India is awash with little plastic sachets of single-use consumer products, targeted at the bottom-of-pyramid (BOP) customers who cannot afford regular-size packs. It seems the world, especially the middle class, has adapted this bite-sized approach to an entirely different sphere of social activism. Unfortunately, big and inherently complex social and political problems can hardly be solved through such “sachet activism,” however well-intentioned the efforts are. On the contrary, such piecemeal and unfocused effort has a sinister and counterproductive effect that bolsters the very evil forces that it tries to defeat.

For starters, sachet activism is a set of what can be best described as “small activities,” which are far removed from real activism that profound social impact requires. Many people eventually lose heart because they don’t see the instant result that we have all been conditioned to expect or demand. A lot of so-called youthful activism disappears in later years, not just because of the daily struggle called life, but because of a jadedness stemming from the lack of any measurable impact. This is a colossal loss of potential activist energy.

In a perverse way, society loses out even more with the ones who continue with their sachet activism in their later life. It is a sort of double whammy: The energy of the sachet activists is much more precious than that of the quitters; hence, the opportunity cost of wasted effort is commensurately much higher. More sinister is the possibility that their sachet activities often give them the satisfaction of having “done their bit.” This gratification costs the society still more because these people are actually capable of making a much larger and more impactful contribution if their passion could be channeled toward a more focused and incisive activism.

The most sinister of all is the message we inadvertently send to demagogues and the evil powers that we try to defeat. When thousands of us engage in meek activities such as candlelight marches and chain hunger strikes (one of the most meaningless mass protest mechanisms invented in India, the birthplace of hunger strikes as a political weapon), what message are we really sending? Why would the evil powers fear those who cannot forego even a couple days’ food intake for the cause they are fighting for? Such meekness actually emboldens the abusive powers. You don’t clean up societal and political messes by cleaning the streets in convenient one-hour chunks. For that, you need to take to the streets, in large numbers, often prioritizing the fight ahead of your daily life!

Social activist and Gandhian Anna Hazare. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ramesh Lalwani.

Social activist and Gandhian Anna Hazare. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ramesh Lalwani.

That is why what appeared to be a mass movement against corrupt Indian polity in 2011 failed miserably. One of the unknown disciples of Gandhi (Anna Hazare) shot to national prominence by announcing a mass movement and hunger strike against corruption. People took to the street in masses. There was a lot of talk (and hope) that it was the beginning of the end of endemic corruption in India. But opposition political parties usurped Hazare’s agenda, and the whole thing fizzled out. People were genuinely protesting, but the means of the protest were very bourgeois: candlelight marches, silent marches, chain hunger strikes. Such ineffective gestures did nothing to consolidate and channel the anger, neither against the politicians nor against the movement leadership that splintered because of internal squabbling.

Even outside such sociopolitical events, in our daily lives, people distribute their “activist” energy into neat little parcels and then spend them on various activities such as rallies against drunk driving, beach cleanups or educating slum dwellers on hygiene.  Such efforts are too unfocused, often made in small groups, to have any real impact. More seriously, people feel that they have done something, when in reality they have achieved nothing of substance.

We know that building a better life for ourselves needs hard work. Building better societies requires a similar approach. Without focus and hard work, we will forever be cursed with the feeling of “having done something but achieved nothing.” We need to stop glorifying sachet activism. We need to stick to a cause or two and give it all we have got, instead of sprinkling the holy water of our activism onto anything we detest. Otherwise, we the meek may inherit the earth one day—but only after the plunderers are done with it and have left to colonize other planets!