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Crowdfunding Indian hopes and fears

Crowdfunding websites reflect the stunning individual success stories that we carve out with nothing but razor-edged grit

Hyperloop India’s OcraPod. Photo: Twitter/@HyperloopInd
Hyperloop India’s OcraPod. Photo: Twitter/@HyperloopInd

For 26-year-old Ritika Chandra, teaching ballet is like therapy. “I’ve not done anything else but ballet. When I watch ballet, the whole world is shut out," says Chandra, who decided this would be her life when she was a toddler. The certified American Ballet Theatre teacher worries about commercialized classes where children are taught to walk in pointe shoes too early and dreams of spreading an improved standard of ballet. She’s in the midst of organizing a ballet festival in Delhi in December for which she’s invited dancers from Italy and Japan. I know this because I’m trawling the internet for Indian dreams and fears and she’s right there on Milaap with an oversized red cloth rose in her hair, trying to raise money for the festival.

Over the last few years, crowdfunding websites such as Milaap have become a repository of connected India’s aspirations and anxieties. They clearly highlight our country’s big failures in the areas of health and education. There are innumerable stories of small-town parents coming to the big city to raise money for a child’s cancer treatment (paediatric cancers have doubled in the last decade, according to the Indian Council for Medical Research) or seeking funds for their offspring’s emergency organ transplants. Many low-income parents are heavily in debt because of the money they have spent on education and need more so their children can live out their dreams.

Mayukh Choudhury, co-founder and chief executive officer of Milaap, says these tales don’t necessarily reflect the failure of institutions to improve the lives of the next generation. “Cutting across the social and economic spectrum, there’s one very visible thing—the desire of parents to see a better life for their kids, and the willingness to do whatever it takes. This is the biggest story that binds us as Indians," says Choudhury.

Crowdfunding websites also reflect the stunning individual success stories that we carve out with nothing but razor-edged grit. When 23-year-old Mallika Arya took the year off to be a zero-waste traveller and was invited on a prestigious Antarctica expedition, she raised money on crowdfunding website BitGiving. Since Arya’s experience last year, BitGiving has hosted five more Antarctica campaigns.

This is a microcosm of changing India. Hyperloop India, one of two teams selected from across Asia, raised Rs35 lakh on crowdfunding site Ketto so that they could build an “OrcaPod" to win SpaceX’s Hyperloop Pod competition. “People want to see India excel in engineering," says Varun Sheth, co-founder of Ketto, explaining the success of the campaign.

These sites have played host to the man who wanted to be among the few vegans in the world to climb Mount Everest, the woman who wanted to organize Miss Transqueen India 2017 and the woman who’s manufacturing a pan which prevents milk from boiling over. You’ll see acid attack survivors raising money to start their own businesses so they can be financially independent, rural entrepreneurs, and people who want to help drought-affected farmers across the country. It’s comforting to see the number of people who want to rescue stray dogs, and yes I’m sorry to break the news to you, our bovine friends have made their debut on these websites too.

Once, my favourite way to figure us out was to lurk on Quora, a community question and answer website. But that was before we subverted the site by obsessively answering every question posted and upsetting the rest of the world. Besides, there are only so many insights one can absorb in the repetitive questions about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, south India vs north India, actresses in Hindi films, whether or not sabudana and eggs can be classified as vegetarian. Then there are those classic questions only Indians would ask: “Can I carry 1kg of ghee on an Air India flight?" Yes, in case you were wondering.

Crowdfunding, some would argue, serves a higher purpose in the digital world, where it’s so easy to isolate ourselves from shared realities. “The same technologies that allow us to build bridges to strangers also allow us to withdraw into groups of people just like us, sometimes depriving us of the empathy, the vibrancy and the new ideas that flow from the diversity of communities beyond our own. Crowdfunding platforms give people the opportunity to change that; to get involved; to acknowledge our interdependencies and our mutual vulnerabilities," says a new report by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies titled Why Philanthropy Must Support Crowdfunding In India.

While we are getting better at sharing our stories online, crowdsourcing websites also show us how philanthropy works in New India. More young people are giving very generously, says Sheth, adding that on Ketto the average age of donors has fallen to 28-29 years from 40-plus when they started five years ago.

“People are open-minded and passionate about different things that you wouldn’t even think of," says Sheth, who’s still amazed that India’s first ever women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team raised Rs35 lakh last year to participate in an international tournament.

BitGiving’s founder and CEO Ishita Anand agrees: “Individuals are taking a step forward and saying, ‘Hey, what can we do? I may not have figured out my dream yet but can I fulfil someone else’s?"

My favourite change in new India, visible offline and online, is the slow but very steady awakening of our sporting spirit. Fourteen-year-old Vamsi Krishna raised money successfully on Milaap to become, as he saw it, the next big thing on the badminton scene. The national ice-hockey team (men and women) is probably the biggest online fund-raising success story. Since 2015 it has raised Rs90 lakh via sponsorships, crowdsourcing campaigns on BitGiving and Ketto and on social media. But there are other heartwarming tales too.

“A lot of sportswomen have raised money," says Anand, citing two of her favourites: 15-year-old Ashmita Pal from Agartala—billed as the next Dipa Karmarkar—who raised Rs11 lakh last year to fund her Olympic dream, and Jharkhand tribal footballer Rupanti Munda, who raised Rs1 lakh earlier this year to travel to Oslo to participate in the Homeless World Cup.

“Sports works when someone is representing the country, not for local or national tournaments," says Sheth. “People want to fund you only when you’ve reached the pinnacle, they are not interested in funding your journey." That about sums up the Indian attitude towards sports, doesn’t it?

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets @priyaramani

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