India's newly wealthy open wallets

A growing middle class, cognizant of its fresh prosperity, shares readily with victims of the tsunami.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

He has driven 90 miles south from Chennai with two friends and a check for $2,000 to donate.

Rajesh, who refuses to give his last name because he says he does not want any "fame" for himself, looks slightly uncomfortable in his Dockers and IZOD T-shirt as he is jostled by villagers milling around the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) office. That's where the government collects all donations for the area, and this young man is determined to reach the row of desks, set under a striped tent in the driveway, where he can hand over his contribution.

Rajesh is a 29-year-old businessman based in Chennai, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, which suffered heavy losses when the tsunami hit the country's southeast coastline.

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"I want to give something to my people," he says. "I have made enough money for myself in the past five years, and it's time we look beyond ourselves to try and do something for this country," he adds. "I usually stay away from anything that the government might be involved in as it leads to too much bureaucracy," he says. "But in this situation, I do believe that it's for the best."

Rajesh and his friends have closed up shop for two days to see for themselves the extent of the disaster that took place so close to their homes.

They soon make their donations and get directions that will take them to the affected villages down the road toward the beach. They get back in their maroon, air-conditioned Mitsubishi Lancer and drive off to the village of Devanampattinam, where 60 people were killed and the beach is still strewn with straw, bits of wood, and broken fishing boats.

According to Raja Rajugopal, a volunteer from Berkeley, Calif., who works with the Bhumika Trust Office, a local nongovernmental organization, the response from India's middle class has been unprecedented.

"With the advent of an open media since the early 1990s, people are discovering their own country in a way they never had before," says Mr. Rajugopal, the retired chief operating officer of Mecon Inc., a California-based healthcare software consulting group.

Rajugopal says this was first noticeable during the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj in western India, when hundreds of volunteers descended on the Gujarat town.

Compared with an earlier, more circumspect middle class, this new group of about 150 million people, armed with new wealth from a decade of rapid growth, has been criticized by some for exhibiting a nouveau-riche mentality. But their rapid rise from modest beginnings may also explain their quick grasp of - and response to - the plight of the tsunami victims.

"I have an uncle who used to be a fisherman in south India," says R. Ravi, an information-technology worker from Delhi. "I know what it means to lose everything - especially your boat and net."

At another end of the driveway at DRDA, a woman in a cotton sari stands looking slightly forlorn in the humid heat of the early afternoon.

An official asks her for her details: which village she belongs to and which camp she expects to go to.

She looks up, slightly surprised.

"No, I have come to make a donation of rice," she says in Tamil, pointing to a 10-lb. bag of rice by her side.

Amma, as she calls herself, lives in the Cuddalore district and has been buying fish locally all her life. Now her favorite fisherman is gone. She wants to make her contribution.

At the desk, the woman painstakingly taking down the names of private donors and their donations, opens a file.

In it are names from as far north as Kashmir and Punjab states and even one from Singapore. The donations vary from$1 to $10,000

"We are starting to get stuff from England, France, and other foreign countries," says Hamida Bano, a government worker who spends 18-hour days at this desk. "But until now, at least for the last week, most of the money and stuff has been coming from inside India - most of the people are businessmen and politicians and other well-to-do people."

But not all observers believe that the middle-class is generously disposed.

According to T.N. Gopalan, bureau chief of the southern India edition of India Express newspaper, what does not hurt the wealthy directly might as well be happening on the moon.

"December is the season for popular Karnataka music concerts in Chennai, and on the evening of the 26th, not even one concert was canceled," says Mr. Gopalan. "Nor was it canceled the next evening. Fishermen are fringe dwellers in more ways than one, and although there is an outpouring of sympathy and some money, there is no real care about what happens to them."

But even as he speaks, more loads of relief are being trucked down to Cuddalore and other badly hit regions.

Commercial-vehicle manufacturer Ashok Leyland has opened its factory in Chennai to house those left homeless, and says it has sent more than 100 of its employees along with buses and ambulances to help in relief operations.

But such gestures can cause problems.

"At Bhuj, there were more foreigners and Indians from the big cities who had come to help than there were inside the old damaged town, and none of them were used to the difficult condition-they had just rushed in and needed a place to stay, water to drink," says Rajugopal "They became a liability. This time, we are telling [volunteers] to stop, because we will decide when we want them and what we want from them."

Rajugopal believes that the response has been much more efficient than at Bhuj where more than 16,000 people are believed to have been killed and more than 140,000 injured in a 6.9-magnitude earthquake.

"That time, it took weeks before people realized that sending old clothes is not acceptable - even villagers here wear new saris. This time, the moment we told them to stop sending old clothes, they did."

But mistakes are still being made. A group of 40 Westerners arrived Thursday with scuba diving gear that would have been more suitable in Thailand.

"We just had to say, thanks, but no thanks," says Rajugopal.

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