Donating this Diwali? Let the world know

Donating this Diwali? Let the world know

First of all, happy Deepavali! Deepavali chya shubhechha! Deepavali ki hardic shubha kaamnaye! Shubho Deepaboli! Ganga Snaanam Aachaa?

For many of us, this is the time to give. Buildings are collecting a “Deepavali fund", for the staff; companies are handing out bonuses; and charities are gearing up for big donations. In this context, I want to put an idea into your head; one that is counter-intuitive and probably goes against your grain. My thought is simply this: When you donate to your favourite charity this holiday season, don’t do so anonymously. Put down your name and a number. Tell the world, not because you want to brag but because it will spur others to give. It doesn’t matter how much the amount is—there is no shame in giving. But it is one thing to say rather vaguely, “Oh yes, I did my usual charitable donations this year also." It’s quite another to say, “I gave 2,000 (or 2 lakh as the case may be) to Samaritan Help Mission in Howrah district, West Bengal, because the founder, Mamoon, is doing phenomenal work with 800 slum kids."

Putting your name and a number beside a charity’s name instantly gives it credibility and subliminally increases the amount of other donor cheques. It will cause others to say, “Oh, Ramya gave a lakh to Vanchit Vikas. Maybe I should give at least 10,000 instead of 5,000, especially since I am from Pune."

On the flip side, charitable organizations should persuade donors to allow them to put down names and amounts. Rather than releasing a bald list of donor names without any accompanying amount, the NGO donor list should look like this: “Mrs Kesliwal: 1 lakh; Ms Archana: 2,000; Mr R. Jhunjhunwala: 10 crore; Mr Anand: 700." Anonymous donations have less of an impact because when people are considering a charity, they want to know who else gave, and how much. When actual numbers are revealed, it subliminally increases the amount of other donations.

This is contrary to the human giving instinct. Many of us who donate, want to do so quietly. You don’t want to be seen as bragging; and those who write large cheques don’t want to be harassed by criminal elements or competing charities. I think they should reconsider their position, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the charity they are supporting. Just as George Clooney put Darfur on the map by speaking out about it, you and I can trumpet our favourite charities and influence others to give to them.

Given this context, I hope you will forgive me for saying this: Last year, I gave 50,000 to Snehalaya in Ahmednagar. I feel embarrassed about revealing this amount because I know that for some of you, this will seem large and for others, it will seem pathetically small.

I have never visited Snehalaya. I gave to them simply based on the recommendation of a wonderful catalyst organization called Caring Friends of Mumbai, which does due diligence on about 30 charities regardless of creed, region or religion. I feel good about my donation for a very tangible reason.

In September, Ahmednagar’s district and sessions court judge, Makarand Keskar, convicted 20 people to two life terms for gang rape and commercial sexual exploitation of a 14-year-old girl. The hearing took four years and 38 witnesses were heard. Snehalaya played a significant role in this conviction.

Snehalaya is an NGO that rehabilitates sex workers. It is helping some 1,000 destitute children; rehabilitating 2,100 commercial sex workers; and providing medical treatment for over 6,000 HIV-positive men and women every year. Snehalaya, in other words, goes where angels fear to tread and confronts the basest of human instincts pretty much on a daily basis. It comforts children whose innocence has been destroyed, and works to rehabilitate prostitutes with compassion.

The NGO was founded in 1989 by Girish Kulkarni and his friends when they discovered a 4-year-old girl being tortured by a brothel keeper who was stuffing chilli powder into her genitals. Kulkarni brought the child home and the battle began; and so it went till this landmark conviction.

To put this in context, I called Nikhil Mehra, an advocate in the Supreme Court. Sure, the 25 accused have been arrested and will probably appeal; sure life term in India amounts to 14 years, not until death within prison. But was the Ahmednagar conviction a big deal? In the immortal words of My Cousin Vinny, did it hold water?

“The biggest problem in all these cases is finding evidence," Mehra responded. “It is very difficult to find a minor rape victim who will give testimony without turning hostile or losing faith in the system. The fact that they found every link in the chain, particularly when a number of accused belonged to prominent political and business families, makes this a fairly large and substantial case."

During the trial, Snehalaya’s volunteers received death threats daily. On one occasion, the autorickshaw-driver father of the 14-year-old victim was bribed to turn against them. Snehalaya stayed the course and got the conviction.

Conviction of child sex offenders is immeasurably hard. The list of offenders who escaped the arms of Indian law is long: Helmut Brinkman, Duncan Grant and Allan Waters of the famous Anchorage case, and many others. Even the notorious Freddy Peats of Goa was acquitted by the trial judge for lack of evidence before being convicted in 1996. “I am sure there are (child trafficking) rings of this sort in Mumbai and Delhi but we don’t hear of them," says Mehra. “The fact that Snehalaya volunteers collected and preserved evidence deserves a lot of praise."

After the judgement, Kulkarni sent a letter to Friends of Snehalaya, as it were. One particular passage stuck with me. “We cannot bring the social change on the basis of big funding… and contacts with MLAs, MPs, ministers…. We have to involve the common men, small donors, moral supporters in our work…. The funding agencies, big donors, celebrity admirers, politicians, government officials will never share the defamation with the NGO or will not face the counter-attacks by the anti-social elements. They may give a donation but will never spare time to come in the court to play a role of guarantor if the volunteer of NGO is arrested in the false case. The big donors…have a busy schedule and…have many things to lose. But the people belonging to middle class and lower middle class are close to reality of life. They know the importance of social change as they are facing the related issues every day. They have nothing to lose, having ample time and courage to fight as it’s their daily routine."

It’s true. If Snehalaya had asked me to come to court as a guarantor in a child-trafficking case, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But 2,500 other fearless people, including social activist Anna Hazare, and local women’s activists groups, marched with Snehalaya to bring these criminals to book. In writing a cheque, I took the easy way out.

Shoba Narayan thinks that child sex offenders are the lowest of the low. Write to her at