There is so much talk about ‘accountability’ nowadays. Each NGO seems to have its own convenient way of describing what this means to it. We seem to be unsure of the extent and the spirit behind such an extraordinary concept. A few of them are clear that it means submitting their reports regularly and on time. For others it means the efficient and effective deployment of resources at their command. For a few more, it means ensuring responsiveness to the community and being accountable to them. While one can keep debating and expanding these definitions, I have always been fascinated by a simple definition given to me by an extraordinary person.
Jagadguru Chandrashekarendra Saraswati Swamigal (1894 – 1994) or the Sage of Kanchi was the 68th Jagadguru of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. He is usually referred to as Paramacharya or Mahaswami or Maha Periyavaal. People worshiped him as the ‘walking god’.
As a child, my father had taken me to the Kanchi Math to have his darshan. It was only after I started constantly interacting with the junior pontiff Sri Jayendra Saraswathi did I get to spend more time in the presence of the Maha Periyavaal. Whenever I visited the Math, I would just stand at a distance in his presence that was so unexplainably calming. One could never describe how just being there brought in so much stillness. Hundreds of people would come and pay their respects and yet there would be so much of quietude. He would speak very measurably and with only a few. A question here or an enquiry there. Occasionally, he would answer the questions that some devotee would ask. But most of the time, he would just sit and silently bless the multitude of people who came seeking solace and peace. I had the good fortune of being introduced to him once by Sri Jayendra Saraswathi in 1989. Thereafter, during every visit of mine, the Maha Periyavaal would fondly enquire about our work and whether all the tribals were being properly taken care of. He would always have a word of advise for me and constantly tell me that I was privileged to have an opportunity to serve these rural and tribal brethren.
On one such occasion, I remember the conversation drifting towards mobilizing and effectively deploying resources. I was explaining how difficult fund-raising was and how I sometimes felt demeaned doing it. He politely heard me and moved the conversation from this aspect to that of whether the funds raised were being spent effectively. He then asked me what was I doing to make sure that the resources mobilized were spent for the purpose for which they were raised. We started talking about ‘accountability’ and how one could make oneself and an organization truly accountable. As the conversation progressed, he told me that there could indeed be different perspectives and views on this. He asked me not to focus on collecting a hundred thousand rupees from one single person, but to collect one rupee from a hundred thousand people. Before I could speak, he continued and told me that in the kind of public service that I was engaged in, it was always better for two hundred thousand eyes to be watching me rather than a mere two. At that time, I hadn’t internalized what he had said. As days pass on, I am able to clearly see what he could have meant.
Accountability is indeed a complex process but it needs to start somewhere. In his own way, the Maha Periavaal had given me a simple but very effective metric. By expanding the base of people one needs to be accountable to, you end up making sure that as many perspectives and views are addressed. What I had earlier thought of as mere numbers is now something that is much deeper and diverse. Addressing the concerns and expectations of the thousands of people that we work with helps us evolve this understanding of accountability. Whether it is a donor that we receive funds from or the Government or a funding agency or the community that participates with user fees, we are driven by this definition of accountability which so well encapsulates quality, transparency, accountability and so much more.