A health worker receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Kolkata, India, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. A Sikh advocacy group says the government of India has blocked a Canadian website that aims to raise funds for COVID-19 patients in India, including the state of West Bengal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Bikas Das

Sikh advocacy group says India blocked Canadian website to fund COVID-19 patients

OTTAWA — A Sikh advocacy group says the government of India has blocked a Canadian website that aims to raise funds for COVID-19 patients abroad.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer for Sikhs For Justice, saidit launched a website Tuesday to connect patients in four Indian states with donations to buy liquid oxygen.

“Economically poor and economically downtrodden Indians do not have enough money to buy oxygen for their families and for the patients,” Pannun said.

Oxygen cylinders have seen drastic markups amid a supply shortage as the pandemic ravages the country.

“A $2 cylinder, they are selling it at $30, a 1,500 per cent increase, even though the dead bodies are piling up,” he said.

A screenshot provided by the group, which has chapters in Toronto, New York City and London, shows a computer unable to connect with the server of the new site, OxygenFund.org.

Pannun saidonly the Indian government has the authority to bar access to the web page, which he says received more than 60 applicants in the first 24 hours followed by thousands of WhatsApp calls since the site went off-line in India.

India’s government did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

With the web page unavailable there, the organization has been swamped with WhatsApp calls over the last few days, largely from the states of Maharashtra and West Bengal.

“We have thousands of missed calls. Thousands. It’s ringing non-stop,” Pannun said, noting Sikhs For Justice has four people working “around the clock” to answer queries.

The group launched another site Thursday, Oxygen4Punjab.org, which was blocked again within hours, he said.

Anshuman Gaur, India’s deputy high commissioner to Canada, says his government has labelled Sikhs For Justice a terrorist group, but could not comment on whether the state blocked its site.

“They are banned,” he said in a phone interview.

The international organization, which advocates for an independent Sikh state and promotes humanitarian aid, was labelled “unlawful” in 2019 by the Indian government led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Last year, the government posted a short list of Sikh organizations and individuals it deems to be “terrorists.” The list included Pannun, who has dismissed the designation as a reaction to his peaceful advocacy for an independent Sikh state.

Sunmeet Kaur, a registered nurse and community volunteer in the Greater Toronto Area, said the downed website could cost lives.

“Time is of the essence here … People are unfortunately dropping dead because they don’t have access to basic things like oxygen,” she said.

“Donors are ready and waiting, but we don’t have anywhere to send this to right now.”

The donations were not intended for a particular group, she added, but for anyone needing help in one of four pandemic-battered states: Punjab, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Sikhs make up a large portion of Punjab’s population, but a small fraction of that of other states.

“It’s just wherever it’s needed. You can see the situation is very dire,” Kaur said.

“People are posting videos of burning bodies on the sidewalks, because there’s really long lineups for the funeral, cremation and burial grounds.”

Some Canadians are wiring funds to family in India directly.

“In Punjab it’s much easier, because lots of people have family back home. They’re used to sending money over and helping out where they can. But we don’t know people in Maharashtra or West Bengal or UP,” said Kaur.

“It’s a matter of life and death.”

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