“Feel free to beat us saheb but please give us food. Our children are starving”, say daily wagers

The phase has come when people who survive on daily wages have become so distressed that they are no longer afraid of administration or care about Coronavirus.

Someone told the slum dwellers near our office that food was being distributed there. Later as we reached office gates in the afternoon to load mini-truck with food packets we saw almost 200 people sitting and waiting outside the main gate of the society building. As we drove inside they flocked the gate when guards had to block them. The commotion was so hard to manage that police had to be called in to send them away. Those people had been waiting since morning for hours and some of them literally started crying when they were told that no ration was being distributed. When police got strict with them threatening to beat them up, I heard one saying with folded hands, ‘Maar leejiye sahab bas khana de deejiye. Bachche bhookhe hain. Waise bhi hum mar hi rahe hain’ – ‘Please feel free to beat us up, just give us food as our children are hungry. We are dying anyway’
  I couldn’t have felt more helpless but couldn’t do anything either at that moment for the fear of violating lockdown norms and facing the wrath of society members.

We requested police to guide them to their slum, list down their names and tell them we would distribute food packets the following day. Police was kind enough to do that. Society members did frown and one judge sahab confronted me. We held our ground and explained the need to take the initiative beyond our regular work. After a heated conversation they eventually agreed and even offered to cooperate. Thankfully we are not yet evicted out of our office.
Later in the evening we went to check out that slum as we had few packets left. We found most of them were migrant labourers who had got stuck there after lockdown and lost their jobs. Women and men cooked in the open and slept under the sky. They had no home, no food – just some makeshift tent that tore on windy days.
There are close to 500+ families there and we have been approached by 5000 more in the last ten days. We must cater to them all in the coming days.
I am Samina Bano, Founder & CEO of RightWalk Foundation and distributing food is not our regular work. It was an unusual day on 25 Mar 2020, we at RightWalk were still trying to navigate the problems that arise when we work from home in running a project as large as implementing the policy of Right to Education (RTE) across the state of Uttar Pradesh. Our state-wide helpline number was functioning as usual and we were expecting bulk of calls from parents, schools, journalists and govt officials regarding admission process under 25% provision in RTE. However, we were all in for a big shock when our helpline was bombarded with distress calls from our RTE community that included daily wagers, migrants, rickshaw-pullers and extremely poor people who were stuck without food in different locations after the covid lockdown announcement. Our work with RTE places us in close contact with the under privileged communities and it is our our mission to help the underprivileged receive proper education by exercising their rights through RTE. For the past six years we have closely worked with one and a half lakh vulnerable families and have been sending underprivileged children to private schools ensuring their access to legislative rights. 
But on this day, instead of the usual calls regarding the admissions we started receiving distress calls asking for food rations. We had no expertise in disaster management but we couldn’t use it as an excuse to abandon our people who needed our help in urgency. The intensity of these calls was such that In a single day we were able to map out about 300 families who had lost their jobs and were now on the verge of starvation. Without wasting any time we sought support from the government regarding delivery of food rations but the services were overwhelmed. They then invited us to extend support and we stepped up without losing a breath. 
Over the next few days and with the support of the government and with the help of fundraising platforms like Milaap and our supporters in Aavishkaar Group we were able to distribute 800 food packages. Each package can last a family of 5 for at least 15 days providing over 2,00,000 meals. Now our aim was to ensure that in the target area no kids and people with disabilities should go hungry, which we were able to execute thanks to the local volunteers and support from police administration
The scenes on the ground have been heart wrenching. The daily wage labourers were flocking around vehicles that were providing food services for hours. In their eyes you could see the battle between their dignity and their need. The same people who used to be extremely scared of police personnel were fighting them for scraps of food. They no longer cared for the administration or the virus. Their sole concern was to feed their children. Even the police were helpless as there were only so many food packets to go around. How do we choose who gets the packets and who doesn’t? And the sight of extended arms who still needed food when you had run out of your packets for the day, it broke our heart. 
Everyday we make promises to these unfortunate souls and everyday we do our best to keep them. So far we have the capacity to serve 1500 families, while we have demand from 8000 families till date in Lucknow alone. We are open to collaborations and can be reached at samina@rightwalk.org

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