May 30, 2020
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The Benign Foreign Hand

Indians in Britain and the US give an overwhelming response to calls for aid for Gujarat's victims

The Benign Foreign Hand
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When grisly TV pictures conveyed the mammoth scale of devastation in Gujarat, Indian expatriate families promptly drove down to the Swaminarayan temple in Willesden and the Kutch temple in Kenton, London, donating what is perhaps the most disposable of items: old and discarded clothes. Soon the heap of clothes became so huge that youngsters organised teams to cart them into the basement, where others sorted it out and ladies sat stitching bags to put them in. But it was to no avail: the cost of flying down the clothes wasn't only prohibitive, but it was discovered that Gujarat didn't need them anyway.

"The only kind of help that really matters is cash," says Shantoo Ruparell of the National Council of Gujarati Organisations. "That way people in Gujarat can decide what to spend on." And cash from the prosperous Gujarati community of Britain was coming in aplenty, with estimates of the total collection ranging from £2 to £10 million. Donors have a bewildering range of charities to choose from. The Indian High Commission in London was pressing for donations to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. Mainline British charity organisations, Care International and Oxfam, launched their own appeal, as did several community groups. The Lohanna Community of North London, for instance, gathered £25,000 from its 16,000 members in just a few days. Two of its representatives are flying to Gujarat. "We want to see for ourselves where we should spend this money," says community president Janu Kotecha.

The group that was most successful in attracting donations was the Sewa International, a wing of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, affiliated to the rss. The International has already collected close to £1 million and has received pledges from many businessmen, including Lakshmi Mittal, for another million, besides winning the unexpected support of the Muslim population of Leicester. "Our initial target is £5 million," says spokesman Manoj Ladwa. "At peak times we've been receiving up to 500 calls per hour." The huge response had the International engage an Ireland-based company to receive calls and donations through a toll free number kept open 24 hours; it also provided bilingual operators to man the phone hotline the Foreign Office had set up for information. All this testifies to the clout the Sangh enjoys among Gujaratis.

In the US, professional groups are focusing on providing medical help to the victims. For instance, Dr S. Balasubramaniam, chairman of the Trauma Subcommittee for the Association of American Physicians from India (aapi), is rushing to Gujarat to tackle what he thinks is the inevitable next phase—outbreak of an epidemic. "We're trying to tackle infectious diseases like typhoid, cholera, hepatitis," he says. (The aapi has also written letters to its 30,000-strong members for cash donations.) Balasubramaniam is worried the beleaguered Gujarat and central governments have done little to combat the outbreak of epidemics. "I hope they're not putting immunisation on the backburner. Or we can lose more lives than in the earthquake." The aapi is trying to organise the delivery of specialised medical equipment, such as an automated immunisation gun, which can immunise 100 people an hour, as against the 20 immunisations a nurse can do in an hour. "There's no needle, no contamination; you press the trigger and deliver the right amount," says Balasubramaniam. The price though, is prohibitive with each dose costing $25. Fortunately, several pharmaceutical companies have promised medical supplies at cost price.And couriers such as the United Postal Service have guaranteed free delivery of supplies for the aapi.

Assistance for the quake victims isn't confined to the Indian community. Says Nitin Vora, former president of New York's Jackson Heights Merchants Association, which expects to raise $50,000 soon, "We all contributed and are trying to raise funds from Pakistanis and Bangladeshis too. They share our grief. We told them to leave politics aside. This isn't about politics, it's about humanity. They all agree."

But perhaps the largest fundraiser in the US is the baps Care International, affiliated to baps (Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha). Apart from personal contributions, baps Care has also begun approaching corporations for contributions. The organisation, which hopes to collect about $25 million, has been swamped with calls, making Girish Patel, who is overseeing the group's efforts in New York City, gush, "The response is overwhelming."

Among baps's largest contributors is the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association—whose members collectively run 17,000 hotels in the US, representing one-third of all hotels—which has donated $25,000 to the relief efforts. The Association responded with alacrity as it has a substantial number of Gujarati members. But many fear their donations might fall into the wrong hands. "People tell us, 'If you're giving it to the government we won't give,'" says Chandrakant Patel of the Gujarati Samaj in New York, which has so far raised $35,000 and expects to touch $200,000. "We won't send it directly to the Gujarat government," Patel explains, "but make personal arrangements to give it to a charitable organisation."

The Indian Development Relief Fund's method of raising funds is simple. "Everyone should donate a day's income," says Vijay Shrivastava, who represents the group's Atlanta operations. So far, the group, with volunteers in 15 states, has raised $20,000 via its website (www.idrf.org) and personal campaigns. With help pouring in from around the world, there seems to be a sliver of hope for the shattered people of Gujarat.


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