When famines wrought havoc during the colonial period, the British administration often turned a blind eye to the misery of people. The Bengal famine in 1943 is a case in point. The state remained indifferent even after millions perished—whatever little relief work was carried out was done by the civil society. In the post-colonial era, the state largely shouldered the responsibility of relief work after floods, droughts and epidemics, though civil society also played an important role.
Cut to the present day. The lockdown to contain coronavirus has created a grave crisis for underprivileged sections of society as many of them depended on daily wages and had meagre savings. It has essentially shut all avenues to a livelihood and now, they are staring at hunger. Governments are offerings meals to many, but with the size of the population and the semi-organised nature of the economy, gaps remain. And it’s during this hour of need that concerned citizens have once again risen to the occasion. Several people have taken it upon themselves to help and feed the hungry, with whatever resources they have or could raise.
Take, for instance, the Bangla Sanskriti Mancha (BSM), a group that includes IIT graduates, physicists and academics among others. It was formed in 2016 after a communal riot in Dhulagarh, Howrah, to restore amity among different communities. After the lockdown, they channelled all their energy in providing support to Bengali workers stranded in other states.
Samirul Islam, the ever-agile president of the organisation, says that their helplines working 24X7 and they are receiving distress calls from all over India. “We have got calls from Andaman too. In the last 15 days, we got information about more than 75,000 migrant workers. So far, BSM has been able to support around 35,000 people with our limited resources,” he adds.
The organisation has prepared a database of these migrant workers, something that has proved handy for the state government in organising relief for them. It is also arranging dry rations for those stuck in places where relief has not reached.
BSM, however, is just one among many groups carrying out voluntary relief work. Ramkishore Ganguly, a karate teacher in Bolpur, has opened five helplines along with 8-10 of his students. They are attending to senior citizens in the Bolpur-Santiniketan area. It was much needed as the population of seniors living alone in Santiniketan is significant—their children are mostly settled in other states or countries. Besides, the town’s Elmhirst Institute is also arranging foodgrains for villagers who are unable to get the rations being distributed by the government as they do not have ration cards. Penchen Dhendup, a resident of Darjeeling has started delivering essential medicines with the help of his friends to people in his town who are unable to go out.
In Delhi’s Kalkaji neighbourhood, Kamal Kardam, 43, and Afzal Qadri,30, feed migrant labourers every day. They cook vegetarian pulao for some 100 people, load the packets on their scooters and set out to feed those they can find, mostly around their locality. “We are not very rich, but till the time it’s doable, we shall do it,” says Qadri.
The government is offering meals, but citizen-led initiatives are bridging gaps.
In Karaikudi town of Sivaganga district, Springs, a voluntary group of young residents, began relief work by feeding 100 people, mostly the homeless, sanitary workers, differently abled and security guards. Soon, the number of food packets was scaled up to 500 per day as they expanded their work to more localities. The district collector was so impressed by their work that he released one lakh rupees from contingency funds to sustain their efforts. “Since locals knew about our group’s work after the Gaja cyclone, they readily donated funds to help us buy ingredients,” says Ismail, one of the organisers.
In Coimbatore, Seva Bharathi, a voluntary organisation, has been cooking and distributing food to 25,000 people daily since the lockdown. “We operate out of a large wedding hall (given free by the owner) and donors give food grains, vegetables and other ingredients to make one variety of rice every day. There are 1,200 volunteers helping in the preparation and distribution of food to the poor, especially migrant workers from other states, in 35 neighbourhoods of the city,” says Ramanathan, the convener of the organisation. “We initially started with 250, people, but as we learnt about more people looking for food, we expanded our operations.”
In Chennai, youth associations belonging to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, Bengal and Odisha are working in close coordination with the Tamil Nadu secretary of labour and employment Mohamed Nasimuddin, who brought them together to take care of migrant workers living in Chennai. Initially, the group provided cooked meals. However, on finding that most of the workers had a place to stay and stoves, they now provide weekly rations so they can cook what they want. “So far, we have covered more than 6,000 guest workers in and around Chennai. Whenever the local tashildar or police identify a group of workers that need assistance, our members immediately reach out to them and bring them under our wing,” says Siddarth Maher, president of the Gujarat Youth Association.
Nasimuddin explains that the idea to rope in these youth associations was to overcome the language barrier and make guest workers feel at home by interacting with people from their respective states. “We formed a WhatsApp group for this specific purpose and coordinate with youth associations that have been involved in social work,” he says. “Over 500 members of these youth associations are involved in relief work.”
As the nation grapples with the lockdown, these generous people and heartwarming stories are perhaps its only redeeming feature.
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta, Salik Ahmad in Delhi and G.C. Shekhar in Chennai