July, 2020

Vedant Twary

Setu’s response to the pandemic – A Case Study

State of migrants in India and how non-profit organizations can be successful in crisis management


Personal Note


Lockdown in India

About Setu

Emergency Response during the lockdown

Taking people along: success factors


Lessons Learned

Interviews with Beneficiaries

Personal Note:

Our experience with past crisis, provides important lessons about what to expect and prepare for as we navigate the challenges of our future life. Each time we are challenged we have a chance to grow and come out better on the other side as individuals and as a society.

Many themes are emerging from this crisis. People across the world are so isolated, yet so much is opening up for all of us. While people are extremely terrified with the economy nosediving to a new low every day, the sense of, all are in it together is making it less threatening. The existing social discriminatory mores including shame of poverty, racism, casteism are being challenged, thereby truly uniting people and the shift from individualistic outlook to people seeking strength in community is becoming increasingly apparent.

Difficulty creates resilience and brings back the focus on gratitude. Healing and evolution will happen as we move along in our personal journeys and each of us will have a story to share at the end of it.

When the decision to close North Carolina schools happened around March 15th, a national debate erupted. There were growing concerns about children being deprived of mid-day meals. 30M children across the country who depended on schools for their only meal in a day across the US would be impacted. This came as a rude shock for me! I could not believe that more than providing education our schools fulfilled a very basic need in society. To add to the stress was the risk of increase in child abuse and domestic violence as children were now forced to stay home for an indefinite period, as parents tried to grapple with their own trauma of losing income and healthcare in many households.

I have been very closely associated with Setu a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports over 15000 women and children from marginalized communities in states across India. When the lockdown was announced in India most of the people in small towns and villages were still going about their own daily life struggles and triumphs, too busy to catch up with national news, leave alone world problems. Amidst this scenario, in walked the virus. People woke up to the grim reality that something was amiss and overnight things changed.

My thought immediately raced to the school situation in the US. Setu in India supports over 500 children in small balwadis (day care centers). The only reason these children of mostly single mothers and abandoned families from the poorest of settlements come to school, is to be able to get one meal in the whole day. These are children of sex workers, orphans from riot affected areas, children working in animal slaughterhouses, children of HIV and leprosy patients etc.

I immediately shared the idea of supplying basic food grains to the poor families that were most affected. I started a fundraiser in the US and raised over $1000 from friends and family and what that started is an amazing story that needs to be told. A story of brave warriors and grateful hearts. I have tried to capture the story through this paper.


The disaster unfolding in different parts of the world and our callous response to the outbreak is a culmination of our overconfidence in our existence as humans and ability to overpower any situation. It is commonplace to use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools for scenario planning, predicting the disease profile of an unborn and model just about any kind of situation, yet we failed to respond at multiple levels – travel bans, contact tracing, social distancing etc., seemed to be afterthoughts.

The COVID-19 outbreak is extraordinary in terms of scale, speed, and uncertainty. In any crisis we see that the most vulnerable people are hit the hardest. Displaced populations including migrant workers are usually neglected in emergency responses. As compared to the general population they already disproportionately bear the brunt of substandard living conditions.

Overcrowding, limited access to sanitation, clean water and poor nutrition makes them immunocompromised and easily susceptible to any communicable disease. Restriction of movement during the lockdown and poor access to health services made the situation insurmountable. Misinformation and fear mongering further stigmatized and targeted this underserved lot.

All nations have invoked emergency response in the form of lockdown and relief measures for the marginalized, but the ‘HOW’ part is still unfolding. While the dominant narrative has been around social distancing, these restrictions have exacerbated existing disparities in resource distribution in informal settlements leading to many individuals masking their health condition for fear of retribution, further perpetuating local transmission. Worst still, in many areas the migrants were completely missed out of the equation as majority of them are undocumented labor.

It is no surprise that the disease has penetrated deep into displaced marginalized communities, and swift measures and large-scale efforts need to be mobilized urgently to mitigate the short-term and lasting effects on displaced populations and the wider community.  

Lockdown in India:

The virus has created an unprecedented crisis across the globe, and the impact is even more debilitating in developing economies. On March 24th, 2020 India went into a nation-wide lockdown, unarguably one of the most stringent lockdowns by any nation.

India’s top down approach to the Coronavirus crisis in the form of a curfew in the initial days was absolutely critical to save the people of the nation. The Government understood early on that under no circumstance could they allow India to become the epicenter for the disease since India’s infrastructure was not capable of handling a crisis of this magnitude.

Though the Government announced a number of relief measures to help people navigate through the crisis, these steps were largely unsuccessful. This is due to the huge logistical challenge in India caused by variation in population density and income inequality. India has way fewer per capita hospital beds and doctors to cater to a 1.3 B population.

Low income households and migrant workers are a huge unorganized sector of the economy. Migrant labor in India represent 37% of the population according to the 2011 census. A study by the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2019 estimated that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is daily wagers. Mumbai alone has a population of 20M.

Many of the daily wage earners who lived on a day-to-day basis were unable to buy food for their families due to the sudden closure of construction sites and other industries. Added to this list are thousands of vendors running small local businesses like tailoring and trading artificial jewelry etc. This is the number of people which would be logically wanting to move back to their states as they were struggling to make ends meet beyond a few days into the lockdown.

No matter how hard the Government tries to provide fiscal relief, the containment cannot be left to the Government simply because of the sheer population, lack of literacy, cluster living conditions, no real standards for disseminating proper information and minimal digital network, Finally the medical community in tier two cities is just not equipped for telemedicine or trained for crisis management at scale.

In such a scenario it is imperative for the community to be in lockstep with the Government to expand the reach through community surveillance, isolation and have strategic engagement at the grassroots level. Any emergency response to a crisis has to be tailored towards a diverse population, unlike a one size fits all approach. This is where the not-for-profit/ non-government organizations (NGOs) in India have stepped up to shine the light on unmet needs of the community and have emerged as a strong backbone to channelize government aid and lessen the hardship of the marginalized community. Setu’s work in this time of crisis is an outstanding example of it all.  

About Setu:

Setu Charitable Trust, a nonprofit organization, was established in the year 1994 in the aftermath of the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993. Even prior to its official launch Setu had adopted nearly 80 children who were orphaned during the Mumbai communal riots for foster care. After its formation, Setu branched into various social activities including health, education and women’s issues. Setu volunteers started working with the Qureshi (butcher) community in Parbhani, a small town in the state of Maharashtra, for abolition of child labor in slaughterhouses. Very soon, Setu adopted children of sex workers, leprosy patients, scavengers etc., for enrollment in schools. It also runs bridge courses in order to prepare them for maintaining their academic progress. Setu ran vocational courses for children engaged in power loom industry in small towns like Bhiwandi and Malegaon by giving training in vocations like electrical repairs, plumbing, fabrication, tailoring etc.

To its credit Setu has been able to sensitize these communities and nearly end exploitation of child labor in 12 towns in the state of Maharashtra where it works.

The other field of activity which Setu steadfastly pursues is empowerment of women through Self-help Groups (SHG). Beginning in the year 1998, Setu now has 1500 SHGs of women most of whom have been able to secure loans from banks and financial institutions.

This background is important as it forms the underpinnings of a grassroots organization deeply embedded in the fabric of the society. Setu volunteers and peer educators in the different towns know the beneficiaries by their names. They maintain regular surveys and conduct regular health-check camps for the ailing and almost hundred percent of the children are either in the Setu run day care centers and vocational centers. There is complete data and contact for the group and the beneficiaries themselves have a strong community network.

Emergency response during the lockdown:

On March 14th, almost two weeks before the nationwide lockdown, upon my persuasion, Setu’s founder took a decision to close down all day care centers and vocational training institutes. This was a big decision as it meant no further support and interaction with 500 children, over 100 ailing HIV patients and thousands of community beneficiaries for an indefinite period. Immediately a meeting was arranged of all project managers to decide on the next steps. Lot of novel ideas and suggestions emerged through the meeting. Setu team did a critical scope evaluation, surveyed the fundamental food and medical requirements and started planning on fundraising and reploughing in its core activities.

While there was some skepticism initially and at times it seemed like I was asking the team to take draconian measures, I had seen how Italy and New York succumbed to the virus and so continued to press the urgency on to the team. Knowing the worst was coming I knew this was the right thing to do.

"I am a firm believer in human ingenuity. We will overcome this scourge soon.” said our founder and so we embarked on this long and magical journey of help and healing.

Knowing about our tailoring centers and seeing the disaster of face masks and PPE equipment in the US, I suggested that we start asking the women to stitch face masks at home. As always funding and access to medical grade fabric was a challenge. While we were still searching for options a complete lockdown was announced in the country. Everything came to a screeching halt. Anyone seen on the road in the first few days had to bear the wrath of police brutality.

No one knew what to expect. So many lives were dependent on us and we could not disappoint their only hope. So, on March 24th we started distribution of basic food grain kits including rice, lentils, oil, salt and sugar to our people, sensitizing them to the situation and emphasizing on strict social distancing rules. I immediately started a fund raiser campaign in the US. My aim was to quickly provide seed money to begin the work. I got a lot of support mainly from family and friends.

The Setu fundraiser post on Facebook drew a lot of attention and soon support started flowing in from people in India. We then started asking the project managers to give statistics on number of households, cost of basic supplies for a month considering the lockdown that was announced for two weeks might just continue for a month.

Given the growing migrant crisis in the city of Mumbai, on March 28th Setu was approached to help start a kitchen in Mumbai. Many local community leaders who had previously worked with Setu in the past requested Setu to extend support in their local communities. Through Setu’s long standing work in these communities, the organization has developed strong bonds with the judiciary and civil authorities which was a huge enabler in the initial days.

Within two weeks, we were able to provide meals to over 4000 migrant labor in Mumbai. In very small towns like Jalna, Setu started distributing ration to 65 women beneficiaries and 17 HIV infected patients who were in urgent need for care. In extremely remote areas like Hingoli and Bhivandi over hundred poor families started receiving basic food grains and supplies. In Parbhani similarly 75 key persons, HIV infected have been taken into the meal program. Aurangabad is a major interstate truck rest stop in the state of Maharashtra. Here many trucks and hence drivers were stranded at stations due to the lockdown. While they had money, there was no food available. Setu identified the need to reach out to these men. In Aurangabad, Setu began providing cooked meals to 300 truckers and 100 destitute from very poor neighborhoods. Within the first month, +10,000 people were being supported with meals in 6 towns due to the generous donations. The food grain distribution included: 3 lbs. rice, 1 lb. sugar, 250 gms salt and a bottle of cooking oil. Donations were also in the form of powdered milk, biscuits and vitamins for children. The local kitchens started preparing cooked meals for the local population. As the word spread, hordes of hungry and the destitute started lining up to get meals every evening. Setu also started getting food grains from the government to run the kitchen.

Finally, after sixty days as the government started railway operations for migrants, it was humbling to see the police authorities approach Setu to provide cooked food and water to the migrants at railway and bus stations.

Taking people along: success factors:

Setu has been working at the ground level in these towns since many years and hence was able to leverage its past actions and credibility to drive the message of social distancing and garner local support in the poor and marginalized communities.

Since Setu started the meal program, a lot of local businesses, gas station owners and citizens, started coming forward to support by providing space, kitchen, supplies, packaging material, drinking water and staff. Setu has built strong ties with the government and local hospitals through various government-initiated programs like HIV-AIDS eradication and literacy program for children and adolescents. When approached for approval to operate the kitchen and distribution centers, the government officials and police authorities were willing to provide permission, security and space. Philanthropists who knew about Setu supported the cause by providing large amount of food grains, supplies and manpower. Since movement was restricted, we were able to obtain ID cards for volunteers to move about easily. This was a huge enabler for operating the kitchens and food distribution centers.

We started keeping a daily tab on the amount of ration used. I insisted on daily live videos of the kitchen and distribution sites so that we could educate the team on hygiene and social distancing. We marked spaces six feet apart at the distribution centers. This was a little chaotic in the beginning but significantly improved with education and continuous feedback. My fear was that we could inadvertently spread the disease and would not be allowed to continue our work. With strict supervision and monitoring none of the 250 volunteers have been affected in these five months.

Last but not the least, our front-line workers, emerged as the true heroes. Their determination and commitment is what allowed us to continue the work. On June 26th, Mumbai was hit by torrential rains and fortunately escaped the fury and devastation of a cyclone that hit other parts of the state. The team prepared food early that day and waited with torches and first-aid kits, till the last one in the line received his bowl of ‘khichadi’, lentil and rice porridge, before they closed for the night. These volunteers are revered as messiahs in the communities they serve.

Up until July end, Setu has supplied over two million meals through 12 centers in India starting from 200 meal boxes on March 24th. We started ramping down effort in July as the funds started running low, however the impact of the virus still continues to destroy livelihoods. The kitchen in Kasa Mumbra has now been taken over by the local community where 2000 people are served food every day. The team was given an option to close the kitchen, but the local community has decided to continue the food distribution till they can. This reinforces Setu’s vision of building self-sustainable communities.


It has not always been easy to arrange for supplies. Setu volunteers were the first to notice that people in local factories in a very small town of Vasai were going hungry during the lockdown. Inquiries with the community head did not help. The collector’s office initially had no knowledge of the role of the municipality and yet refused to allow Setu to intervene.

The worst form of insensitivity was witnessed in Hingoli. The town Collector refused to admit that there was any case of hunger in Hingoli. When confronted by the Setu project officer he ordered a full-scale inquiry by his officers. The result was predictable. He was informed by his officers that there was no such problem. Who will displease his boss? Setu team persisted and finally due to the kindness of the local community in Hingoli, we managed to provide help to 180 people starving in slums.

Movement during the lockdown has been a huge problem. The police was initially reluctant to issue IDs making it very difficult for volunteers to move with food packets. However, later came forward with a lot of support and ironically started to approach Setu to help them distribute food to travelling migrants and slum dwellers.

Areas at the fringe of municipalities and small towns have faced immense hardships. Tribal hamlets and low-income habitations continue to suffer in extremely dire conditions. Setu Team was unable to help some of these people because of its limited resources.

Some donor agencies insisted on a lot of paperwork. It took considerable effort to persuade them that we were trying our best to keep the supplies running during the lockdown while keeping track of all the twelve centers.

Some institutions stopped supporting us as they ran out of funds. UNICEF, Wipro, Iskcon, Bajaj foundation were our major suppliers providing 5,000 food packets daily for the longest period of time. The kitchens run by Setu received part of their requirement of food grains from government agencies. However, funds fell short to purchase vegetables, condiments, and expenses on cooks, cooking gas, transportation, etc., for which we needed continuous donations.  

Lessons Learned:

Moving forward, I want to focus on making this a sustainable organization and focus on a couple of key actions. Vulnerable populations need growing support during any downturn and even more as economies begin to stabilize and go back on recovery mode.

NGOs like Setu can play a pivotal role in creating alternative narratives of effective governance and influence policy makers to consider migrant labor and under-represented community’s needs, especially in relation to health and social policies. With an empowered, sensitive and nimble staff, Setu was able to forge bonds of solidarity and impact change in the poorest of settlements. The people seem to respond better as they are familiar and trust the NGO workers as their own. This should definitely motivate governments to use NGOs as their conduits for containment and outreach of relief measures and not view them as competition.

Setu’s philosophy, volunteer’s commitment and effective strategies have worked time and again from the 1992 riots to the pandemic response in 2020. There are a lot of lessons to be learned. We need to continue to create strong partnerships with the government and local businesses and finally the most important and immediate task is to create a large corpus fund that can be tapped into in the future.

My Interviews with Beneficiaries:

Interview with Bala Saheb Deshmukh, a transgender and HIV patient:

Bala Saheb Deshmukh also known as Gayatri Devi is a transgender. He got associated with Setu in 2016 through the control of HIV and AIDS program for transgenders. Bala is a home-based sex worker in Jalna, a small town. He receives assistance in the form of counselling and medication. During the lockdown period Bala was staring at starvation as he had no source of livelihood. He soon fell ill and was running very high temperature. He needed urgent help but was at Badnapur, a remote village, about 30 miles from Jalna and therefore could do nothing. In desperation he contacted Ganesh Waghmare, Setu Trust Jalna (Out-reach Worker) and told him about his problem on the phone. Ganesh immediately coordinated with Maharashtra Aids Control Society (MSACS) and arranged for an ambulance to carry him to the Civil Hospital. He stayed at the hospital till he was fully cured. During the interview, he said to me that Setu volunteers were always available for help during his stay at the hospital. They also provided him food grains for a month. “It is difficult to find people these days, who care for orphans, however Setu Trust is a shining example of hope and nobility. I am thrilled to receive your call and be able to speak with you on the phone to tell you my story.”

Dhere, Setu Project Manager's recount of a stranded migrant family:

“Gangadhar Waghmare a casual labor lives with his wife who is pregnant and two other children in Hingoli. When I visited their hut, I found that they had nothing to eat. There was an earthen pitcher and a few pieces of bread in the house. Gangadhar’s wife told me that they had not had a full meal for several days as her husband was out of job since the lockdown period and they had no money to buy food grains. She added that they would die anyway either due to Corona or hunger. There was lot of pain in her pleading. I could easily empathize with her and immediately provided her the essentials. I spoke with Mr. Tripathi, our Chairman who immediately made arrangement for the family’s proper upkeep. They get cooked food for the family daily and are happy with the turn of events.” - Dhere

Interview with Charan Singh:

Charan Singh, 28 years old a resident of village Luvahatu in the district of Ranchi, Jharkhand had migrated to Walunj to work as daily wage worker. He was living with his wife in a small rented tenement in Walunj since 15th, March 2020. He had worked at this site two years ago and hence was familiar with the place. This time too he applied for a gate pass to enable him to work at the factory. But as the date of birth in his Aadhar card (social security card) was incorrectly recorded, the pass was refused. He then sent the Aadhar card for corrections to his hometown and was awaiting its arrival. He had very little money to buy provisions and somehow managed to pull on remaining hungry on few days. On 22nd March he heard about the dreaded Corona disease and the lockdown that would follow. He had no money left. Who could he turn to for help? On March 26th the situation turned so bad that they did not have a morsel to eat. He regretted his decision to move to Aurangabad. He could not ask for assistance from his parents who were themselves very poor. Finding no help, he set out from his home on the 27th, promising his emaciated wife that he would return with food. As he was passing by the Bajaj factory gate, he saw that truck drivers were being served food. He eagerly started moving towards the food distribution center but was chased away by a security guard. He pleaded with the guard trying to tell him that he had not eaten for several days and must get some help, but the guard was unmoved. The Setu volunteer serving food overheard the conversation and called out to Charan. The volunteer gave food enough for the two assuring that he could return to get food twice daily. When Charan broke this news to his wife, she was thrilled and immediately informed her parents that God had taken care of them and there was nothing to worry as their problem had been taken care of. ‘I am since that day getting food daily due to the efforts of Mr. Baliram Dhere of Setu. I thank God for leading me to Setu and would remain ever grateful to Mr. Dhere and Setu for saving me from the impending starvation.”

Interview with Sopan, truck driver in Aurangabad:

“I am Sopan Yashwant Landge resident of village Chondhi, district Hingoli, Maharashtra. I have been driving a truck for the last four years, transporting motorcycles manufactured at Bajaj factory at Walunj to different states. I returned to Walunj on 21st March after one such trip. By the time I returned, the Corona pandemic had gripped the country and a lockdown was clamped on Aurangabad and surrounding areas including Walunj. I was required to stay at the parking area. I had hoped that the lockdown would soon be lifted, and I could return to go to my village but that was not to be. There were restaurants where we used to eat but they had shut business. I had money but could not buy any food. The currency notes were just paper and useless for me. There were some drivers who had managed to buy some food grains and they helped me with food for two days. But their stock was getting exhausted and I could no longer depend on them. I had no food and was on the point of starvation. I was suddenly reminded of HIV volunteers of Sikander Ali Wazd Trust whom I had met on a few occasions. I contacted one of them and told him about the precarious condition I was in. I got an immediate response from Mr. Dhere, Setu’s Project Manager who said that he was carrying out a survey of truck drivers in need of food and promised that food would be available from the next day. True to his word Dhere called me and gave me enough food for my need on the appointed date. There were 400 other people who were similarly served. I was awestruck as I could not believe that there were people who would go beyond their call of duty at personal risk to help people in need. Setu volunteers personally supervised distribution of food twice daily. They have been visiting the distribution center daily to supervise the kitchen and distribution of food. The entire trucker community is highly indebted to the organization and its volunteers for saving them from certain starvation. I am touched beyond words by the act of charity and nobility of the volunteers, they were really God sent at a very critical period in my life. I recount another glorious act of bravery and forgiveness by Mr. Dhere. He was beaten brutally for being found on the road while he was returning after having distributed food one day. He bore body marks of the beating but wanted no sympathy. He had forgiven the policemen saying that they were doing their duty and he should have carried his volunteer badge at all times. How does one describe this kind of humility and forgiveness? I bow my head before him and his organization which has inculcated a supreme sense of service among its volunteers.”