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Those who sparked a change in 2020

Simple acts of kindness changed lives during the pandemic. Lounge looks at a few of the individuals and groups who reached out and made a difference this year

St+art India Foundation, along with Bihar Health Department and Care India initiated a tribute mural in Patna, supported by Asian Paints, at the Maurya Lok Complex. The mural has been designed by Gujarat-based street artist Do and being realised by Munir Bukhari. Photo courtesy: St+art India Foundation

This has undoubtedly been a difficult year, one marked by unprecedented shifts. Over the past nine months, one has seen migrant workers and daily-wage workers struggle to reach home, people lose their livelihoods, unable even to afford basic ration during the months of lockdown. Most of the middle class has pivoted to a more digital lifestyle, with children spending endless hours in front of the screen and adults working 24x7. But there are many who don’t have access to networks or gadgets, and for whom the digital divide turned into an unbridgeable chasm. Healthcare workers have served relentlessly through the year, battling exhaustion and isolation from families and friends. Through all this, what has warmed the heart, and inspired hope, is the sight of solidarity as individuals, collectives and organisations around the country have stepped up.

Through simple acts of kindness, they have changed lives in ways both big and small. For some, it has been a kind neighbour who made it a point to leave provisions outside the door during the lockdown. For others, it has been a group of teens who raised money to support women craftspersons in Rajasthan. Some clear heroes have emerged. Like K.K. Shailaja, Kerala’s minister of health, social justice, woman and child development, who has spearheaded the state’s covid-19 response through World Health Organization (WHO) protocols of “trace, quarantine, test, isolate and treat”. Or the Mercy Angels initiative in Bengaluru, which conducts funerals for covid-19 victims.

Every act has reassured, you aren’t alone after all. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Stars on the ground

During the lockdown, one saw actor Sonu Sood, wearing a mask and face shield, at bus terminals, helping migrant workers find safe passage home. In an earlier interview with Lounge, Sood said, “For me, this journey started when I started seeing visuals of lakhs of migrant workers walking on the road with little kids during the lockdown.”

Sonu Sood helped hundreds of thousands of stranded workers and children reach home by bus, train, even plane. Photo by Rajesh Kashyap
Sonu Sood helped hundreds of thousands of stranded workers and children reach home by bus, train, even plane. Photo by Rajesh Kashyap

As he was mulling over these images, he came across a group of 350 people at Kalwa Chowk, Mumbai, during a food distribution drive. “They requested for food to be packed for 10 days to last during their long walk to their home town in Karnataka. That really impacted me, and I managed to get permission to transport them back,” he said. He continued spearheading the work, helping hundreds of thousands of stranded workers and children reach home by bus, train, even plane.

At the same time, celebrity chef Vikas Khanna was coordinating relief efforts in India from his apartment in New York. It all started when he put out an appeal on social media, requesting to be connected with people in need of ration. Since then, he has been organising food drives with the help of the National Disaster Response Force and others who are supporting the effort on the ground. “On 1 December, we completed eight months of Feed India as we crossed 55 million meals (cooked and dry ration) in more than 125 cities,” he tells Lounge in a message. It has been hailed as one of the largest food drives of our times. Khanna also managed to raise funds for 600,000 pairs of slippers, four million sanitary pads, two million masks and a million boxes of sweets.

Chef Vikas Khanna coordinated relief efforts in India from his apartment in New York
Chef Vikas Khanna coordinated relief efforts in India from his apartment in New York

When Gen Z stepped up

In May, a group of teens from Gurugram, Haryana—Zaara, Zoya, Tanya, Sanaa and Ishaan, all 13-15 years old—started the “We Stand With Her” campaign. The idea was to help migrant women workers walking back home during the lockdown and support them with necessities for their periods. They tied up with Jatan Sansthan, a non-profit based in Udaipur, Rajasthan, that has been working on reproductive health for nearly two decades. The youngsters procured cloth menstrual pads created by its project, Uger, and distributed these among migrant workers through the Indian Red Cross Society. They managed to raise 3.5 lakh to buy the sanitary napkins made by 17 women in Udaipur. This helped not only the migrant women but also the families of these women, whose husbands had lost their jobs during the lockdown.

 In Bengaluru, Rohan Ray and Akash Raghavan, students of The International School, started the Covid Fit Club in May to keep children healthy through the pandemic, offering online classes in weight training, cardio workouts and dance sessions. “Rohan is a national squash player and I play cricket. We were unable to exercise during the lockdown and realised many others weren’t able to either,” says Raghavan, 17.

These free classes soon extended beyond their neighbourhood. Today, they have students from Kolkata, Delhi, even the US and UK. The Covid Fit Club now charges a nominal fee, which is used for relief work. “We have raised nearly 5 lakh. One of the organisations we help is the Mitti Cafe in Bengaluru, which employs physically and mentally disabled people. They make food for migrant workers and we support that,” says Ray, 16.

Schools on loudspeaker

To be able to attend an online class is a matter of privilege in India. “Urban areas have over 104 internet subscriptions per 100 people (many have dual SIM cards), while the figure for rural areas is a little over 27. Such numbers confirm the extent of India’s rural-urban digital divide,” Apar Gupta, executive director of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, was quoted in the Down To Earth magazine in July. But some enterprising teachers and organisations have come up with a simple way to bridge this digital divide—by imparting lessons on loudspeakers.

In Bankathi village in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, Shyam Kishore Singh Gandhi, headmaster of the Upgraded Middle School, has put up loudspeakers in areas where the concentration of students is high. A similar experiment is taking place in Maharashtra, in the tribal areas of Mokhada and Jawhar in Palghar district. Speaker dadas and taais take children through rhymes and songs on the loudspeaker as part of the Bolki Shaala, or Spoken School. “In March, when schools closed, parents complained that children were wandering off into the forest. In these areas, with no smartphones or network, the future of the kids was likely to be affected,” says Rahul Tiwrekar, founder-director, Diganta Swaraj Foundation, which has been working in the area for more than a decade, and runs Bolki Shaala. The team recorded 40- to 60-minute capsules, based on the syllabus of the Maharashtra state board, and played it on a speaker, placed in a central place in the village, for classes I-VII.

In the tribal areas of Mokhada and Jawhar in Palghar district, Speaker dadas and taais take children through rhymes and songs on the loudspeaker as part of the Bolki Shaala, or Spoken School. Photo: REUTERS
In the tribal areas of Mokhada and Jawhar in Palghar district, Speaker dadas and taais take children through rhymes and songs on the loudspeaker as part of the Bolki Shaala, or Spoken School. Photo: REUTERS

Community radio lifeline

In the villages of Uttarakhand, Assam and Tamil Nadu, community radio has become a trusted platform for updates about covid-19, food distribution, and much more. Kadal Osai, a community radio for and by fisherfolk in Pamban, Tamil Nadu, and Radio Brahmaputra in Assam, which targets the tea plantation and riverine communities in Dibrugarh and Dhemaji, have seen a continuing flow of covid-related programming over the past nine months. Kadal Osai only shut down once, for 72 hours in July, when three of the staff were infected and the premises had to be sanitised. “Even in cyclones, we have never shut down,” says Gayathri Usman, station chief.

Both stations have tried to suggest alternative livelihood options to ride out the slowdown. A major part of their work is countering myths. On Pamban island, for instance, people believed the virus wouldn’t be able to travel across the sea and reach them, and that the salty sea air would protect them. “We had to bust those myths as well as counter the stigma about covid-19. We did a live show every morning between 9am-noon, with caller interactions, and got a tremendous response,” says Usman.

Radio Brahmaputra is going beyond imparting information on the virus. Information on livelihood programmes and updates from the WHO and National Health Mission is being imparted in different languages such as Sadri, Mishing, Hajong and Assamese. Schools are closed and online classes aren’t an option for students from the riverine and tea communities. “So the station, in collaboration with Unicef, district administration and education department, does radio classes for classes III-VIII,” says station head Bhaskar Bhuyan. Radio Brahmaputra invites teachers to the studio to conduct lessons live. A team of volunteers, Shiksha Bandhu, goes to the villages and motivates the students to listen to the live radio class. They also facilitate interaction with teachers at the studio. The children are also given homework and a quiz based on the day’s lesson. Besides this, the radio does yet another live programme, Brahmaputra, to establish communication between government officials, the community and various stakeholders on various development programmes.

Connecting Delhi with hospital beds

From May, as the number of covid-19 cases began to rise in Delhi, people struggled to get medical attention. Hotelier Kapil Chopra and the team at Charity Beds, which he and like-minded individuals set up eight years ago to form a bridge between private hospitals and the economically weaker sections of society (EWS), took it upon themselves to post updates about availability of beds for covid-19 patients on social media.

Starting June, the team started calling up hospitals for accurate estimates. This information was posted with the exact time of the update, so people could assess if they would be able to reach that hospital in time for admission. “We had been seeing videos of people crying, going from hospital to hospital, seeking help,” says Chopra.

Their experience of working with the public healthcare system and their network within hospitals helped. “We knew exactly what was happening in the ICUs. Our information was updated even before the hospitals put out official numbers,” says Chopra. On some days, the team has put out as many as 40 updates. Charity Beds is now focusing on the silent deaths, from non-covid reasons such as kidney failure or heart ailments. “People have been postponing surgeries during the pandemic. At times deaths are happening due to this delay in getting medical attention. The EWS bed occupancy has gone down. Some 700-800 beds are just going empty. We are focusing on that so that EWS patients can get help. It is literally like starting from the scratch again,” says Chopra.

Finding plasma

The journey towards setting up began when members of Adwitiya Mal’s family tested positive for covid-19 in May and the doctors recommended plasma therapy. Finding a donor was easier said than done, with the family reaching out to 250-300 potential ones through social media. One of Mal’s close friends, Mukul Pahwa, a London-based software consultant, helped. Based on their experience, the two decided to create a technology-based solution to make the process easier for those who found themselves in a similar situation.

Investing some of their savings, they had the website up and running by 12 June, to connect potential plasma donors with patients. In the initial days, the website had 150 registered patients and 190 donors. Today the number of donors has gone up to 1,000, with each able to donate plasma multiple times.

In the beginning it was difficult to convince people to become donors, but that has changed. “We have far more recovered covid patients now than before. Also, there has been a lot more awareness, with influencers and celebrities such as Kapil Dev talking about donating plasma and about Dhoondh’s work,” Mal adds. When MTV VJ Nikhil Chinapa put out an appeal to donate plasma, the website saw 200-300 people registering overnight. “We have now helped organize over 2,000 units of plasma for critical covid patients,” says Mal.

Keeping in mind the toll covid-19 takes on patients as well as medical front-line workers, Dhoondh is now creating special modules on mental and physical health. It has tied up with the Asian Medical Students’ Association to reach medical workers. As Mal puts it, “The stronger our front-line gets, the stronger our defence against covid-19.”  

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