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India's newly wealthy open wallets

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

By Janaki KremmerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2005


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

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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.

"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.