The Samoohya Sannadha Sena – Community Volunteer Force – of the Kerala government was formed in light of the back to back disasters the state has faced.

Volunteers in Kerala work for pre monsoon cleaningVolunteers in Kerala do pre monsoon cleaning
news Human Interest Saturday, May 30, 2020 - 20:19

It was a week after the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic had begun in the country. Jyothish, a volunteer working with the Kerala government’s Samoohya Sannadha Sena – Community Volunteer Force, got a call. Someone in Palakkad, a person with mental health issues, needed medicine urgently. Jyothish, living in Kozhikode, is also a youth coordinator of the Kerala Youth Welfare Board. He called up other youth coordinators of panchayats that connected the districts – Kozhikode, Malappuram and Palakkad. The medicine, available in Kozhikode, was passed through volunteers in these panchayats, till it reached the patient.

Jyothish recounts the incident two months later, as one of the typical jobs that volunteers like him have been doing, throughout the lockdown. The Samoohya Sannadha Sena, (SSS) launched officially on January 1, 2020, has now 3.37 lakh members. Amit Meena, director of ANERT, state nodal agency for new and renewable energy, is also the inaugural director of the voluntary force directorate.

“We (in Kerala) have been facing back to back disasters – Nipah virus, floods, coronavirus. All these disasters had one thing in common – the instantaneous response from the community. They didn’t wait for official directions or help from the state machinery, before starting rescue operations on their own. We thought, why don’t we organise their response in a more scientific manner? That’s how the Sannadha Sena was launched, with the idea that there should be one community volunteer for every 100 people,” says Amit Meena.

 

 

With Kerala having a population of 3.4 million, they have managed to achieve the target of one community volunteer for every hundred persons.

Big response

The response to the call for volunteers was immediate and big. At first it was taking time, the online portal being launched -- sannadhasena.kerala.gov.in – training programmes being planned ahead of monsoon. More than 12,000 people registered in the first month. But then the pandemic broke out and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in one of his press conferences in March, made an appeal for young volunteers, whose services would be needed in the COVID-19 fight. “This brought a huge response from people, cutting across all strata of the society. People were not afraid of putting themselves at risk and were willing to come out and work. At its peak, we have had days when the volunteer registrations touched 5,000 an hour! In 30 days of the CM’s appeal, we crossed the 3 lakh mark,” Amit Meena says.


Delivering kits to migrant labourers

There are five basic classifications for volunteers to choose from: community kitchen management and operation, delivery of food to migrant labourers camps or houses of helpless and needy people, delivery of other essential supplies like medicine, seed and fertilizer distribution and call centre management at local body level. More areas opened up later, like blood donation, when there was a need for blood.

Most of the volunteers are in the age group of 20 to 40, says Amith Madhupal, IEC expert at ANERT. “They get training and work with the Fire and Rescue Department, Police and Health Departments,” he says.

Working day and night

“There are some who’d work day and night without sleep,” says Devika, coordinator of volunteers in the Pathanamthitta district and a volunteer herself. She talks of the team developing schemes such as pineapple challenge and fruit baskets to help farmers sell their produce, which could not be sold due to the lockdown. Devika and her team of volunteers would visit houses with the fruit baskets or vegetables to sell these products, and bring the money back to the farmers. She remembers how a widow, the sole breadwinner of her family, once called for help and Devika went and picked more than a hundred kilograms of vegetables to sell to others.

“There are many such stories. Joyesh, a college student, walked around selling 130 kilos of snake gourd for a farmer who had more than 1,000 kilos of it, lying unused. Young people like Joyesh also take turns to work at Covid Care Centres and screening points. Young women too brave odd hours to volunteer. At the screening points in district borders and markets, the volunteers check the vehicles coming from other states and screen the drivers for temperature or other symptoms. They have helped in identifying many cases of people not arriving through proper channels and isolating them,” Devika says.

There are also many who work in community kitchens, she adds.

Some of the volunteers have to face hostility at their homes for the work they do. “They’d be sitting in a market kiosk all day, checking that people from other states are properly screened. When they go back home, some of the family members would be hostile because they are afraid of the infection. The volunteers who serve at Covid Care Centres do not even go home for days, since they do not want to put their families at risk,” Devika adds.

Examples of timely help

In Thiruvananthapuram, Jini, a volunteer in Vattiyoorkavu alerted Amith Madhupal about a neighbour who had gone fishing all the way to Lakshadweep and got stranded in a boat, during the lockdown. “There were two of them. One of the men’s sisters – who is my neighbor – said that they went to get fish from Lakshadweep and had prepared enough food that would last them in the boat for a month. But with the lockdown, they ran out of food and could not reach any shores without permission. Moreover, the fish had begun to decay and they could not stand being in the boat. With our intervention, we got permission to finally bring the boat to Kochi and they are now finishing their 14-day quarantine,” Jini says.

Rajalekshmi, a volunteer in Pathanamthitta, became a member, after contacting the Erath panchayat in Adoor. She got the pass that the volunteers needed to work during the lockdown, and became a part of the seed distribution that the government had initiated.


Delivering seeds at home

“This was as part of the Jeevani project of the government to ensure that people would have food if there is a crisis, by farming vegetables in their houses. I was a school teacher who decided to join an MSW course because of my interest in social work. With the lockdown, the course could not be pursued and I joined the Sannadha Sena. My job was to take the 2,250 packets of seeds and distribute it with the help of the Kudumbashree members. We formed WhatsApp groups to coordinate it with ward members and make it easy. At least 200 families have begun farming outside their houses after we distributed the seeds,” Rajalekshmi says.  

Read: Kerala agriculture dept starts initiative to convert fallow lands into vegetable farms

The networks reach far and wide. Absheer from Thiruvananthapuram alerted Jyothish in Kozhikode about a patient in Kasargode who needed medicine urgently. “Jyothish went on his bike to Aster Mims hospital, got the medicine and took it to the police control room, who further sent it to Kasargod. Another volunteer in Kasargod took it to the patient,” Absheer says.


Getting medicine

More to do

The lockdown has had many relaxations but there is plenty of work for the volunteers, who get no payment, but recognition for all that they do. “We are having the volunteers who work with police and health departments to visit homes where people are in quarantine to ensure that they do not jump the quarantine. They are to make visits at least twice a day. They will also work with the health department, in visiting houses with a medical practitioner and a local body representative, to ensure that reverse quarantine is observed, and people in high risk categories like the elderly and pregnant women do not go out.”

In addition to that is the preparation for monsoon, the main reason for forming the force. By June 15, they hope to train 20,000 volunteers. The aim is to complete the training of 80,000 volunteers by July 15 and one lakh volunteers by August 16. 

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