"Imagine a situation where you have only water from the borewell for survival. That's what we first saw when we started out with the relief work."
The collective memory of this nation will forever be seared with scarring images of migrant workers during the COVID-10 pandemic. That of lakhs of human beings finding their way home – stumbling with exhaustion, falling with hunger. Though the unforgiving sun bore heavily down on them, what burnt their soul was the apathy that many fellow beings showed.
Fortunately, for each unmoving heart, several helping hands reached forward to pull these hapless people back up on their feet.
And among them were you. Our readers, who overwhelmed us with your open-heartedness.
Over two months ago, The Better India launched – ‘Better Together’ – a fundraising campaign to support civil service officers across the country who are helping migrant labourers, daily wage earners and health workers during the pandemic-induced restrictions and aftermath.
The campaign saw an unprecedented response from our readers who kept up the momentum of our efforts.
Today, thanks to all of you, we have raised about Rs. 40 lakh for #BetterTogether.
While things start normalising and people start going back to their pre-lockdown routines — we still need to continue helping and reaching out. Join The Better India’s “BETTER TOGETHER” initiative. Help wage earners on a daily basis, help migrant workers reach home safely, and help frontline workers get access to essentials.
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After almost three months of on-ground relief work spurred from the campaign, we caught up with the five civil service officers who joined hands with us to distribute food kits and emergency supplies to the needy.
We talked to them about their experience and their learnings. We wanted to understand from them what more is still needed on the ground. And why, while things start normalising and people start going back to their pre-lockdown routines — it is not yet time to stop helping and reaching out. Here’s what they had to say.
1. “I was approached by a differently-abled man who asked me for an alternate employment option instead of help.”
The Deputy Commissioner of East Garo Hills, Meghalaya, IAS Swapnil Tembe has been providing food rations to poor families, including few migrant workers in Assam.
“The starting point of my relief work was when I was approached by a specially-abled man who asked me for an alternate employment option instead of help. And it was only when I visited his home, I realised that many of his family members were also differently-abled. They were struggling to make ends meet. Seeing his sense of independence and courage to get through this crisis motivated me to join hands with NGOs to identify those who were going through similar situations,” says Tembe.
“Many of the labourers I spoke with are the sole supporters in their family out of which only some had the necessary documents to enroll for the government support schemes. That’s where our help counts. Although it’s just a drop in the ocean, it can make a huge difference to one person,” he adds.
With the support of local self-help groups like Achik Chadambe, over 50 youth volunteers, and NSS cadets, Tambe was able to coordinate the on-ground distribution of necessities like rice, pulses and salt.
So far, the IAS officer has been able to donate kits consisting of 5 kg of rice, 2-3 kgs of pulses and 1 kg of salt to over 2,000 households in the span of these three months. He and his team are now trying to work toward setting up a plan to help with skill development for the migrant labourers who have returned to Meghalaya from other parts of the country.
2. “His phone screen was broken so he was unable to retrieve our contact and call us back. So he just kept hoping that one of us would reach out to him again.”
The Deputy Income Tax Commissioner of Mumbai, Dr Megha Bhargava has been working non-stop since the lockdown in collaboration with her NGO Samarpan, department officials, the Mumbai Police and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
“A few weeks into the lockdown, the situation of the migrant labourers and the daily wage workers had gotten so bad that they started selling off their belongings. In fact, during one of our visits to Dharavi, we came across a man who was surviving on biscuits. We took down his details and gave him our contact information so that he could give us his exact location. But even after two hours, we didn’t get a response from his side. On calling him up, he told us that as his phone screen had broken, he was unable to retrieve our contact number. This was truly a heart-wrenching experience,” explains Dr Bharghava.
“Several experiences like these have left me in shock over these three months. Recently, a migrant worker’s wife had given birth, and both the mother and child were tested positive for COVID-19. These are all situations in which I’ve felt completely helpless. But we must all do everything we can to overcome this crisis,” she adds.
Dr Bhargava has so far distributed 1,000 bottles of hand sanitiser and over 1,300 face masks to the police personnel deployed on the ground.
She has also distributed 28,700 dry ration kits consisting of 5 kg of flour, 3 kg of rice, 3 kg of pulses (1 kg each of Masoor, Chana and Black Chana), 1 kg Sugar, 1 ltr cooking oil, 1 kg salt and 200 gms each of turmeric, chilli, coriander and basic ground spices. This in addition to 5,57000 cooked meals to families in need.
Besides this, she has also provided 25,000 menstrual hygiene kits to many women in the Dharavi slums.
“I’ve realised that during crises like these women’s health and hygiene takes a back seat when everyone is just fighting for basic needs like food. We’ve decided to take up this issue as well,” she explains.
Her team is also distributing hygiene kits and prepared food to migrant labourers who are going back home, so that their train journeys are safe.
3. “Imagine a situation where you have only water from the borewell for survival — that’s what we first saw when we started out with the relief work.”
Nishant K, Joint Commissioner of Income Tax, Bengaluru along with 20 Indian Revenue Services officers from his department have distributed over three lakh meals in these past two months.
“Initially, we approached the Railway Canteen to prepare food for around 2,500 people. But soon, with the help of BBMP, we identified thousands of people starving in different pockets of the city. So, we escalated our efforts by joining hands with NGOs – Lifeline Foundation and ATRIA,” says Nivya Shetty, the Assistant Income Tax Commissioner of Bengaluru, who is a part of Nishant’s team.
“On speaking to these migrant workers, we realised the intensity of the situation. These daily-wage earners have been working here for the past 10-20 years and have never been in a situation where they would have to wonder where their next meal would come from,” says Nivya Shetty.
“Imagine a situation where you have only water from the borewell for survival, that was one of the first things we saw when we went for fieldwork. We immediately started connecting with NGOs and several IAS officers and did everything in our personal capacities to help out,” she adds.
Besides providing over 3 lakh meals to the needy, Nishant’s team has also been able to provide 5,000 kgs of vegetables and is collaborating with Dr Megha Bhargava’s NGO Samarpan, which is redirecting a portion of their collections to Bengaluru.
4. “This was a completely different kind of disaster management. This time we had to keep people safe and healthy inside their homes rather than evacuating them.”
When the lockdown was announced, Saurabh Kumar, Municipal Commissioner, Raipur, immediately arranged a meeting with over 165 NGOs and launched a 24×7 helpline to help those in need.
“This was unlike any other disaster we have faced previously and required a tremendous amount of work. We had to ensure that the people were safe and healthy inside their homes unlike natural disasters where we had to evacuate them,” explains Ashish Mishra, the General Manager for Communications for Saurabh’s team.
“We had to ensure that every citizen was given awareness about the pandemic and that they were given the facilities to follow the precautions,” he adds.
So far, Saurabh’s team has distributed ration kits consisting of around 5 kg of rice, 1 kg of dal, 500 gms of besan (gram flour), 1 litre of cooking oil and soap and food packets to over 7 lakh individuals.
Besides the dry ration, he also onboarded 104 NGOs including the Akshay Patra Foundation, which are providing 8000 packets of cooked meals daily to the most vulnerable section of the population.
5. “With no work and no food to survive on, paying their rent was an added burden that many migrant labourers had to face initially.”
Tiruppur District Collector, Dr K Vijaykarthikeyan has been arranging food provisions for around more than 60,000 people since the imposition of the lockdown.
“One of the biggest difficulties the migrant labourers had to face was the added burden of paying their rent. We made the required arrangements to waive off the rent immediately but the emotional trauma that they went through during the initial days was unimaginable,” says Dr K Vijaykarthikeyan.
“We also set up a 24×7 control room with a team of officials and volunteers who are identifying the needy and making sure that the rations reach them in time. Around 1000 on-ground volunteers have been selected from among the citizens through our ‘Tiruppur Corona Fighters’ programme. They are working in close coordination with our administrative officials to facilitate the entire process. We have been operational since the very day of the lockdown,” shares Dr Vijaykarthikeyan.
Besides this, Vijaykarthikeyan’s team has also provided more than 16,000 dry ration kits to the migrant labourers who left to their hometowns.
As of now, around 50 per cent of the migrant population from these areas have reached their homes but many are still in need of help.
Thanks to the heroes who took this opportunity to do a good turn, many children, women, men and the elderly across India have been able to access basic food essentials like rice, oil, milk, pulses, flour, sugar, salt and so on.
However, the work is not over as thousands of needy are still suffering and are in need of your immediate support.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)