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In India, Civil Society Groups Fill the Void as the Government Fails to Confront COVID-19

7 minute read
Singh is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute's Religion & Society Program and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. He is an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity with Columbia University and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

Ravi Singh is no stranger to relief efforts. His organization, Khalsa Aid, led humanitarian support to the embattled Yezidi in 2015, to Rohingya refugees in 2017, and to tsunami-stricken Indonesia in 2018. What he did not expect was that his NGO’s skills would be needed across India in the wake of COVID-19.

“We went from serving food in a war zone to procuring oxygen concentrators in a dysfunctional democracy. What’s the same is that people need help, and that we are there for them,” says Singh.

The black market for oxygen concentrators in India is booming while people are suffocating. As prices surge 1000%, COVID-19 deaths have gone up exponentially faster. Singh, who is British Indian and Sikh and whose U.K.-based NGO is inspired by Sikh values, said he didn’t hesitate to purchase whatever oxygen he could find. “Wherever we could get access to oxygen or oxygen machines, whatever price we found on the market, even with the extortion of prices—we would pay that because the end goal is to save lives. That is the whole aim.”

Read More: India’s COVID-19 Crisis Is Spiraling Out of Control. It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

The crisis in India is harrowing. On May 14, India crossed the 24 million mark in reported COVID-19 infections. Each day, the world’s second most populous country is reporting well over 300,000 new cases, the highest rate of daily infections across the world. India is also registering the highest rate of daily fatalities, with an official death toll that now consistently exceeds 3,000 every day, and reached a record high of 4,205 on May 11. And yet, despite these stunning statistics, experts say the official numbers are a gross undercount of the actual deaths and infections. India is in the midst of an unmitigated disaster.

Hospitals and clinics around the country are facing a shortage of essential supplies, including beds, oxygen, drugs, vaccines, and COVID-19 tests. India’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. And it’s not just that the Indian officials played a key role in enabling this deadly second wave amongst its citizens; it’s leadership has been utterly ineffective in responding to the unfolding crisis.

But in the face of government failure and infrastructural collapse, civil society groups are stepping forward to meet the needs of the moment. What’s striking is that many of these groups are run by volunteers belonging to minority communities that the government has been antagonistic towards in the past.

For instance, this past January, right-wing media and government officials labeled Ravi Singh a terrorist sympathizer and accused Khalsa Aid of supporting terrorist organizations. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) summoned one of Khalsa Aid’s officials for questioning on January 15. The NIA’s interrogation was postponed indefinitely, just days after Khalsa Aid was officially nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

COVID-19 patients receive oxygen outside a government run hospital in Jammu, India, on May 12, 2021.
COVID-19 patients receive oxygen outside a government run hospital in Jammu, India, on May 12, 2021.Channi Anand—AP

Singh said he was surprised but not shocked by these baseless allegations. The Indian government has often responded to criticism with despotic tactics, including by painting critics as anti-national. On April 23, Indian authorities asked Twitter to remove tweets critical of its mishandling of the pandemic. On May 5, Singh shared that his Facebook account had been restricted, too.

Read More: The Indian Government Is Silencing Critics Even As Its COVID-19 Crisis Surges

Despite the challenges, Singh’s Khalsa Aid has not relented. At a time when India’s own government has failed to meet the needs of its people, his NGO and others have stepped in to provide what they can. When asked why Singh continued to devote his efforts to serving a country that had vilified him, Ravi Singh was quick to distinguish between those who attacked him and those who needed the support.

“It’s the ordinary people who are really struggling,” Singh said. “The politicians and the far-right groups who incite the hate are not the ones who are struggling. And even if the people who called us terrorists are suffering, that would make no difference. At the end of the day, our history as Sikhs is to be compassionate even to those who may hate you.”

Singh’s insight helps explain his urgent focus on getting people what they need. While Singh says it has been easier to raise funds and find volunteers than in previous aid efforts Khalsa Aid has led, the problem they face today is procuring and distributing requisite resources. “The greatest challenge has come with the extreme shortage of supplies,” Singh told me. “The government couldn’t figure that out, but we have been able to work that out. The government couldn’t get oxygen into their hospitals, yet NGOs like ours were doing drive-through oxygen supplies for the citizens of Delhi.”

Part of Khalsa Aid’s success has come through its ability to tap its strong networks from around the world to collect foreign aid. They have already sent hundreds of oxygen concentrators to Delhi through two different charity flights, the first with Virgin Atlantic and the second with British Airways. They also announced on Wednesday May 5 that they had procured 500 more oxygen concentrators to send from the United States.

Like Khalsa Aid, the decade old Hemkunt Foundation has found more success than the Indian government in acquiring and sharing critical supplies through the COVID-19 crisis. The Hemkunt Foundation has a team of 150 volunteers on the ground that is primarily focused on acquiring and distributing oxygen cylinders. According to the Foundation’s Community Development Director, Harteerath Singh, they are fielding more than 15,000 calls daily from people seeking oxygen support. Compare this to the 100 calls per month they received during the first wave of the pandemic. The group also just launched a 700-bed facility designed specifically to house and care for COVID patients.

A worker moves empty oxygen cylinders for refilling at a gas supplier facility in Srinagar on May 11, 2021.
A worker moves empty oxygen cylinders for refilling at a gas supplier facility in Srinagar on May 11, 2021.Dar Yasin—AP

The Hemkunt Foundation describes itself as “a non-government organization that aims to provide humanitarian aid to marginalized sections of society.” It was founded by Sikhs and is run by Sikhs, but its work is not for Sikhs, per se. The Hemkunt Foundation lives by the Sikh teachings of selfless service (seva) for the betterment of all humanity (sarbat da bhalla).

Like Khalsa Aid, the Hemkunt Foundation remained at the forefront of relief efforts despite being denigrated by right-wing media. Recent criticism of the Hemkunt Foundation has focused on its support of the farmers protests that swept India in recent months, with Punjabi Sikhs at the forefront of the movement that opposed recently passed agricultural laws that they said benefited corporations and harmed small farmers.

On April 25, the Hemkunt Foundation accused police officers in Rajasthan of detaining one of their trucks that was tasked with delivering oxygen cylinders to critical COVID-19 patients. In response to these criticisms and attacks, Harteerath Singh replied: “We still continue serving because we see people in need. We don’t do it for the government. We don’t even do it to be happy. At the end, we are doing it for the people who require the aid. So no matter what we get labeled as, we will still continue serving those who need it.”

The Indian government has a lot to learn from its failures, both in how it has enabled the current crisis and in its lackluster response. One place it could look to learn is with these civil society groups—like Khalsa Aid and the Hemkunt Foundation—who have effectively met the moment and done so in spite of the attacks and criticisms hurled their way.

The choice is a clear one: Learning this lesson is difficult, but the Indian government must urgently chart a new path forward. Failing to do so will only lock its people in the cycle of crisis.

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Write to Simran Jeet Singh at sjs2180@columbia.edu

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