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|April 20, 2000|
Wake-up call for Indians
Why are Indians living in the United States indifferent to problems in India? With the money and resources they have at their disposal why don't they care as much as they should? These were some questions that two PhDs, Ashwin Mahesh from University of Washington and Subramaniam Vincent from University of Southern California, brainstormed a few years ago.
To address these questions, they thought up a web site, www.indiatogether.org, intended to be a wake-up call for all Indians living in the US. And soon their team was bolstered by the inclusion of one more individual with great ideas, Ram Narayanan
"Most people would care about things if they knew about them. Then, there is a possibility that they will act after knowing," said Mahesh.
The site, with the slogan "We know and we care", carries articles and editorials on various Indian issues. On the site right now are articles on the Narmada project ('A solution to the Narmada imbroglio'), and an online petition to seek US congressional action in bringing action in the long delayed Bhopal case and other issues of concern.
By highlighting the work of non-profit organizations in India and the US, the web site hopes to induce the average Indian living here to care and maybe even take it a step further and do something about the problems back home.
There is a resource exchange called 'Give and Take' where people can donate their skills, resources like used computers, medicines, expertise, fundraising ideas, books, money etc. Specific skills for a developmental organization can also be offered in the form of writing newsletters, creating and maintain a web page, etc.,. The section also offers visitors a chance to visit a project site on their next trip to India.
"On a Macroscopic level Indians are aware of the problems in India but they don't know how they can participate in individual problems. When we write a story we include ways the reader can participate. He or she can either sign a petition or forward money," said Mahesh.
Mahesh has degrees in business, astronomy and geophysics. He came to this country in 1991 to study astronomy and did his PhD in geophysics at the University of Washington. He now works for a science company that works for NASA in Hampton, Michigan and writes a column for rediff.com. Subramaniam Vincent works in Freemont, California.
"The response is growing and is continuing to grow fast. When we started, we'd be lucky to get 20 hits a day. Now we're close to 50,000 hits a day. We have a newsletter, which we send to people and, the great thing is, people voluntarily subscribe to it. At the moment we have about 5,000 people who read our site regularly. We do about four stories a month. Not all these are stories, some are editorials.
In the beginning we had to approach people and organizations and say we'd be doing a story on them for free now we're reaching a point where people are asking us to write about them...
"I am interested in seeing if an organization whose primary purpose is social responsibility can function as a viable media organization
He admits the Indian community is rather apathetic to India's problems.
"Most people in this country lead fairly individualized lives. I don't subscribe to the notion of Indian community. There are a lot of people who have shared interests in India. My friends and I have shared interests in astronomy. Does that mean we belong to the astronomy community? Or an Indian community? There is significant overlapping... We're doing this because these are decent things to do, not because they are Indian things -- the fact that they're Indian makes it easier for me to identify with them.
"We also participate in community activities here, not as Indians but as members of the community in large. People are always naturally inclined to buy into the ideas of a community without thinking of their individual responsibilities. Here is where I belong because I was born here and here is where I belong because I live here. One thing I don't want to be is an Indian living in America who is confined by a cycle of "Indianess" within which my life is expressed. If I happen to live in India that would be natural, but I happen to live here now so there must be something beneficial that I gain from exposure to a different life. There is no reason to look away. There are a lot of civil rights groups, liberal groups and charitable groups -- they are interesting to me because they are ideologically similar to us."
He says he hopes to build a broad platform and help people do things for India. People could either send out a petition or a letter to a local newspaper on some Indian issue, send money to an organization doing good work in India or offer technical skills, computers books etc.
"We're not asking for people to leave their American interests or to be primarily Indian," he says. "It is very healthy for people to maintain their responsibilities and rights that they derive from their particular citizenship.
Mahesh says they don't usually take advertisements, though they have put up three ads for non-profit groups on the front page.
The advantage, he says, is that one can get to many people on the Internet at a very low cost.
"Web hosting service costs $ 25 a month, domain registration $ 50-70 a year. For a total cost of $ 300-400 we can run the site.
"We both have jobs and can afford to run it. So far we've paid for it ourselves. Money is not the issue. We even spent money to block domain names, so we didn't have to deal with it in the future. One of the drawbacks we have is that both of us don't have any programming experience, at least no HTML or Java. We've had to teach ourselves everything."
One problem is time. Both Mahesh and Subramaniam spend three-eight hours week to keep the site going. And they realise that soon they have to plan for more server space, bandwidth etc. And that could raise the cost.
"We are thinking of a specific indiatogether fund, which would support the organization on the lines of PBS (Public Broadcasting Service). We want to move from primarily an awareness campaign to a media organization on public affairs," says Mahesh.
He cites the case of a story the site carried on beach-cleaning in Madras some years ago which prompted several organizations from other parts of India to inquire how they could do the same thing in their communities.
"Subbu and I are both believers in "incrementalism". We're not trying to make things better 100 per cent. We know how to get to 22 per cent and we're now trying to reach 23 per cent! We think of the little things we can do."
He speaks the interesting section on the indiatogether site, Give and Take, in which people can donate computers, books, technical skills etc.
"Typically, there are more offers to help than people asking for things, which is interesting. So far we've not done too much of a job in getting to people who actually need the help. What we need to do to make it effective is to get somebody who understands how to maintain databases on the Internet. Our management of it is pretty rudimentary. It'll be nice if we could get groups in India to look at this portion of our site. We're trying to do an e-bay for non-profit organizations, where you trade your services and things for free, in some sort of a clearinghouse for compassionate action," he says.
The most popular feature, he says, is the one called 'Lobby for India Online Resource for Indian Americans'.
Run by Ram Narayanan, a former marketing consultant and bank executive, the site's primary objective is to provide easy access to information on current news and issues relevant to India-US relations. The section is updated two or three times a week compared to the other areas, which are changed about once every week.
Using the section, Indians residing in any of the 435 Congressional Districts can track how their senators and congressman have voted on India-related issues. They can also e-mail their legislators or send a letter to the editor to their local newspaper on issues of importance to US-India relations.
Narayanan, 64, is a US citizen of Indian origin who has always been interested in India's foreign policy. He is particularly keen in furthering India-US co-operation in all fields. He has a master's degree and a gold medal in economics from Loyola College, Madras. He was also a Ford Foundation Scholar who pursued a program on the methodology of applied economic research. Narayanan, who worked in the Indian Overseas Bank in India, came 15 years ago, to the US.
The widower met and married an American, Loral Alberta.
"I got stuck here," he laughs. The couple runs a marketing consulting firm named after his mother, Janaky International Corporation.
In early June 1999, during the Kargil Crisis, after meeting Ashwin Mahesh, he began hosting and co-ordinating the Lobby... By September, the site needed all his time and energy and so he retired from his marketing consultant business. His wife continues to run their firm.
"When Kargil started we felt tremendously betrayed," he says. "The PM of India had started a process of reconciliation. We knew that things were not easy, but we were hopeful that over a period of time, relations would improve and there wouldn't be a warlike atmosphere. But then the betrayal of the Lahore process shook up most People of Indian origin here. My wife and I both thought we need a resource in the US, which will equip the ordinary Indian-American with all the information that he needs on India-American relations.
"There was a strong opinion against Pakistan in the House of Representatives, but there was also a lot of ignorance so we started with a readymade letter on the site which could be readily used by Indian-Americans when they wrote to their representatives."
Now, he says, 3,600 readers are on indiatogether's 'Action Alert' list, a number he hopes to hike to 25,000-30,000 by next year. He says the idea is to make it easy for PIOs in any part of the US to write to his or her congressman. Besides, the section provides information on what is happening on the India-American front.
"When anything that comes up in Congress or the House of Representative requires action on the part of the PIOs, I immediately issue an Action alert. During the Kargil Crisis quite a number wrote to their congressmen and newspapers. One of the earliest Action Alerts we issued was on Pakistan being declared a terrorist state.
He says the site does not intend to be anti-Pakistani just because it took a stand against it during the Kargil crisis. He intends to change the content to address specific India-American issues, particularly economic issues, environment and technology. He says that the Fortune 500 and other big companies influence thinking on India but he hopes to draw smaller American companies to India. In fact, he is for anything that promotes India-US friendship and economic co-operation.
"Right now we are thinking about what should be the post-Clinton follow up action. We want to get more and more congressmen on India's side and we've been very successful in that direction. US interest in foreign affairs is not very high, except maybe the Middle East because of the Israeli factor. But by writing to them regularly and calling them, the IPOs have been able to create a base, some knowledge about India.
"For instance, we had a big role in the resolution that was passed by 394 votes against four, after India's elections supporting and welcoming India's democratically-elected government.
"When James Rueben the spokesman for the State Department came almost totally in support of India on the Kashmir issue at one time, we asked our Action Alert members to call his office and thank him. They were all surprised and overwhelmed by the show of gratitude.
"We are not spokesmen for India or America. We look for areas of commonness and agreement and bring that to the notice of our readers," he says.
He admits Indians, because of their differences over caste, religion, and community, are fragmented.
"No two Indian Americans ever agree on anything. India is the only country where even a monolithic party like the Communist Party is split into so many parties.
"The Israelis have a powerful lobby of 60,000 from a population of 6 million. The Israeli-American Public Affairs Committee has done a great job in building public opinion for Israel. They are so powerful; no congressman will cross swords with them.
"Indians are very individualistic but this should not stand in our way. We are issue-based, not organization-based. We are trying to bring everybody together on issues.
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