At the height of the oxygen crisis amidst the Covid-19 pandemic in India, officials of the Indian High Commission received a large number of offers to send equipment such as ventilators, oxygen concentrators, oxygen cylinders, and oxygen manufacturing plants. Academic Kavita Datta, who led research on connecting migrant communities during the pandemic, says: “Social media plays a very significant role in diaspora-homeland interactions. Our research highlights how critical platforms such as WhatsApp and other social media are in keeping in constant touch with family and friends.”
The ancient link between charity and religion is also reflected in organisations focussed on south Asia, but there are also several charities without religious connotations set up by individuals to alleviate poverty or to tackle other issues in their countries of origin. The concept of zakat is one of the tenets of Islam: the idea that an individual has to donate a percentage of wealth each year for charity. Says noted British-Pakistani actor Alyy Khan: “In our case, giving to charity happens throughout the year, not only during crises such as the Covid pandemic. There are 24/7 charities, operating throughout the year, and when needed the state also uses such funds. When I was 16, my mother told me that two and a half per cent of every cheque I earn should go to charity. Giving to charity is a way of life for us. This also ensures that no one goes hungry, there are soup kitchens run by many organisations.”
In London and elsewhere, several Sikh organisations hold ‘mobile langar’ events for the benefit of the hungry and the homeless, offering hot food as well as clothes and other items donated by a large number of supporters. Organisations with extensive links in south Asia and Britain leverage their networks to deliver relief, including Islamic Relief, British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (whose members used social media to conduct ‘virtual ward rounds’ and interact with colleagues in Indian hospitals in 2020), BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, Akshay Patra Foundation, and the Loomba Foundation that works globally to eradicate discrimination against widows. Leading individuals from the Asian community such as Anwar Pervez, Swraj Paul, Rami Ranger and Nat Puri often join and contribute to charity efforts.
One of the Asians awarded the royal honour OBE for charity, among other achievements, is Channi Singh, often described as the ‘godfather of bhangra’, who arrived in London in 1976 and went on notch several milestones in his career over the decades. Southall-based Singh’s OBE recognises his charity work in Hounslow, where, since 1989, he has been providing free meals four days a week to the needy, including those homeless, ailing, in shelter homes or those in difficult situations after falling out with family. His wife also runs a charity called Kar Seva Foundation, providing medical and other services in Punjab.
There are also several organisations and charity drives led by Britons who visit south Asia and return to raise funds for individuals, animals or issues they encountered during their stay there. One of the most prominent such is Elephant Family, which was co-founded in 2003 by Mark Shand, brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. A best-selling author and conservationist who dedicated his life to the survival of the Asian elephant, Shand’s mission began in 1988 when he rescued Tara, a street begging elephant, and travelled 800km across India with her. He passed away in 2014; his legacy is marked by awards, initiatives and memorial funds in his name in Assam and elsewhere.
Backed by leading lights of the British establishment, Elephant Family has a presence in the UK, the US and India. It has led over 150 projects across India, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sumatra and Borneo to reconnect forest fragments, restore migratory routes, stamp out illegal trades and find ways for humans and wild animals to successfully live closer together than ever before.
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