Insha-e-Noor volunteers on a house visit at Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi, July 29 (Photo: Raul Irani)
It is easy to fall into a pall of doom and gloom at this time. But even in the midst of uncertainty and volatility this much is clear; humankind has banded together in unexpected ways. Billions of people have adjusted their lifestyles in order to stop the spread of a virus. And while each of us wears a mask to not only protect ourselves, but also those around us, there are those who have taken it upon themselves to help scores of others who are worse off. Across the country, civil society has joined forces to help those in need. ‘Ordinary’ men and women who looked at their television sets and out of their window and saw people walking for miles, or standing in line for food, started community kitchens with their own knives and stoves, cooking up to 100 meals a day. Community kitchens served an immediate requirement, while organisations were created or altered course to provide relief. While every city and village has its own heroes, we shall highlight the efforts of a handful here.
On March 24th, when a three-week lockdown was announced, limiting the movement of 1.3 billion people, the lack of information and options left many stumped. Those who came to face the brunt of it were the migrant workers stuck in metros and trying to make their way home to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etcetera. SWAN (Stranded Workers Action Network)—a group of volunteers who connect relief to workers stranded across India due to the Covid-19 lockdown while documenting their experiences—proved to be succour for many thousands of migrants who had been earning a livelihood but suddenly found themselves deprived of jobs, wages and the money to afford food or rent. Seema Mundoli, a professor at Azim Premji University, who was one of the early volunteers at SWAN, says that once the lockdown was announced many social workers who had grassroot connections started getting distress calls from migrants who were trying to get home, and had no resources. Initially, the volunteers would log the calls into an Excel sheet and categorise them into zones, depending on location. They received the most number of distress calls from Maharashtra and Karnataka. With no centralised helpline number, the personal mobile numbers of volunteers became the lifeline for thousands of migrants.
Mundoli says: “We collected the basic information. We assessed the need. And realised that the need was critical. Many needed rations. Some needed money, as little as Rs 100 or Rs 200 was transferred directly to personal accounts. Civil society was able to provide help, but the needs kept changing. First it was the migrants who reached out, and then the settled population.”
According to a SWAN report, dated June 5th; starting from March 27th, SWAN had interacted with 34,000 workers across the country through their zonal helplines, which connected workers to organisations and the government for rations. Since many workers were in dire need of cash for basic essentials, SWAN even solicited financial support from individuals who directly transferred money to the workers’ accounts. Till June, SWAN had transferred more than Rs 50 lakh directly to the workers’ accounts. Mundoli says that over the last four months SWAN has had around 130-140 volunteers, who have included researchers, students, lawyers, engineers and civil society workers. The volunteers also built the digital platform for workers and others to obtain correct and timely travel information. SWAN succeeded in helping migrants with food and travel arrangements merely through word of mouth. The data they have collected and the reports that they have written over the last few months is now a valuable chronicle of the lockdown, the distress it caused, and the relief measures that were put into place.
While SWAN largely worked remotely and online as a conduit between migrants and donors, other organisations hit the roads and travelled to vulnerable neighbourhoods. One such organisation is the Delhi-based Mazdoor Kitchen, which has raised nearly Rs12 lakh since the lockdown and has provided close to 500 meals a day to vulnerable populations. It is run by college professors, students, theatre artists and people from the community itself. It has been providing meals and ration kits to hundreds across North Delhi. According to its Ketto fundraising page, it was previously known as MD-1. The kitchen initially was run out of a garage in St Stephen’s College and provided meals to the homeless and needy in Azad Market, Filmistan, Kingsway Camp, Patel Chest, etcetera. In early June, the kitchen moved to Jawahar Nagar Community Centre.
Nandita Narain, professor of Mathematics at St Stephen’s College, who started the initiative with her husband Rashid Ansari, says that while they did factor in the risks about going out and distributing food and rations kits, she also felt that “The quality of your life is compromised if you feel you could have done more and did not.” She adds, “The people who are normally invisibleised, it was no longer possible to look away, because it was so stark what they were going through.” While the Mazdoor Kitchen has not had more than 20 volunteers at a time, they have succeeded in sustaining the effort even after the lockdown was lifted. Narain adds: “It is not just about handing out food like a robot, but it is about adopting a community.”
While the Kitchen continues to provide some 500 meals a day, it is now also working with the community of Azad Market to sustain livelihoods. Those who have lost jobs, from Zomato workers to dhaba workers, are encouraged to work in the kitchen and pack the food for a nominal wage.
Volunteer groups like SWAN and Mazdoor Kitchen arose during the pandemic, other organisations have tweaked or altered their course to reach out to those in need. In Kerala, Kudumbashree is an organisation that is synonymous with resistance and resilience. Started in 1997, it is a poverty eradication and women empowerment programme implemented by the State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) of the Kerala government. With its three-tiered structure—from Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) at the lowest level to the Area Development Societies (ADS) at the middle level, and Community Development Societies (CDS) at the local government level—the organisation has a wide and deep spread across the state. In March 2019, according to its website, it had a membership of 4,393,579 women.
Kudumbashree has played a vital role in spreading correct information and battling the virus in Kerala. It has formed 190,000 WhatsApp groups with 220,000 NHG members to educate citizens about government instructions regarding Covid-19 and the lockdown. Some of their activities, from a roster of undertakings, include mask and shield-making; thousand-plus community kitchens that provide meals for Rs 20; resource persons who call elderly family members about their health and food needs every five days; 360 community mental health counsellors; and helpline workers who reach out to those who might be facing abuse . A counsellor or ‘Snehitha’, Sabira Shlipa, says: “We mostly get calls regarding domestic violence, which has increased during the lockdown. There has been a rise in joblessness and alcoholism. We offer tele-counselling support for those in quarantine.” It is people like her who are the face and voice of Kudumbashree.
In the western part of India, MASHAL (Maharashtra Social Housing and Action League), a Pune-based NGO, which has worked in the areas of housing for poor, sanitation, slum mapping etcetera, since 1985, immersed itself in relief operations. From April to June, it raised nearly Rs 70 lakh in contributions and Rs23 lakh in kind. It provided dry ration packets to the needy, fed thousands with hot meals, and arranged train journeys for migrant workers. With the help of 30 staff members and around 50 volunteers, it distributed 7,000-plus dry ration kits, and 22,000-plus cooked meals. Sharad Mahajan, the executive director of MASHAL says, “We were able to reach the right people because of our years of contact with the poor community and those who worked with the poor, like labour unions.” MASHAL also used the help of the transgender community in a symbiotic way. They heard that a community of 80-90 transgenders had no food to eat. At first they sent them money for rations. But then the community itself adopted the role of relief workers. The transgender community organised the logistics of travel for 3,000 migrants, a majority by trains, and 140 by air.
When most organisations had to tailor their tasks to the unexpected travails of the pandemic, Insha-e-Noor, established in 2008 in Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi, found that it not only had to deal with livelihood and relief issues, it also had to grapple with questions of stigma. Insha-e-noor, initiated by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is a women’s business set up to provide livelihood opportunities to women living in the Nizamuddin Basti, adjoining the Humayun’s Tomb. Usually, they produce souvenirs inspired from the motifs of the monuments but since the outbreak of the coronavirus, they have used their skills to produce face masks. Over 10,000 masks have been distributed within their community. Associated with close to 100 women from Nizamuddin, the organisation also works indirectly with many others who work at home after learning their skills from the centre.
Conservation architect and CEO, AKTC, Ratish Nanda says: “We realised early on that we were sitting on a hot potato. We started making masks for the community and craftspeople before the lockdown. We were paying for them and distributing them within the community. What was quite amazing is that through the lockdown we did not have a single positive case in Nizamuddin, proving that the disease can be controlled. And that Tablighi Jamaat (a religious congregation that took place in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in early March 2020) is a separate entity. But what happened is that there was a stigma attached to the Nizamuddin community. The youth who have lost their jobs are finding it harder to find jobs.” While the AKTC had initially planned to hand the organisation back to the community, they now feel that they will have to “handhold them for at least three-four more years”.
The effects of the pandemic will continue to play out in the coming months, perhaps even the year, but it is in coming together of people that one can find hope in the darkness.
Grassroots Support, Sewa Bharti, NGO
Sewa Bharti launched its relief efforts in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Working among the economically weakest sections of society and headquartered in Delhi, the NGO, affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, had more than 200,000 of its cadres working on the ground by April, distributing masks, medicines, food packets, clothes, bedsheets, etcetera. Of particular significance has been its work in the slums and resettlement colonies. By mid-July, Sewa Bharti had more than 500,000 volunteers in relief efforts across the country. It has also been trying to set up an organisational infrastructure to provide vocational training to poor workers made unemployed by the pandemic. Reportedly, Sewa Bharti has distributed ration kits to more than seven million families. It has also distributed food to more than 40 million people. Traditionally the most visible in Kerala where it has the most number of volunteers, the pandemic saw the NGO spread out its relief work across northern and southern India. It had about 45 kitchens operating in Delhi alone by April to prepare food for distribution. Nowhere as old as its parent organisation, Sewa Bharti has lived up to its mandate of serving the neglected and vulnerable, as pronounced by Balasaheb Deoras at a gathering in Delhi in 1979, in the pandemic.