New Delhi: Sharon Sebastian Dias counsels students on career choices at the Mumbai Educational Trust, a non-profit body that runs a group of institutes located in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra. On Monday, however, the 26-year-old, trained psychologist responded to a post on the popular blog Mumbaiterrorhelp-line.blogspot.com asking for volunteers who had the expertise, time and inclination to offer post-trauma care to those affected in last week’s terror attacks on Mumbai that left at least 183 dead and 300 injured.
“Most of the time, the government can’t do much because of its bureaucracy. At other times, they are suspicious when help is offered without charge. People want to help but don’t know who and where to approach. So, this was an opportunity to reconnect with people,” says Dias, who plans to devote her weekends to visit patients.
Dias represents a trend that has caught on in India over the past years—individuals filling in, if only temporarily, for the state. The trend began with the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 that left a reported 20,000 dead. It has accelerated with every crisis since—the tsunami in 2005, the Mumbai floods in 2006, the blasts on Mumbai’s local trains, also in 2006, and last week’s terror attacks.
Civil support: A file photo of a guest on a wheelchair being escorted by hotel staff after she was rescued from the Trident, where some terrorists had holed up during attacks on India’s financial capital last week. Altaf Qadri / AP
The blog, Mumbaiterrorhelpline.blogspot.com, itself is representative of the trend—it has been launched by Dias’ friend and gay rights activist Harish Iyer.
Even as they speak up against the government’s inability to tackle terror or address basic issues related to infrastructure, people such as Dias and Iyer are going ahead and doing what they can to address the situation—with the Internet, mobile phones and social networking sites helping them create or be part of networks of volunteering individuals. “Previously, you had to make 100 phone calls to reach people. Today, duplication of messages has become a lot easier with the new media. In one relay, one can get 100 eyeballs to a site,” says Iyer.
The trend started in the early 2000s. Pankti Jog, for example, gave up her job as a research assistant at the National Institute of Oceanography to work as a volunteer when the earthquake struck Gujarat in 2001. She joined a civil society group based in Ahmedabad called Janpath, which mobilized more than 100 individuals in a matter of days through email and phone calls.
Jog says civil society has been compelled to step in because government has failed to provide even basic infrastructure, such as health and education. “This is the constitutional responsibility of the government, but if you travel in Kutch in Gujarat, the public health and community health centres lack manpower and the infrastructure is outdated,” she says.
Three years ago, the Union government created the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to tackle both natural and man-made disasters. According to an official working at the institute who didn’t want to be identified, there is a huge gap between supply and demand in terms of the resources the state can mobilize in times of emergency, such as a terror attack or a rail accident. Terror attacks do not directly fall under the purview of the authority, but a drill carried out recently in the metro stations of Kolkata and New Delhi following terror attacks earlier this year showed “glaring limitations of assets required for saving lives and swift evacuation of people—such as beam cutters, excavators and dumpers”, this person added.
This gap in the state’s ability is increasingly being filled by individuals. A large number of professionals want to go beyond making individual contributions, says Rajen Varada, moderator of the United Nations Solution Exchange Information and Comunication Technology for Development community created two years ago to bring together practitioners working in the social development sector. “Many have skills required by the sector, but it gets left out of the technology benefits because the individual’s contribution has not been tapped.”
During the recent floods in Bihar, a group of 25 employees from Intel Technology India Pvt. Ltd volunteered to create a Web- and SMS-based solution to assist in relief operations and trace missing persons. The efforts on the part of these professionals, who are now back to focusing on their day jobs, demonstrate that such innovations, even if small, do help.
“Individuals provide a critical link in responding to a disaster and there lies an immense opportunity to help in highlighting the needs and providing supply,” says Kuldip Nar, managing director of AidMatrix Foundation India, the Indian arm of US-based AidMatrix Foundation, a non-profit technology company that specializes in disaster management. In India, the firm’s Corporate Disaster Relief Network seeks to attract both corporate sponsors as well as individuals in a company to make independent choices about providing services or donations. It has also tied up with NDMA to upgrade its data collection efforts.
In many instances, such individual efforts that begin small grow into larger initiatives. One such is the American India Foundation, which was created by a group of non-resident Indians to raise funds for the victims of the Gujarat earthquake eight years ago. Today, it spends $10 million (Rs49.9 crore today) on issues ranging from public health and education to providing computer resources to schools.
In India, people want to give money, time and resources but don’t know where, how and to whom to give partly because the reach is still low, says Nidhi Raj Kapoor, the foundation’s director of communications in New Delhi. “The government, on the other hand, is not doing many things and can’t do many things. This gap is now being filled by civil society organizations,” she adds.