How to Get Around a Broken System: Mumbai Relief Workers on Dealing With COVID-19

Chodiye woh baat, aap kuchh dene waale nahi ho, toh woh baat chodiye. Hum toh idhar hi marenge, marne ke liye hi hum idhar baithein hain. Jo takleef jhelta hai na wahi samajh sakta hai. Ab aap ko kya bolun? Ab mere ghar mein khaana nahi hai toh kya kar sakte hain? Jo bhikari bhik mangta hai, uske paas kuch nahi hota toh woh bhik mangta hai.

(Leave it, you are not going to give anything, let it be. We will die here; we are waiting to die here. Only those who suffer can understand. Now what can I tell you? If there is no food in my house, then what can I do? A beggar begs because he has nothing.).”

This is what Salman Sheikh* – a migrant worker from West Bengal – had to say one month into the lockdown. As a volunteer with the Lockdown Relief Project (LRP) in Mumbai, I had called Salman to tell him that we would need a few more days to get him some ration. He was speaking on behalf of 30 such workers who desperately needed help – they didn’t have money to buy food, nor did they have a ration card.

Salman’s helplessness and resentment was clear. But on the other hand, I could also see the frustration among local relief workers who were unable to help him due to a lack of funds.

The lockdown imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic comes with a massive set of challenges and constraints. Uncertain funding, travel restrictions, non-availability of ration and bureaucratic logjams have had a debilitating effect on people as well as on relief work. The LRP has been working tirelessly to overcome these and fulfil the needs of people like Salman.

Organised as a 24/7 relief helpline by three volunteers on March 27, the LRP has grown into a bigger project with over 70 volunteers and a vast network of on-ground NGOs and relief workers. Working with the LRP has brought us volunteers closer to the everyday lives of the poor and marginalised in the city.

Also read: Khidmat-e-Khalq: Young Volunteers Team Up to Help Those in Need

Since May 17 alone, the LRP helpline has received nearly 9,000 distress calls, mostly asking for food, but also for medicines, travel, and commodities like gas cylinders and tarpaulin sheets for roofs. Some even asked for money to pay school fees, rent and electricity bills.

We have been the last resort for many callers where institutions failed to come to their rescue. But how long can we continue to serve this role?

“It is not that government response has been zero, but they often ignore certain populations that exist in the city – who become invisible to the system,” says Vikram, a social sector professional and helpline volunteer. “Our job has been to fill the gap where people haven’t been able to access other alternatives. The questions to ask are: why do those gaps exist? Has there has been any work to plug those gaps? And have those efforts been systematic?”

Unfortunately, working with public officials has not always been easy.

“Vague notions of a lazy, corrupt government were crystallised every time I talked to a community development officer (CDO) that brusquely turned me away or made us jump hoops. What was even more disturbing was the realisation that they turned us away because they didn’t actually have a plan to help the people who had reached out to us,” says Uma, a biologist and volunteer.

But positive experiences also indicate the role of political will in enabling government action. For example, if the government could appoint COVID Yoddhas to fight the disease, they could appoint workers on contract to fight hunger, suggests Chaitra, a filmmaker and volunteer.

Universalising the public distribution system (PDS), expanding the basket of basic needs, and ensuring that these entitlements are effectively disbursed is key, adds Richard, an entrepreneur and volunteer with the LRP.

Many in the city have run out of savings and don’t see any restoration of their livelihoods in sight. Many are also unaware of their entitlements in this crisis. Automatic cash transfers and waivers for rent and electricity bills would greatly benefit them.

“It’s a catch-22 situation,” says Pooja, a public health professional and volunteer, “By providing relief, we are taking away the responsibility of the government and easing public outrage towards a broken system, but we can’t leave people to suffer either.”

Vikram adds, “Official responses to the stream of new challenges have been slow. They tend to lack the adaptability and flexibility to respond to dynamic situations. That’s where the LRP has an advantage. We have the agility to quickly recalibrate when changes in demands appear based on information received from callers and our network of volunteers.”

Recognising both the vulnerability of thousands across the city and its own advantage in providing relief, the LRP has decided to continue to provide for basic needs as the lockdown continues.

Ration distribution in Nalasopara on June 20, 2020. Photo: Lockdown Relief Project

It is clear that the challenges we have witnessed, while intensified under the lockdown, are chronic problems. These call for systemic change that can build from the experience of these times.

Much has been written about where we should go from here and what a post-coronavirus world could look like. But building a more inclusive and just society would require the concerted efforts at not only the governmental level but also at the community level. For many of us, the lockdown has opened our eyes to issues that were always in front of us.

Our hope, as relief workers, is that this awareness propels us to take constructive action. And ultimately, as we come out of this period, we hope social solidarity and collective care overcome the trauma of this time.

The Lockdown Relief Project helpline number is +91 9319371656. To support the Lockdown Relief Project in Mumbai, donate here.

With inputs from Richard Jacob, Dr Pooja Sanghvi, Chaitra Yadavar, Mitawa Mukta Aneesh, Vikram Singh, Uma Phadnis, and Yvette Lee.

Natasha Maru is a volunteer at Lockdown Relief Project, Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Lockdown Relief Project (ration distribution in Govandi on June 4, 2020)