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“Wish We Could Overcome This Pandemic With Our Well-Intentioned Philanthropy”

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ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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:

  • What’s your full name?
  • How many children do you have?
  • Are there any elderly people in your home?
  • What work do you do?
  • What work does your spouse do?
  • How much do you normally earn in a month?

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.

Migrant workers and homeless people take refuge under a bridge on the banks of the Yamuna River in New Delhi during a nationwide lockdown on April 14, 2020.  (Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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.

2800 Families. 10 Days Of Ration. 1000 PPE Kits For Doctors. 18 Lakhs.

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.

India Fellow working in Surat with migrant labor
Image for representational purposes only. Credits: Maxpixel

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.

This post is a part of COVID Diaries, a special series under the #ReimagineTogether campaign. Tell us how this lockdown and pandemic has affected you! Join the conversation by adding a post here. here.
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  1. Merril Diniz

    Hi Ain, thanks for sharing a detailed account of your daily experiences. There is so much suffering in our country, and as you rightly say, the government machinery must rise to support people now. Yet, it is more philanthropic efforts that are invested in genuinely helping people. Keep up the good work, and stay strong.

    1. Qurratul Ain Contractor

      Thank you for your encourage Merril. I do hope that as more people become involved in philanthropic efforts in this time and their stake in the process of bringing relief increases, more people will also join their voices in strengthening advocacy efforts. Perhaps, service to the community is the first step in realising one’s responsibilities as a citizen.

  2. Mohd Tarique

    Hi Ain, thank you so much for doing what you are doing. I completely relate to what you have described, myself being a volunteer and carrying out relief work. While the first response to any disaster or crisis situation comes from the community, it is true, as you have rightly said, government machinery must act in time. It is not just the mandate but also the scale that remains unmatched.
    Unfortunately, states have the systems where compassion is often not an essential part. Lives that can be saved easily, are lost because of this inaction from state’s end.
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    1. Qurratul Ain Contractor

      Thank you for your encouragement Tarique, and for the efforts you are putting in for relief work.
      Every day, I am hoping that the next person I ask if they were able to receive ration from the ration shops using their cards would say “Yes! I got my rice and dal at least”…. but everyday the answer is no.
      I wonder what it means to be Indian. Does it mean to be hungry and live in your own filth with no access to nutrition and hygiene and basic dignity, but stay patient through it all?
      Where is the line between patience and tolerating oppression? Is it in our grain to rise up?
      How much is too much?

  3. Aparajita Mishra

    Harsh realities…bitter truth …and humanity.
    Huge round of applause to what you are doing.

    1. Qurratul Ain Contractor

      Thanks Aparajita 🙂

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