The real warriors: city’s good Samaritans unable to take help to people yet

Shortage of staff at retail outlets, few curfew passes, unavailability of products are among the hurdles

March 27, 2020 01:16 am | Updated 01:16 am IST - Shubha Sharma Mumbai

Volunteers prepare meals for the homeless and daily wagers at a shelter in Thane on Thursday amid the nationwide lockdown.

Volunteers prepare meals for the homeless and daily wagers at a shelter in Thane on Thursday amid the nationwide lockdown.

As with every crisis the city has faced over the years, this time too, its real warriors have come out to help those without the means to fend for themselves. While individuals have signed up as volunteers to deliver food and medicines to those needing it, not-for-profit organisations have arranged for food to be delivered to the communities they work with, often raising funds on social media and crowdfunding platforms.

While their intent is noble, roadblocks have sprung up overnight, taking many of them by surprise and halting their efforts.

“Getting money is easy, giving food is not,” says Luis Miranda, chairman of the NGO, Coro.

Coro has identified people in the slum areas of Chembur, Govandi, Mankhurd and Vashi Naka. “We were told not to give money, but to give supplies,” said Mr. Miranda, but as he and his team soon realised, this was the beginning of their worries.

“We put up a campaign on (crowdfunding site) Milaap, but that was the easiest part. They were very supportive, didn’t charge us a fee. But the big challenge was, how to get the food?” he says.

Retail stores are facing a staff shortage, and police is stopping volunteers, sometimes beating them up for being out during a lockdown. Staffers are either saying they do not want to risk coming to work or their families are not letting them do so. “On the supply front, there is a shortage. Transportation is not available to supply the food packets, so how do we deliver from the store to the community?” he asks.

“Groceries are waiting to be delivered, but the police is treating this as a complete curfew, not allowing anyone to do anything,” says Arun Kumar, CEO of Apnalaya, which primarily works in the Shivaji Nagar slum of Govandi.

Apnalaya has started a consortium of seven NGOs to generate resources to help communities cope with the immediate crisis, work with the government to create partnerships for long-term relief and network with other NGOs to broad base the effort. “We need to have a greater coordination between government and civil society organisations. The government cannot reach every nook and corner of the city,” says Mr. Kumar.

In about a fortnight, he hopes, things will ease. “If just the logistics are taken care of, the task will be easier. We may now have to think of two to three months’ supply.”

Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), which has delivered basic provisions to 940 households (over 4,700 people) over the past few days, is publicly appealing for body suits for its team on the ground that is leading the distribution effort. Doel Jaikishen, manager, communications, says they are also seeking access to large transport services (trucks and tempos), “to deliver a larger quantity in a single round.”

“We are reaching out with food kits to daily wage earners and their families, based on a rapid assessment we conducted earlier among 34 settlements across Vasai Virar, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Panvel where YUVA works. We are giving a week’s ration at a time, but we see this as a long-term relief effort,” says Ms. Jaikishen.

Dealing with the system

Larger volunteer-based efforts, in that sense, are at greater risk with their people going from place to place delivering supplies, as Project Mumbai is doing.

“My volunteers are going around with food packets. I have told them if you can step out, do so, else don’t,” says Shishir Joshi, chief executive officer and co-founder, Project Mumbai.

A Project Mumbai volunteer distributes food packets to the police in Mumbai.

A Project Mumbai volunteer distributes food packets to the police in Mumbai.

At least 3,000 volunteers are going with food packets and medical supplies to those who are under a medical quarantine as well as senior citizens who live alone in the city. On Sunday, Project Mumbai began an 8 a.m.-to-8 p.m. mental health helpline with 50 trained psychologists and counsellors on board to help those who are panicking and have suffered job losses.

It is also supplying cooked food to the COVID-19 control room at Mantralaya as well as doctors at KEM Hospital, and also giving masks to policemen. “We have managed to plug gaps in different areas and have generated a huge amount of citizen support,” says Mr. Joshi.

Although his volunteers have not yet been stopped, some of them are equipped to deal with the police as they have worked in crisis situations in the past, he says. “People who step out have the courage, and can negotiate.”

The systemic gaps, according to him are, “We have not reached out to the masses yet, people fear (this) more than wars, and we don’t know what is happening in slums and large buildings.” He suggests creating outlets at different locations that would serve as a connect point for essential services.

Last-mile delivery

A few organisations expressed difficulty with last-mile delivery and procuring curfew passes.

Bilal Khan, convenor of the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, says they were focusing on daily wage labourers and auto rickshaw drivers in areas like Malvani and Govandi, where they have identified 500 families and 250 families respectively. “While the lockdown is complete now, the situation of these groups had begun to worsen even before it was announced. For now, we have made relief packets that will last 10 days. The whole exercise will need to be repeated after that period,” he says.

Mr. Khan says they were in the process of getting a curfew pass for their tempo, which would allow them to go to these areas. “Getting this pass is proving to be a major challenge. We are also finding that stocks are running out at various wholesalers and hence haven’t been able to get the food packets that a few had said they would deliver. Another issue is that of creating collection points, where we are working with the police. Their anxiety is that there will be overcrowding at collection points, defeating the purpose of the lockdown,” he says.

Donatekart, the crowdfunding platform that helps NGOs raise in-kind donations, has found it difficult to deliver supplies from Borivli to Mankhurd. “If we can’t deliver products, there’s no point in raising funds,” says Sarang Bobade, COO.

His biggest challenges so far have been delivery of products because of products going out of stock and the policeman on the street not knowing what constituted essential goods.

“Police are beating up delivery people, not allowing them to take products from one point to the other. We purchase products in bulk, and because of panic buying, wholesalers are not giving them to us; they have been capping quantities. And big retail chains like Walmart and Metro Cash and Carry, where we purchase products, are working at one-fourth their staffing capacity. There is no one to pick up products, and do the billing and despatches,” he says.

As a result, Donatekart is connecting with local vendors and paying much higher rates irrespective of order size; the discounts that retail chains offer them are not available to them at the moment.

Mr. Sarang too mentioned trouble with the curfew passes. “If I am delivering from Borivli to Shivaji Nagar, for every delivery I need a curfew pass. We can’t coordinate with the government each time.”

He suggests that the authorities simply draw up a list of platforms under the ‘essential services’ category with certain regulations in place. “And then if we break those regulations, fine us,” he says.

Shweta Damle, founder member of Habitat and Livelihood Welfare Association, said they too needed more curfew passes. The organisation has not been able to deliver essentials to more than 30 families in Bandra West because of the lack of availability of food grains and a paucity of packaging resources. Calls for supplies have been received from Golibar in Santacruz, and Behrampada and Sant Dnyaneshwar Nagar in Bandra East. “Everything is in the pipeline,” she says.

Pranay Ashok, police spokesperson, however, says all those requiring to deliver essential supplies can get in touch with the local police station for the ‘essential service pass’. “The police station will verify them and issue passes on the spot if need be."

In a tweet on Wednesday, the police had said, “Individuals and groups providing emergency or essential services, facing any restrictions or difficulty in commute, may please #Dial100 or 022- 2493 7755/ 2493 7747 for assistance. We will help you reach your destination without any unnecessary delay.”

The NGOs, for whom it’s still early days, are hoping the situation on the ground eases soon. Till then, they can only count on the munificence of Mumbai’s citizens.

(With inputs from Ajeet Mahale)

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