It was a hot sunny noon on 3rd April 2020 when I joined our HelpAge India team for the food distribution in a local Delhi slum – Rangpur Pahari. As we took a sharp turn from the main road off Vasant Kunj, amidst the dust storm kicked up by our Mobile Healthcare Unit (MHU) on the kutcha road, we could see temporary hutments and settlements amidst a sea of filth and refuge surrounding it. As we were reaching the first distribution point, we saw a similar dust storm rising in the not so far horizon, equally ferocious and riveting. Before we could make out what is the reason behind the storm, we saw a large crowd of children running behind our vehicle and shouting at the hutment along the kutcha road and informing “Jaldi aao, khaane ki gaadi aa gayee” (Come fast, the food distribution vehicle is here). Pretty soon we had a big crowd of children, mother with young infants in their arms and little ones towing behind, young men & women and theelderly.For a moment,it seemed the entire slum settlement was upon us.
India declared its war against Covid19 with the directive of a nationwide lockdown for 21 days on 24th March 2020. The sudden lockdown proved to be a massive blow to 450 million people who work as informal sector workers (daily wage labourers, construction workers etc.) as they soon found themselves jobless stripped off their livelihood options and nowhere to go. Without any job and livelihood, these people had only one option to fall back on – go back to their villages from where they came from. However, with the shutdown of transportation and sealing of interstate borders, many actually walked hundreds of miles to reach home in what is termed as the biggest mass migration since the country’s independence. Many were stopped at the border and thus compelled to come back to their homes in the slums. With no money and food provisions rapidly depleting, for the families in the slums, it is an everyday battle for survival. In the battle and race for survival, the elderly are the ones who are getting left behind and ignored.
As the crowd gathered around our vehicle clamoring for food, it was a herculean task to ask them to follow social distancing as hunger outweighed their good sense of safety towards themselves& family members. I looked worryingly at Manoj, our Social Protection Officer (SPO) of our Mobile Healthcare Unit. Manoj smiled indulgently and told me not to worry. From nowhere few local volunteers appeared and started disciplining the crowd and asking them to make a row “with one hand distance between each other”.
Before starting the distribution, we scanned for elderly in the crowd and fast tracked those to receive the food packets first as it was very hot, which would have proved detrimental to the health of the elderly. Then we started the food distribution and I started to interact with the community. Tales of human sufferings, hardships and difficult prioritisation came to the fore. Mothers, wiping their tears, narrated heart rendering stories of how they and their husband along with the elderly of the house, are going hungry to feed the children from the limited food distribution that is currently in process. While I was talking to the mothers, I felt a soft tug on my left side leg. Looking down, I saw a young malnourished child, speaking to me in broken sentences and in between stutters “Saab, aur chaar packet de do na… Ghar mein aur log hein” (Sir, give me 4 more packets please, as there are 4 other family members who need to eat).
We completed the first site and started for the 2nd site. A similar dust storm with children running and shouting followed, at the end of which we saw a massive gathering to receive food packets again. Continuing my interaction with the community, I met Maya Devi. She hasa household of 6 consisting of husband, 2 kids and elder in laws, all staying in a small hutment.Her query was simple and heart rendering. She had this to say “Saab, aap log toh lunch de ke chale jaaoge, par dinner ka kya, kal ka kya. Hum apne family ko kya khilayein aur hum kya karein…” (Sir you will give lunch for today and go. But what about dinner today, what about food for tomorrow? What should we do to feed our family? Tell us what do we do?)
I frankly did not have answers to her questions and tried to look away from the large kohl lined inquisitive eyes now fast filling with tears.As we rode back, I reflected on the humbling experience of today, my role as a developmental professional and what is it that we can do to mitigate this human tragedy as echoes of Maya Devi’s question reverberated in my ears even today… Hum apne family ko kya khilayein aur hum kya karein…” (What should we do to feed our family? Tell us what do we do?)… I still don’t have an answer.
Mission Head – Agecare (Programs)