During the initial phase of the pandemic, Ujjwala Patil, or Ujjwala tai (sister in Marathi), a Koli fisherwoman from Mumbai, saw that their community was facing severe livelihood challenges. Besides taking the lead on arranging provisions and other necessities, Patil gathered the women in her community to stitch masks and sell them. It ensured that they weren't dependent on donations alone.
In September 2020, Priya Babu initiated the Trans Kitchen project to help the transgender community in Coimbatore. Run by transgender persons, the kitchen's staff prepares meals for other members of their community. For Babu, who belongs to the community and spearheaded the initiative, the Trans Kitchen was a way to reduce the stigma they faced, as well as create a stream of income for trans people employed in the kitchen. Similarly, in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district, a group of teachers took the task of educating themselves about the pandemic and the vaccines. They then became frontline workers of a king, who helped women and children get access to the government’s social protection schemes.
There are 20 such inspiring stories featured inOnward Together, a photo exhibition which opens today at Indian Habitat Centre. The stories show the impact the pandemic had on vulnerable communities, and how they persevered and helped each other. The marginalised communities include urban poor, farmers, sex workers, street vendors and certain frontline workers.
The three-day exhibition is organised by COVIDActionCollab, a collaborative of 360 grassroots organisations and academia from across the country, who work with 15 or so vulnerable communities. The photoshoot was done over a course of three months at the place where community members worked or gathered.
“Marginalised communities are usually treated with a beneficiary approach. But having worked with them, we have learnt that they can become a catalyst for change within their communities like Ujjawala tai. Their ability to help others in their community in spite of not having much is amazing. It was a thread that ran across all stories,” says Shiv Kumar, chief integrator of COVIDActionCollab. What the stories also brought forth was how the communities, in spite of struggling and needed livelihood assistance, maintained their dignity.
Through the exhibition, Kumar hopes that public has a new appreciation and respect for these communities. “They are managing to live day to day but need support to go forward. And we need to prepare for even bigger disasters like climate change that will impact these communities,” he says.
Open Palm Court Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Estate, Delhi.