Ashakiranam-Cancer Care campaign spanning Kerala, with 12000 dedicated volunteers from all walks of life across ages, including Cancer survivors spreading awareness on prevention; and donating their hair to support the cancer patients who have lost their hair to cancer therapies.
  3. Community volunteers spreading awareness and enabling medical treatment to the unreached Tribal population in difficult terrains of remote villages under Intensified Malaria Control Programme, with the GoI, across the states of North East and Odisha.
  4. Paani-Mitr (Water-friends) also called Jal-Sena, a cohort of community specialists giving locally-suitable solutions of water conservation. They engage with local governance systems for making them more responsive to water needs of the community in Maharashtra under Water and Agriculture Regeneration Mission of Caritas India.
  5. Poshan-Mitra (Nutrition-friends), the trained community volunteers and specialists help in the early identification of malnourished children; sustainable local nutrition solutions, and sanitation and hygiene awareness; and sensitisation of traditional healers on the dangers of treatments based on superstitions, under the SABAL initiative in Madhya Pradesh.

Realising the role of volunteers as invaluable knowledge and human resource, the outcomes of the National Assembly on Resource Development: Building Alliances, in 2016 resulted in institutionalising volunteering as a strategic focus into the upcoming Carita India Strategic Plan 2018-22.


  1. Mutual learning on innovative ways of volunteering for social change and justice.
  2. Strategic thinking on volunteer engagement as torchbearers of organisational vision
  3. Linkages and partnerships with diverse stakeholders in different scenarios of operations.


  1. Panel discussions
  2. Personal witnesses of Volunteers
  3. Model Presentations
  4. Open Houses
  5. Adoption of the Intent Statement

About Caritas India

Established in 1962, Caritas India works with the most vulnerable and marginalized sections in sectors of emergency and disaster risk reduction, climate adaptive agriculture and sustainable livelihood, community health, women and child development, and anti-human trafficking and safe migration. With pan-India presence through network partners, as a member of the global Caritas confederation existing in 165 countries, serving 200 countries and territories, Caritas India shares and draws its learnings from the good practices of member organisations.

Conference Theme

The main theme for the conference is All India Conference on Volunteering– Connect, Learn, Transform

Objectives of the Conference

  1. Mutual learning from the different ways of volunteering for social change and justice.
  2. Think strategically about how the volunteers can become a source of strategic direction and sustainability of an organisation’s vision
  3. Enable future institutional partnerships with Government, Civil society organisations, INGO, Corporates, school and universities in different scenarios of operations.

Highlights of the Conference

  1. Release of the Volunteer Guidebook
  2. Plenaries of inspiring speakers
  3. Experience sharing by volunteers
  4. Interaction on the challenges confronted in the field
  5. Presentation of new ideas and models with high potential for adaptation and innovation
  6. Ample time to meet informally and to learn about the motivations, issues and opportunities

The conference will be attended by a diverse group of participants from different states of India, comprising youth, older children, Government, UN and EU agencies; INGOs, NGOs, Volunteer/people’s Movements and representatives from Caritas India networks.

Intended outcomes

  1. Innovative ideas of volunteer engagements learned and recorded
  2. Linkages with identified diverse stakeholders to develop the collaborative efforts for promoting the spirit of volunteerism
  3. Shared understanding of the challenges confronting volunteerism and possible remedies


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