Fighting Starvation, Fighting COVID-19 under India’s lockdown.

14 April 2020

It is no stretch to say that life across the globe changed during March and April 2020. The pandemic caused by Coronavirus blanketed the globe and no country was spared from the consequences the infectious plague. A global wave of quarantines, social distancing practices, and work from home initiatives was called, and in many cases, forced upon people. The gravity of the situation was unprecedented. However, for hundreds of millions, these suggestions and policies weren’t an option. If this pandemic has highlighted anything, it was that global inequality is still an ever-present theme across nations — developing and developed.

In India where 1.4 billion people call home, the country closed its borders and ordered a countrywide lockdown almost overnight with little to no notice. Life came to a halt with rising fears that the virus would grip the nation and its already strained healthcare system. While India was largely mimicking what other nations were doing worldwide, there was little comprehension of the scale of untold suffering that it would inflict on the millions of day-wage workers and day-labourers.

Across the sub-continent, tens of millions were left without work in an instant. Construction sites came to a halt and people who had housekeepers shut their doors. The vast majority, if not all, of these workers, lived day-to-day and had no ability to save money. Left with nothing, images started appearing on the news channels of a vast exodus out of cities such as New Delhi back to their home villages, as they were mostly unable to buy food.

A migrant, quoted in the New York Times, said he was more afraid of starvation than the virus. Other stories also emerged of people walking hundreds of kilometres back to their villages.

The majority of these migrant day-wage earners and labourers come from the poorer states of India such as Bihar and Jharkhand. They leave their home states in search of work with the income earned mostly being sent back to their families in their home villages.

In Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, similar stories surfaced. There was no corner of India that was left unaffected by the lockdown, and the most vulnerable people were left to suffer the most. And this is where our story begins.

On a morning on March 30, I was talking to my dear friend Ravi Mishra over WhatsApp, and he had told me of his plan that he had hatched to help those migrant labourers, and daily-wage earners in desperate need of food. “Hey brother, I’ll get back to you soon, I’m just trying to put some funds together with some friends to help these people,” said Ravi.

Ravi was on an almost one-man mission to assist these people in any way he could. With the little funds he had on hand, and through friends, in the first few days of April, he managed to assist 28 families that were in dire need of food during the lockdown. “People shouldn’t suffer like this bro. It’s not good. Why are people going hungry? Yesterday I found out that some of them haven’t eaten in two days and have been surviving on water,” Ravi told me.

We began brainstorming some ideas about how we could galvanise people across our networks and beyond to help. “What about a crowdfund?,” I suggested, “Do you know how to do one? I have never done one, and right now I am so busy helping these people from the past few days I couldn’t do it alone,” Ravi told me. Within the hour I decided to set-up a GoFundMe page detailing the events of the story that had unfolded over the last couple of days. By this point, Ravi had already spent USD$1000 buying supplies and driving around Bhopal to source food and distribute it. He estimated that around 500 Indian rupees, about USD$6.50, would feed a family for 2–3 days.

Initially, we had the aim of recovering the costs that were spent on the rations for the first 28 families and we set the crowdfund goal at $1000. This raised money, however, would go straight to buying more supplies for other families. We thought this entire initiative would be doubly as impactful, as people would then not have to walk back to their villages and risk contracting Coronavirus or spread it further. This worked, as many of the families that would have moved on stayed because of the assistance. “Why would we go to any other place you help us with food supplies here?,” said Sarojini, a migrant labourer from Chhattisgarh, India, who was at a migrant camp where Ravi was handing out supplies.

Over the next week, we had an unbelievable response from our networks. Support came from everywhere and we were having to constantly update our funding goal. Through this support it allowed us to buy more supplies for the hundreds of families across Bhopal that were in desperate need of help. Ravi was working day and night sourcing, organising, loading, and distributing food across Bhopal to communities that before had nothing but water.

Word spread across the city through the migrant communities of the “Rationwalla bhaiya” aka Ravi, which translates to the brother giving out food. Scores of individuals from the migrant labour communities walked many kilometres to try and find Ravi and were even waiting at the shop he was buying the food from to ask for assistance. “Even one family matters, no one goes hungry,” said Ravi in one of the videos we had put together for the crowdfunding campaign.

Ravi’s number had also begun making the rounds across the migrant labourer communities and calls were coming in all day every day from people in need. Many of them were located in remote areas with little access to assistance. Many didn’t have addresses. “I live near a mango tree in the next lane where you came last time to deliver rations to people,” said Dayara to Ravi on a phone call.

This, however, also brought to our attention some of the more dire situations that required immediate attention. Mothers had now begun calling Ravi at night in a desperate outreach. “Brother, my child will die, I am having to feed him water mixed with sugar. Please come and help me because no one has given us any help. I went to the police station, but they turned me away. I have no money and no work. Please come and help.” said Mamata.

Tirelessly working over 18 days, Ravi drove around Bhopal and distributed goods to people like Mamata and her baby. During this period we also managed to raise AUD$12,675, which fed over 2,500 people twice a day for 14 days. It gave many hope that they would see through the days that were, prior to the aid, filled with anxiety.

The effort by Ravi continues, despite the GoFundMe donations slowing to a trickle. We have seemingly exhausted all our connections and networks and Ravi is also personally down by USD$5000. But that isn’t the point of why I am writing this blog. It has more to do with highlighting this humbling and inspiring effort by my dear friend and all the generous donors that cared enough to send money in very difficult financial times. The suffering of so many was relived because humanity showed its best traits.

While the Indian Coronavirus lockdown rolls on, along with the news cycle of how many across the globe are infected; the ongoing suffering of those who were already in a perilous position to begin with continues. Despite the improvements over the last decade, the situation in India has exposed yet another aspect of vast inequality; one where at days notice people were unable to afford to buy food, leaving tens of millions hungry and on the verge of starvation. Furthermore, the lockdown uncovered an ugly truth, one that is how reliant India’s development is on cheap labour from poorer states, but at the same time cannot provide those with any type of guarantees or security, even for basic human rights such as the access to food.

Despite the direness of the current situation in India, we cannot ignore the superhuman efforts by Ravi and his wife Bittu. It is simply astounding. But also this was in-part made possible by all those that were involved in supporting the crowdfund either with a donation or sharing. At the end of the day, all those involved played a part, small and large, in the reduction of suffering in the world. That is, by and large, something to be proud of. Ignore those that compare the efforts to others forms of suffering because to alleviate the suffering of one-person for one-day is something that we should all strive for every waking moment of our lives.

If you would like to donate to the crowdfund please click the link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/food-for-starving-peoplebhopal-covid19-lockdown?utm_medium=email&utm_source=product&utm_campaign=p_email%2B4803-donation-alert-v5

Aussie documentary photographer focusing on environmental and social development issues. Currently in South Korea. www.ashleycrowther.org

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