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Till a few weeks ago, Aqsa Shaikh, a medical doctor and community medicine specialist, was attending protests against the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. She was also spearheading operations on the WhatsApp group Helping Hands—created by the faculty and healthcare workers of the Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Jamia Hamdard—to provide financial support to underprivileged patients. Since late February, this had doubled up as a platform to arrange medical treatment, essential provisions and legal assistance for victims of the violence in north-east Delhi. They had made progress and were moving towards long-term rehabilitation—rebuilding careers, reconstructing shops, mental health interventions.

Then the pandemic hit

After a nationwide lockdown was announced by the prime minister from 25 March, visuals of migrant workers trudging to homes hundreds of kilometres away owing to lack of work, thronging bus stations and desperately looking for their next meal became ubiquitous across television screens. The theory of the virus being a great leveller dissolved in this glaring inequality, driving home the fact that social distancing in India is a privilege.

As news about stranded daily-wage workers began to flow in, citizens like Shaikh stepped up. Last week alone, she raised close to 25 lakh online and resumed the effort to provide ration kits, to a much wider demographic this time—families of migrant workers, homeless persons, those affected by the riots in the Capital in February, as well as others in need in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Mumbai. So far, her team has helped nearly 2,000 families.

The covid-19 pandemic has brought with it an onslaught of information, events, visuals, narratives and pleas, splashed across news channels and social media platforms. The task at hand seems manifold. While real-life and unlikely heroes have become conspicuous in this battle against the coronavirus—grocers, sanitation workers, healthcare professionals, among others—ordinary citizens have come forward to ensure the battle is fought on every front, whether it means combating fake news, feeding the poor or personally building protective gear.

In Bengaluru, Mahita Nagraj, a freelance digital marketing professional, came up with an initiative to support elders. On her school WhatsApp group, two friends who now live abroad asked her to check in on their elderly parents—provide medicines for a father who was a heart patient, and other essentials.

Senior citizens are a high-risk group for covid-19 and many found themselves without an immediate support system. So Nagraj shared a Facebook post asking if anyone else on her friends’ list needed this kind of help. “Two things happened. One, I got a lot of messages from strangers asking for help, and two, I got messages from people who wanted to replicate this in their own locations," says Nagraj.

The Facebook group Caremongers India, which she started on 17 March already has over 24,000 members. It lists a helpline number managed solely by Nagraj, who now fields close to 1,500 messages and over 300 calls every day. The community connects people across the country who require assistance with those who have the ability to provide it.

Akshay Chillal, for instance, works with a tech company in Pune but his parents, both over the age of 65, live in Hubbali, Karnataka. When his mother complained of pain in her ear, he posted on the Caremongers India page. Within 45 minutes, volunteer Amina Shaikh was at his home, arranged a curfew pass and took his mother to an ENT specialist, constantly sharing updates with Chillal on WhatsApp.

Over 3,000km away, in Mizoram, C. Lalramdini, professor, Regional Institute of Paramedical and Nursing Sciences (Ripans), launched an initiative to try and address the acute shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) in some measure with a Facebook post and a WhatsApp group link shared on 26 March. Among the first to sign up as a volunteer was Lalhriatpuii Varte, a BEd student.

She left home on 27 March to hole up with five others at JT Fashion House, Aizawl, to stitch several components of PPE that would be checked by the doctors they are consulting before distribution. Within the first two days, Varte says, the group managed to raise 2 lakh for the material required: “We ordered the materials using the money that was raised and learnt how to make the gear under the supervision of our doctors and nurses."

This effort now involves over 400 people across 10 districts in Mizoram, working overtime to fulfil the urgent demand for face-shields, masks, gloves, coveralls or gowns, head covers, shoe covers, among other things, for front-line workers, be it nurses in district hospitals, police, or even volunteers of the local level task force deployed on the streets to enforce the lockdown.

Like Shaikh, Nagraj and Varte, citizens working in different fields, with varying religious, cultural and professional markers, in distant and diverse parts of the country have come together to fight for a common cause in their own unique but important ways. This, perhaps, is the power of social solidarity in a time of mandated physical distancing.

What has really set these initiatives apart, aside from their desire to contribute in whatever way they can, is the promptness with which citizens have acted—mobilizing quickly, forging instant solidarities with absolutely no institutional or political backing.

The Waiting Room Cafe in Mumbai has collaborated with citizens to provide cooked meals for the needy. Entrepreneurs have come together as a collective called Startups vs Covid-19 to do advocacy work, run helplines and help scale up infrastructure for testing and quarantine as well as manufacture test kits and medical equipment. The feminist collective Dhorshok Tumi-i, formed in December in Kolkata, is working with students of Jadavpur University to hand out essentials for women’s healthcare, such as sanitary napkins, soap and sattu (roasted gram flour; rich in nutrients).

From riot relief to covid-19

“The coronavirus pandemic is a global catastrophe with local peculiarities," writes staff writer Lauren Collins in an article, “The Anguish And Solidarity Of Paris Under Lockdown", in The New Yorker. “In France, it comes on the heels of anti-pension-reform strikes that shut down the country for much of the winter, which themselves came on the heels of the gilets jaunes protests that shut down the country for much of the winter before that. Hibernation for springtime feels viscerally wrong anywhere."

Local peculiarities, it seems, can sometimes be global too.

After the CAA was passed by Parliament on 11 December, protests spread spontaneously across the country, particularly after the police attacked students inside Jamia Millia Islamia in the Capital. In late February, there were riots across north-east Delhi. All this meant there was a constant need for intervention and assistance.

The past four months, then, saw swift collaboration through platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A team of citizen volunteers led by lawyer Dushyant Arora, for instance, came together online and raised over 2 crore to help 113 families affected by the riots.

“NGOs as well as organized political organizations linked or not linked to political parties have been in the background in a period of ferment which has arguably witnessed the most significant movement to protect constitutional rights," says film-maker and social activist Rahul Roy. “Confrontation is the key driving force behind all political activism and most NGOs have become non-confrontational as far as the state is concerned. A certain disillusionment with NGOs and political parties has contributed to a very new citizen-led politics which came to the fore with the anti-CAA movement," he adds.

Groups like Shaikh’s, which came together spontaneously to provide post-riot relief and rehabilitation, are now channelling their efforts towards ensuring they can help more people.

Take the example of Lawyers for Detainees, started by 29- year-old lawyer Mishika Singh. On 17 December, she was at the Janpath Metro station in Delhi, on her way to a protest at Jantar Mantar, when she got an SOS call for lawyers on one of the many WhatsApp groups which had brought together lawyers, activists, journalists and others. “By the time I messaged the person whose number was on the text, I found he had already been detained," she says.

Singh spent the next 4 hours at the Metro station, putting together a WhatsApp group of lawyers who wanted to help—by 2pm, the group was full to capacity. It had 250 members, all of whom offered help with detentions and eventually with compensation for riot victims, or medico-legal certificates at hospitals. Many a time, they would get there before the government.

Volunteers from the Cement Collective preparing kits with essentials for distribution.
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Volunteers from the Cement Collective preparing kits with essentials for distribution. (Photo: Omar Waziri)

The group has adapted, and with the initiative #CementCollective, it’s now mobilizing to help during the lockdown. They provide essentials like rice, flour, pulses and oil to those who live hand-to-mouth or were affected by the riots and have not been able to earn a living since. Over just four days, her team helped over 1,500 people, distributed over 400 ration kits and other requirements across north-east Delhi and Loni, just across the border in Uttar Pradesh. The cost added up to 3,71,500, with some demands being met by donations in kind.

On 7 April, the Supreme Court, responding to a PIL stating that migrant workers had been deprived of their fundamental right to life and livelihood and must be given their wages, sought a response from the Centre, and eventually refused to interfere until 13 April, a day before the nationwide lockdown was scheduled to end. There was also the issue of those out of work and on the streets, people who do not possess ration cards and therefore are not guaranteed government welfare.

Citizens’ initiatives are not hobbled by such procedural burdens. “I don’t even know where to start complaining. If people asked what I would say to the government, I would just say there is no point, we will figure this out for ourselves," says Singh.

As Roy points out: “This new politics has completely overshadowed and humbled all older forms of politics. A similar thing has happened with the response to the lockdown and the crisis it has created for workers, especially those dependent on daily wages and informal labour. There has been a remarkable coming together of citizens in several parts of the country quickly to start relief operations."

Synergy with the system

Vice-president at a Bengaluru-based investment bank, Fahad Khalid, 31, flew to Delhi and was working on the ground during the riots since he is a trained paramedic. On 5 April, when the prime minister had asked those who could to come out on to their balconies to light candles, diyas or torches for 9 minutes, Khalid used the opportunity to make his concerns known. He arranged his candles to spell out “PPE?", took a video and posted it on social media. He received a flurry of death threats and abusive comments.

Over the last few weeks, Khalid and his team Volunteers Collective, formed in March, have been working to address this shortage, while also helping Bangladeshi migrants in Bengaluru’s slums as well as many others. “We have made face-shields for people on the ground. They were costing close to 300-400 and were not in stock anywhere. So we made them out of the clear projector sheet and a band and it cost us 2.50 each," says Khalid. “We made close to 1,500 and are going to give it to the cops, hospital and sanitation staff, as well as others."

While in many cases citizens have been driven by frustration with the government’s pace and inaction, what has also emerged is a sort of cohesion between local administrations and citizens’ groups.

Abhinandita Dayal Mathur, art and culture adviser to Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, led the state government’s efforts for relief and rehabilitation after the riots and is now working on covid-19 hunger relief and food security. On 27 March, they had put out a Google form asking for citizen collaborations to help with relief work across the Capital.

Food being distributed to stranded migrant workers and homeless people at the Kashmere Gate inter-state bus terminus, Delhi, on 7 April.
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Food being distributed to stranded migrant workers and homeless people at the Kashmere Gate inter-state bus terminus, Delhi, on 7 April. (Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Some, such as Mridula Tandon, a resident of south Delhi’s Defence Colony, started a WhatsApp group (“Each One Feed Someone") that now has over 100 members and are collecting food packets and ration supplies cooked by the women of the locality. These are picked up and distributed by local authorities in Ghazipur, Badarpur and other areas with a high concentration of out-of-work migrant labour—a minimum of 200 packets every day from Tandon’s group.

“There are two things from the government point of view. One is the intent and one is the due process that has to be followed. With certain things, an individual can act immediately—like raising 2 lakh online—but the government is bound by procedure, so that there is no corruption and so on," says Mathur. “So we tell people to continue doing what they are doing but if you find something, before tweeting, you might just want to send that information to us as well, because it is the person’s right to claim compensation and relief from the state as well. And we have the political will to help everyone."

Nagraj agrees. She believes it is the duty of people to step in. “There are a lot of gaps, which could be a result of many things. For instance, was the lockdown needed? Yes. Could it have been done better? Possibly, but hindsight is always 20/20. I think there are issues which need to be rapidly addressed and that is something that only citizens initiatives can do."

It is this sense of community that drives R. Ramanujam, a theoretical computer scientist at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai. On 21 March, he was confused. “Look, we are all scientists. While medical researchers and pharma colleges can look at medicines and treatment, what is the rest of the science community to do?" he thought. So he wrote to 10 of his colleagues and they set up the Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 (ISRC) platform.

More than 400 scientists from different streams are building mathematical models on the spread of covid-19 to formulate predictions to help shape policy, bust myths related to the virus through peer-reviewed, science-backed counters and even work towards building cheaper hospital equipment such as ventilators. They disseminate this information on their website, Facebook and Twitter.

Overcoming obstacles

All this has not been without its challenges. Nagraj, a single mother, who volunteers to help the elderly in her area, had to move away from her family to pre-empt the risk of infecting them. Her mother moved in with Nagraj’s grandmother and her son was shipped off to a friend’s place. “It’s not easy. My son is 12 and in the last 12 years I don’t think there has been a period when we have been away from each other for more than four days. We are each other’s best friend and support system. And my mum and I are extremely close too," says Nagraj.

She maintains, however, that this is something that needed to be done. “What we are going through in India is larger than an individual, any family, any single unit. We have the luxury of having people we can rely on, whether it is friends or family. We know they will be safe and well looked after. But the people we are catering to are stranded with no help. It was not an easy decision but one that needed to be made."

Varte’s team at JT Fashion House has found a way to cope with being away from home: music. “We try to create a positive atmosphere here. We put on music, we dance and we enjoy ourselves. If we don’t manage to keep ourselves happy, our mental health will go for a toss," she says.

Fatima Zohra (left) has been providing ration kits to slum residents in Mumbai’s Vikhroli and Ghatkopar
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Fatima Zohra (left) has been providing ration kits to slum residents in Mumbai’s Vikhroli and Ghatkopar (Photo courtesy: Fatima Zohra)

For some, the impetus has come from adversity itself. After the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in March, which was attended by people from across the country and the world before the lockdown was announced, resulted in covid-19 positive cases, the pandemic threatened to take a distinctly communal tone.

“I think our actions speak louder than their words. The doors of god are closed for all of us—mandir, masjid, everything. So at this moment the time is to support each other," says Fatima Zohra, a final-year law student in Mumbai who has been raising funds online and providing ration kits to nearly 120 families in the slums of Vikhroli and Ghatkopar.

Shaikh of Helping Hands echoes this sentiment. “When we are providing relief, it is immaterial whether the person we are helping is Hindu or Muslim," she says. As an empowered trans woman, Shaikh maintains that it is her identity that encourages people to donate, especially those who are not accustomed to “seeing trans women as providers".

*****

As citizens across class, caste, religion and region rally to support each other and battle this pandemic, social solidarity is perhaps most intimately experienced and expressed by those whom it impacts the most.

Mohammad Akram performs the last-mile task in relief efforts. A resident of Loni, bordering Delhi, the welder had provided shelter at home to his extended family, and even neighbours across religions, when their homes were burnt down in the riots. Today, he is working on the ground with #CementCollective, going door to door, handing out relief material.

Akram seems to embody what togetherness means in these times: “Hum bilkul khaali pade hain. koi kaam dhanda nahi hai (We are sitting without work ourselves)," says Akram. “But it is important to help those affected by the riots, those stranded on the streets—they are not even managing to get one square meal."

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