All you who sleep tonight…

 

The message on my phone, blandly said,” To date we have distributed : Non perishable bi weekly and monthly rations to 25,761 people. Ready to eat hot meals : 57,901. Vegetables purchased from farmers for distribution : 11,550 kgs”.

I had been initially at the periphery and later, a little more involved in a couple of areas of the entire operation and I knew that the figures were quite impressive.

I don’t think many agencies that had gamely stepped in to help the affected had much experience in this sort of an activity. How many in the metros would have had the experience to provide relief while a crisis is actually unfolding around you ? Real time. Heck…forget an Indian metro, not many agencies anywhere in the world would have much experience in this.

However, forget pride, there was not even a remote level of satisfaction that I felt.

The last 35 -40 days had passed like a blur. It was towards the end of March…or was it early April, that I had gone on my first distribution trip. Delivering around 14 bags of monthly rations at two different locations.

It has been a perplexing mix of an emotional journey – a little bit of shame and guilt about my lack of awareness of their troubles… their existence in many ways, a growing sense of despair at their situation and soon a mounting mixture of indignation and anger at the powers that be, who never factored in the situation of millions of such people, in their game plan.

*****

I was curious.

How will the process work ? Who will we be distributing these rations to ? How do we identify them ? Where will we be meeting them ?

In many ways, it was an underwhelming night. In both locations, the process lasted just a few minutes. We reach the location, we call the main contact, we  hand over the bags and we leave.

If I was expecting any deep insight, or a  life altering experience, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It was a very ordinary event. 

But one small conversation stuck.  

My companion, had chatted warmly with the group that arrived to pick up their supplies. Asked them where they were from, what they did. Coincidentally,  one of them, he must have been in his late teens, was from the same district and it could have been just that indescribable comfort at finding someone from the same vicinity as his home, that made the kid, almost break down while narrating his story.

He was a carpenter and had landed in Bangalore just a couple of days before the lockdown. Most of the money he had, had run out during the journey itself. He and his mates were housed along with others from the same area but life was brutal – bhookh se mar rahe hain, sir ( We are dying of hunger, sir ). 

Even now, I wonder, how a kid, from a small town would have felt, thousands of miles  from a small village,  that was home, in a truly big, strange, intimidating city. Away from family. Without a job. Without money. Without food. And no idea of, forget the future, but how even the coming week looked like. How he will survive. 

Terrifying thought.

*****

Setting up such an operation wouldn’t have been easy.

Deciding what should be supplied. What is essential ? What can be nutritious ?

For how long ? A fortnight ? A month ?

Where to buy these supplies from ?

Who will set up the packing operations ? Where ? A reasonably large space will be needed.

How will the supplies be transported ?

Getting passes from the authorities to roam around during the lockdown.

Getting the cops to accompany if the distribution is to a large group to manage the crowd.

And, of course…getting the funds to run the operation.

I wasn’t there for any of the initial period of setting up the operations but the learning curve, I am sure, would have been a steep one. Operational issues are relatively easy to get a grip on.

There are far tougher questions out there.

*****

As we handed over the bags to him and were walking towards our car, two other elderly men hesitantly walked up to us. They hadn’t been earning ever since the lockdown and asked us if we have a few bags to spare. Their families were struggling.

We didn’t.

How do you tell a person, who has clearly struggled to overcome his reluctance to approach us, subdue  his pride and ask for help, that we could not help them ?

But, even if we had stocks to spare how do we know if the ask was genuine ? Were they being covered by other groups helping out but are looking at stocking up a bit more not knowing how long these uncertain times will last ? Moreover…can you blame anyone for doing that ?

At the same time,  if a family stocks up for the future at the cost of another that is going hungry  

It felt a bit like playing God.

*****

Recces.

If we do proper recces, identify clearly the people who are in need, who are not being covered by any other agency, we could hone in more accurately on those who are truly in need.

Go to a location. Meet the people. Get an estimate of the number of families, people, the number of houses / rooms. Mark the location on Maps. Get a Point of Contact for future communication. Send the data to a central team that would check if anyone else has covered the community in the recent past.

Over to them.

Different settlements were identified on the map. The details were cross verified. They were  marked as red and green. If red, it meant not covered and meant a yes for distribution.

Tokens were given. Made it easier during the  actual distribution. At least, the bags will definitely be given to those who have been identified as needing it. The same team that did the recce will try to go for the distribution. Easier to identify the right people.

But.

Not easy.

*****

In many ways it was a textbook distribution.

There were 30 bags to distribute. The PoC was a very efficient lady and had a clear plan in place. We were asked to put down 10 bags at a time. She had arranged for ten people to come at a time and the entire process went off extremely smoothly. 

However, a truck coming in to a locality attracts attention. Especially, during lockdown time when no one has much to do and are usually sitting outside their homes.

 A small crowd assembled.

A young man begged for at least a single bag to be given to him. Another lady, pleaded for help for her tenants. She had been helping out with her own rations but naturally that was not enough. There were families with infants. They need help. A third man demanded to know our basis for distribution. Why was he being ignored ?

This was the first drop of the trip. There were three more drops to finish. Everyone could see the bags still in the truck. While we were trying to explain why we could not spare any for them. Taking their contact numbers and promising them that we will return. Its not easy to see the disappointment in their eyes. Or the scepticism. 

We have to leave as they were crowding around us.

Because – social distancing.

*****

Its been just a little over two months back that a horrible new word crept insidiously into our daily vocabulary.

Social distancing.

There were real risks for anyone going out. It multiplies many times over if you are going into densely populated localities and a crowd gathers.

Strict rules were laid out. Protocols were established.

All volunteers MUST be wearing gloves and masks. Carry a sanitizer with you. Clean all touchpoints when you return to your car – the gear shift, the steering wheel. Get back into your house and head straight for a bath. Clothes go in a heap into a bucket of hot water and then for a wash. Wallets. Glasses. Phone. Everything gets a brush with the sanitizer.

Every time.

Every single time.

And, if a crowd gathers. If they don’t listen. Leave. Even if the distribution is not complete. You can return to complete it later.

But. Do. Not. Put. Yourself. At. Risk.

Also, while distributing,  all the recipients have to queue up maintaining social distancing.

Which always makes me wonder.

*****

There was a row of five or six rooms. Possibly around 10’ x 10’ or at the most 12’ x 12’. Not too tall. Cemented over. No paint was wasted on the walls. 

Towards the right, a little distance away, stood a smaller row of smaller cubicles. The toilets. The bathing area was in the open to the left. Common area and where they usually bathe in groups. 

“ How many of you stay in a room ? “

“ 5 or 6 of us”.

5 people in a 100 sft room. Social distancing ? 

When we say there is a complete lockdown, most of us talk from the perspective of the main roads. Take one of the side lanes and you will usually see a different world. People sitting together. Having a smoke. Standing outside the small fish stall. Or just sitting on the verandah of a cluster of shops and chatting. And these are areas where there are proper buildings. If you go to the settlements , its even more densely packed. 

Social distancing ?

Impractical. Illogical. Impossible.

*****

Amidst all the gloom, there definitely are innumerable instances that make you hopeful. How help will come up. Suddenly. Almost every time you need it.

The school that opened its doors and its auditorium to store all the stocks and for packing the bags. And, ensured that its canteen made tea and lunch for the workers.

The people at the FCI godown who ensured that our trucks didn’t have to wait in the queue – NGO ke log hain, jaldi kaam kar lo inka ( These are NGO folks, lets finish their loading quickly )

The guy who turned up to help out with the entire operations of ordering the supplies, getting the labour, arranging for the trucks.

The cops who would arrive at short notice to help out with the distribution if the number is rather high and the crowds need managing.

The guy who turned up with high quality masks and gloves and PPE kits for all the workers involved in the packing and for the volunteers. And got chicken biriyani for the workers who were putting in some tremendous work.

The families who heard that the workers were working the night shift and we had forgotten to arrange for dinner and immediately cooked up a delicious meal for 10-15 people and sent it over.

And, of course, the scores of volunteers, always eager to jump in. To put in long hours in the field. To take up any work that needs to be done, to attend to any issue that needs attention. Day after day.

But, its easy to be lost in the gloom.

*****

“ Sir, can you help me ? “

“Bolo”. ( Tell me )

“ Can you help us get back home ? “ 

We had just distributed supplies to around 50 people who were contract workers for a rather well known company. Supplies that will last them for at least two weeks. 

“ Why would you want to go home ? You have got this support which will last you for the next two weeks. Things will open up soon, work will start. Isn’t it better to stay back? “

“Nahi sir, bahut ho gaya. Bas ghar jaana hai ( No, sir, we have had enoughwe just want to go back home.)

Many of them had worked for four five years in the same company. They hadn’t got their salaries for the last month. However, what seemed to hurt them was the fact that no one had called them to check on them. No one was taking their calls. They were simply left to be on their own. Forgotten.

“ We will do farming at home. We will be with our own people. We will manage. Just help us get back home.” 

They had been going to the nearby police station. Had filled in the online forms, had submitted physical forms on top of it. A few of them had gone to the police station once again that morning to check on the status. And got caned. One of them showed me his injuries. He had applied a bluish white paste on them. After a while, I asked him what ointment it was. It was toothpaste. They could only apply what they had. 

I am usually reluctant to promise help unless I am sure I can deliver. I couldn’t do that this time.  I told them I will try.

And we all did. In multiple ways. Reaching out to multiple people. Cops. Bureaucrats. Politicians. However, nothing seemed to work.

Then we heard that there were 200,000 applicants. There never will be trains for that many applicants. And we hadn’t reached out to THE person who mattered.

He kept calling me. Four, five times a day. Always hopeful that I will have some good news for him. Telling me why he wanted to go home. Hopeful. I could only listen.

This morning, I conceded defeat. I told him that we have been unable to get any support from anywhere.

He had called me from outside the police station. He was once again waiting there. Despite getting caned. Despite being treated badly. Despite everything.

Because he wanted to go home. Another kid from another small village from deep inside the country. 

He hasn’t called me since.

*****

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above…

ALL YOU WHO SLEEP TONIGHT – Vikram Seth