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NEW DELHI: About three days after the lockdown was announced on March 25, a list popped up on one of Anita Rani’s groups. “The list had my school’s name too and an instruction that head officers of the above had to prepare to convert their facilities into shelters.”
The 55-year-old principal of the SDMC Primary school at Tihar Village knew she now had to prepare for the biggest test of her career. “I found myself on the battlefield to serve the nation. It felt like an emergency.”
Two days later, Rani, who stays at West Delhi’s Maya Enclave, was receiving her first four lodgers at the school. “The SHO dropped four labourers at 9 pm. I told the guard to provide them with clean mats to sleep on,” she said. This was the beginning of Rani’s shift from school principal to shelter home manager.
And this new role changed her routine completely. Work days now started as early as 7 am and refused to end even after she had clocked over 12 hours. “No holidays. No Sundays. The school is open 24 hours and the working hours depend on the amount of work we have,” says Rani, adding that even when at home she has to be logged in all the time.
Managing the shelter home posed its own challenges. For one, she had to figure out a way to keep those brought in for lockdown violations separate from her long-term lodgers. The violators were held in the schools only for a few hours as a punishment. “For me, the most challenging task was not only to maintain social distancing between the groups but also to make them understand why the lockdown was for their own good.”
The other issue was ensuring her boarders stayed in good health. The fear of the unknown pandemic had even medical staff sceptical about visiting the schools, especially in the initial days of the lockdown. “There was a couple staying at the shelter and the lady fell sick. Now, whichever doctor came to the school did not want to come close or touch the patients because they themselves were so afraid,” she says, remembering how most were keen to give instructions on the phone itself.
“No holidays. No Sundays. The school is open 24 hours and the working hours depend on the amount of work we have,” says Rani.
While the administration was organising lunch and dinner, the migrants started complaining about the long gap between meals. But Rani was struggling to find someone to provide quality breakfast with most establishments shut. She then contacted a couple of NGOs recommended by SDM Ranjeet Kumar, but was not convinced about their quality. “Eventually, I took help from my friends in Maya Enclave as well as a nearby NGO, Hamari Udaan,” Rani says.
Finally, she did find a better option, but that NGO did not have delivery facilities, leaving her with no option but to be the one doing the pick-ups and drops. “Often, I took the breakfast in my vehicle. On other occasions, I was buying bread, butter and other items from the nearby market and taking it,” Rani explains how providing this one meal proved to be a major challenge for her.
When the shelter was also designated as a hunger relief camp a few weeks into the lockdown, Rani had her job cut out. With a staff of six at her disposal, she was prepared for the challenge. “All of my staff have small children. Due to this, I was not really able to request anyone for help. Moreover, a majority of the people staying here were males till the families joined in later. So, the teachers were not very comfortable.”
Monica Jolly, a primary school teacher at SMCD School, Subhash Nagar, started working alongside Rani after their school staff was merged to work together. “While an NGO was providing breakfast, on days when breakfast was not available, we arranged it either from our own pockets or with support from our friends but made sure people had food to eat,” she says, adding: “they (migrants) were leaving Delhi to reach their villages but were put in the homes due to the lockdown. They were stuck in between.”
A birthday scare
The erratic schedule meant this single mother of two girls had to delay even her birthday celebrations till late night, thanks to an incident in school. “On May 6, my birthday, I had planned to work from home. But at 11 am, a migrant called to inform me he had fled the shelter and was leaving for home with a friend,” Rani remembers.
“I soon realised the challenge at hand as him being outside during lockdown was not safe. I told him to return to the shelter home as soon as possible and alerted the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM).” Rani was told to report to school immediately even as a flying squad was sent to trace the migrant. “The SDM asked me to lodge an FIR and inform the nearby police station SHO,” she adds.
But being a seasoned government official, she knew an FIR would only mean legal hassles. She decided to make a last-ditch effort to get the man back. “For two hours there was no trace of the person. Then I made him understand it was unsafe for him to be roaming outside and also asked him to bring his friend. I assured him I will make arrangements for his friend’s stay too. He finally returned around 1 pm.”
The incident prompted Rani to rethink her strategy. With only one watchman and sweeper at the school and all requests for police support coming to naught, she changed her game plan. “To prevent the migrants from slipping out, I send them to the roof when food was being served,” explains Rani, on how the move helped her prevent more “escapes”.
Narrating his 35-day stay at the shelter home, Sarvesh Kumar, a daily wage labourer in Delhi hailing from Uttar Pradesh, arrived at the school with 10 other people on March 29. “Every facility was available to us. From toiletries to food, we got everything. We faced no issues and had daily check-ups as well.”
“Anita ma’am made me responsible for the people I came with. I was asked to look after those I was living with,” says Kumar, who has safely returned at his village in Shahjahanpur. On reaching, Kumar was screened at the centre home at his tehsil and asked to stay indoors for around 15-20 days. Kumar plans to come back to Delhi once the situation improves.
At the school which was converted into a shelter for migrants
Coping with new roles
All through, meditation and yoga have been Rani’s stress busters. “I was down with fever recently when I couldn’t meditate for 2-3 days as buses to take the migrants to their native villages arrived at the school as early as 6 am and I had to reach there to do the formalities,” she says, adding how any deviation from this routine affects her mentally.
While Rani adjusted to her new role with ease, it was her family that took some time to comprehend the situation. “My daughters thought their mother has gone crazy,” recalls the school principal. “The children were confused because earlier I would be the one cooking, but now I did not even have the time to sit with them. So, apart from cooking for themselves, they were also looking after me. The roles had changed in the family.”