Rajesh Tandon

“Yes, we need ration for my family today; thank you for your generosity”, said a domestic worker in south Delhi when relief distribution team reached her basti (colony) last week. Time and again, thousands of domestic workers in Delhi/NCR welcomed bags of relief that contained food grain, essential supplies for a few weeks. The second wave of virus had left them suddenly unemployed, and totally vulnerable.

The efforts being mounted by civil society and citizens’ associations around the country are providing essential life-line for daily survival of thousands of families during the past three months. These organisations have been using social media platforms to share information, both as appeals for donations and as communication of important work done by them.

Urgent, immediate and reliable non-governmental efforts have been supporting survival of millions of households during the pandemic. Though such efforts are temporary, they are immediate, flexible and responsive. Civil society is able to thus contribute to survival of such vulnerable households through timely food relief.

What is even more heartening is that thousands of youth around the country have come forward to volunteer in identifying the needy households, facilitating communications with them, mobilising donations and supporting civil society organisations in distributing supplies and monitoring that recipients are indeed receiving appropriate materials, as planned.

It is important, therefore, to situate such short-term, immediate actions of civil society in the medium term perspective of empowering households and communities to become self-reliant.

“Yes, please do send some dry ration and food for my two young kids, we need them urgently”, answered Kamla (domestic worker in Gurugram) to a volunteer enquiring over phone about her needs last week. “I will get back to work in 2-3 households or set up a small tea shop, as soon as the lockdown is lifted”, she continued over phone. She was seeking short term support only, not permanent dependence.

When vulnerable, low-income, zero-asset households run out of immediate income, they do need means of sustenance urgently to survive. At that moment, they are critically dependent on food provided by others to be able to eat.

Therefore, they are further vulnerable and powerless. They will do what you ask them to, in order to get food to feed their children. So, unwittingly, this can become patronising charity, as if the giver is doing these vulnerable households a ‘favour’.

My grandfather used to tell us many a times to give help to the needy, but remember “Neki ker aur kuen men daal”(do good deeds, then forget about them), a popular Hindi idiom of yesteryears.

How can relief efforts be carried out such that the dignity of the recipients is maintained, their hope for returning to their own efforts can be strengthened and they do not feel dependent on outside support over longer term? How can good deeds be carried out in ways that support the struggles of these vulnerable households to gain self-reliant, dignified and forward-looking life? How can the very acts of relief be empowering to the recipients?

But some times, those trying to help may not be sensitive to such issues. Sometimes, the photographs of distribution seem to create an image of patronising gestures. Some descriptions create an impression as if recipients are begging.

Some times, photos with government officials distributing ‘token’ relief bags create an impression that they are more interested in recognition from the government, than sensitive towards the recipients, at that moment. Sometimes, the words and messages of gratitude from the recipients illustrate their vulnerability and desperation.

Sometimes, the photographs of relief distribution ignore concerns about the privacy of the recipients. Sometimes, the gestures of distributors of relief, covering large numbers in short time, create an impression of an unwelcome task thrust upon them. Given that most such needy households live in conditions of poor drainage, housing and sanitation, the manner of walking by relief-givers shows their sense of disgust with those surroundings, sometimes…

We all go through stages and periods of life when we feel down and out; when our moments of pain, deprivation and pessimism peak, we do feel need for ‘relief’; not just relief of food, space to stay, pocket-money for travel, or continue studying; anyone can lose their job, or face losses in business; many do not have savings and surplus of their own; we all need help from others; we need support, both material and emotional, many a times during our lives.

Sometimes, that ‘relief’(support) provided to us makes us feel even more vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes, we receive that support which demonstrates trust in our abilities to get out of the difficulty, and move ahead. When that happens, we feel encouraged, empowered.

Therefore, as thousands of civil society organisations and citizens’ groups and volunteers continue to provide relief to the vulnerable households during this pandemic, it may be useful to recall those moments when we needed support, help, ‘relief’ too.

It may also be useful to remember that these households now being provided relief have been systematically and structurally deprived over generations; and, that public programmes of social security, health care and education have not reached them or their children; why?

So, as we make all the critical and urgent arrangements to provide relief to the desperately needy households in the country, it may be helpful to ask some questions about why is it so? Why millions of households still suffer every time a disaster like the pandemic happens?

Why their entitlements and rights do not get realised by them? Why?

We are grateful we can support relief to those who need it urgently. We will also feel empowered if our relief efforts strengthen the dignity and agency of those recipient households to build their lives and secure their entitlements.

This article first appeared in The Times of India | Empowering Relief on June 22, 2021.

About the author:

Dr Rajesh Tandon

Dr Rajesh Tandon is Founder President of PRIA, New Delhi. He is also a Guest Speaker with IMPRI, New Delhi.

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