Experience of 6 days of relief work

Lockdown… Food Requirements… Responses

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind on how the lockdown is going to impact the economy in the long run. While some people may lose their profits and ventures, another big chunk will lose their jobs, and yet another bigger proportion -the unorganised sector – has been  at the brink of survival from the first day of the lockdown.

The experience of being part of an initiative in Bhopal that is reaching out to people with rations and vegetables has shown us many facets of people.

Gandhi Nagar Flyover – A man with two children on his hand-cart and his frail wife with another infant in her arms were the only people to be seen on the newly constructed four-lane flyover. When I stopped to meet them, the man continued on his journey while the woman (Mohini) shared that they had not been able to feed their children in the past three days. “How can we sit at home?” I could only give her my number and tell her not to go out for work the next day and that we’ll all manage somehow. 

Baan Ganga –We had a load of vegetables in a four-wheeler, and were giving them to the deputed person who would be cooking the subzi and distributing it. A middle-aged lady stopped and asked how much I would  sell it for; upon realizing that it was not a commercial exchange, she simply blessed us and took a tiny bundle for her house. An old man on the roadside shared that he is a painter by profession and is feeling helpless going home without money. 

Another man said that there are some families down the road who don’t have a penny on them, and urged us to give something on that side as well. Similarly, in Gandhi Nagar Basti, when we gave some stock of oil, wheat, and pulses to a group of families we have been acquainted with for a while, they shared their concerns about another group of people, socially and religiously different from them but economically worse off, and asked us to make sure that they too  have food.

A woman called up to say that she had been told that one of us had distributed supplies in one part of the city, and asked us to give her side as well. I asked her to let us know when it gets difficult, and assured her that someone would definitely come by. I could hear the smile in her voice when she thanked me and put down the phone. It was three days later that she called and asked for a bit, saying that it has started becoming more critical now and she wanted to give some to her neighbours. 

On Wednesday, after the morning distribution, a woman from a basti of scrap-pickers and scrap-dealers called up to tell us not to worry about them for a couple of days as someone else had provided rations. “We’ll manage together. You look out for the others.”

In all of this, as we reassure people and they reassure us in their humanity, one wonders where the state is. How could the government not have a plan in place as they got into this crisis? Wasn’t this coming for a month or so? How is the government reassuring people? By announcements and schemes? 

In Bhopal, the city administration is ensuring that there is “no-one hungry on the streets”, and that is what this literally implies, the physical streets. But is that the only place where the poor live? The state knows very well where the people live, how they survive. Don’t the political parties go out seeking  votes every five years and see people’s thatched roofs, or children going out to buy the day’s supplies when their parents come back home with the day’s earnings? 

Civil society is trying to step up and fill in the gaps, but isn’t this in a way ignoring or passing on the bulk of the responsibility?  Moreover, what is the collective capacity of civil society even if we try? While as a group Muskaan has been able to provide for an average of 2000 families per day for the past six days, one must also acknowledge and to highlight the problems that we faced in this effort. he first is naturally the collection of donations as none of us have free resources (funding of non governmental organizations is more tightened than before and is also connected to planned activities), the second is procurement. Both these limitations make us feel unsure of how we would live up to the assurances we are giving as human beings.  An organization’s procurement is dependent on the market. Prices are fluctuating on a daily basis; may it be for wheat or oil or rice. Egg rates are between Rs. 120 to Rs. 180 a tray depending on the honesty of the seller. We would want to provide supplies on a weekly basis at the least  (if not for the three weeks lockdown period) to a household to reduce contact and exposure, but the limited availability of funds and stocks on a daily basis implies that we try to ensure today’s meal for more people than a weekly supply to a smaller percentage of them. 

The state has promised one month’s rations for free to BPL cardholders. But this is not going to suffice for the needs of even half of the working class people who are actually ‘impoverished’ and have today been restricted from working and fending for themselves. A 2018 study carried out by Shahri Mazdur Sangathan with a sample size of 503 households across 16 bastis in Bhopal showed that only 53.5% households had ration cards. Within the 269 families who did possess ration cards, 12.7% said they could not use their ration card because it was mortgaged, and one-fourth reported that they had not been able to use the ration card regularly because they stay far away from the PDS shop. This was because they had been displaced from their original place and the ration card has not been transferred to a nearby locality, or the ration card is of their village and they are living here, in the city, for work. Another group of people had problems at different times in the previous year with fingerprints not matching, an issue Shahri Mazdur Sangathan has been highlighting and appealing to the state machinery to recognize. Kochai Aaji, a 65-year-old widow in Ganga Nagar Basti has not been able to take rations in the past six months as her fingerprints have stopped matching those on the system. Rakhi of Shyam Nagar Basti has not been able to access rations for the past two months as she had given birth and could not go to the ration-shop; her’s was the only thumbprint that was on record. Several families could not access the PDS shops in the beginning of  March as they did not have the money that time to buy the three-months stock that was being given out. Even if these problems were to get resolved, the quantities given as per the number of family members and the kind of card you possess also invariably makes it such that the ration lasts only for 2 to 3 weeks (depending on whether the family has a BPL Card or an Antyodaya) against the full month. With all these lapses, it is clear that the lockdown period [or perhaps even otherwise, given our lack of overall preparedness] is not the time for India to work on the basis of documents, may it be for food (or later for citizenship).

Universal coverage of food support has to be ensured through the ground workers (anganwadi workers and NGO staff) as they are closest to the people. We call upon the state to work in real collaboration with their ground workers, civil society, trusting us and supporting us in a more real way than merely issuing passes and more critically, trusting the working-class people who understand ‘hunger’ and ‘insecurities’.

March 28th, 2020

Shivani works with the organization, Muskaan, in Bhopal.


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