An oxygen machine in the foreground and a patient lying in bed in hospital in the background.

Diaspora solidarity - we have given but we must do more

May 2021 - By Sonal Sachdev Patel - CEO GMSP Foundation

The coronavirus is overwhelming India. But you already knew that.

You see it in the papers, you hear it on the nightly news, and if you are, like us, part of the 1.5-million strong Indian diaspora in the UK, you read about it in horror on your family WhatsApp chats every day.

As British Indians, we are part of a wonderfully rich and dynamic diaspora; a network of people whose sense of identity is connected to and defined by two distinct places 6,500km away from each other.

But no matter how far away we are, or how long we may have been gone, there is an invisible string tying us to our ancestral homeland. We feel it tug with the familiar aromas of pani puri, we feel it when our allegiances multiply during international sporting competitions, we feel it when our world is illuminated each Diwali, and more urgently and painfully, we feel it in the midst of crisis. And right now, India is in crisis.

But what is it that we can most usefully do from our place of relative privilege here in the UK?

For starters, we can give. And we have.

It has been incredibly humbling and heartening to witness the generosity of the world’s largest diaspora (estimated at 18 million people), mobilising our communities - of every faith and background - to get vital funding and supplies to India at record speed. In the UK this includes the British Asian Trust, One Family, the Amir Khan Foundation, the British Indian Jewish Association and Dasra who have raised millions to support emergency relief efforts.

In emergencies, speed matters. We learned during the first wave that one of the best ways to save lives and stem the spread of the virus is to support strong frontline organisations. Embedded in their communities, these organisations have responded with incredible agility and compassion, adapting their services swiftly to meet the needs of marginalised and vulnerable people across the country.

There are thousands of such frontline organisations acting as a lifeline for millions in India. Dasra, based in India, has been working with many of them for years and has identified the following:

  • Swasth Foundation is targeting its COVID response in Mumbai, supporting municipal health workers and providing care to the urban poor through a COVID-19 care centre
  • Swasti is working to reduce the burden on public health services through its tele-care health care response and counselling for hundreds of thousands of people, testing for comorbidities, upgrading government labs and providing additional nurses, lab techs and other volunteers needed on the front line
  • Save Life Foundation is focusing its second wave response on providing oxygen concentrators, generation plants, cylinders and tankers to field hospitals in Delhi to address the urgent shortfall, as well as conducting training and supplying relief materials to healthcare workers
  • Aajeevika Bureau has spent years building trusted relationships with communities dependent on migrant labour; its helpline has received more than 700 calls a day during lockdown and the organisation is now providing rations, healthcare and nutritional support to more than 60,000 workers and their families
  • Goonj’s expertise is in working with underserved rural communities, providing rations, hygiene essentials and medical equipment, and facilitating direct monetary transfers to vulnerable groups
  • Jan Sahas built a registry of more than one million migrant households in the first wave of the virus, and has been sharing that data to shape policy responses and using it to provide targeted relief to some of the most vulnerable groups, including 25,000 women-headed households, women who are pregnant or have small children and survivors of forced labour and sexual violence

While the focus of much of these frontline efforts is rightly on immediate COVID-19 relief, we as a diaspora must also think about the ways we can support the rehabilitation and strengthening of a civil society that has been stretched to its limit during this crisis.

Short-term emergency funding is a plaster; it doesn’t build resilience, it doesn’t ensure community-based organisations have the capacity to respond to the next emergency, or the next wave.

Instead, we should use this moment to reconsider our giving, be both strategic and thoughtful, and move to longer term investments in the people and place we love.

GMSP is a family foundation. Our philanthropy has always been guided by values of faith and family that connect us to our Indian heritage. That has led us to a trust-based philanthropy rooted in our belief in a shared humanity with every single being on Earth.

In practice, that means offering longer term, unrestricted funding to incredible grassroots organisations. And it means supporting the wellbeing and resilience of the leaders and teams who power those organisations. Together, we call this ‘spiritual solidarity’ - a deep connection and commitment to the humanity of our partners and the people they support.

It has been three generations since my family lived in the country, but like so many members of the diaspora, our connection to India remains profound and lasting.

We feel that familiar tug and we know that India needs us now. It needs us to show solidarity in a way that can bridge divides - between where we live now and where our families came from; between communities of privilege and those who are more marginalised; between the pain of this current emergency and the promise of a more resilient, more hopeful future.