By RAVINDER SINGH
Ravinder Singh is founder and chief coordinator of Khalsa Aid. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sikh Times, Jan. 21, 2006
Photo: Ravinder Singh, founder and chief coordinator of Khalsa Aid
Since Khalsa Aid was launched in 1999 a lot of similar Sikh organisations have suddenly mushroomed overnight. Most of them, purely for individual or monetary gain. Humanitarian disasters have become a massive money-making and political business. I have been involved in many relief operations since 1999 and have also seen many groups who have state-of-the-art photographic equipment but do very little actual relief work. Their well-presented Web sites give a very different picture.
Khalsa Aid has been approached many times by Majinderpal Kaur of United Sikhs to form some sort of partnership. We have always been against this idea as Khalsa Aid is purely a humanitarian organisation and United Sikhs is involved in politics. Further, Khalsa Aid is a U.K. registered charity and United Sikhs is not. I am aware that they were working with Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.
It was during the Tsunami relief efforts that I really got to know how United Sikhs functions.
Majinderpal Kaur went visiting to all the gurdwaras [Sikh places of worship] in the U.K. who had been supporting Khalsa Aid since 1999 to ask for donations (Tsunami donations) collected from the sangat [Sikh community] to be given to United Sikhs by showing fancy PowerPoint presentations. I was getting a lot of calls from confused gurdwara committee members asking if Khalsa Aid was working with United Sikhs. The answer was always NO, despite the hints they were receiving about our 'collaboration' with Majinderpal Kaur.
I got to Chennai [Madras] to meet our India partners, Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle (Mumbai branch) to launch our relief operation for the Tsunami effected areas. The great sewadars [volunteers] from the Study Circle were Kulwant Singh (general secretary), Ravinder Singh and Bhupinder Singh. The United Sikhs local representative was Ishar Singh from Hyderabad. After a couple of days of setting up relief operations in Tamil Nadu we all flew to Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
There were Sikh families (on Campbell Bay) who needed assistance in the southern-most islands, so Khalsa Aid decided to launch operations in several areas of the islands to help the Sikhs. After some discussions, I decided to send Kulwant Singh as a Khalsa Aid representative and Ishar Singh joined him while I remained behind to oganise the logistics for the relief materials. During the two days I spent on Port Blair with Ishar Singh he was hardly ever off the phone. He must have used thousands of Rupees daily on calls to America, Malaysia, etc. All of this from the sangat's donations. He almost got himself and us kicked off the islands for threatening the district collector with political vengeance if he didnt get a private helicopter for himself.
At the same time he was sending photos to be posted on the United Sikhs Web site. While Kulwant Singh and Ishar Singh were with the Sikh inhabitants of Campbell Bay, the United Sikh Web site was informing the sangat that Ishar Singh gave away Rupees 4.5 lakh [4,50,000] to the Sikhs of Campbell Bay. When they returned from their visit I asked Kulwant Singh about the Rupees 4.5 lakh donation. He was very surprised and told me that Ishar Singh gave about Rupees 15,000 in total. I challenged Ishar Singh on this issue. At first, he denied making the false report and then said it must have been an error on the Web site.
I got very busy with our operations on several fronts on different islands. We were building toilets, supplying food, sanitation equipment and building materials. Within two days of arriving I had set up a supply line through different ships and had 5 tons of food dispatched to the Sikhs. In the mean time Ishar Singh had disappeared from the islands. But the United Sikhs Web site was doing an excellent job of displaying the photos which he took and videos he made of the Sikhs on Campbell Bay. However, they still had not delivered a single piece of relief material to the islands. Their Web site kept asking for donations to continue their aid program on these islands. How could they continue when they never started any relief program!
Khalsa Aid had a request from Sikh families for women's and men's underwear as well as more sanitation equipment, which was hastily arranged and put on a ship with a sewadar from the Study Circle accompanying the materials. I flew back to Chennai to coordinate further relief efforts and to check on the Tamil Nadu project. I met several more young people who had travelled from Punjab, U.S., etc. on behalf of United Sikhs. They had no coordination and no leadership as Ishar Singh had simply disappeared. They were mostly staying in the gurdwara in Chennai.
The United Sikhs Web site was updated daily with more photographs and videos but during the four weeks I spent there they did not deliver any relief to the islands but were constantly and vigorously asking for donations through their Web site to 'continue' the relief program. They had a lot of volunteers (tickets most likely paid for by the sangat) but no direction. Khalsa Aid arranged for Jet Air to fly in two tons of food to the islands. They took photos of that batch of food to claim as their own. The tons of food and clothing the Study Circle sent from Mumbai became another opportunity for United Sikhs to take photos and claim as their relief goods.
I returned to the U.K. to find Majinderpal still going around gurdwaras claiming to be involved in very 'hectic' relief programs on the islands. I must say, they had all the top equipment for presentations.
I returned to the islands a few weeks later to be stopped by the C.I.D. at Port Blair airport asking all sorts of questions. I only got away lightly because a C.I.D. person with whom I had become friends and who admired the work of Khalsa Aid had intervened. I had never been stopped before during my several trips. I was stopped because United Sikhs had sent very naive and inexprienced people from the U.S. to restricted areas on the islands and who were instantly arrested and put in a local jail overnight and then deported back to Chennai. Funnily enough, this was never mentioned in the United Sikhs press releases. This was down to a total lack of leadership and proper planning and done in haste to be seen on the islands. There were at least six to eight of these youngsters, their air tickets to India must have cost a good few dollars and then the airfare to Port Blair as well as other expenses. I still did not see any member of United Sikhs actually providing relief on the islands.
I know many gurdwaras were repeatedly visited by Majinderpal in the U.K. United Sikhs did recieve large sums of money from the gurdwaras (£39000 from one gurdwara alone). I hate seeing the sangat's money going to waste or misdirected. The gurdwaras have a responsibility to the sangats. The sangats should demand to see the final destination of their donations and a regular report on the usage of the funds.
United Sikhs have no accountabilty in the U.K. So how does the sangat know where the money has gone and about their stucture of paid staff? How much actually went to the relief effort and how much toward salaries and political activities? I saw a lot of fancy photos and presentations but no work by them at all on the islands. They must have collected several $100,000 from the U.K. and the U.S./Canada. Where did it all go? I was shocked at the aggressive way in which United Sikhs approached the gurdwaras in the U.K. Majinderpal actually tried very hard to get Khalsa Aid and United Sikhs together and was even abusive to a senior member of Khalsa Aid (Bherminder Singh) when she was told to back off from stirring dissension within Khalsa Aid by phoning different memebers. She even denied to Bherminder Singh that Khalsa Aid was actually active on the islands.
Actual humanitarian work involves a lot of effort and coordination. The burden of the sangats' expectations is the most difficult burden of all. Like I have already mentioned previously, there are groups and individuals who see disasters as an opportunity to build a power base with the money donated by the well-meaning sangats.
United Sikhs' aggressiveness in collecting funds has made me feel very uneasy and I hope I or other Khalsa Aid members never chase money in that manner. Khalsa Aid works on trust and we leave the donations to the sangats who are our ultimate judges. I did not want to write this critique, but I feel a responsibility to the sangats, especially as I have been involved in relief work for several years through the sangats' trust.
The sangats' donations should not be unaccounted for or misdirected whether it be by a gurdwara committee, an individual, or an organisation.