Tek Chand was deeply worried. Due to lockdown restrictions, his work in the Garkhal-Sanawar panchayat area (Solan district of Himachal Pradesh) had stopped. For some days he could provide food to his family from his savings but three days earlier they had exhausted their resources and were reduced to hunger.
It was at this stage that a panchayat member told him that the famous Lawrence School Sanawar (located in this panchayat area) had been looking for persons in need like him whom they could call for their food distribution programme. The panchayat was helping the school find the right persons. Tek Chand made haste to reach the food distribution place in time (see photograph).
Here in conditions of dignity and with precautions for social distancing, Tek Chand not only received a food bag but also soap, sanitizer and mask. His food packet contained 10 kg. rice, 5 kg. wheat flour, 3 kg. pulses, 3 kg. cooking oil, 3 kg. sugar and 2 kg. salt. His tensions dissolved as Tek Chand made a quick calculation that told him grain and pulse would last till the remaining days of the lockout while other food items would last even longer.
Some 140 other needy persons, most of them migrant workers stranded in this lower Himalayan region, were equally relieved. These workers who had come all the way from Jharkhand, Bihar, W. Bengal, Odisha and other parts of the country had been facing extremely a difficult time following the sudden imposition of a lockdown.
Earlier also, this school had reached out to help inmates of Leprosy and TB treatment centres and orphanages, while also helping to improve sanitation in villages. Its principal Himmat Singh Dhillon took a keen interest in the initiative, supported by the old Sanavrian Society (including several eminent persons) headed by Major General Kulpreet Singh (Retd.).
Several such initiatives all over the country have contributed much to reducing the distress and hunger of weaker sections, particularly stranded migrant workers. A group of 73 volunteers got together to form the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN). In the first 20 days of its work, this initiative could reach out to 640 groups of stranded workers comprising 11,159 workers in all.
All these workers were in great distress and need. SWAN helped to link them to local authorities and voluntary organisations or groups, apart from arranging to send small amounts of money to help them to meet their immediate needs. SWAN also helped to draw more attention to the problems of stranded workers.
Bundelkhand region, spread over 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, has been often discussed in terms of poverty and distress, and recently these problems got aggravated in conditions of the lockdown. In the Mahoba-Banda-Chitrakut belt several organisations and activists contributed in significant ways to reducing the distress of people.
Manoj Tiwari has been known as a politician with a difference as even earlier he took initiatives to start grain banks in lean season to reduce hunger. Now with the help of Arunodya voluntary organization and its coordinator Abhishek he took up the task of identifying the neediest persons in Mahoba and distributing food bags to them.
In Banda district, leading activist Raja Bhaiya of Vidyadham Samiti started visiting hamlets of the poorest communities and arranged distribution of food packets among them. He says that as the organization did not have any funds for this purpose, he sent frantic messages to friends. One youth, who is by no means a rich person, named Sambhav Tiwari responded promptly and decided to give away the bulk of his savings.
This helped to kickstart the initiative which later received help from several others. This work has managed to reach out to some of the poorest people of this region. In the nearby district of Chitrakut, the senior-most social activist, Gaya Prasad Gopal has mobilized his organization ABSSS to meet the food needs of around 500 households, particularly Kol tribals living in Patha region of this district. One problem he faced, given the resource constraints, was how to select the neediest households when all households of a tribal or a Dalit hamlet appeared to be in need.
Whom to select and whom to leave out was a difficult and sensitive problem as the organisation had obvious resource limits. Somehow a practical solution was worked out in which those having detailed information selected the most-needy persons and these persons were called a small distance away to receive food bags.
A Delhi-based initiative called Caravan-e-Mohabbat devoted to spreading communal harmony has responded to immediate needs by raising resources for meeting the food needs of many people. Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan is a programme of homeless people in Delhi. The inmates of its shelters were suddenly left hungry with the announcement of the lockdown as they could no longer go out to work.
Hence in the early days, even before government help could reach them, the organisation used its own emergency resources to arrange food for shelter inmates. Two organisations which have done much to draw attention to problems of people facing hunger as well as to mobilize support for policy actions to help them are NREGA Sangharsh Morcha and Right to Food Campaign (and its small secretariat).
These organisations have brought out important statements drawing attention to emerging problems, as well as suggesting solutions and contacting or meeting authorities to fine-tune policies for reducing hunger and deprivation in these difficult times. Such efforts are playing an important role in reducing hunger and distress in these difficult times and deserve wide support and encouragement.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has specialized in public interest issues)