According to volunteers, they are at once faced with issues including paucity of funds, lack of movement passes and the sheer numbers of needy people.

Unsung heroes of Tamil Nadu Volunteers battling COVID-19 on the frontlines
Delve Health Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 20:15

From the devastating 2015 Chennai floods to tropical cyclones Vardah and Ockhi to the 2018 and 2019 floods in Kerala— volunteers from Tamil Nadu have been at the frontlines of catastrophic events in recent years. When calamity strikes, volunteers and members of civil society plunge into action, not waiting for the government to extend a call for help. 

Over the years, volunteers have been risking their lives to help those affected by calamities and facing multiple challenges while doing so. But the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers say, is a nightmare. 

The pandemic has upended their world of outreach, resulting in new and a seemingly unending number of problems. According to volunteers, they are at once faced with issues including paucity of funds, lack of movement passes during the nationwide lockdown and the sheer numbers of needy people now left starving. With the disease affecting nearly every part of the world, the monetary help, usually forthcoming from NRI donors and neighbouring states, has come to an abrupt halt.

Until the beginning of March, 30-year-old Diwan was managing his export business in Theni district. Along with his brother, he would send vegetables to Kerala for sale and their business was doing well till life took a sudden turn. Though the brothers lost several working days and are staring at huge losses, Diwan has now taken up volunteering to help the needy around Theni.

Shortly after the lockdown announcement, he began receiving requests for help through social media. A group of volunteers from Chennai added him to a WhatsApp group, following which requests started to pour in. 

“During the first phase of the lockdown, I received requests for help from persons with disabilities. We started providing them food three times a day. But, as many people started to lose their jobs, more daily wage workers started seeking our help. Many folk artistes have been rendered jobless due to the lockdown and we help them as well,” begins Diwan.

Just as Diwan was preparing a list to help the needy along with his friends, the high number of positive cases from the Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi tightened restrictions around them. Muslim volunteers, like Diwan, allege harassment from right-wingers on the streets.

‘Not every volunteer gets a movement pass’

On April 12, the state government announced a ban on the movement of the volunteers.

In a release, the Tamil Nadu government banned the distribution of cooked food and other essentials items to the needy by volunteers, NGOs and members of political parties. The release also said that volunteers could extend help by joining hands with the government. Though the state government issued a clarification later, stating that it was only emphasising the need for social distancing and not banning volunteers, the government position essentially made it almost impossible for volunteers to move around without a pass; police personnel, posted at various checkpoints, would demand to see passes. 

As movement passes became essential for volunteers, Diwan had to make a difficult decision: he had to halt the requests for food and arrange movement passes instead. 

Diwan recounts, “I visited the offices of the Village Administrative Officer (VAO), the tehsildar and the collector to get an official volunteer pass but to no avail. I told them that by the time we wait and get the pass, many people will starve. I even wrote to the Chief Minister’s office to get a pass but no luck.” 

The lack of a movement pass forced Diwan to change his routine to provide relief to tribal villages 37 km away. “That was when we started delivering food early in the morning. Everyday, I start at 4 am and travel to the tribal villages or to the place where the folk artistes reside on a regular basis. Then I will reach out to other people with the food that I had remaining,” he says.

“Till the early hours, we don’t have a problem. But the police start to question us after that. Though we want to tell the truth, we are forced to lie— so we just tell them that we went to buy masks or medicine,” says Diwan, adding with worry, “I helped so many people get passes but I am unable to get one myself.”

Recalling an incident when he ventured out in the wee hours to distribute food, Diwan says, “A forest ranger spotted us while we were providing help to the tribal people. He asked us for our pass but after we spoke to him, he allowed us to go ahead. The ranger himself showed us another tribal village that needed help.” The request for food is so high that even government employees are finding it difficult to stop us, says Diwan.

TNM has reached out to Theni district collector Pallavi Baldev for comments and is yet to receive a response. 

Lack of funds, challenges with cash assistance

Volunteers are extending help with funds mobilised through friends, activists and the public. However, the continued job losses and pay cuts across industries have put many in a fix, pushing volunteers into a crisis.

As days go by, monetary help has become challenging for the volunteers. Even when funds are secured, new challenges arise.

Swati Saxena has been volunteering as part of India Fellow, a social change organisation that works with grassroots groups. The organisation set-up COVID Cash Relief in an attempt to directly help the most-affected during the lockdown.

Explaining how they go about this, Swati says, “We are helping people from places across India. We work with 50- 60 grassroot organisations in each state who give us leads of people who are in need of help. As soon as we get details of the needy, we immediately do a cash transfer.”

As part of the relief fund, the organisation has been providing Rs 1,000 per family for the month of April. From May, however, they have decided to provide cash assistance of Rs 2,000 per family for the next three months to battle the COVID-19 crisis. 

“As COVID-19 demands a lockdown, we prefer cash assistance more than field volunteering but we do face challenges. Many rural Indians still do not have access to a bank account. In those cases alone, we try to help them by sending our grassroot workers to their place for extending help. However, we are finding it difficult to do this in all cases,” says Swati.

Community kitchens or dry rations?

Eniyan, a volunteer from Trichy, categorically states that we are underestimating the numbers of people who are in need of help.

“We tried managing the requests of people by providing dry rations but we couldn’t handle the requests. So we started community kitchens,” he says. Eniyan first started volunteering during the 2018 Kerala floods. 

Community kitchens, however, come with their own set of problems. 

Explaining that distributing dry rations is insufficient, Diwan says, “Many migrant labourers and folk artistes don’t have access to gas facilities at the moment. They are unable to spend on gas facilities and we are not in a position to give Rs 750 per family to buy gas. So, through community kitchens we can feed many; but the restrictions are not allowing us to set up community kitchens.”

Recently, the Madras High Court took up a plea by the DMK, challenging the ‘press release’ issued to ban volunteers from distributing food and commodities to the needy. The court allowed volunteers, political parties and NGOs to deliver food and other necessities by following protocol. 

The High Court issued conditions for setting up a community kitchen, wherein, the district administration should be notified 48 hours prior to the distribution of food and the food safety officer must inspect the place and the process of making the food.

While volunteers in Chennai were able to set up community kitchens by following the protocol, volunteers in other districts say they prefer distributing dry rations from food brands proposed by the government. They opined that they cannot get permission everyday by spending time approaching the district administration as it could push more people into starvation.

Despite their best efforts, however, the volunteers are often forced to say no, owing to the scale of pandemic and its aftermath.

Eniyan and his team members try to help extend help as much as possible, but they too face limitations. Recalling one such scenario in recent days, Eniyan says, “I received a call from a stranded mother who couldn't reach her 5-year-old daughter. The mother said that her daughter was staying with her sister and was crying all day long. The mother asked me to arrange for a movement pass to reach another district. But we couldn't arrange one for her. That call left me unsettled.”

Safety of volunteers

Volunteers on the ground follow safety precautions by using masks and hand sanitisers while going out to distribute relief. Many isolate themselves while at home. However, they believe the government should extend help to ensure their safety.

Eniyan says, “The government should set up camps and test volunteers just like how they have done free testing for journalists.”

Requesting the government to increase the financial assistance, Eniyan urges, “The government should provide Rs 5,000 as COVID-19 aid so that people will be able to lead a life for the next one month. Only if the government provides the increased aid amount, volunteers can help the deprived people by mobilising funds and taking care of them on a regular basis.”