While there is a lot of involvement of people with political and economic issues, issues of social reform are largely neglected. However, the fact remains that social reform holds the key not only for reducing distress but also for changing personal and community/social life in ways that can provide conducive conditions for a constructive and positive approach to life, unleashing creativity and improving the world.

It is strange that while social reform can contribute so much it has been increasingly pushed to the margins.

Even when social reform is taken up in some ways, often the more basic issues are neglected. Such trends can be seen in most parts of the world.

However, such a tendency in most harmful in those countries where poverty and deprivation are high. To give one example, while efforts to reduce alcohol consumption are needed in both poor and rich countries, in the former the need is much greater as the ruin caused by alcoholism is much greater.

Before Independence, India had a rich record of social reform. We had some towering social reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and B.R. Ambedkar.

Swami Vivekananda integrated spirituality with social reform.

Above all, the freedom movement was so interwoven with social reform that those who picketed liquor shops were regarded as much as freedom fighters as those who participated in rallies for the demanding freedom from colonial role. We have to thank Gandhiji for this close integration, but even if we look at other streams of the freedom movement involving Shahid Bhagat Singh or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose or Master Surya Sen, this high regard for social reform was very visible.

Given this rich tradition of social reform it is really sad, and very harmful, that social reform has suffered from increasing neglect in India. It is high time this neglect ends and properly prioritised social reforms again get much-needed and muchdeserved importance in the nation’s overall agenda. The present-day difficult and sad times may perhaps provide some exceptional opportunities for taking forward social reforms on priority.

This assertion is likely to be questioned by many people who will point out that social reform needs social mobilisation, holding meetings, contacting as many people as possible and the prospects for these are now lesser than before due to requirements of distancing, increased problems with commuting and related factors. No one can deny this.

But at the same time, it needs to be asserted that people may be more amenable to accepting messages of social reform in more difficult times. People’s need for relief and quest for alternatives is greater in difficult times.

Hence social reforms that we prioritise should also be able to provide immediate relief to people in certain respects. Also, what we try to take forward should be broad-based and comprehensive, but at the same time it should not be complicated and complex. It should certainly not be dogmatic. The message of social reform should be simple, something people can identify with in real life and can interpret in their own context.

Several discussions resulted in the identification of three basic simple messages which can lead to desirable changes in society.

Firstly, in a conscious way we should make the best possible effort not to intentionally cause any distress to any other human being or any other life-form.

This effort should be made till it becomes a habit. Secondly, in any interaction with someone who is weaker or poorer than us, the effort should be to try and help instead of taking advantage of the weakness or vulnerability of others. Thirdly, from the depth of our heart we should drop any discriminatory thinking or attitude so that we can sincerely put into practice the precept of basic equality and oneness of all human beings without any discrimination based on caste, religion, race, colour, gender etc.

These rather simple messages have wide implications on how human beings behave in everyday life. In the longer-term this has wide implications for the shape human societies take and the governance that we get. Both in the short and the long-term these values contribute a lot to reducing human distress and suffering. These should be accompanied by action-oriented programmes. Again, three priorities can be suggested.

Firstly, there should be efforts to give up all intoxicants including alcohol, drugs, tobacco etc.

Secondly, all domestic violence should end and in particular there should be no violence against (or abuse of) women and children.

Thirdly, hygiene in various aspects of personal and social life should get high-priority attention.

These three issues when taken up in continuous campaign mode will lead to significant improvement in health, family life, wider social interactions and dignity. Women and children will feel a lot of relief.

There will be significant reduction of distress and deprivation. Such social reform cannot be a one-time effort. There should be continuity, to ensure stability of what has been achieved and to keep trying for a wider spread.

Hence committees devoted to such efforts need to be set up on a regular basis in villages and bastis and there should be co-operation among them to help make better and more helpful policies.

Governments can make their contribution by listening to these social reform committees while making policies and adopting an encouraging attitude towards them. Small beginnings even in a few villages have the potential to lead to big changes in society in course of time.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.