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HabitatInformal Work

#8: YUVA’s Relief Efforts During COVID-19: An Overview

By May 10, 2020December 23rd, 2023No Comments

What you need to know about our initiative to combat hunger, ensure dignity and secure basic rights for all

What We Knew Before the Lockdown

When we launched the #TogetherWeCan campaign seven weeks ago, our goal was clear — we wanted to understand and address the impact of COVID-19 on the communities we work with. Even before the lockdown was announced, our findings from the rapid needs-assessment emphasised that for the urban poor, ‘staying home’ didn’t directly translate to ‘staying safe’.

An overwhelming majority of people from more than 2,000 families that we spoke to told us that they earn their income through informal work. For many of them, a lockdown would mean living in densely crowded settlements with no money for food, no water for frequent handwashing, and no secure home or space to practice ‘social distancing’.

The most prominent concern among people surveyed across 39 slum communities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) was about the loss of work and its impact on hunger — How will we send money back home when we can’t earn anymore? How will we make sure our children get basic nutrition? How will we feed our families?

Direct Impact and Relief Efforts

Our relief initiative is combating this fear of starvation that has increasingly been seeping into people’s everyday realities. By relying on the power of compassion to build strong networks of support, we have been distributing emergency food supplies to people in need.

Within the first week of our initiative, we were able to provide 4,700+ people living in slum communities across Mumbai and Navi Mumbai with food kits containing rice, wheat, pulses, oil, etc. Since then, our impact has increased manifold. Seven weeks of dedicated fundraising, daily distribution efforts and robust partnerships have made it possible for us to provide 16,548 ration kits to more than 82,740 individuals in 6 cities across the MMR. We have also provided 835,000 cooked meals to frontline workers such as the Mumbai Police and government hospital staff as well as to migrant workers and their families in Navi Mumbai, Mumbai, and Bhiwandi (Thane).

A visual summary of week-wise relief efforts via provision of ration to households and people (left) and provision of cooked meals (right)

The sudden announcement of the lockdown at 8 pm on Tuesday, March 24, created a heightened sense of vulnerability for millions of people living on the margins of society who had four hours to determine their best plan of action to stay safe. In the weeks that followed, we received 907 phone calls, numerous voice notes and messages (including information scribbled onto pieces of paper) from groups of migrant labourers, daily-wage earners, the homeless and many other people from urban poor communities who were counting on our support to cope with the aftermath of these challenging circumstances. Given their dispersed locations, it has been difficult for us to reach out to all of them. However, we are doing our best to offer support to everyone who establishes contact with us. When required, we also share relevant information within our networks to ask for help with some of our response efforts.

What began as a preemptive approach to understanding the potential impact of COVID-19 on the communities we work with has gradually transformed into a dynamic movement that is responding to a range of crises. From cooked meals for frontline workers like the police and government peripheral hospital staff to dry rations for homeless people, migrant workers, transgender communities, circus performers, garment factory workers, sanitation workers, children in orphanages and many others living in slums and rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) colonies, we have been providing food supplies to diverse groups through our direct relief initiatives. We have also reached communities in need across Nagpur, Nashik and Guwahati by supporting local relief efforts.

A glimpse of relief efforts

These outreach numbers, collated from just our efforts, are telling of the massive scale of distress across the MMR. Overnight, millions of people whose labour ensured that the city functioned were forced to start an endless search for the next meal or next week’s ration. In spite of hundreds of organisations, religious groups, volunteer groups working non-stop on relief efforts, the distress continues. That we allowed more than 60 per cent of the city to fall into this state is reflective of the deep fractures in our country’s economic and social security systems.

To learn more about how our impact has evolved over the past few weeks, check out our weekly blogs #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Advocacy for Government Action

Our fundraiser has been a means for us to reach out to communities in need, a humanitarian role that is critical at this point. However, we realise that the sustainable solution to the impact of the lockdowns can only come from the government. When we launched our campaign, we were committed to simultaneously holding our leaders accountable to the people most impacted by structural inequalities. Our ongoing advocacy efforts for government action at the local, state and central levels have been shaped by our core objective of securing basic dignity, rights and entitlements for all. This has been a challenging time for advocacy and we have worked with existing networks to ensure voices on the margins are heard.

The central and state governments introduced their relief packages and food security strategies a few days after the lockdown was announced. These measures have not accounted for the struggles of millions of migrant labourers stuck in cities with ration cards that were issued in their native places. The technical glitches that the urban poor experience while linking their Aadhar card to their ration cards have also been overlooked. None of the current provisions have made food available to people who don’t have ration cards. Poor communication regarding roll-out plans and the delayed implementation of declared provisions have deepened the uncertainties of vulnerable groups. Read more about hunger and poverty during the COVID-19 crisis and our recommendations for government action here.

We submitted a list of demands to the government of Maharashtra and to the government of India’s COVID-19 Economic Task force. We have also advocated for ward-level planning to protect the health and hygiene of vulnerable groups, a relief fund to support daily-wage workers, an end to the threats of forced evictions in informal settlements, the provision of shelters for homeless populations and the universalisation of the Public Distribution System.

Today, as Maharashtra is at the epicentre of the pandemic in India with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, these demands have been met in varying degrees across different regions. The Mumbai High Court’s decision to halt forced evictions, the central directive to supply three months’ worth of grains, onions and potatoes to ration stores and the state’s request to public and private sector employers to protect the jobs of contract labourers signify some positive developments. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has also supported the move to convert BMC (public) schools into shelters for homeless populations. We supported one such effort to shift 15 homeless people from Matunga into a shelter that has been set up in Antop hill.

The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have hardest hit those who were already on the margins. The struggles they are facing now speak of the systemic marginalisation of the informal sector in our city. These workers, often migrants, are rendered invisible in the city. Coupled with lack of identity proofs and the non-portability of social security benefits across state borders, they are extremely precarious when shocks like lockdowns and health crises occur. Our relief work over the last seven weeks brings sharply to light the paradox we face in our cities today — those who are responsible for keeping the city functioning are those who the city does not recognise and does not protect. We still have a long way to go as we continue to advance people’s rights and access to basic services in the face of increasing adversities.

People Power

Our work is driven by our on-ground team of volunteers whose deep connection with and understanding of the realities of the urban poor has helped our relief to be responsive and impactful. This is extremely tough work in challenging situations, and we draw inspiration from each other as we face the dynamism each new day brings in this crisis situation. We prioritise everyone’s safety and in the fifth week of relief, we arranged for COVID-19 testing of whoever has had contact with communities.

As a humanitarian crisis unfolds, new challenges are thrown up each day. Through all these, we have organically formed several partnerships to resolve the issues faced by different groups. While many of our partner organisations have supported us with funds, some others have provided the essential food supplies required for our direct relief efforts. A few partners have also introduced innovative approaches to giving. For example, we recently received support for our fundraiser through a collaboration with film-makers Anupama Mandloi and Tanuja Chandra, whose film ‘Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha’ was selected for the Mumbai Film Festival’s (MAMI) year-round home theatre programme. The proceeds from the tickets bought for this movie-screening have been donated to our campaign. More recently, we also partnered with IIT Bombay, Apnalaya and Save the Children, India, to ensure that our ongoing outreach within underserved communities is captured through GIS mapping to avoid overlaps in direct relief initiatives.

Last week, we discussed the impact of the lockdown on informal workers during our first-ever webinar on International Labour Day.

Our panel included informal workers and social sector experts who discussed potential strategies for the government and civil society to collectively prioritise the needs of India’s informal workforce. Earlier this week, we organised another webinar on the impact of the lockdown on different states in India’s North East.

We have also partnered on ‘HungerTalks’ — a roundtable webinar series in which eminent personalities such as Rahul Dravid, Yasmin Karachiwala, Harish Salve, Urjit Patel, Justice Shrikrishna, Captain Raghu Raman and many other leaders across diverse fields will share their knowledge and experiences to help raise funds for our COVID-19 relief efforts. To learn more about how to participate in this initiative, click here.

At YUVA, we understand the value of collaborating with multiple stakeholders while addressing complex challenges. We continue to work closely with other civil society organisations through an informal consortium. We are in touch with different administrative authorities including the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation, Panvel Municipal Corporation, Raigad Tehsil, Controller of Rationing and Civil Supplies (Thane), Civil Defense Department and the State of Maharashtra to support the welfare of vulnerable groups. It has been heartening to see how people across the city have come together to support those most in need.

Strengthening our Digital Presence

In the new reality of people staying at home, our social media channels and media outlets have played a key role in raising awareness and funds for our campaign. Our messaging is focused on ensuring that social responsibility isn’t forgotten in the times of ‘social distancing’. We engage our followers and supporters with constant updates about the experiences of relief workers, vulnerable groups and the widespread hunger crisis. We have been reaching out extensively to our online community through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and our blog to highlight the learnings, reflections and impact of our direct relief efforts.

We have been profiled on Mirror Now’s Inspire India segment and on NDTV to highlight the role of engaged citizens who have helped us reach thousands of people in distress.

Our emergency relief efforts have been covered across several media outlets including Hindustan Times, Firstpost, Livemint, The Hindu and Loksatta.

Our fundraiser has also gained momentum through a video challenge that encourages our followers and social media influencers to spread awareness about hunger and lack of access to food. In the past month, countless messages about the importance of taking action to support the most vulnerable groups have been pouring in through our social media channels.

We are building a movement of empathetic people who are willing to go that extra mile to reduce the unequal impact of this global pandemic. The people who have spread the word and contributed to our fundraiser are an integral part of our growing community of digital advocates and supporters. This spirit of giving has been a source of motivation for us as we continue our efforts.

The Way Forward

COVID-19 has led to much more than a global health crisis — it has unveiled and deepened several pre-existing social and economic inequalities. Everyday, we are inspired by stories of resilience and selflessness that emerge from the most marginalised communities. We are also exposed to the brutal realities of many people who continue to live with a palpable fear of hunger and starvation. We need to build upon our direct and indirect relief efforts to ensure that the rights of invisibilised communities are not compromised in the months ahead.

With a view to continue making food available to people in need, we are accepting monetary donations through our fundraiser on Milaap and Ketto. We recognize that vulnerabilities take different forms. As our #TogetherWeCan campaign moves forward, our relief efforts will keep evolving through an ongoing process of learning and reflection.

As we move from relief into longer-term rehabilitation, we need comprehensive intervention strategies for every ward — health, hygiene, informal economy revival, mobile services (for health, entitlements etc), to ensure safety and social and economic security. We are assessing the impact of the crisis beyond hunger — this includes domestic violence, psycho-social impacts, nutrition and health concerns, mobility and income. As the city and those on the margins recover from this crisis, our work will strategically respond to these multiple realities.

We express our deepest gratitude to everyone who has played a role in furthering our impact. Our emergency relief efforts reached so many people only because of the generous contributions of all our supporters and because of the collective efforts of our incredible staff, volunteers, relief workers, advocacy networks, partner organisations, administrative authorities and digital community members! THANK YOU!

Sneha Tatapudy (with inputs from the YUVA team)