WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, the tough get going - A total recount

June, 2020

If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.… Fred Rogers
This best describes how Setu Charitable Trust volunteers are making their impression on countless lives they have touched every day since March 20th, the time of the lockdown in India.

It was in the wake of communal riots in 1994 that Setu began its journey. Setu founder Mr. Satish Tripathi, the Relief and Rehabilitation Secretary at the time, saw the need to support the thousands of orphaned children and uprooted families beyond the government outreach. It helped more than 2000 orphaned children with scholarships from the National Foundation of Communal Harmony to pursue higher studies and provided thousands of scared, reluctant victims, who had taken shelter in relief camps all over Mumbai, return to their homes safely. For its outstanding work in restoring peace, Setu received the highest award in the country for communal harmony by then President of India, Mrs. Pratibha Patil. Initially started as a means to facilitate institutional interventions after the communal riots of 1992-93, Setu has varied its role through the years.

Since then Setu has been engaged in empowering women, educating children and adolescents in extremely poor settlements in Western and Northern India. The beneficiaries in these villages and towns include sex workers, HIV and Leprosy patients, their children, transgenders, children working in slaughterhouses and the list goes on. The constant narrative in these 26 years has been the ability of Setu to transform communities at the grassroot level and the intervention and coordinated response to crisis situations. It forms a perfect case study for business schools across the globe.

The COVID-19 outbreak is extraordinary in terms of scale, speed, and uncertainty. 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. In a crisis like this one, 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, water and poor nutrition making them easily susceptible to the virus.

Low income households and migrant workers are a huge unorganized sector of the Indian economy. The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crore or 37% of the country’s population. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Azim Premji University in 2019 estimated that 29% of the population in India’s big cities is of daily wagers. This is the large percentage of the vulnerable population who earn in the day to provide 1 evening meal for their family and certainly had no means to sustain beyond few days into the lockdown. No matter how much the Government tries to provide fiscal relief, the containment cannot be left to the government simply because of the sheer population of undocumented labour, lack of literacy, cluster living conditions, no real standards for disseminating proper information and minimal digital network, and finally the medical community just not equipped for telemedicine. 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 different levels as the emergency response must be tailored for a diverse population, unlike a one size fits all approach. This is where the not-for-profit organizations in India have stepped up to shine a light on the unmet needs of the community and have emerged as a strong backbone of the society to channelize government support and bridge the hardship of the marginalized community.

This group of citizens , all over the world justify the saying , “WHEN THE GOING IS TOUGH THE TOUGH GET GOING “. It is through their sacrifice that humankind has survived wars, famines, floods, the Holocaust ,and regular destruction orchestrated by misdemeanours in the society. These are good journalists, N.G.O.s and socially concerned individuals who have never hesitated to rush out to the rescue of besieged population sacrificing all that they possess, whenever and wherever the need arose .These are the fearless strong arms of society who never hesitate to extend their helping hand whenever they can to ensure a good and healthy society and protect mankind whenever there is need . Their presence is exposed only in times of crisis. Setu’s response in this time of crisis is one shining example of it all.

Setu announced the closure of all its day care centres and local offices on March 20th. This meant no more meals for over 1000 children in these day care centres. Around the same time Setu was approached by local members to express concern and desire as they could sense the looming disaster that would unfold. Setu decided to strategize supply of mid-day meals to its beneficiaries in a small way. The first kitchen was created in Malad, Mumbai by Mr. Qureshi on 1st April 2020. It rolled out 2000 meals in the afternoon. No sooner than the kitchen started, an influx of hungry desperate people descended on the main distribution and the kitchen had to be expanded. The kitchen increased its capacity from 400 to 5000 to 7500 per day afternoon and evening just in the first week. Looking at the growing food shortage, and hindered movement of affected people due to police action, 6 more centers were established. The diversion brought relief to nearly 13000-14000 during the stressful early period and continues to expand daily.

Food was prepared and distributed amongst tribals, migrants in the form of workers in tailoring units, auto drivers, taxi drivers, construction workers, widows, orphans, destitute children, abandoned senior citizens and others through nearly 64 committed selfless volunteers just in these 6 centers. Similarly, Setu volunteers identified a pressing need among interstate truck drivers, who were stuck in parking lots in Aurangabad, a major hub for interstate truck. Setu with the support of the local community is now providing meals to truck drivers and migrants stranded at construction sites in 6 towns -Aurangabad, Hingoli, Jalna, Parbhani, Mumbra and Malad. Even during the current crisis Setu continues to respond to the need of its beneficiaries, ailing HIV patients in need of hospitalization. The women, transgenders and children who’s means of livelihood has completely been cut off are supplied ration kits at the Setu centres in Aurangabad, Jalna, Nanded and Hingoli. Special requests have been pouring in from the police to supply migrants’ food at railway stations for their onward journey’s back home to UP and Bihar from Mumbai. Urgent requests from government and local police to support migrant worker meals now are being met daily.

Eid during this time had special meaning. The volunteers ate Biryani together and took some home for their families. There are young volunteers of all faiths who utilized their entire period since lockdown in the service of suffering mankind under the banner of Setu and the guidance of Mr. Tripathi whom they have never met but ever desire to do so. They brought forward the true spirit of India before everyone. Their problems were the same as others, their needs superseding the work of distribution, but never did they complain. The lady brigade left their children at home but distributed food in the hot sultry summer. They spoke of their problems of their fears for the coming days. The get-together lasted 2 hours after which they hurried back to their distribution centers.

On the day of the cyclone on June 5th it was business as usual. Setu volunteers were well equipped with torches, phone numbers of local police, ambulance, fire stations etc. The poor had started to line despite the heavy rains to receive the meal for the day praying that the distribution centre would not be closed. Setu volunteers were well equipped for the day and ensured that the last one among them received their meal in the pouring rain before they safely closed their kitchens for the day.

Setu Trust’s volunteers at 12 centres have distributed more than 1.5 million meal packets during the lockdown from its kitchens, besides ration kits worth $ 140K (1 crore INR). This outreach to poorest of settlements including sex workers, transgenders, local vendors, shoe makers, leprosy and HIV patients, migrant workers, truckers, children etc., has been possible by more than 250 Setu volunteers distributing food, vitamins, masks, medicines, snacks for kids daily. Setu receives support from the government, countless Samaritans, corporations and local groups including MGL, ISCKON , WIPRO , UNICEF , JJT TIBREWALA FOUNDATION , PARLE G BISUITS, ZOMATO, BE HUMAN FOUNDATION.

All contributions are accounted for, bills and costs are reconciled daily. Funds are disbursed after careful assessment of the next days needs. The project workers on the ground are neither MBA graduates nor affluent folks with degrees neither are they adept in accounting with computers at their disposal. But what each one of them brings to the table is military style discipline and a desire to overpower the current crisis by the power of the minds and hearts.