Relief-on-wheels initiative provides migrants safe, dignified passage home

As thousands trudge across the State, seeking the small comfort of home, a UNICEF-led group is taking survival toolkits to them on Jeevan Raths across Mumbai and Pune

May 27, 2020 12:34 am | Updated 12:47 am IST - Mumbai

Rushing to help:  Volunteers distribute relief material to migrants travelling out of the city.

Rushing to help: Volunteers distribute relief material to migrants travelling out of the city.

A few days ago, at Ghodbunder Road crossing in Thane, where nearly 3,000 migrant workers gather every day from all over Mumbai hoping to get a bus to their villages hundreds of miles away, volunteers who were distributing food and water to them noticed a little boy come back repeatedly, but only to take water bottles. Curious, the volunteers followed him. They saw the child pouring the water on his mother’s feet, peeling from continuous walking in the scorching sun.

“We have seen people make footwear out of plastic water bottles,” says Niranjan Aher, who runs the Alert Citizens Forum and has organised 18 to 20 volunteers who work in shifts in the area, providing essentials to migrant workers. “We have seen people plead helplessly, cry. Most of us are at home for fear of the novel coronavirus infecting us. This is a wholly different battle.”

Mr. Aher is part of a network of volunteers and NGOs who collect and distribute non-perishable food, hygiene materials, water, sanitary napkins and basic medical support to migrant workers on chhota hathis or mini trucks. Led by UNICEF, this relief-on-wheels initiative has brought together over 50 NGOs in Maharashtra under the name ‘Maha C19 PECONet’ (Partners who support with resources, Enterprises who provide solutions, Citizen volunteers who help on the ground, and individuals who sustain the impact. ‘O’ is for ownership, the glue that holds the team together).

So far, the group has served 62,150 migrants. On Tuesday, the team had to stop distribution at Vasai as the police feared a stampede. Over 16,000 people had turned up.

Working for the vulnerable

The PECONet idea began on a WhatsApp group of UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) partners programme. In mid-March, UNICEF began training 20,000 of Maharahstra’s ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers, as well as anganwadi, multipurpose, swachhagrahi and urban sanitation workers, in COVID-19 prevention and control.

When the humanitarian crisis became clear, people began giving food to COVID-19 shelters, says Yusuf Kabir, WASH specialist, disaster risk reduction and emergency focal point, UNICEF, Maharashtra.

Mr. Kabir said, “But the migrants had lost our trust; we were saying new things every day. They started going back to their home towns; I have known of people walking from Mumbai to Bastar and cycling from Nashik to Nepal.”

In early April, Mr. Kabir began conversations with his NGO network to exchange ideas and avoid duplication in relief efforts. The WhatsApp group quickly grew from 20 to over 100 members. “We started asking, ‘Can we give them a dignified, safe passage in terms of food, counselling, essentials like slippers, oral rehydration fluid, water and masks?’” From these conversations, the movement took shape in mid-May, with a pledge to raise funds and support the needs of migrants for 50 days. “The organisations shifted all their resources and support for a common cause: working for the underprivileged and vulnerable.”

Karon Shaiva, managing trustee, RISE Infinity Foundation, says, “Concept-to-implementation was 48 hours. Partners came together at lightning speed.” People say NGOs don’t work together, Ms. Shaiva says, “but it’s amazing how everyone did that here. Everyone is cheering each other on in the spirit of collaboration, and that’s not easy to find, especially in such a stressful situation.”

Mr. Kabir says, “The beautiful part of this collaboration is that no one is pushing anyone. It’s a synergistic thing.”

Omkar Khare, State consultant, disaster risk reduction at UNICEF, Maharashtra, says in this coming together, there has been a crucial realisation: Mumbai, where “everyone is a migrant”, is thinking of what its labour community requires. “For the first time, we are saying we should make them more comfortable.”

The rath is not stationed in one location for more than one or two hours. It primarily goes to Vasai-Virar, Fountain Hotel junction in Thane, and Dahisar and from there, wherever migrants collect. There are also raths in Pune. The local police station informs the team on the ground of the migrants’ presence, and at times, the rath takes resources to migrants who are walking. On the ground, about 50 volunteers distribute essentials for a couple of hours in the morning and evening.

Gio Roti Ghar, LIFE Foundation, and Rotarians take care of the food, which includes bananas, sheera, theplas, biscuits. The children are given sweet buns. The owners of four godowns opened them up for storing the material. Three kitchens, checked for hygiene, prepare the food.

Suppliers are given feedback on taste, and the volunteers are told to open the packets and check for quality before distribution: “what is not good for you is not good for the migrants”. Theplas, vacuum-packed to last a week, “are superhits,” says Mr. Khare, and Mr. Kabir says the raths have now acquired the moniker ‘thepla rath’. “People often ask, ‘ Woh thepla wala kahan gaya (Where has the thepla man gone)’,” says Mr.Kabir.

Funds for non-perishable food and other items are being raised on Ketto and Donatekart — over ₹3.5 lakh has been raised — and FICCI FLO Mumbai and ELSA Mumbai are running a campaign to support migrant women’s hygiene and sanitary needs. Parallelly, a campaign on UNICEF’s platform is raising funds for long-term goals: following the migration, village preparedness, school readiness in State’s villages (see box: A single platform).

A back-end team coordinates with volunteers on the ground and manages data. Around 10 p.m. every day, they get on a “reflection call” where they give feedback, and share how they are feeling after a long day on the field.

The challenges are many: often, locations are far apart and supplies reach late, and volunteers have been stopped by police. They also have to often think on their feet, says Bhupendra Mishra, founder, The Resilient Foundation, who connected with his network to bring youngsters together for the cause. For instance, one of them parks his motorcycle in Thane in such a way that the migrants are forced to walk in a single file, practising physical distancing. “It becomes difficult to manage them, sometimes. When they see our truck, they just rush forward for food, often not even wearing masks,” says volunteer Swapnil Shirsat.

More to do

The group is aiming to reach out to 100,000 migrants by May 31. It has connected with dhabas on the Nashik-Ahmednagar and Mumbai-Ahmedabad sectors, to provide migrants with food kits and toilet facilities. A call centre to track whether migrants have reached their destinations, whether they have grievances or need police assistance on the way, has been started, and the contact numbers are given to the migrants at the time of boarding.

Mr. Khare says the team is also arranging for paramedics with nearly 7,000 medical kits to attend to migrants. The team also plans to get a year’s insurance for volunteers.

“We have no money beyond a couple of days, but we jump in nevertheless,” says Mr. Kabir. “We believe something will come our way, and it does.”

The idea is to build on what is being done because the problem won’t go away easily, says Ms. Shaiva. NGO partners will start taking over, once the migrants reach their villages, she says. Mr. Kabir says, “We are calling it an organic movement. The outcome is not always linear. We are shifting our strategies but not our target population.”

A single platform

UNICEF has established a digital coordination platform wherein almost 50 of its partners communicate on a daily basis.

The platform shares and discusses strategies on infection prevention and control, containment, WASH, food, migrants, shelter, social sector recovery, assessment, and monitoring the humanitarian crisis. The group comprises NGOs, corporates, Rotarians, technical agencies and medical institutions.

It helps mobilise resources and coordinate with government departments. The flagship programmes are Jeevan Rath, Urban Slum Sanitation, menstrual hygiene management, village preparedness, school readiness, training of all service providers, teachers and frontline workers from Maharashtra.

Primarily, UNICEF is working with the Mumbai Police, Hungry Wheels, IDOBRO, Project Mumbai, Citizens Alert Forum, YUVA, Rotary Club Of Mumbai, CACR, Habitat For Humanity, Red Is The New Green, YMCA Mumbai, CASA Mumbai, Arghyam, The Resilient Foundation, The Life Foundation, Geo Roti Ghar, Kahan Khajan, FICCI Ladies Association, Mumbai SAMAGRA, and individual philanthropists.

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