Coronavirus toh pata nahi, lekin bhook se zarur mar jaatein ( I do not know about coronavirus, but we would have surely died of hunger),” Fatima (name changed) from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district tells The Better India (TBI). A week ago she had not been sure of her family’s survival.
Her husband had already shut his tailoring business over zero influx of customers after the lockdown had been announced and the family of six including four daughters rationed a kg of rice for the first two weeks.
Starvation began when they ran out of food and savings, and continued for nearly five days until help arrived in the form of a donation of Rs 2,500.
“With the donated money I got a new LPG cylinder, food and milk. My daughters fell ill due to starvation so I had to spend some money on medicines as well. I have Rs 400 left now that will be sufficient for a few days,” she informs.
Like Fatima, millions of lives have been disrupted because of the nationwide lockdown. But these times are also witness to the triumph of humanity over adversity. For every prayer of help sent up, a helping hand has come forward to alleviate misery.
This has been proved by a group of 12 acquaintances from Delhi who have started a COVID-19 relief initiative called ‘India Care Collective’ to help individuals and families suffering due to the clampdown like Fatima.
They have established a fundraising model where donors are directly connected to the beneficiaries whom they transfer their donations digitally.
“We didn’t want to be mute spectators sitting at our home in comfort while others suffered. So, we established a sustainable model of donation that would last till the lockdown. More importantly, we want people to get a first-hand account of those in need. As volunteers, we inform every donor about the plight of the beneficiary to maintain absolute transparency,” Chitra Iyer, a social activist and one of the core members of the team tells TBI.
Since its inception on 27 March, the citizen-led group has raised Rs 33 lakhs and helped over a thousand poverty-stricken families across India.
How It Works
All a beneficiary has to do is fill a Google form online (available in Hindi and English) about their needs, family members and contact details. In case the person cannot fill the form, a team member fills it on his/her behalf. Filling the form is a mandatory requirement as it maintains all data and if the lockdown is extended, volunteers can connect them with donors in future.
Then, a volunteer calls the beneficiary in need to verify the details, “Calling is the only way to verify if the person is genuine. We have to trust them and our instinct,” says Abhishek Gupta, a core member. The volunteer then forwards the beneficiary details to the donor and sometimes even connects them over a call. The donor then directly transfers money to the beneficiary via bank or a digital medium.
If the family has no means of digital payment, then the volunteer tries to look for a local donor who can do a cash transaction. Fortunately, most of the recipients have accepted digital payments. Once the beneficiary receives the amount, she/he clicks a picture of the transaction and sends it to the donor and volunteer.
Launching the Initiative
When the group of people from different professional backgrounds started out, little did they know that the movement would escalate so quickly, “We circulated Google forms for beneficiaries and donors in our respective social circles and within ten days, the number of beneficiaries touched 1,000,” says Iyer. As coordinating with every beneficiary became too hectic, the group sent out a volunteering form on their respective social media pages.
Once again, the team received an overwhelming response and by the first week of April, they had over a hundred volunteers. Over online video chats, the core members trained the volunteers on various aspects such as sensitivity, empathy and what questions to ask.
“It is very important to understand who needs the most help. Thus, it is mandatory for volunteers to get the family’s personal details without being condescending. We prioritised families having a member with a disability, minors, the elderly, pregnant women,” says a volunteer on the condition of anonymity.
If a family has four members or less, it is given not more Rs 3,000. Families above four members or with special needs get Rs 5,000, “We decided this amount based on the ration prices. If one donor is unable to meet the entire amount, we allot multiple donors to one family,” says Iyer.
Core members maintain five groups of 50 members each on WhatsApp to avoid any duplication and maintain a record of every development.
Heartwarming Stories Emerge
Iyer tells me that every call made is emotional and heartwarming. Some calls have been so gut-wrenching that volunteers have gone out of their way to ensure help is given at the earliest and at times even turned into donors.
Besides fulfilling the needs, there has been a lot of learning for the team, the biggest being the awareness gap.
“When the lockdown was imposed, there was very little means to educate the underprivileged regarding the seriousness of social distancing. Plus, many did not know how to take help from the government. Panic and fear is still looming over people. They are not assured enough that the crisis can be solved with the right measures,” says Iyer. Take for example the case of Ankush (name changed), a daily wage earner who is stuck in Kolkata away from his family.
While his employer is generous enough to provide food and accommodation, his pregnant wife and 2-year-old daughter in Uttar Pradesh are struggling in terms of food. When Iyer called him, he requested money to travel back to his family.
“I told him to stay at home and not put himself at risk. ‘I will send money to her’ I assured him. I explained about virus transmission and why social distancing is important. And in return, he dropped his travelling idea and promised me to stay where he is. He blessed me and that was very moving,” shares Iyer.
In another instance, Iyer was overwhelmed after listening about the plight of a 16-year-old in Delhi. Both her parents are ill and there is no source of income at all. Before calling Iyer, the minor was running from pillar to post to access medicines and ration with whatever money she had.
“She sounded lost and vulnerable on the phone. At one point I even felt the house was vulnerable enough to be dragged into trafficking. We instantly transferred her money and she got the basic ration. More than the money, the little girl was grateful that finally, someone heard her problems,” she adds.
The team has received positive feedback from donors as well, “The fact that they are able to help while sitting at home gives them immense satisfaction and happiness. Their constant feedback keeps all our volunteers motivated.” The team completed its first phase and has now started the second phase to include more donors and recipients.
The Core Team Members: Abhishek Gupta, Chitra Iyer, Himanshu Sharma, Rajen Makhijani, Rashi Soman, Maryam Hasan, Faheem Mirza, Supriya Panchangam, Asmita Mahajan, Mansha Vij, Sarika Gupta and Sundeep Tibrewal.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)