OVER 15,000 ANGLO-INDIANS (MAINLY SENIORS) LIVE IN INHUMAN CONDITIONS IN INDIA, WITHOUT ANY HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The line is so narrow between 'them' and 'us'. We could have so easily been 'them' – so much of good luck was involved in 'us' being here and bad luck in 'them' being there. We have to examine ourselves as individuals and members of a community. There is no one else who will help our community in India. History and our grandchildren (and maybe the "One Great Scorer" who writes against our names) will judge us as being caring and compassionate or as being callous and selfish.
air: Margaret at the outset of this interview, I want to state that I mean no disrespect to, and make no judgement of any party or organization in India or anywhere else.
Margaret: Blair, can you tell us about CTR's history and what it was that impelled you to spearhead a charity which focuses on the old and impoverished people in our Community in India today.
Blair: I had been sending CAISS (Calcutta Anglo-Indian Service Society) some money every December and when I visited Calcutta in 1998 they took me to Tiljallah (a slum) and showed me how some of our Anglo-Indians lived. Seeing so many Anglo-Indian women (mostly seniors) and children living in such inhuman conditions without any hope was a traumatic experience. Their stories were all too similar. They had retired or lost their jobs, had outlived their provident fund and were now abandoned and destitute. I still see the faces of desperate persons, hoping for some miracle to turn up and maybe ‘feed them’.
On return to the US, I spent a year and established a ‘Not for Profit’ organization to ‘Help indigent Anglo-Indians in India’ and obtained official approval from our Revenue Service (IRS) in December 1988. We called it Calcutta Tiljallah Relief (in hindsight this was a mistake as the organization helps AI’s all over India, and so we are trying to move to calling it CTR).
Life has blessed me abundantly and I was given and continue to be given so much. Maybe this was in order to make me realize what Dr. Jaikumar, a Harvard professor (Jaikumar) once said to me - i.e. out of good fortune comes success and out of success comes obligation.
Margaret: How do you measure CTR's progress in terms of:
(a) funds raised;
(b) annual objectives;
(c) efficiency of organizational team-work among volunteers in India and abroad?
Blair: As far as our funds and objectives go, we raised money in the US from 1998 and Canada joined our team in 1999, the UK in 2000 and Australia in 2002. In 1999 we started our first pension project in Calcutta with 28 seniors, paying them a monthly pension of Rs. 200 each. Today we have 140 seniors in Calcutta, 60 in Madras, 20 in Bangalore and we provide monthly pensions of Rs 300 to all of them. In addition we sponsor education of young AI boys and girls and at present have 16 boarders in Loreto, Entally; 35 day scholars in Bow Bazaar; 20 day scholars in Madras and 10 day scholars in Hyderabad. The size and details of this pulling together, across four continents, does take quite a bit of time, and has to be pursued compulsively and with single-minded determination.
In regard to our organizational team work, we follow a ‘raise as much as you can’ philosophy, with our volunteers abroad, allowing them to operate within their comfort zones. Functions like dances and seminars help. In India we send money for specific programs and our volunteer organizations administer these programs. Ultimately we depend on the internal motivation of our volunteers – only that can sustain them over the long haul.
Margaret: Who administers CTR in the various cities - i.e., Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore and other places in India - and do they operate in consultation with you - or do they have the authority to act unilaterally?
Blair: We very carefully select organizations or persons, who are already doing AI charitable works, to be the administrators of our projects in India. This is the core of all our efforts. For example we have CAISS in Calcutta who administer our senior pension program; Anglo-Indian Concern for Madras seniors; Loreto Convent in Entally for our sponsored boarders, Ms. Sylvia Bosen for Bangalore seniors and so on (the CTR website has all the details, with contact addresses of the administrators) Once we have selected an administrator we give then the criteria of and the funding for the program and allow them to select eligible seniors or children for the program and administer it. Once we select our administrator we ‘trust’ them and give them local authority.
I must mention that no volunteer, either in India or abroad gets paid any money, either in cash or in kind, for any activity associated with the charity!
Margaret: As with any program involving large amounts of cash, how do you "police" CTR programs to ensure that funds are being funnelled into the servicing those who are in real need?
Blair: In the US, our charity has very strict documentary requirements and we submit annual reports to the IRS. These requirements extend to the projects we sponsor. Every senior signs for his or her pension, every month and we get a detailed monthly statement. The same applies to education with a receipt from the parents of the children. We post the addresses of all our administrators on our website and encourage anybody who goes to India to check out the administrator and the projects. In addition most of our children are sponsored and many sponsors go and see their sponsored child. Finally, we try and run a transparent organization and post the amounts of money sent to our administrators every year on our website and I answer scores of questions as they arise.
Margaret: Have you any idea (ball-park numbers) as to how many elderly Anglo-Indians are currently living below the poverty line?
Blair: I have an estimate from Calcutta. In the city there are about 30,000 AI’s of which 50% or 15,000 are below the poverty line of Rs 1000.00 per month. Of this 30% are above 60 years and 30% are 45 to 60 years. This means 4500 seniors and 4500 soon-to be seniors. And we have 150 on pension! And this is only Calcutta!
If there are 200,000 AI’s in India and we extrapolate the above ratios we are looking at 30,000 poor seniors. And we have 230 on pensions total. It is staggering! Even if we take half of the above figures, the numbers are still overwhelming.
Margaret: Can you share your thoughts as to what the differences (and similarities) are of problems faced by the elderly - both physical and psychological - in western countries and those in India?
Blair: The issue of poverty in the West in psychological – loneliness, despair, drugs etc. The issue of poverty in India is food and shelter – the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In India the poverty line selected was less than Rs 1000 per month (about US$20.00) With this a person can eat a little rice and lentil once a day with an occasional potato or onion. There is no social security, pensions, medical benefits or senior housing. There are no programs for seniors. Many of our seniors live on the streets. Fortunately Calcutta now has a night shelter where a few seniors can get shelter in winter.
Margaret: Are you hopeful that the Conference on Poverty and Ageing at the International Reunion will broadcast the message among the wider world-wide Community?
Blair: We need the involvement of more AI’s abroad, to help their less fortunate brethren in India. It does not matter how they do it, whether individually or through a charity, as long they do it. I hope the conference in Melbourne will help raise awareness and money. Our experience in North America is about 10 - 15% of the Anglo-Indians are currently active in a formal charity – and North America collected over $20,000 US or 80% of the funds for CTR in 2002. We need to develop more involvement with AI’s in other countries.
Margaret: Have you any suggestions as to how we can arouse awareness - overcome the "I'm all right Jack" mentality among many of our folks living in reasonably affluent circumstances in the western world?
Blair: This is perhaps the most difficult question you have asked. I really do not know how we can arouse the awareness of more AI’s abroad to help the less fortunate in India. How can we live easily in our snug Western world and know this is the fate of our less fortunate Community members? The line is so narrow between ‘them’ and ‘us’. We could have so easily been ‘them’ – so much of good luck was involved in ‘us’ being here and bad luck in ‘them’ being there. We have to examine ourselves as individuals and members of a community. There is no one else who will help our community in India. History and our grandchildren (and maybe the "One Great Scorer" who writes against our names) will judge us as being caring and compassionate or as being callous and selfish.
Margaret: What do you envisage for CTR in the future?
Blair: As bleakly as I have painted the current picture, the future is worse. My generation, sixty something, is the last that has a hard link to India. Most of our children and grandchildren will no longer have any emotional ties to India, so when we pass on, little or no money is likely to be generated to continue the efforts in India and there will still be ageing AI’s needing help.
We are planning to set up a trust in India to meet some of the current payments. We figure we need US$200,000. With 6% interest, it will generate $12,000 a year, which will cover half the programs we have at present. I am currently looking for about 10 to 20 Anglo-Indians who can donate $10,000US or more to this trust. I have two. On my return from Melbourne I plan to stop at Calcutta and set up the trust. Please ask persons to contact me if they can subscribe to this trust.
In the meantime CTR will continue to strive, with the participation of many of our supporters, to raise funds and help our Anglo-Indian needy old and young folks in India. For the rest, it's a matter of Inshallah - As Allah (or the "Almighty" in any language) Wills It.
Margaret: Thank you Blair. I hope that our conversation will rouse concern and a positive response among our world-wide Community.
Blair: Thank you.