This is an edited version of a conversation about the community response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, moderated by Rohini Nilekani. Panelists include Anshu Gupta, Nalini Sekhar and Kuldeep Dantewadia.
The times we are living in, and the reality of COVID-19, means that we are being called on to do things in new ways and focus on the opportunities that this provides. The pandemic has allowed us to face some of our deepest fears, but also access our ability for hope. Both fear and hope are constantly battling in our hearts and minds, but I would like to focus on hope. We are now able to see exactly how interdependent we all are and how interdependent the entire world is, especially in the last few years. This has been a wake-up call for a lot of us. Although we have been able to secede from public infrastructure, electricity, water, transport, schools; it takes something like a pandemic to make us realise that we are all connected, whether we like it or not. Now we have to find ways to be creatively engaged. I believe Bangalore is at the forefront of innovation in these matters, whether it has to do with culture, technology, or even philanthropy. We’re seeing this in real time, with the response of this city and the philanthropy of ordinary citizens. I hope that by talking about some of the work people have been doing and how they have responded to the pandemic, it will give us all an opportunity to contribute, connect, and understand how we can get past this crisis sooner rather than later.
A Loss of Trust
As Anshu Gupta points out, this pandemic is different from any other disaster we have experienced before. Unlike a tsunami or earthquake, which hits within a few seconds or days and then is done, the effects of the disease are still unfolding. The impact is therefore much deeper. The second phase will hit us after we are able to overcome the virus, and that is the economic fallout because of the disease. We are seeing how economic inequality is playing out even now, with the mass migration of daily wage workers in India. As Anshu mentions, it’s a testament to how little trust we have in each other, that workers didn’t think twice about having to walk with their families for hundreds of kilometers because they didn’t believe people would help them. It’s a very painful fact to face, that our government, institutions, organisations, or even regular citizens, were not able to give other people this basic security. While organisations like Goonj, who have been working in this space for two decades, knew that there would be some amount of migration, that it would become a crisis of these proportions was unexpected.
This loss of trust is something that we, as a society, need to reflect on. Goonj has access to 1000+ people across India, and a large number of them are daily wage workers. Anshu mentions how, just the reassurance that their families would be provided with food was enough to dissuade them from going back to their villages. She argues that it is time for the government and corporates to step up and be there for the people who work for them.
As of now, Anshu rightly points out, we need to be able to access the rural areas and villages to see how to provide resources to these communities, so that it’s not a case of forced migration. Through their work, Goonj has been able to build pipelines, a grid across the country of community-based organisations and community workers who will be crucial in the logistics of material management. Within a week, Goonj has been able to reach those deep pockets of about 12 states, because that network has already been built. Right now, the immediate needs of these communities are in terms of dry ration to cook food, and small sanitary items like soap and sanitary pads. Since there is such a large influx of people going back to their villages, those areas might not have enough resources to sustain a larger population. So local procurement of large scale materials like tarpaulin, etc. is also crucial, which is why Goonj is asking not for materials, but for money to be able to procure materials for those specific regions.
With Hasiru Dala, Nalini Shekar has been working with waste pickers in Bangalore and other cities in Karnataka for years, but this crisis has resulted in a shift in focus for them as well. Nalini’s experience of the consequences of demonetisation on lower income families ensured that the organisation got into action immediately. As soon as dals and other staples started getting expensive, they realised they needed to procure rations for at least one month. Initially Nalini believed they would only have to provide for those who didn’t have ration cards or permanent housing, but it has become a much larger matter. So several organisations have come together to form a group called With Bengaluru, to support the migrant workers. What they have realised over the last 10 days, is that there are many workers who have migrated from north Karnataka because of the floods. They were able to borrow money and move south, however disaster has now struck again.
Although Nalini has been working with people below the poverty line very closely, she also notes that this is very different from any other calamity. There’s despair and fear among people who don’t know if they will be alive or safe from one day to the next. Parents who have left their children back in north Karnataka with their families are now worried about whether they will be able to go back or not. At least, by providing them with ration, they feel like someone is looking out for their interests. With Bengaluru is helping a lot of these people, and the community has really come together to pitch in. Nalini mentions some of the setbacks, like the APMC yards that were closed which meant that people were not able to procure a lot of material in the beginning, or their worry that the RMC yard was an unhygienic place for volunteers to pack ration kits. However, St. Joseph’s College has given their facility for volunteers and staff to use. Nasiru Dala reached 3500 people, and With Bengaluru aims at reaching 12000 people.
As organisations are engaged in this work, they are also learning what missteps to avoid. Nalini mentions the example of receiving a shipment of wheat flour which South Indians don’t use in their cooking. At a distressful time, where there is a lot of uncertainty and less resources available, the fear is that changing people’s diets might result in other health issues. So the goal is to match what people usually eat, based on their regional diets. Another suggestion is to contribute in cash, as Nalini explains that the restriction of movement means that the logistics of dropping and picking up food is extremely complicated and involves both parties to have pass permits to travel freely. The goal is to centralise certain activities, while at the same time having local centres where citizens may be asked to buy items from their local grocers to donate to 10-15 people in the area. Organisations are attempting to do both, as citizens come forward to donate.
As we are organising and pulling together as part of the Samaaj, we also need to consider how the Bazaar and Sarkaar sectors can contribute in the short and medium-term. Anshu argues that the larger impact of all of this will be on rural India, where people are migrating in the thousands. People who are on the roads or stuck at the borders are ultimately going to settle down for some time in their villages, until business comes back to normal. So while feeding migrant labourers in cities is important, corporates and the government need to also pay attention to the effect this will have on rural India. Today we have to think of the entire country as our backyard. All of India has to be looked at as a whole and we have to focus on where people are going, because their idea of home and opportunity has suddenly shifted. Our mindset has to shift as well.
We are also looking at a collapse in terms of our systems of waste management in the city. Nalini mentions that recycling has stopped, which means that waste pickers, scrap dealers, and our dry waste collection centres have no work. It will take months for them to come back, so we need to look at long-term strategies of working with the government. The other issue this has made clear is that simply providing people with a livelihood is not enough. We need to have social security for citizens. Through the last 10 years of working in this space, Nalini says she has realised that very few waste pickers had ration cards. So the government needs to consider how waste pickers and other migrant labourers might have access to social security even if they travel to the city from other regions, as they are the intra-economy of the city.
The social distancing orders and the reality of the lockdown means that the idea of space has shifted as well. We are now all living in close quarters which means that some people may be suffering more during these times, with no way to access support systems outside of their homes. With the increase of domestic violence cases, Nalini suggests starting a helpline and going over safety plans with women. This kind of violence is not just limited between to partners but extends to all kinds of family violence, between parents and children or in-laws and women or men. Nalini notes that we will see an uptick in these cases, and organisations like Hasiru Dala will need to start addressing them soon.
With Reap Benefit, Kuldeep Dantewada runs an innovative platform to allow citizens to solve their own problems. With the onset of this pandemic, Kuldeep and his team identified certain areas where there was a dearth of public information. They began by putting a technology platform in place in order to break the information barrier, by crowdsourcing test centres, first respondents, etc. The next step was to enable citizens to report whether places were practising social distancing or not, so that the government would be able to recognise hotspots and invest their manpower to bring more awareness in those areas. When people started reaching out to say that they didn’t have passes but needed certain things, they were able to set up a hyper-local mapping and matching system, wherein the last mile delivery can be taken care of. Through that exercise, more helpful data has emerged, like maps for construction sites in the country which can be used to identify areas with migrant labourers who may need help. This combination of technology and local community forms Reap Benefit’s larger approach.
I think we are also seeing, with the Solve Ninjas of Reap Benefit as well as in general, that many young people in the country have the energy, motivation, and skill to pull us through this. They have idealism and they are also the digital generation, so we can use technology as a backbone for all the social outreach that we have to do. Earlier, in the social sector we used to say, “We must do high-tech with high-touch.” Now we are going to have to say, “We have to do high-tech with low-touch,” because of social distancing norms. So that gives us another opportunity to be creatively engaged.
The Power of the Local
Technology has become a key factor in being able to optimise resources as well as allowing a public-facing technology so that people are kept informed and up-to-date. This means that donations are happening online, but also that organisations have to follow-up with information about what they are doing with that money. As Kuldeep mentions, trust can be built with radical transparency from the Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar, and that is where technology can be incredibly useful. The other thing we are learning is how to decentralise capacity, using technological platforms. When we talk about authority, we are talking about a centralised system of knowledge and information. But this will always mean that the system is fragile. What this experience is teaching us is how to use technology to decentralise capacity, with honesty and transparency. This is the time for us to demonstrate the power of the local. The phrase ‘Think Global, Act Local,’ means to act in context and build community, and that is crucial right now, despite social distancing.
Online donations are also a question of apportioning resources, and with the PM CARES Fund as well as local NGOs asking for help, it’s important to think through the question of how people can optimise their giving. Anshu mentions that this is the time for the voluntary sector to shine. People from the social sector across the country and the world are putting themselves and their families at risk in order to help others. We also need to think about the overall healthcare issues, even outside of COVID-19. What this disaster brings to light is the fact that we have ignored the government health care systems, government hospitals, government schools, and the social sector for far too long. On the Samaaj’s part, Kuldeep recommends that once this disease subsides, we should give our time to the people in our locality, community, or neighbourhood, who have been affected, in addition to the financial donations we may give now.
There is also a need for a bridge between the government and its citizens, and this is where civil society leaders come in. Organisations like Indus Action, which Kuldeep is working with, are creating more transparency around people getting entitlements or receiving schemes. As he points out, if civil society can play an assistant role in terms of demand and supply, and allow citizens to get involved, that will allow for more transparency as well as efficiency. In the philanthropy sector, we are trying to create data-based impact analytics, so that people who are giving forward also feel connected to the results. I think this is going to be very important to design in the coming weeks.
As of now, our government carries a huge responsibility, in terms of assisting civil society organisations. Anshu argues that although the government has reached out, they need to be more supportive. Local governments need to reach out to the civil society sector proactively, because many of the civil society leaders and institutions have greater field experience and community experience than many of the officers and other leaders they may turn to. The reality is that over the last few years, we have seen a serious downsizing of civil society organisations. In times of crisis, this is dangerous because the Sarkaar and its last outputs are still not close enough to reach every citizen. The Bazaar cannot reach the last mile either. It’s only civil society organisations that are rooted in those communities and in those contexts, who will be able to reach citizens.
This is a good time to remember then, how important civil society organisations are to our nation, and to its future. We need to work collectively to tackle this disaster, which means that the government needs to reach out to organisations, as well as revive the institutions in rural India because they are the last mile delivery people.
We need to remember that our work here is a marathon, not a sprint. This lockdown could last for longer than we may predict right now, so we need to pace ourselves. We must have patience, and think about how to keep giving in the long-term. The consequences of this difficult time are going to be felt long after the virus is under control. So we need to assist each other, as a nation, knowing that we are all in this together