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By UNICEF Office, Maharashtra
When news of COVID-19 and the lockdown hit Ambedkarnagar, a slum settlement in Malad East, Mumbai, Sunil, a youth leader who’s been working to improve conditions in the community for over seven years, took a single, life-changing decision. He decided that if there were even a single COVID positive case in the community, he would move out of home and keep his family safe while continuing to engage with critical relief work.
Almost two months ago, a community member in the area was diagnosed with COVID-19, and since then, Sunil, along with his two friends Yogesh and Deepak, kept to his word. He’s been living in a small temple within the community and working with an NGO’s relief teams to distribute ration to families in need.
During the lockdown, he reached out to five other NGOs to make sure that all 5,000 families of Ambedkarnagar would receive basic food supplies. Over a period of just three weeks, Sunil and his friends managed to organize food supplies for 2,700+ people through all their efforts, and they are continuing to do more every day.
Proud as they are of him, Sunil’s family also worries about his future. “I want Sunil to focus more on his studies so that he can create a better future for himself and not have to face the same problems that we have encountered for years. It will also help him contribute to society in better ways”, says his mother, adding that the pandemic has only increased all their existing challenges.
The challenges of the pandemic have been many and varied in this community. A key issue, of course, is the lack of supplies in the area, but Sunil also talks about the challenges of training the young people of the community to stand up for their rights and demand their due from local leaders during the pandemic.
Even in cases where the youth in the area are willing to hold their leaders accountable, there’s the issue of a lack of tech devices and connectivity that they face. As lockdown has eased, they’ve gradually begun to hold in-person sessions to share information and decide how to make their demands heard.
Sunil himself has been extremely active on this front. From writing letters to the local corporator demanding clean water and waste disposal services to highlighting the devastating conditions of public toilets through tweets to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (popularly known as the BMC). He hasn’t let the pandemic stop him from advocating for the basic rights and dignity of people living in Ambedkarnagar in every way possible.
He’s no stranger to community development work. Even before the pandemic and the lockdown, Sunil was seen as a local leader in his community and led youth groups through an experiential learning programme, Anubhav Shiksha Kendra, offering free tuition for children in grades 7-10.
“I work hard to raise my voice, mainly because my community is suffering. Our lives are not valued, and we cannot sit around silently while that happens. Our collective efforts can change that. So the only thing I want to say is, think about ‘how’ you will contribute to tangible change in our community,” he says.
“We want to be able to access toilets that don’t make us want to run or throw up or cry at first sight. We want the BMC to come and collect our trash. We want clean water, electricity and access to an ambulance in the case of a health emergency. We cannot be forgotten at the peak of this global health crisis.”
Some of his efforts have certainly paid off. “Thanks to our constant pressure on the municipal authorities, the community toilets are being sanitised every few days now,” he says.
Sunil also took a firm stand on more strict quarantine protocols being followed in the community, and he notes with relief how this has helped the number of cases reduce drastically in a short time. The onset of monsoon is another concern that the community continues to feel.
“We are very inspired by how Sunil has persistently worked for the community’s betterment,” says a member of Sunil’s community. “However, our fears continue to rise, with the onset of the monsoon. Last year, over 30 community members lost their lives in the floods that ensued, and 150 people were rendered homeless as their homes washed away. We don’t know what will happen this year.” He adds that the one dream they harbour and their singular ask from the community leader remains the same — access to basic services and food provisions (rations) at this difficult time.
Sunil’s dreams are also tied with that of his community. “For 30 years, we have been making the same demand. A primary precaution to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is frequent hand washing. But how can we do that if we don’t have access to water? We need legal electricity connections too and all other basic services.”