July 10, 2020
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A Few Friends In Deed

A first-person account of how Gujarat can awaken the samaritans amongst ordinary people

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A Few Friends In Deed
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What can an individual do? Nothing, I thought, and let the statistics—thousands of men, women and children dead, towns turned to rubble, crores damaged—smother my sensitivity. Until Vikrant happened. This 26-year-old came home and announced: "I'm going. Do you want to do something?" Sure I wanted to, but what? The answer came in torrents, through actions I couldn't control, in ways I never thought were possible. We dialled the numbers and in less than two hours my house turned into a control room for relief as six of us sat down to take stock.

Bharat, who had travelled through Gujarat extensively, was familiar with the topography of the region; Madhavan and Aloka brought their experiences of working with ngos; Monika, our in-house geek, activated the cyber-mailing lists. All of us pivoted around the most precious commodity—Vikrant's enthusiasm. We decided to take help to rural areas where aid hadn't reached till then. But an executing organisation was necessary. We short-listed Jan Vikas, an organisation that had been active in rural India for 13 years. A few calls to Ahmedabad and we started moving.

We realised that while everyone was collecting material, nobody was really thinking of taking them there. So, we concentrated our efforts in organising the infrastructure. Sachin and Ashu offered their godowns. Bobby offered to take one truckload of relief material to any place in Gujarat, every day. All those whom we called started collecting stuff in bulk. One wall of my house turned into a notice board where all these activities were recorded so that anybody who joined in late knew what was going on.

Soon, e-mails from grassroots workers turned into a flood and thankfully, both vsnl and mtnl behaved. But somewhere along the way we realised that our focus was wrong. What was needed was not clothes, but warm clothes, blankets, buckets, dry rations. Tents and tarpaulin sheets to make temporary homes were critical. Vishal, a businessman who had just flown down from Paris, took the responsibility of arranging truckload of tents.

In the middle of all this, a 19-year-old joined us, literally back from the dead. Umang was a mute witness to a whole town of Anjar turn into rubble. He brought the cries of the living dead to us. He wanted to go back, but before that he wanted to sensitise the people here. We thus put him on the media and college round. The list—and the enthusiasm—only grew. But what we need now is cash to buy things in bulk. Unfortunately, that's the hardest thing to come.

As for medical accessories, we got specific lists requesting things we hadn't thought about initially—x-ray hangers, antacids, eye drops, insulin, needles, plaster of Paris, disposable syringes, crutches, portable operating lights and tables, catheters—the list's deliberately kept long to not only show what's needed, but also because the sheer variety screamed volumes about the extent of damage.

Through all this, each of us had enriching experiences. When Vikrant was pasting a poster on a doctor's clinic, a poor man offered: "If there's an orphaned child, please get him here. I will take care of him." Or, when the painters came to know why the posters were being made, they offered their work at cost. Later, two of them said: "We have no dhan (money) to give, so we're offering our tan (body) and man (soul)." They are planning to go to Gujarat next week.

Right now, we are in the centre of two groups of ngos: Jan Vikas (which is coordinating the activities of 16 other groups in the region), and 14 ngos here in Delhi which are collecting funds, medicines and goods. We, the nameless, are the logistical link between the donors and the victims. This is something we never aspired for. How did this happen? Are there any lessons for others, who may be interested in "doing something", but are pushed into inertia, thinking: "What can an individual do?"

A lot, in fact. But there are certain preconditions. One, there must be a genuine desire to help. Two, there should be a true spirit of selflessness—the project is more important than its constituent egos. Three, each activist should be turned into a stakeholder and not merely a donor; conversely, each opinion should be valued. Four, focus on what's missing, infrastructure in our case. Five, the presence of the young is essential—they bring the refreshing spirit of adventure and enthusiasm that binds a loose confederation of ideas and turn it into an organisation that works. Six, become a hub where information, things and money flow effortlessly. Seven, remember, you can't do everything. Instead, concentrate on what you can. Eight, be ready to dismantle the group once your mission is successful, but define 'success' in your own way.

gautam@outlookindia.com
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