It began with a message on a WhatsApp group. “Someone on our alumni group posted about a group of workers from Madhya Pradesh running out of food. When they had stepped out to fetch food, they were beaten back by the police,” says Miriam Koshy, an artist based in Dona Paula. It was five days into the lockdown, and all of Goa was struggling. But the worst-hit were inter-state workers, spread across the state in little clusters, who had fallen off the government’s radar, and been abandoned by their employers. Koshy headed out to the colony with a batch of dry rations, the little she could organise in a few hours. As word spread among workers, the calls for help became a deluge. Since then, Koshy and her team of volunteers – a mix of data scientists and researchers, architects and artists – have been raising funds, packing food and sending them out to labour colonies across north Goa. Till date, they have packed 12,687 dry ration packets for 4,000 daily-wage workers.
The lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 has led to a staggering humanitarian crisis which the state has struggled to handle. As stranded workers and vulnerable families run out of food, cash and patience, citizen-led initiatives, running out of living rooms and college halls, mapping out the needy via WhatsApp group chats and Google spreadsheets, have stepped in this wide breach. Volunteers and members of civil society organisations have spent hours listening to people in distress, rustling up meals for over 100 people in their tiny home kitchens, and coaxing government officials to send relief, when they have failed. In a report filed with the Supreme Court in April, the Centre submitted that NGOs across the country had served 30.11 lakh meals during the first phase of lockdown – in many states, they were ahead of the government in providing this relief.
In this upheaval, many were moved by the plight of others to step out. When he heard of construction workers from Bihar “eating raw wheat flour mixed with water and masala” in Bandra’s Kherwadi area, Karthikeyan KN, 34, used social media to raise money. The head of analytics and product management at a payment solutions firm, he raised Rs 4 lakh to supply ration to 4,000 adults for two weeks. He then plunged into field work with Khaana Chahiye, a citizen-led initiative. Every day, he steps out at 10.30 am to pick up food packets and deliver them to Dharavi, Kurla, Chembur, Govandi and Mahul. “Once I started seeing the ground reality, I understood the meaning of privilege,” he says.
In Mumbai, where the coronavirus infections are galloping away, an extensive network of kitchens, delivery personnel, grassroots NGOs and local volunteers, are working to help the hungry. The Rotary Club of Mumbai Queen’s Necklace alone has served over 60 lakh hot meals and food kits across Mumbai, Thane and Palghar, distributed through partner NGOs. The project has raised Rs 11 crore till date, with funding from Rotarians as well as corporate donors. Businessman Sanjiv Mehta, who heads this project, said, “There is a maker, a funder and a distributor. No one is greater than the other and everyone is needed.” Most initiatives take the support of NGOs, which often have the logistics, personnel and expertise, but not the funding. Retail entrepreneur Juveca Panda has joined hands with non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) to distribute 8 lakh cooked meals to frontline workers, migrant workers and Bhiwandi’s power loom workers. For stranded construction workers, food is prepared in a kitchen specially set up at a stadium in Nerul and then transported by Mumbai Mobile Crèches, an NGO with expertise in setting up day-care centres at construction sites. “They had the logistics in place to deliver the food,” Panda said, who used Ketto to crowdsource funds.
Hospitality brands, too, leveraged their massive kitchens and manpower to provide meals and relief packages. The Indian Hotel Company LImited (IHCL), which owns the Taj, Vivanta and Ginger brand of hotels, provided meals for healthcare workers as well as stranded migrant workers in New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Coimbatore and Agra.
In Delhi, where the February riots had already pushed many families into financial distress, the lockdown has been a double blow. “Many homes were burnt during the riots. Some middle-class families were reduced to zero. Had they not been affected so badly, they could have survived this lockdown,” says Amir Siddiqui of Project Umeed, which runs 43 relief centres all over Delhi. He recounts how difficult it is for the suddenly impoverished people to seek help, prompting them to tie up with mosques in the area. “We started dropping dry ration kits at the mosque. They find it more comfortable to take it from the imam than to accept charity,” he says.
For two-decade old organisation Goonj, a disaster means activating its deep network. “But, usually, it’s in a certain pocket of the country. We had never thought a time would come when all networks would be needed at once,” says founder Anshu Gupta. To adapt to the demands of the lockdown, and the many inter-state restrictions, the organisation has had to swiftly decentralise, says Gupta. “We started buying locally from grocery shops, vendors and farmers,” he says. In Kolar, Karnataka, a region known for its tomato and mango production, when farmers started distress selling, Goonj decided to buy the produce over the cost price and distributed it among 5,000 families of labourers in the district. “We had not prepared cooked meals before but we decided to do that because people were going hungry. Over the past month, we’ve fed over 2,000 people in Bengaluru, and we still get at least 100 calls a day,” says Chandan Sharma, who looks after Goonj’s operations in Karnataka. Through the lockdown, the organisation has delivered 8 lakh kg of ration and provided 1.4 lakh meals, says Gupta.
Elsewhere, too, other NGOs hit the ground running as the implications of the lockdown began to be clear. Around March 30, members of Ankuram, a Hyderabad-based NGO, spotted migrants from Madhya Pradesh walking on the highway. They persuaded them to return, and moved them to their shelter, where they were offered food and water and convinced to stay – instead of walking 800 km home. “We convinced hundreds to stay at the shelters. Initially, we provided food. Later, as many decided to cook on their own, we provided dry rations and vegetables. We arranged psychological counselling for those who showed signs of depression. All were worried about wives and children back home. Many felt guilty that they were just eating and sleeping without doing any work,” says founder M Sumitra. When they finally found a way to leave, after the easing of restrictions, some migrants from Bihar, UP and Maharashtra made Sumitra and her team members promise that they would visit them at their homes whenever possible.
It is not just food alone. As several blood banks began drying up in lockdown, organisations rushed to arrange blood for emergencies. “We cannot organise blood donation camps with social distancing. So, we send 10-12 donors daily to hospitals,” says Taranjit Singh Nimana of the Bhai Ghanaiya Ji Mission Sewa Society, an organisation in Punjab. “We have a list of 40,000-50,000 blood donors ready in Ludhiana. But these days, even regular donors are hesitant; just a message on WhatsApp is not enough. You have to call and counsel them.”
As a child, Murugan S lived on the streets of Kochi and begged for food from strangers. His father, an alcoholic, and his mother, a daily-wager, had barely enough to provide him with a home or two square meals a day. One day, the police found him and shifted him to an orphanage where he was cared for by nuns for many years. Since then, he has been paying the favour forward. The 34-year-old’s NGO Theruvoram, meaning street in Malayalam, has been lifting the homeless and the destitute population off the streets in Kerala and taking them to safe homes in the lockdown. “Almost 90 per cent of the people we rescue are from other states. We give them a bath, fresh clothes and then transport them to a mental health centre or a hospital,” he says. They have helped 617 people go off the streets across six districts in Kerala.
Extending a hand does not come always from a position of privilege. In the village of Kaladera, near Chomu in Jaipur district, a community of printers and dyers have started a kitchen in a temple to help 900 migrant workers stuck nearby. “The local authorities give dry ration only to native villagers. How would the workers manage?” says Krishna Kumar Dosaya, a member of the Chippa Samaj. It is a hard time for the community, too. “Those who buy in bulk have cancelled all orders. But our elders would say that no matter what disaster strikes, everyone has to live together, no one should go hungry,” says Dosaya.
For many volunteers, helping out is also a way to deal with the pandemic. An editor with a publishing house, Paloma Dutta and her friends in north Delhi have been packing 150 meals a day for rickshaw pullers, the homeless and the stranded in the area with the help of the local police officials. “We were feeling very helpless, with the lockdown and news of migrant workers. Cooking became a way for us to cope. It gives us focus every single day,” says Dutta. Along the way, they have learnt new skills — how to cook for a hundred people using household cookware, the measure of ingredients for bulk cooking, and how to do so as quickly as possible.
For others, the crisis has meant a new familiarity with the city they share with fellow citizens. Before he began going there to distribute food, Nakul Heble was only vaguely aware of the existence a community of semi-skilled workers from north India living by a lake near his home in north Bengaluru. For about a month now, Heble and a friend have gotten to know them better, as they make frequent trips to drop off rations, and watch their desperation as money and supplies ran out. “We depended a lot on people within the community to help identify the most vulnerable. For them, this pandemic is not about the virus, but hunger and survival,” said Heble. With it, there was also an anxiety about being believed. “They would say, ‘Agar khana mila hai, toh hum kyun jhooth bolenge? (Why would we lie if we had got the food?)'” Heble says.
Watching destitution and government indifference push the vulnerable to desperate measures, and being swamped by their distress for days can take a toll. Heble and his friend had to “move away from the Google spreadsheet” for a week when it became too much.
“Your phone number becomes a helpline number. You are on calls all through the day,” says Seema Mundoli. “Your phone number becomes a helpline number. You are taking calls through the day,” says Seema Mundoli. The author and academic with Azim Premji University is a part of a volunteer group of academics, researchers and students, who began by responding to distress calls from workers early into the lockdown. It grew into the Stranded Workers Action Network, a collective of 100 volunteers that has taken calls from 16,000 distressed workers from across the country. The SWAN works as a control room of relief, with volunteers divided into zones by the language they speak. All calls for help are entered into a first information sheet, and different sections then take on the work – either of transferring cash, or getting local organisations to send food or directing people to the nearest centre where cooked food is available or even making payment to gas agencies when workers have run out of cooking fuel. “Sometimes, it can take quite a few days for things to move. We also find that even NGOs are getting overwhelmed and running out of resources,” says Mundoli.
She has just gotten off the phone with a worker in Bellary, Karnataka, distraught because he can’t return to Madhya Pradesh. “In the first two phases of lockdown, we could somehow get food and ration to people. In this phase, people are getting evicted because they can’t pay rent, and are desperate to return home. But the process is so non-transparent that it is getting harder and harder to resolve these cases,” says Mundoli. The volunteers usually help workers register on a government portal, direct them to the nearest police station to again register – and then tell them to wait. “We try convince them not to start walking. In the south zone, we have had no success in helping with travel. In Maharashtra, we managed to collect funds and arrange a truck to drop workers to the Madhya Pradesh border,” she says. By pitching into the crisis, the volunteers have felt the scale of deprivation acutely.
With the knowledge comes anger and indignation. “I had not realised how broken this system is. Politicians and administrators who are trained to respond to the crisis have responded with an utter lack of care. A few good officers trying their best is not enough,” said Mundoli. “By leaving the cities, the workers have questioned us in a very big way. Governments would like to lure them to stay put, but no one wants to answer why they left,” says Goonj’s Gupta.
The “end” of lockdown, then, cannot mean a switch back to normal. “I know a lot more about the lives people live. Empathy has grown in me. And I don’t think this work is something I can stop. A lot more people are going to need help. Jobs will be lost, people will suffer,” says Heble. While they have run out of funds, the two friends are gearing up to meet municipal officers or legislators to bring some attention to the community.
In Goa, Koshy has set up a directory of workers to help match their skill sets with jobs that come up. So far, they have managed to find rain harvesting experts to train labourers in building recharge pits and are appealing to householders to hire them for day jobs. “It is about hunger and survival, and if it is not taken care of now, people will get into a lifelong debt cycle. Eventually, there will be another wave of distress migration from villages,” says Gupta.