(Written by Mohd Tarique)
COVID-19 has created a massive challenge for the country. Within weeks the health crisis deteriorated into an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. With the spread of the virus, lives are getting lost on a daily basis, including deaths due to distress and hunger. It has become clear that dealing with the situation requires the entire country to come together, especially to support the poor and the vulnerable. To a large extent, this has actually been happening. In fact, within hours of the lockdown being announced, there were enthusiastic groups on the streets, distributing food packets to the poor and needy.
As the days passed, non-government relief distribution grew, both structured and unstructured. At one end, an increasing number of civil society organisations took on the responsibility for vulnerable groups while on the other, more and more volunteers from the general public hit the streets with relief material, mainly food. The commitment shown by these groups is admirable and there is great value in what they are doing. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that our ability to overcome such crisis comes from this very spirit that our people possess — the ability to reach out to the needy and help. We could see this happening all around us.
Still, one feels terribly disturbed and anxious looking at the manner in which this help is being extended. Not all for sure, but the majority followed an approach that is disturbing. While there is an acknowledgement for the relief efforts that people undertook, one cannot miss the pain and hurt in the eyes of people who were being helped and provided relief.
What’s happening is the neglect of a simple yet the most crucial need of any human being — dignity. As we reached out to the hungry and broken people, we also robbed them of their dignity, not necessarily knowingly, but still, the damage is real. Social media platforms are full of pictures of people posing with food packets. No one would have missed seeing pictures with some person holding a packet of food that she/he received as an act of kindness.
These pictures are disturbing, to say the least. I am aware of incidents where people were asked to pose repeatedly because the “picture” wasn’t good in the first click. Imagine the plight of the person who stood in lines for hours to get that packet of food and then being clicked for that. What would the extent of helplessness be for that person for allowing herself to go through this humiliation at the hands of completely unknown people?
When I first expressed my disappointment with a few friends from the developmental sector, they tried reminding me about the “operational constraints” of an organisation, conveniently forgetting the fact that I have myself been anchoring an organisation for more than a decade. I had to explain my familiarity with all such so-called “constraints”. Over the years, I have seen these constraints in all possible forms that they come in and have done fairly well. I understand these “operational constraints” in most forms and can safely say there is nothing that requires to rob somebody off his/her dignity.
I was told by one organisation about how particular they were in taking the consent of the person. I could just smile. Are we really expecting a parent with hungry children, who are crying, to say “no” to somebody giving food? Another friend tried convincing me by saying that they keep these pictures only for their record and do not put up on social media. Again, the point is being missed. It is not about a person feeling uneasy after seeing her pictures on social media. Most likely, she wouldn’t be using social media. The moment somebody clicked her photo receiving that box of rice, the damage was done. If the need is to document the relief effort, one can always take pictures of stocks arriving, or when volunteers are making relief packs, at the time of loading. The picture at the time of food being given is an absolute humiliation and mocking a person’s helplessness.
Few spoke about people posting those pictures to encourage or motivate others. I get that explanation as well. However, I wonder if those “painful eyes” can ever inspire or motivate anyone. They would rather haunt endlessly and question our privileges that enabled us to treat them the way we do. Why can’t we share our experiences, the stories and reflections we get while doing the relief work? It has been over three months now that we have been running our modest efforts at supporting people and there hasn’t been a single day when one hasn’t returned home without feeling emotionally drained and exhausted. However, every day one also witnessed an act of absolute kindness and affection. Don’t we see people who are themselves needy, helping others? Why don’t we talk about those acts of kindness? They might be small and hidden but it is we who let them become insignificant. In reality, those are the stories that would bring real inspiration and provide hope. If the purpose of putting that picture on social media is to encourage and motivate others, then there cannot be more inspiring picture than that of one vulnerable person helping the other. What can bring greater hope than the story of a hungry person sharing her food to beat the hunger of fellow citizen?
Perhaps showing off or putting somebody in bad light is not the intention of those who put up such photographs on social media. But then, not being conscious about the dignity of the person who is being helped is equally worrying. It brings me to ask a question about the reason that made me reach out to the needy person in the first place. Am I offering help to boost my morale, or to cover up some of my guilt or to show the world how good I am? What is driving the effort to support the needy people is something that needs to be answered by every person engaged in relief work. If I tell a person that I am feeling his pain, the person should be able to feel that in my action, not in words. Words may get lost. A person in distress searches for compassion and pain in the voice and eyes of the person helping him. My interest in clicking the picture will serve as a barrier.
I completely understand this could be difficult for many organisations and there can be constraints beyond their control but we must begin to challenge those constraints. Dignity is hardly ever seen as important factor when it comes to poor. What is this craving to portray oneself as “the messiah”?
Most structured relief interventions are supported by big foundations or philanthropies. Can they not ask their partner organisations to restrain from doing such acts that can enhance the feeling of vulnerability in the person? Can there be instructions, if that is what works, to adopt “dignity” as the core value for all work? I believe that it is high time that there is serious introspection how human rights work is being carried out in the country. Do we really mean it when we speak about trusting and empowering communities? We must ponder whether we are “giving back the dues” that were never paid to the poor or if we are doing charity.
We must attempt to change the experience of the person receiving support. Very often the memory a person is left with is that of somebody helping. How about changing this memory to “somebody caring”?
Next time when a person is asked to pose for a picture with that packet of food grains, we need to ask ourselves: Will the person be happy to pose with us if he/she didn’t need the food as badly as its actually needed? If the answer is no, then we know what are we doing. It’s the hunger and hopelessness that is compelling the person to let you click her. One minute of “click” for us, can leave them with a memory of “helplessness” that lasts a lifetime.
This becomes even more crucial in relation to children and youth. We must remember that the disaster will pass but memories will remain forever. How they experienced this phase is going to determine they will carry in the future. Let’s ensure that they remember this crisis as a period when someone cared and not as someone who “gave”. With the memory of “someone gave”, a feeling of being helpless would also be associated. We must break that. Let’s help them grow with the feeling of being loved and cared. Let’s make them experience “empathy” and not “helplessness”, and “dignity” not charity.
The writer is Director, Koshish & Assistant Professor, Director’s Office, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
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