“It’s a rich man’s disease.” This belief has already taken a hold among a large number of Indians who just cannot afford precautions such as ‘work from home’, and physical distancing of a few feet. An overwhelming majority of us live in close proximity with each other, in fact according to the 63rd NSSO report that came out in 2018, a majority of Indians are forced to manage their 'cooking, sleeping, washing, toilet and living needs in less than 10X10 feet. More often than they share this space with others such as family members or co-workers. Nearly 90% of our workforce is in the unorganised sector and a large part of it relies on daily-wage work. At the moment, with economic activity halted, these people and their families are hard-pressed to survive. In the organised sector too, with offices, malls and other public places shut, a burgeoning problem of cash flow has put million of jobs on the line.
Against this unprecedented backdrop, what is it that business conglomerates and Indian High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNIs) are doing? While some of them have already assured their staff and vendors that salaries will be paid for March and April, and financial commitments met, some, like Vedanta’s Anil Agarwal, have announced doles and freebies. Others have announced that they will pitch in by repurposing their factories to manufacture medical gear such as masks, sanitisers, and ventilators. It is not yet clear if these are pro bono offers or gestures of charity that would be followed with an invoice once the spotlight has faded.
Ringing a small bell atop his billion-dollar house, the country’s richest man Mukesh Ambani joined hundreds of millions of Indians in thanking essential service providers during the ‘Janata Curfew’ on 22 March. Other news reports have said that the Reliance group “will ensure supply of groceries and vegetables” at their over 700 Reliance Fresh outlets, but not for free or even at a subsidised rate. Anand Mahindra, another tycoon who enjoys a vast following on Twitter, has offered to convert his chain of resorts into isolation centres and manufacture ventilators for Covid-19 positive patients.
Some millionaire sports stars such as Indian cricketers MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar have pledged sums of money that are too obscenely small to even be mentioned in this article, but suffice it to say that they shame the Indian proverb of ‘Oonth ke munh mein zeera’, which roughly translates to ‘less for the one who deserves more’. India’s film stars, notorious for lacking a moral spine and raking in millions of rupees as professional fees per film, have so far restricted themselves to paying lip service to the cause even as thousands of workers employed in the entertainment industry are facing joblessness and penury.
It is possible that many HNIs and businesses are contributing to the fight against the spread of Covid-19 without making public announcements and the grand-standing that often accompanies it.
It is important to remember that while there is still an absence of western-style agnostic funding in India, there is also a deep-seated fear of the taxman among India’s rich, which deters them from making public the true extent of their often ill-gotten wealth. In addition, for most people the idea of charity is closely connected with returns, be they karmic or material. Traditionally, a majority of Indian Good Samaritans have preferred to donate their money to religious trusts as this buys them both good karma and influence, with discretion.
A bit sinisterly, in the last few years the government has created another avenue for secret donations—electoral bonds, through which national parties attracted donations to the tune of Rs. 11,234 crore from unknown sources between 2004-05-and 2018-19. Can the government not create a FightCovid-19 bond on the same lines?
At the moment, only a very few philanthropic and charitable trusts operate in a transparent manner and shoulder the burden of social work in India, and it is these foundations and trusts that now must take the lead in marshalling corporates and HNIs to come forward and join the ‘Mahabharat’ (Great Battle) against the epidemic, which is spreading at a steadily growing rate in the country.
However, as the social sector-civil society-NGOs have been systematically demonised by the state over the last nearly ten years, doing so will not be easy. The civil society has been labelled ‘anti-national’, and seditious in addition to the long existing epithets of ‘inefficient’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘self-serving’. Funders who have supported rights-based work have been hounded by governments either through tax authorities or have been intimidated through other agencies.
However, the fight against Covid-19 cannot be fought by the government alone, for two reasons: the public health system of the country is broken, and as the heart-rending images of workers returning to their villages have shown, the government does not have the needs of the homeless, the poor or the migrant worker on its radar.
The latest alleviating measures announced by the finance minister are absolutely incapable of helping millions of Indians other than providing meagre sustenance. Free rations, LPG and a dole of a couple of thousand rupees shows the limitations of the government and its imagination. It is here that India’s richest 1% who hold the country’s 73% wealth needs to pitch in. They can immediately join hands to set up food banks, provide free transportation, and free medical care. But to do this they would need more than just a government order that expands the scope of how CSR funds can be deployed. What is needed is a sincere and urgent effort to rally rich Indians to support their country in its most difficult crisis in recent times.
India’s 1.25 billion people are often touted as its greatest strength by the government, but the well-heeled class should remember that just staying at home right now is a bit like being spectators to a lynching. They need to intervene now, or it would be too late to salvage the country from this disaster.
Valay Singh is a journalist and author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord. The views are personal.