While the Covid-19 pandemic will be always remembered as probably the biggest catastrophe in our living memory, at the same time the role of civil society, including the Indian diaspora, will keep our hope alive in the power of people to rise to cope with such challenges.
The role of the Indian diaspora has been recognised recently even by the US Vice President Kamala Harris: “For years, diaspora groups like Indiaspora and the American India Foundation have built bridges between the United States and India. And this past year, you have provided vital contributions to Covid-19 relief efforts.” Her remarks were delivered at an online event, ‘Bolstering US COVID Relief Efforts in India: Perspectives from the Diaspora’, organised by the US State Department. The event was also attended amongst others by Lata Krishnan, Founder and Co-Chair of the Board of the American Indian Foundation (AIF) and MR Rangaswami, Founder and Chair of the Board of Indiaspora. Conversations with thought leaders of the diaspora give a broad sense about not only their present actions, but also future intent.
Saying that Indiaspora is not a crisis group, but a force for good, Sanjeev Joshipura, Executive Director, Indiaspora, adds that they are like a bridge between various groups of diaspora and governments and are engaged in promoting partnerships between various stakeholders, including more recently on Covid-19.
Indiaspora has raised more than $3 million for supporting WISH Foundation to set up Covid Care Centres or makeshift hospitals; Give India for direct cash transfers to families of the deceased, and EdelGive Foundation for supporting non-profits like Goonj and Jan Sahas for providing food relief and livelihood assistance. Indiaspora also teamed up with best-selling author and podcast host Jay Shetty to hold a virtual fundraiser, Help India Breathe. Promoting the event, Shetty said: “We are devastated by the news of the rising tragedies in India. They urgently need our help.” Actor Will Smith, singers Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and actor Hritik Roshan were amongst the celebrity donors.
Similarly, AIF has raised a record $30 million for providing oxygen concentrators, hospital beds, oxygen plants and ventilators. Another non-profit SEWA International USA has raised about $16 million for providing medical equipment like oxygen-concentrators and ventilators. These are just a few examples from a large number of US-based organisations and individuals engaged in helping India cope with the current wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their relief operation is still work in progress.
It is not the first such occasion and it is unlikely to be the last, at least in the near future. The diaspora has always tried in its own way to help Indians back home. Having said that, it is not a good situation to be in time and again for either the diaspora or resident Indians.
An obvious way forward for India is to have a much higher annual budget for public healthcare than the current 1.2% of GDP. Saying that it is not their business to tell the Indian government what to do, the diaspora leaders add, but it is too evident that there is a need to reexamine the healthcare budget spend.
Diaspora leaders on their own are investing in sustainable solutions to reduce the impact of such emergency situations in the future and are also thinking afresh in the light of current challenges. For example, AIF is engaged in long-term development journey of India, having invested about $150 million in health, education and livelihoods over last 20 years.
Indiaspora has set up Indian Philanthropic Alliance, comprising non-profits, philanthropy organisations and charities, for forging collaborations to promote development work in India. A similar body on the Indian side, too, would be very useful to complete the loop, says Rangaswami of Indiaspora.
Partnerships are required at multiple levels. Promoting partnerships, including setting up networks of organisations, forging engagements between them and strengthening people to people contact would glue the development sector together and prepare it better for future eventualities. Having a national network of voluntary organisations, which can be activated at short notice, would be very useful, suggests Arun Kankani, President of Sewa International USA.
Of course, there is no silver bullet to address development challenges in India. A bouquet of measures is required. Technology is one such cross-cutting measure. Emulating the telecom success story, India has the late-comer advantage to leapfrog to use smart technology, including telemedicine. India can get smarter and use telemedicine to increase healthcare coverage and save enormous amounts of money, points out Rangaswami of Indiaspora. For example, even the ongoing free tele-consultations, if institutionalised and continued, would be useful for all times to come.
The backbone of the healthcare sector would continue to be human resources. They could do better with capacity building. There is a need to build capacity of community-based workers, healthcare workers and doctors, who can provide consultation and guidance in regional languages, says Kankani of Sewa International USA.
Acknowledging that the Indian government institutions like the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have very good ability to deal with sudden disasters, Nishant Pandey, CEO of AIF, adds that there is a need to build and strengthen their capacity to address slow onset of disasters like the current pandemic.
Most importantly, creating an enabling environment to facilitate transfer of cash and in-kind donations would be helpful in providing quick foreign relief in such emergency situations, says Pandey of AIF. Making Foreign Contribution Regulation Amendment (FCRA) Rules, 2020, friendlier has been a felt demand voiced again and again by NGOs engaged in relief work. Striking a balance between means and ends may be tricky but creating an enabling environment would be useful in achieving better results, particularly in emergency situations like the current pandemic.