-By Ruchira Gupta
Within days of the first SOS message from a little girl in a red- light area, asking for food, my phone was flooded with similar messages of hunger and desperation. Women and children from the red-light areas, refugee camps, and migrant slums that I work in, told me that they had lost their livelihoods due to the lockdown. Some said their landlords had thrown them out. Two women said they were sharing a bench with their three children outside a brothel.
Mothers said their savings were exhausted from feeding their children who were back from school. Blackmarketeers were out in full force. Some mothers were asked by sex predators to give their daughters in return for food.
I tried calling government authorities in Kolkata, Delhi, and Patna, to see if they had any preparation to provide food. I was told some schools and govt buildings had set up soup kitchens. But the women in red light areas said the police would not even let them step out to go there!
Persistent phone calls to a District Magistrate in Delhi led to some action. I gave her a list of women and children who needed the food. She promised that the food would be delivered. But when I followed up, I found no food had reached. The supplies we had sent for 500 families had vanished into thin air.
The lives of thousands of vulnerable women and children were getting harder with each passing day.
Women began to sell their last gold chain or gold bangles for food for their children. Migrant women and children lined the highway walking hundreds of kilometres to get back to their villages. Some died in the heat, of dehydration. Trains, buses, flights, cars, taxis were not running. Nor were shops and factories.
I knew I had to do something. It was daunting. All supply chains had broken down. So how was I going to reach these women and children in red-light areas, in different corners of India? I was a journalist, and now a professor in New York. My skill set was writing and teaching. Many of my NGO, Apne Aap’s staff members did not come to work. Of course, I could not expect anyone to take a risk during the pandemic.
Implementing a food drive during a nation-wide lockdown in the middle of a pandemic is nothing short of a challenge. My activist self rose to the occasion. I would do what I could.
WhatsApp was my tool. Through multiple control groups on WhatsApp, I created a human chain. The chain started with factory owners and ended with thirteen year old girls in brothels in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, Ranchi, Patna, Siliguri, Ahmedabad and Darjeeling. The links in the chain included ration dealers, warehouse owners, shopkeepers, small farmers truck-drivers, packagers, students, and community mobilisers.
The most heroic were the community mobilizers who lived in the community – many of them trafficking survivors themselves who simply wanted to help their neighbours. The glue was one accounts manager (who worked online) and one program manager in Apne Aap, who kept track of all the donations and distribution.
I got on to my phone and computer from the pinkish hours of dawn to the pitch black of the night, making phone calls, connecting people, sharing addresses and phone numbers, tracking deliveries, getting evidence through photos and videos – all on WhatsApp. I got donations of salt, spices, rice, sugar, potatoes, onions, cooking oil and more. Well-wishers spread the word on social media and I got donations big and small.
With kindness, empathy, and a little help from friends we scaled up. We named our food drive #1MillionMeals. Of course that is a metaphor, we have distributed millions of ration kits to more than fifty thousand women and children.
As India has hit the second wave of Covid-19, the same human chain has been activated with as much grit, dedication, and idealism. This time, we have added essential medicines like paracetamol and begun to coordinate oxygen, vaccinations and hospital referrals.
We hope that our efforts will save some of the most vulnerable of our women and children from the death that is stalking our land. If the top vanishes, the rain pours on our heads, but we have the ground to sit on; if the bottom vanishes, we will all sink into a hole.
Our only option is to stand by the last girl. Join our efforts at # 1MillionMeals.org