In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an abrupt and complete nation-wide lockdown was announced in India on March 23 with a notice of less than four hours. Millions of unregistered migrant workers were stuck in cities hundreds of kilometres away from their families.
Nearly 90% of India’s workforce is employed by the informal sector. This is the workforce that makes our comfortable lives possible by growing our food, building our cities, stitching our clothes, and cleaning our homes, streets and drains. Yet, the sector doesn’t offer them any welfare benefits.
Most of these people are dailywage earners, which means they only get paid the days that they turn up for work. For all these people, hunger and starvation became their reality over-night.
My Experience In Relief Work During The Pandemic
Over the last 50 days, civil society organisations all over the country have come forward to help the vulnerable tide over this calamity. Mutual aid networks were set-up and many of us have been volunteering for helplines distributing food and hygiene supplies.
One week into the lockdown, I was not only volunteering with one such helpline but also working with a grassroot organisation for water and sanitation access in slums of the city of Mumbai.
As the days passed, the voices on the other end of the phone lines became more and more desperate. With the beginning of Ramadan, our work expanded to north-east Delhi where victims of the recent communal riots are living in burnt down homes and suffering from destroyed livelihoods.
In the midst of all this suffering, there has been a rise in Islamophobic sentiment, fueled by divisive mainstream media narratives. Hungry and desperate workers trying to take the trains home have been depicted as Muslims violating lockdown. There is an increase in number of hate crimes against Muslims in different parts of India.
Yet, the Jain family trust that set-up a helpline I volunteer for continued to distribute relief to all people in need, irrespective of identity. Through the work on water and sanitation access, I came to see that issues faced by the poor in my city did not differ with religious identity. Sharda Shinde from Lower Parel faced the same difficulties as Muhammad Umar Shaikh in Mankhurd, and we fight for their rights with the same vigor.
Civil society initiatives in India have exhibited exceptional sentiments of unity and harmony in the face of ugly xenophobia. As an Indian Muslim, I am at once acutely aware of the growing divide in the country, but also deeply touched by the show of solidarity with those who are most vulnerable.
This Ramadan, my understanding of fasting has expanded as I speak with mothers who haven’t been able to feed their children for days at a stretch. Mothers who have told me “We are fasting, but what about the children?“; mothers who have said, “Our refrigerator was burnt in the riots but it’s my little girl’s first year of fasting, and I wish she could have some cold water at iftar.”
This Ramadan, my understanding of the word ‘Muslim’ has expanded. What does it truly mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to ensure that families living in 40 houses to my left and 40 houses to my right don’t go to sleep hungry, when the cities we now live in are divided into ghettos planned carefully so we never have to see the poor?
As Ramadan comes to an end, I am also compelled to think about what Eid means to me. How can we create an occasion to celebrate in the midst of this situation?
Perhaps by remembering the beautiful displays of faith so many people have expressed in the Almighty that He will take care of them somehow. Perhaps in the compassion shown by the sanitation worker who received food from us but gave it away to someone he felt was even more hungry in hope that he will be paid his salary soon.
Perhaps in the display of humanity on the highways of India where people (irrespective of religion) are putting their own health at risk to offer water and food to migrants (irrespective of religion) walking home in the heat of May with children on their arms. Perhaps in believing that every single person we are able to feed, even for a day, is a moment in which all of humanity is saved.
This Eid, instead of buying ourselves a new outfit, let’s find our joy in giving to those in desperate need and wear the sawaab as the most precious jewels.
This Eid, I pledge to divert my time and money toward relief efforts. I pledge to commit to causes that strengthen our governance systems so that we can save more people from the humiliation that comes from starvation. And most importantly, I give thanks for not only the blessings that Ar-Raheem, the Most Merciful, has showered on me, my friends and family, but also the difficult lessons that Al-Haqq, the Absolute Truth, is teaching me about life, death and beyond.
May Al-Haadi, the Guide, guide us to the blessed path.
If you are looking for trusted hands on the ground, consider contributing to Center for Promoting Democracy.
Center for Promoting Democracy is a Mumbai-based organization working with slum-dwellers and homeless. They have been offering food relief but more importantly, work on improving water and sanitation access, an effort with long-lasting benefits for the community.