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The Value of a Holistic Approach

From my experience in communities I realized that there is a need to develop a holistic approach to community work. A holistic approach takes into account the total wellbeing of individuals, groups, and societies at all levels and in all aspects. There are no divisions or boundaries between differing methodologies, individual problems, and problems of housing and food security or education, etc. They are all interlinked and interconnected so that housing is not an individual problem but everybody’s problem. In this way, one shares responsibility and begins to look at the total picture rather than through the lens of an individual one-by-one issue, which really will not solve the problem.

In line with this holistic approach, issues such as conservation of natural resources, the earth, water supply, food, and animals become of importance as part of the community programme. Here is what Gandhiji wrote about his experiments at Tolstoy Farm.

“In spite of the large number of settlers, one could not find refuse or dirt anywhere on the Farm. All rubbish was buried in trenches sunk for a purpose. No water was permitted to be thrown on the roads. All wastewater was collected in buckets and used to water the trees. Leavings of food and vegetable refuse were utilized as manure. A square pit one foot and a half deep was sunk near the house to receive the night soil, which was fully covered with the excavated earth and which therefore did not give out any smell.

There were no flies, and no one would imagine that night soil had been buried there… If night soil was properly utilized, we would get manure worth lakhs of rupees and also secure immunity from a number of diseases. By our bad habits we spoil our sacred river banks and furnish excellent breeding ground for flies with the result that the very flies which through criminal negligence settle upon uncovered night soil defile our bodies after we have bathed.” (p.240; referring to Tolstoy Farm)1

Over the years, I have grappled with the question of compartmentalization of subjects or disciplines. I grappled with the idea of differentiation of history from life skills and science from technology and humanity. I do understand that for purposes of delving into research and deeper study one needs to isolate topics, but I also believe that compartmentalization militates against the learning of life skills and harmony in our lives. The reinforcing effect of scientific knowledge on technological advances is evident, yet in the humanities we find it difficult to make the connections between the different disciplines. In recent times, however, we are beginning to gravitate towards a holistic approach in many aspects of life. For instance, we see that some of the alternate health sciences are advocating a holistic approach.

We know from our scriptures and very early learning that there is a strong link between everything—all matter and all thinking. We see the connection being made between body, mind, and soul.

In South Africa, we drew up a Reconstruction and Development Programme prior to the democratic government coming into power. It says in its introduction, “This inclusive approach to developing and implementing policy is unique in South Africa’s political history.” Ultimately, this was a programme that not only came about through wide consultation and a people’s document, but was also a programme that brought all the departments together and worked on a master plan that would coordinate all the work in the interest of efficient delivery and streamlined work. But its implementation became a nightmare because of mindsets and of territorial control.

The need for attitudinal change, moral regeneration, active practices of non-violence, sustainable livelihoods and practices, interfaith tolerance and harmony, and environmental protection and conservation are priorities that need as much attention as building of houses and caring for the poor and needy. If we have shared values, the impact of our work can be much more effective and sustainable.

Transformation like gender awareness is not just possible through laws and policies and through governance and policing but through individuals and communities that dedicate themselves to transformation. When we point fingers at others, let us always remember the famous words: “Be the change you wish to see!” Let us discard from our lives indifference to the suffering of others; cynicism that drives us to criticize, to blame, to feel hopelessness and leads us to do nothing ourselves; and selfishness that drives us to forget the values of honesty and truth but instead makes us greedy and grab whatever we can, however we can, with no principles and no conscience!

In my work, I am trying to promote these ideas but it is difficult as people are too rigid in their views because it is felt that a holistic approach does not lend itself to measurement. Yet there is great potential in this method of work. What is your view?

1 Gandhi, M.K. (2008). Satyagraha in South Africa. Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Publishing House.