The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
20th April 2020, Mumbai: It has been a month since the lockdown began. Today, I’ve reached the end of my third week of ration distribution as a volunteer with Santokba Premkorba Charitable Trust, Mumbai. As part of a team of 80 volunteers, I assist in the functioning of a helpline that families in dire straits can approach to get 10 days worth of dry ration if they live in an area that we are currently able to service.
For three weeks, I have spent all day, every day talking to desperate, hungry and scared families who are counting the number of days of food left in their kitchens. My work is to call those who have registered and find out some details about them, such as:
The purpose of these questions is to ascertain that the caller is indeed a real person, and is the only one from the family who has registered—as we can provide just one packet per family and that this family is certainly in need of help. We are in a terrible position of having to choose who should get food, and who shouldn’t.
As the days go by, the voices on the other end of the line become increasingly desperate. As word of our helpline spreads, we speak to people from different parts of our city and also from cities that we don’t live in. We speak to people from different communities. Their dialects and accents change, but their fear remains almost the same, except when we speak to residents of North-East Delhi.
The fear there is something I never wish on anyone. Most of these callers are relieved to know that since we’re not a government office, we do not demand any particular government-issued identification. Many callers don’t have ration cards or have ration cards back home in their village while they are stranded in the city. Many callers from North-East Delhi have lost all their documents, along with their family members and businesses to the communal riots earlier this year. With this, they tell me, they lost all sense of security much before the pandemic arrived.
This week the number of families we have delivered rations to has reached 2800. When I think about the consistently compassionate hard work put in by every team member, especially the family who runs the trust, I feel grateful to be a part of this wonderful effort. I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve. Even though I was initially disturbed by the desperate phone calls earlier, now, I wake up to every morning and keep receiving calls all day—some sad, some angry, some voices too weak to be audible.
With these, I also receive thankful messages from people who have received food. “God bless you,” they say, and I wish the same for them. “Thank you, Madam,” some say. Ashamed, I say, “Take care, Didi“; though I wonder how she will take care after 10 days are over. I have spoken to migrant labourers, six, seven, even eight living in one room. I have spoken to daily wagers, sanitation workers, nearly all their wives employed in what they call “ghar kaam,” though they are not referring to their own homes.
Once in a while, I get a phone call that forces me to pause for a while. Last week, I spoke to a young girl from Nehru Nagar, Vile Parle, Mumbai, who said she was 13 years old. Her dad’s name was registered in our list. I asked her where he was, and she said that he had gone for the funeral of someone from their village. I asked her if he was in the village right now, worried that she had been left alone at home (as was the case in several families I spoke to who have been separated by the lockdown). “Nai nai”, she reassured me, “Woh hamaare pados mein rehte the gaonwaale. Woh rassi se latak ke off ho gaye na raat ko, toh unki body leke gaye hain Papa.” (A person from our village living next to us committed suicide. Dad is taking his body to his home.)
Her calm voice only worried me more, and I didn’t dare to ask what might have prompted the suicide. I gave her a token number, uselessly asked her to take care and hung up with a small prayer for the deceased person. Today, I spoke to farm labourers from Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. Farmers who owned small pieces of land reported that their monthly income was about 3000 rupees. Those who didn’t own land told me that they averaged as low as 500 rupees. I wondered how little they were being paid for a day’s work and how disempowered a position they are in that they must accept that low wage.
It has been a tremendous effort, and I have no doubt that the entire team will continue making the phone calls required because we know that with every call, at least some people eat better for a few days. But it would be illogical of me to imagine that this is a solution to the problem at hand. No matter how much money we contribute, we will never be able to match the enormous funds lying unused in government accounts made specifically for the welfare of vulnerable classes.
No matter how many helplines we set up from our homes during the lockdown, we will not be able to match the documentation of people living in this country done by the government and civil society organisations over decades. No matter how many grocers agree to work with us to distribute food packets, we will not match the network of government ration shops all over this vast country.
I wish we could somehow overcome this pandemic with our well-intentioned philanthropy, without the uncomfortable and even painful task of engaging with the state machinery and sometimes dangerous task of confronting the status quo. Unfortunately, it seems that we cannot. If we want to avoid catastrophe and overcome this pandemic, the State simply has to step up and start securing basic rights of food, water, sanitation and healthcare to its people.
Incidentally, though forgotten, this is its primary function. As citizens, it is our duty to hold our elected government accountable to high standards of governance. The functioning of our democracy depends on us, and we are only as empowered as we realize we are.
To all my friends donating their hard-earned money to help those in need, may God (whichever name you favour) bless you and never let you see a day when you are not able to put food on the table for your family. To all my friends spending their energy on distributing relief, remember to keep some energy at the end of each day to ask the right questions.
And to those who cannot hear me, children spending yet another night on a hungry stomach, parents counting meals before they’ve run out of supplies, forgive us, our silence, as you were stripped of your rights and your dignity. Karma is real, and indeed, one day, justice will be served.