For Chennai, with love: diaspora raises millions in relief

From fund raising dinners to children in school, donations have poured in.

December 20, 2015 11:48 pm | Updated March 24, 2016 11:16 am IST - Washington

An ariel view of a submerged highway leading to Chennai. Photo: Indian Air Force

An ariel view of a submerged highway leading to Chennai. Photo: Indian Air Force

The floods in Chennai have touched a chord among the Indian diaspora in the U.S. Over the weekend, Silicon Valley saw at least six events and Chicago three, among dozens across the country to raise funds. What started as a trickle has swelled to a deluge over the fortnight, for a city that many called home.

Nearly 150 events have raised funds for victims of Chennai’s floods so far, and several dozens are in the pipeline over the coming weeks. “Now we have lost track and count. But at least 50 cities across the country have various events going,” said T. T. Balaji, the Chennai-born chief technology officer of a Silicon Valley company, who set up a Facebook page ‘Help Chennai Get Back on its feet’ which seeded a countrywide outpouring of generosity.

Thousands have connected to the FB page directly or indirectly and financial commitments from the U.S. would be in the range of $10 million, roughly Rs. 65 crore, Mr Balaji estimates.

‘Dine for Chennai’, ‘Sing for Chennai’, ‘Run for Chennai’, ‘Dance for Chennai’….numerous events are being held across U.S. cities.

A Google employee made a 15-minute online outreach to colleagues who raised $75,000 instantly, which will be matched by the company, making it a $150,000 contribution; four grade four students put up a garage sale that raised $700; a Silicon Valley real estate agent has committed the entire commission he would earn from his next sale; a newly-arrived student in Boston has raised $15,000 USD and the list continues of those who have reached outfelt it was time to give.

‘Dine for Chennai’ has become a hugely popular initiative in which restaurants have signed up to contribute a share of their proceedings on one day — there are already 70 and counting. Tirupati Bhimas, a restaurant in Silicon Valley had 380 people waiting in queue for a place on December 5. Tamil actor Jai Shree, who lives in Silicon Valley, had two dance events over the weekend, and in Chicago a banquet will host 1000 people on Sunday. “Chennai floods did not attract sufficient media attention in the U.S. and social media became the agent of mobilisation,” points out M.R. Rangaswamy, entrepreneur and founder of Indiaspora.

Coordinating efforts Conventional channels are also active. The American Indian Foundation (AIF) is reaching out to its huge donor base for its Chennai Rehabilitation Fund that aims to raise at least $100,000 to rebuild the affected communities, said Venkatesh Raghavendra, Senior Director, Philanthropy & Development. Lata Krishnan, AIF Chairperson said: “We will engage in the rebuilding of the communities once the relief agencies address their immediate priorities.”

“For many of us the floods were a personal crisis. But numerous, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Indian associations are also taking part,” says Karpagam Narayanan, who was among the handful of volunteers who launched the initiative on December 2. She led a team of volunteers that screened the list of NGOs in Tamil Nadu that could absorb the funds being raised.

Though the Help Chennai initiative does not centralise funds, it has floated a charity too called Chennai Floor Relief, compliant with U.S. laws, to enable individual efforts such of Sharat Ganesh. The 28-year old cyber security technologist, who set out to collect $2000 but ended up raising more than $30,000 from more that 600 people, says: “There are a significant number of non-Indians too contributing.”

The Help Chennai initiative does not seek to aggregate all the funds but seeks to help the numerous other initiatives in accounting, tax support and in connecting to organisations in India. The team also developed a dozen software applications to aid relief and rebuilding operations. They also supply volunteers to organisations such as AID India that have their own fundraising templates, but need more hands.

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