The Sikh community is known today the world over for its spirit of service. Sikh organisations and individuals have been proactive in relief work in various disaster situations — tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and so on. This is not just a question of the image of the community, which of course gets refurbished with each such involvement. It is also a natural evolution, at a community level, of two basic tenets of the faith — kirat karo (work honestly) and vand chhako (share in charity). On an individual level, these tenets are fulfilled by contributing from honest earnings in cash or kind to the gurdwara; on a community level, this is taken forward not just in langar, or the community kitchen, that feeds thousands daily, but also through significant relief and charity initiatives. The clinics attached to several gurdwaras that provide free healthcare are one such admirable initiative.
Even in the current Covid-19 crisis, Sikh volunteer organisations in India and abroad have been working in different ways, including by setting up food banks and supplying food packets, medicines and sanitisers to migrant labourers, daily wage earners, health workers and the other needy sections under quarantine.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) has done well by offering to treat Covid-19 patients in its hospitals.
But the Covid-19 crisis has brought to the fore the fragility of our healthcare system. There is an abysmal shortage of facilities and equipment required in a pandemic. State and Central governments are at present involved in crisis management as they try to balance health and economic imperatives. Whatever efforts they make in the wake of the crisis to repair the sorry state of affairs in the health sector remain to be seen, but clearly there will be ample scope for contributions from other sources.
It is the correct time to channelise the considerable energies and resources of the Sikh community into the health sector. The SGPC, as the apex organisation controlling the management of gurdwaras, educational and medical institutions and charitable trusts, can spearhead these efforts. Other organisations, such as the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, could be usefully co-opted for the purpose. One way of starting this engagement at the national level would be an immediate commitment to fund the establishment or the upgradation of 10 intensive care units in government hospitals around the country over the next year. The geographical distribution of the units and their accessibility for all would be an important aspect — the Sikh religion stresses the equality of man, irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
This is not an insurmountable task. The SGPC budget for the current financial year has evidently been postponed due to the current lockdown situation, but the budget of Rs 1,205 crores passed for 2019-20 provides reasonably clear indications of where the money could come from. For instance, Rs 84 crore was allocated towards dharam parchar or religious propagation. A similar allocation this year towards healthcare projects, such as the setting up ICUs would be the best possible propagation of the Sikh religion. A ball-park cost for the establishment of a 20-bed ICU, including civil works, proper equipment, manpower and maintenance contracts, is estimated at Rs 5 crore. The 10 proposed ICUs could be covered from this head alone.
The cost could be brought down further by leveraging the resources available within the community. Sikhs are deeply invested in construction and other industries and their services and contributions could be enlisted. Sikh professionals and doctors could provide advice and consultancy as needed. Kar seva organisations are available to assist in the civil works. The Sikh community abroad could be tapped where necessary. All this should not be difficult if the call for contributing to these projects comes from the Harmandar Sahib.
The fall in footfall at the Harmandar Sahib and other Sikh shrines due to the lockdown will inevitably result in a steep reduction of cash offerings. The SGPC chief secretary recently estimated that the monthly offerings at the Harmandar Sahib alone are expected to go down to Rs 3.5 lakh from the usual Rs 7 crore. This should not be a deterrent in taking on the healthcare initiative. First, there can be no better time than this to dip into reserves. Secondly, if the SGPC calls for contributions from the community, both within India and in the diaspora, for a well-defined, well-publicised and transparent high-profile project, these will be forthcoming. Earlier generations have spent lakhs of rupees to have memorial inscriptions on slabs of marble, pillars and benches; a new generation of donors may find it more worthwhile to have the names of their loved ones memorialised on hospital wards, beds and equipment.
The Sikh community prides itself on its pioneering spirit and forward-looking attitude which has allowed it to evolve with the times and prosper both in India and abroad. Turning to the nation-building task of setting up a robust health system would be an appropriate response to the times.
This is an appeal to the SGPC and similar organisations to consider this idea, or to come up with similar ones. In this way, we will be fulfilling several objectives in one go. We will be giving an overarching community cover to the efforts of several individuals and volunteer organisations. We will be providing critical, life-saving facilities to the citizens of our country. We will be channelling the honest contributions of individuals to a righteous cause and being true to the spirit in which those contributions were made. We will be paying true homage to Guru Nanak in the 550th year of his birth in the best possible manner.