From the beginning of March 2020 as the world started reeling under the sudden onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing fearful, urgent measures being taken up by governments around the world, it was all a clear indication to us in India that we too may have to face some very stringent and sudden restrictions. A lockdown was sure to be implemented and hence a response to it which would care for the most underprivileged sections of our society, started taking shape in our minds. As a bunch of volunteers– young and not-so young men – gathered in the office, we unanimously decided to prepare ourselves for the mammoth responsibility of reaching out to as many poor communities around as we could. We were aware that these communities would be bearing the hardest brunt of it all in a city like Delhi. However, in no way were we prepared for what we encountered later – the massive demands that poured into our office and the NGOs and groups that sought our help – including the Delhi Government! Yes, in the ensuing 50 days of the four successive Lockdowns in India, we are surprised by what we could accomplish and the vast number of needy people that we could reach out to. Now in retrospect it seems surreal that we could out-beat our own estimation of an emergency outreach and triumph over the many pit-falls that as an NGO we could have encountered.
LOCKDOWN 1.0 RATION DISTRIBUTION
Even before the 8 pm announcement of the Prime Minister on the 24th of March, which launched Lockdown 1.0, our team managed to arrange and deliver rations (that would last for 2 weeks) to 100 families in slum communities around PRATYeK’s Office in New Delhi. Ever since that evening, packets of rations have been meticulously put together, delivered and distributed to many needy communities both near and in very far-flung communities of slum-dwellers who inhabit the outermost peripheries of Delhi. Each ration-kit is worth Rs. 1000 and till date we have given these kits to over 10,000 families, even across the country through our NGO-partners and collaborators. Each ration-kit consists of Basmati Rice (5 kgs), Wheat Flour (10 kgs), Sugar (1 kg), Lentils (4 kgs), Spices (3 packs of different varieties), Cooking Oil (½ ltr), Sanitary Pads (a pack of 20) and Bathing Soap (250 gms).
The group followed through (albeit evolving) processes to ensure that the ration-kits reached the deserving hands of the neediest and unreached. Hence each recommending agent was asked to ensure that the beneficiaries were not ration-cardholders or recipients of other government or civil society relief materials. Thus, we ensured that through these counter-checks of each application with government data (however skimpy) we avoided and continue to avoid duplication of recipients of these rations.
These million meals have been delivered by our team who have journeyed miles in their vehicles through the highways and by-lanes of our city. The last mile of narrow criss-crossing lanes in slums of course needed to be navigated either by foot or on motorcycles and e-rickshaws. Our teams followed the rigours of the pandemic-related sanitizing drills and were always armed with gloves, masks, visors, jackets and sanitizers but all said and done they were always exposed to the dangers of infection as they braved the heat and dust of the colonies. They were often understandably mobbed by genuine and frantic appeals for rations from people who were anxious, penniless, foodless and who at times seemed utterly hopeless.
Reflecting on his experience Lyle Lopez, the Owner of Lirio Lopez Electrical and Lighting Design says, “We are masked, gloved and visored. Those we are helping cannot know us, nor we them. We are only the last vehicle of kindness that has involved many hearts and hands.” Yogesh Sachdeva an Old Student of St Columba’s School like Lopez added, “It is a good giving. In these actions lies our own redemption.”
The finances needed for this massive outreach proved to be another miraculous story of providence where friends from across the globe poured in their all, very often out of their already stretched resources rather than their under-utilized excesses. This Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected the world requiring all of us to reorganize our lives and bank balances and thus each contribution however small has been of great value and significance. So far, the team has been able to rake up over 6 Million rupees worth both in cash and kind.
COLLABORATIONS AND NETWORKING
Our group volunteering under the banner of PRATYeK also accessed official permits, networked with government officials and NGOs to work in sync with civil society members and party leaders across the country. In Delhi, for example, they coordinated with the Deputy Chief Minister, Mr. Manish Sisodia’s Relief Team, with Mr. Ajay Maken (Congress Party), Mr. R. P. Singh (BJP) and a host of District Magistrates. They have also reached out to the most vulnerable through Mr. Harsh Mander’s NGO Aman Biradari as well and NGOs like Makaam and Paigam which work with the most excluded communities.
Through the vibrant network of PRATYeK, rations were accessed by children and their families reeling under the earlier lockdowns in Jammu and Kashmir, the AFSPA related issues in Manipur, the Adivasi crisis of the east, the Migrant labourers across urban settlements of Uttar Pradesh, the NRC CAA agitations in Assam, post-riot issues in Delhi and disability related exclusion issues in Tripura and climate change issues in Tamil Nadu. 32 states and union territories across the country were addressed across the country
Moreover, the team’s COVID-19 response was not restricted to distributing relief material. The children associated with the NINEISMINE campaign chose to go online to offer quiz-based online certification courses on COVID-19 called Karuna Warriors. (see www.nineismine.in/courses) These short 20 multiple-choice questions resulted in students being able to have access to certificates jointly issued by the UNICEF and NINEISMINE. Over 20,000 have so far completed this online activity. Mental health and well-being sessions for children across the country were organized. Ram, a 14-year-old ‘climate proactivist’ anchored a Global Digital Climate Strike to mark World Earth Day. This was organized by along with Greta Thunberg the young Swedish Climate Activist and her Fridays for Future movement. Scores of webinars were held across the country on the topic of COVID and ‘embedding these issues into the curriculum’.
THE FORGOTTEN AND DESPERATE
Of late, the team has also begun responding to the ‘migrant-crisis’ by setting up mobile soup-kitchens and dry meal packets (of puffed rice, ORS, roasted gram, jaggery, biscuits and bottled water) along the varied migration exodus pathways or aboard the ‘Shramik’ trains and buses. Members of the team have begun researching the crisis by attending webinars, interviewing experts and doing on-ground reconnoiters.
Byron Periera, Co-Director of Oriole Sourcing and an ex-pupil of St Mary’s Mount Abu recalls, “What has been hard to see is the loss of dignity of these people. This crisis makes them run from pillar to post, to ambush vehicles presuming that each is a vahana of their entitled rations.” Pereira goes on to recall numerous incidents of hope that contrast the pain and anxiety. Recalling one particular moment Pereira says, ‘I offered this sadhu a hot meal. He thanked me but requested me to offer it to someone else who may not have had a meal since he had just had one.” “What greatness! Putting others need before individual greed”, added Elvin Reilly, an ex-pupil of Mount St Mary’s Delhi.
This spirited bunch of Directors and Entrepreneurs, former Principals and Academicians, Psychotherapists and Formators, Social Workers and Faith Leaders and College Volunteers used their connections, time and vehicles to reach out to families of children living with disabilities, children living in slum or street situations, children living in night shelters, children living in refugee camps, children living in conflict areas, children affected by riots, children rescued from child labour, child marriage and child trafficking, children of oppressed minorities, children belonging to Dalit (traditionally untouchable) and Adivasi (Indigenous) communities and children of single mothers and mothers in the commercial sex trade.
They have also been supplying rations to the Refugee Colonies of the Afghans and the Burmese who live in Delhi and have been unable to procure essential food supplies for their communities. Habib Fortan an Afghani refugee from Krishnan Park expressed her gratitude to one of the volunteers saying, ‘During the Ramadan time you came as God’s angels and helped us, stateless and forgotten as we are. Thank you for everything.”
The National Convenor of NINEISMINE and Director of PRATYeK, Steve Rocha says, “I agree with the statement ‘Corona did not break the system but exposed a broken system’. C-19 has revealed the gaping need to invest adequately in public healthcare and in public food distribution systems particularly to the millions who are poor – the farmers, the daily-wage workers, commercial sex-workers, riot-affected persons, transgenders, and the stateless refugees. We cannot continue living with our arrogance, ignorance and indifference, completely blind to the state of the 93% of our India’s work force which is unorganised, with no rights, no job security, no social welfare and certainly no entitlements – albeit with no shortage of promises and catch-phrases of hope.”
At the end of this crisis let’s hope that India doesn’t sit pretty on our dole-outs of rations and bread. Rather let’s ask the difficult question as to what qualifies our country to be ‘Mahan’ (great) when 93% of our workers have no rights and no guarantee of decent rations and bread.