Long before the digital era set in, greatly facilitating crowdfunding of projects and charities, my school in a small town of northern India was conducting crowdfunding of coins. It was the ‘50s, and the objective was to cover tuition fees of poor students because the tuition fees charged by this unaided boys' school, run by a private trust, were comparatively high. Hence, every Saturday morning, just before the dispersal of the assembly session of our school, each monitor would walk past the boys of his section, seated in two long rows, asking for voluntary donation of a coin or two from their pocket money towards what was called the Poor Boys' Fund (PBF), which was maintained by a senior teacher.
Some students would dig into their pocket money to contribute, mostly 1-paisa coins but sometimes adhannis (2-paisa coins), or even 1-anna coins (4-paisa). A US dollar then was equal to about four Indian rupees, each of which consisted of 64 paisa, the smallest denominator of Indian currency. This meant that each US cent was equal to about 2.5 paise. The higher denomination coins, like davanni, chavanni or athanni (equal to 8, 16, and 32 paise, respectively) were too high for the pocket money of school-boys, in those days. Still, for a strength of 2,500 boys the coins collected through crowdfunding at our school was not a mean amount.
When I got promoted to 7th standard in 1957, the monthly tuition fee increased from 3 rupees and 7 annas to 5 rupees and 2 annas. This created some tension at my home because my father had lost his job a few months ago, due to ill health. My mother, a homemaker, did try to earn some money by stitching clothes for neighbourhood women, but things were tough for our family of three members, my parents and myself. Hence, I submitted an application to my school for a fee-waiver. I was called to appear before an evaluation Committee, which was recommending deserving cases for granting fee-waivers.
Though my application had listed all details, a Committee member asked, “Why is it that your parents cannot pay fees for you, the only child?” As an 11-year old boy already feeling nervous, I just looked down and kept quiet. The committee Chairman explained to me that the management approves grant of only half-fee waivers, and that too, for one or more boys from a family, if the eldest brother pays full fee. The Committee rejected my case but recommended several half-fee waivers for boys fulfilling this 'corporate strategy', though some of them were from rich families.
A local political activist, who knew my financial constraints and also that I was a bright student, met our headmaster and criticised the system, which ignored a deserving poor student like me. This led to a review of my case, and I was summoned by the teacher in-charge of the PBF to inform me that an amount equal to half my tuition fee would be paid to me every month from the Fund. He then pulled out a packet of coins amounting to a sum of two and a half rupees, due to me for that month, and gave them to me after I signed a receipt. I gathered the heap of coins, with some discomfort and chagrin. I carried home that day 150 coins, all 1-paisa except a few adhanni coins, walking uncomfortably due to the physical weight of the coins in my slender pockets, as well as the ignominy of carrying so many 1-paisa coins like a beggar returning home. As my mother opened the door, I poured all the coins into her palms, and cried.
Nonetheless, I received a half-fee subsidy from the PBF for two years. From 1959 onwards, my paternal uncle paid my fees, whenever my mother did not have the money. My father had contracted tuberculosis, and died in April 1961, a month before I was promoted to standard XI, the final year in the Higher Secondary system. Time went by. Fortunately, I scored very well in standard XI and was awarded government scholarships, which covered the expenses of my graduation in science, after which I got selected to work in a Central government job, in which I continued until my retirement in 2010.
Looking back, I admire the way the PBF was managed so smoothly in my school, drawing upon voluntary contributions made by the students every Saturday, in the true sharing-and-caring spirit, for their own school-mates in need.
At all times, and in all parts of the world, there are sections of society who cannot afford essentials, such as, food, shelter, medicines or basic education. Besides, the occurrence of sudden disasters, calamities, or wars call for large aid programs which are run by local governments, international organisations such as United Nations or World Bank, or by charities or foundations established by rich individuals or the corporate sector. However, most of the above agencies are large spenders and work according to well laid-out programs, initiation of which requires much planning and audit, consuming weeks, if not months.
Arrival of the Internet and its deep penetration among masses during the past fifteen years has led to innovative crowdfunding efforts to raise funds quickly from intending donors in order to provide fast relief to individuals. For instance, in April 2018, when 27 school children under the age of 12 died in a tragic accident caused by the rolling of their bus into a deep gorge in Himachal Pradesh, a Toronto-based 'GoFundMe' campaign could raise enough money quickly for building another school at a convenient location so that the children of that mountainous region would no longer need to travel by bus to school. By far, the quickest crowdfunding campaign was conducted by Willners, a couple in the US, in June 2018, aimed to raise funds to reunite families separated at the Mexican border. They could collect $15 million from more than 425,000 people, in a matter of days using Facebook, the peak-collection rate being $3,000 per minute, for a while.
But, I believe, a great and unique system of crowdfunding that has elicited a huge response for decades, with no dependence on the use of the Internet, is langar - the community food tradition of cooking and feeding hungry people for no charge, at the community-kitchens run by Sikh devotees at all their gurudwaras. The langar at the Golden Temple at Amritsar, for instance, feeds simple, wholesome food free to at least 60,000 devotees daily.
Hundreds of gurudwaras within India and across the world have never turned any hungry person away, irrespective of his/her religion. The langar is funded from the offerings made by the devotees, the quantum of which is voluntary and kept anonymous. The rich and the poor eat the same food at langar, and often times huge special langars are set up by Sikh devotees on site, when a need arises suddenly to feed vulnerable people in large numbers. In September 2017, over 35,000 meals were cooked and served free for days together to hordes of hungry Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing Myanmar, at a langar set up by Sikh devotees at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
One very well-known instance of crowdfunding is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s fervent appeal in 1962 to citizens to contribute as war with China loomed over the young nation. Thousands of people donated money to the Defence of India Fund, and pictures of women donating their gold jewellery evoked intense emotions across the country. It is said that this crowdfunding endeavour mopped up over $220,000 in cash and much more in gold.
There have been many instances, however, where fly-by-night operators have taken undue advantage of the basic humanitarian instinct and natural goodwill of the multitudes who do have a soft corner for the less fortunate and are willing to chip in. Public funds collected for disaster relief have disappeared into private pockets. These caused a severe erosion of trust in such endeavours.
But it can be a boon in situations where there is too little time in hand, the sufferers are in large numbers, are too vulnerable and do not have access to such avenues as banks, government schemes or corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding. The digital platform has ensured transparency and accountability due to which crowdfunding, albeit in its new digital avatar, remains popular even today as a means to mobilise the masses for a cause.
(Prof JV Yakhmi is former Chairman of Atomic Energy Education Society (DAE), Mumbai, and Associate Director of Physics Group at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre)