The Gift Economy: An experiment in selflessness

“First, we’ll stop for chai!” Uday smiled widely under his thick black mustache as he revved the engine of his auto-rickshaw. I don’t have a habit of drinking coffee or tea when I’m in the States, but there’s something about the milky, ginger-infused Indian brew, that you don’t need to be a caffeine-addict to enjoy. It’s the perfect accompaniment to all things worth celebrating, anticipating or deliberating — and I had the feeling my day with Uday would involve a sampling of all three.

Uday has been driving an autorickshaw — familiarly called an auto — in Ahmedabad for nearly 20 years. This afternoon, I joined him as he drove through the city streets, testing out a new social experiment: the “gift economy” auto-rickshaw.

We downed our last drops of tea and Uday motored off. Sitting beside him in the driver seat of the auto, I
had a panoramic view of Ahmedabad streets at lunchtime. After being a passenger in countless rickshaws, I was excited to be on the other side of the ride.

Uday soon parked the auto in a shady spot near a bustling snack stand. Buzzing with the anticipation of picking up the first passenger of the day, I sat nearby and looked hopefully at each passerby.

After about ten minutes my excitement began to wear off. November in Ahmedabad is not the usual chilly gray weather I’m used to in Baltimore. Even in the shade, the 90-degree weather and humidity were killing my buzz. I looked over to Uday, but he showed no signs of weariness.

Ten more minutes passed. Then fifteen. Finally, two boys approached Uday and to my relief I was soon sitting in the natural air-conditioning of the open-frame rickshaw as we delivered them to their destination.

It takes a certain type of person to be a rickshaw driver, I quickly learned on my day out with Uday. This job requires a great deal of patience and resilience.

“Oh, I never get bored out here,” Uday said animatedly. “I love Ahmedabad and I love driving my rickshaw.”

Beyond his enduring spirit and energy, Uday is cut from a different cloth than most in his profession. In an effort to spread some love and positivity in what he views to be an increasingly consumption-driven society, Uday has recently adopted the concept of the gift economy.

Rather than presenting a fare based on the meter, like most rickshaw drivers, Uday explains to his passengers that their fare has already been paid for, as a gift. They are not obligated to give any payment, but if they wish to pass on the gift to a future passenger, they can pay any amount they desire — in the spirit of “paying it forward”.

According to the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, a gift economy transaction has three essential elements, the first of which is selflessness on behalf of the provider. The gesture must truly be one of gifting, without any expectation of payment by the provider.

This may seem out of place in a profit-earning setting, but Uday, whose livelihood depends on his income as a rickshaw driver, has put his confidence in the generosity of the public. The fuel and maintenance costs of running his auto are about 250 rupees per day. That figure, compared to the meager 20 rupee payment by the first two passengers this particular day, sent my mind into a tumultuous anxiety.

“I’m not worried,” Uday said when I asked how he is able to sustain his business. “Somehow, I will find a way to make ends meet. I can only have faith in God and do my job well.”

While a traditional market economy relies on forces of supply and demand to determine prices, in a gift economy, the recipient is able to set a price based on what he views to be the value of the goods received.

This element of undetermined prices is the second characteristic element of a gift economy transaction. The recipient is able to measure the value of the gift he sees fit, rather than being bound to prices established by the market or the provider.

Uday’s selflessness and conviction in the gift economy become clear at the end of each ride he gives.

The passenger leans over to check the meter and asks Uday the fare, most often with apprehension at the thought of parting with a sum of cash. But every time, Uday flashes his Hollywood-esque smile and replies, “Whatever your heart desires.”

The idea of “paying from your heart” is unheard of in the rickshaw business, where an underlying tension seems to always exist between driver and passenger — each party negotiates to try to hold on to every rupee they can.

Uday’s passengers have different reactions when he explains his concept, varying from gratitude to disbelief.

Soon after he inaugurated his experiment with the gift economy, Uday came across an old woman trying to hail a rickshaw. The woman asked Uday to take her roughly four kilometers away. Uday welcomed her into his auto, but the woman explained that she only had three rupees, for what would surely amount to a 35 rupee ride based on the metered fare.

Uday replied, “Auntie, a payment based on the meter amounts to nothing more than money. But three rupees
given from your heart — that is surely wealth!”

After arriving at her destination, the woman got out of the auto and touched Uday’s head kindly as a blessing.

As explained by the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, each transaction of the gift economy calls on the recipient to consider the value society gains from the act of consumption. A traditional supply and demand model dictates price to be the inherent value of the product, based on its relative scarcity. In contrast, the gift economy model is driven by the belief that each selfless act of giving will benefit society as a whole, and this external value may be factored into any payment.

As Uday sees it, a payment dictated by market forces is nothing more than money — but a payment given voluntarily is an investment in the wealth and prosperity of society.

The third and final element of the gift economy is more like an effort to define what this model strives to be, rather than a necessary component of each transaction.

“Whereas market economy transactions tend to be bound within a single, reciprocal exchange, gift economy transactions involve catalyzing a process of selfless giving which induces the recipient of the benefits to, in turn, confer a benefit selflessly on another,” reads The Dictionary of Ethical Politics.

“People today are so obsessed with money,” Uday shared. “One rupee here, one rupee there. But when you give a gift, the value exceeds the cost.”

Uday hopes that if even five of the twenty passengers touched by his experiment each day are inspired by the spirit of giving, the ripple effects of the gift economy will spread far beyond his single auto.

It’s a utopian idea — a society in which selflessness and goodwill not only drive, but also sustain the market.

If Uday has been able to implement this model in the urban setting of Ahmedabad, can it be adopted in Baltimore as well?

Acceptance of the gift economy requires a shift in the way a population perceives value — transactions must involve an awareness of the societal consequences of material consumption and the interconnectedness between all players in a market.

Indian history and culture, especially in Ahmedabad, are closely tied to this idea of interconnectedness. Mahatma Gandhi resided in Ahmedabad during vital years of the Indian independence movement.

A focus of Gandhi’s strategy for a prosperous India was Swadeshi, or use of indigenous goods.

Gandhi advocated for the importance of supporting local businesses and artisans, for the economic and social well-being of a community.

Swadeshi is not intended to generate hatred of malice for foreigners, but instead as a reminder that if each man looks out for the interest of his neighbors, a service will be done for humanity as a whole.

While the benefit of Swadeshi for a nation is clear through a strictly economic viewpoint, the rapid pace and consumption-centered lifestyle in Baltimore (and other metropolitan centers) do not necessarily cultivate the instinct to slow down and lend a hand to our neighbors.

The gift economy can only survive if a population keeps in mind the interests of others, rather than measuring value based as it applies solely to the individual — thus benefiting society as a whole.

It’s unclear whether Baltimore is ready for a gift economy taxi service, or how such an experiment will be received in a population that adheres strictly to the rules of the market economy.

This concept may not yet be sustainable in the western world. But until a pioneer like Uday introduces the idea, the seeds of giving that are buried within our capitalist system may remain unwatered.

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