Dr. Khushwant Singh, PhD on the “Support group Lucknow Covid 19”

“Support group Lucknow Covid 19” is a Citizen’s Initiative to help the needy and destitute providing them with relief during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was initiated by few individuals in the last week of March 2020 just after the lockdown. This group consists of many people from Non Governmental Organizations (NGO), International NGOs, Media Personnel, other Professionals, Activists, Community Based Organizations (CBOs), organizations of unorganized sector workers and others. 

I caught up with Dr. Khushwant Singh, PhD on the sidelines of the many different engagements at the #COVIDactionCollab, to know more about their collective and its journey. 

Khushwant has a PhD in Social Work and has been working for over two decades with the most poor and marginalized communities, on community system strengthening, action research to support their well-being and improve access to services and leading several capacity building initiatives. Khushwant is also a Visiting faculty in Department of Social Work, University of Lucknow. At present, Khushwant is engaged with Catalyst Management Services, working on Community Engagement. 

Held over Google Meet in Hindi, the recorded video conversation which has Dr. Khushwant talking to us about the Support group Lucknow Covid 19 has provided us critical insights on how this citizen led collective was formed and its journey of evolution. Khushwant through his narrative provides us an empathic view of those who are most marginalized and the most affected in this pandemic. His in-depth analysis of the process, the challenges and learnings gives us much to take away from this interaction. You can watch Khushwant talking about the Collective on video here:

Khushwant’s narrative of their collective – “Support group Lucknow Covid 19” – journey is down below:

Stories from the Collective – Support group Lucknow Covid 19

There are several stories of the Collective that we can share with you all but today, I will share two stories in brief. 

We received a call that there had been the death of a migrant individual  and when the members of the collective reached the hospital, we  got to know that he and a couple of others had been cycling from Delhi to Bihar and on the way, at Lucknow, a car hit him from behind. When he was brought to the hospital, there was an issue with getting the appropriate treatment and he lost his life. On assessing the situation, members of our collective identified the first set of needs being monetary given the travel that family had embarked upon. A message flashed in our group detailing the incident and the request and in less than 5 minutes, we were able to raise more funds than we had hoped to be able to. The volunteers got together to ensure we were able to get an ambulance to take his body to his village in Bihar. The funds we raised would cover the costs of the journey and also leave some money in hand of those who were traveling. Many women in our group handed us some money as their individual contribution for his wife. “She will need this”, they explained. Others in our collective reached out to networks in Bihar and the administration there so that the travelers would receive help once they reached. The network in Bihar took this up and when the family reached Bihar, the Bihar administration immediately disbursed a relief fund of Rupees One Lakh to the family as well as meeting their immediate needs. The network in Bihar and members of our collective still continue to look for support to the family. 

Another instance that I’d like to share with you was when we received a call from a girl in distress who shared, “Because we have not been able to pay the rent, we have had to leave our home. We are a family of 6 and have set up a temporary shelter…but because of the inclement weather, the temporary shelter too was destroyed.” The girl revealed that they had had to stand in the rain, holding up the sheet they had used to create a roof so that the water did not pour inside and others remained secure. When the news of this situation reached our collective, everyone stepped in to contribute and help. Some reached there and helped fix their temporary shelter, some provided Ration (food supplies), some also donated cash – just so their immediate needs could be met. There are many such stories where the collective and its members have collaborated and helped in their own ways so that we are able to reach those who need immediate assistance. 

The Journey of the Collective – Support group Lucknow Covid 19: from 2 to 200

We are working with the poor in both Urban and Rural settings. And most of them work in the unorganized sector – as daily wage labourers; most of the women work as domestic helpers and there are people who have come from neighbouring districts and States looking for work. They stay in the Urban Poor pockets and like we all know, the state of Urban Poor pockets – be it in the context of Health or Sanitation or Education or others – is quite deplorable, more or less like any other resource poor area we work in. 

We started our work even before the Lockdown was put in place. We took several measures in consultation with the most poor and marginalized living in the Urban Poor locations on preventive aspects. We also helped them plan on being prepared for the lockdown – here we stressed on stocking up on basic daily necessities – Ration (Food Supplies) and requested that they keep some cash in hand. We started doing these preps but were unable to do this with too many people as we ourselves, also did not know how long the lockdown would extend or how much the crisis may escalate. 

Once the lockdown was in place, we felt that our individual efforts would probably not let us reach us too many people. Some of us who were like minded got together and this is how our collective began. 

At the beginning, our efforts were focussed on informing people about the preventive measures for COVID-19 and ensuring that people’s demands for Ration (Food Supplies) were met. Gradually as the period of lockdown got extended and as more and more people got to know about us, the demand for our services increased exponentially. Infact, it started becoming difficult for us to meet the demands – both in terms of geographical coverage and volume of support needed. 

However, with this rising demand, one of the good things that happened was that a lot of people observed the work of the collective and started joining our collective. 

A lot of people said “We can give you Ration”, many said “We can support you financially”, many said “We can help you in distribution” – so as the demand for services grew, so did the number of people who were supportive of our efforts. So in this way, the collective started forming on its own where people came forward based on however they could help us or join the initiative, and continued joining in their own capacities. 

As of today, we have over 200 individuals who are engaged with this collective.And there are many who have joined in at an individual level, many NGOs and INGOs. There are many professionals, social activists, CBOs and even many individuals from political parties who have joined in individual capacity because they felt that this is one work that calls for everyone’s contribution and assistance.

Gradually like this, a collective of 2-4 people has now become a large group which has people from all walks of life working in their own capacities. And something really positive that I have observed in the last 70 days, is that everyone is working in a very coordinated manner. 

“When we work on something with focus, it evolves” 

When we work on something with focus, it evolves; we don’t even get to know how it happened. For instance, our fellow members in the collective who were from a media background, came forward voluntarily and tried to find different avenues to highlight the challenges of the most poor and marginalized communities who we are serving. Those who worked in administration and had some role to play in governance, undertook the entire advocacy side of things – to take the issues being faced by the people to those in administration, explaining the challenges and finding avenues to advance the coordinated efforts. Due to the lockdown there were several challenges in distribution; members of the collective who had a background in distribution (logistics and supply chain management) found different innovative solutions to effectively maximize reach. 

So like this there were different aspects of our work that evolved by itself. Another such issue was that the work we were doing needed documentation as we were doing a lot of varied work, reaching many and we needed to know what our strategy and direction would be for the future.So a team formed itself to handle the documentation and delineate our learnings, identifying the best practices that were evolving – they started compiling it and continued sharing it with us.

And this way, the collective evolved with every member volunteering and taking leadership – there were no directions given on what needed to be done. There was a self directed effort for people and gradually the strength of the collective increased. If we were to talk about this entire journey, then as of today, we have covered around 70 days and this has been a long journey – for 70 days to continuously work through a crisis of this magnitude, pouring in efforts often gets very difficult, so this has been a long journey we have covered. 

If I were to talk about reach, and if we were to take the numbers from just till yesterday (31st May, 2020), we have served cooked meals to 4,28,000 individuals; there are around 28,000 families whom we have provided Ration kits to; around 45,000 migrants have been served refreshments through the collective. 

Along with this, as you may have seen, many of the migrants were traveling by road or on the railway tracks attempting to reach their homes, our collaborative members proposed that they be provided with slippers. So, many of the members bought new slippers and gave them to the migrants. Many shopkeepers opened their shops and donated slippers from their own shops saying “Please do give it (slippers) to them (the migrants), they need them at this time.”

There were many among us, especially many of the women who in their homes focused on only making masks for distribution – not just a few, but masks totaling up to crores – handing it to us for distribution saying, “this is how we can contribute, so please distribute these”. Similarly, many distributed sanitary napkins. 

And this is how the collective continued to grow. And now as the migrants continue to travel – with many stuck in between in our states, there are many in our collective who are actively helping them in safe transit.

Our collective and its members  in its own efforts – based on resources they have been able to mobilize – have had one common goal – the more the reach, the better it would be. There has also been a focus on prioritizing those who are in an absolute state of crisis and need the services the most.

Challenges

If I were to talk about challenges, everyone knows that this is a huge crisis. Even today when we look at our work, and see the demand – or rather look at the demand-supply gap – we see that the gap is huge. If you look at the data of our reach and find it appreciable, trust us, given the magnitude of the crisis, our reach has been miniscule. We can only see this (the collective) as one way to reach people with services in our own way. The gap remains a huge challenge. 

There are other challenges too. As you may have been seeing, there are many announcements in the media, about the packages and schemes launched by the government. But the ground realities at the moment reflect that the government has possibly not been able to reach the number of people that are being claimed to have been reached or the number of people the government is striving to reach. This is a huge challenge because no matter how much we strive, we cannot take the role of the government, right? That by itself is a huge gap – that the kind of insights we are hearing, that kind of work, we are not seeing on ground. And the kind of alignment that is needed between government, civil services, citizen initiatives working collaboratively will ensure greater impact at different levels. As of now, the response is happening in parallel and the alignment between them can be improved and if it is, it will be way more effective. 

If I were to explain this to you through one or two examples – We are a Lucknow based collective with greater focus on UP (Uttar Pradesh), because most of us are from here. But our collective has been receiving calls for help and support from different places. If I were to talk about myself, I have been getting calls, often till late in the night – sometimes from Dadra and Nagar Haveli, from Gujarat, from Jabalpur – sometimes a migrant individual from Madhya Pradesh calls with the expectation that we can help him reach Jharkhand. And when I asked “Where did you get my number from?”, then I got to know that when he had called the Jharkhand helpline, he was given our numbers – mine or other members of our collective – and was told that we would help him. This is the state of the services that those working at the helplines are also struggling with resources and end up sharing our numbers. We are trying our best to meet the needs but this is a gap that needs to be addressed. 

Learnings

-One-

If I were to talk about the learnings through our journey, then one of the key lessons that we have learnt from this crisis is that this is the time when we as Social Work professionals need to step out and work on the ground.  

Our Doctors, Paramedical Staff and Police Personnel are doing absolutely critical work. We have been rightly calling them “Corona Warriors”. Trust me, I have not witnessed such a crisis- in the last 20-25 years of my work.  This is therefore the time when along with Doctors, Paramedical Staff and Police Personnel, as a Social Work professional, we too have to be on the field.  To help people at the face of adversity and risk – is possibly our real work as a Social Work Professional. Our work is now when people are in crisis. So, we too, must step outside. We have been hearing about “Work From Home” from before the lockdown. For us, (Social Work professionals), what has been called “Work From Home”, today we should call it “Work With Them” or “Work For Them” – this should be our motto. This is our work, just like others are working in their own roles as “Corona Warriors”. So this has been a big learning – that we too should come forward and the necessity of our role is in no way less than a “Corona Warrior”. This is an important learning and we have seen that when we have collaborated to work together, we have been able to definitely reach some people and have been able to help them. 

-Two-

The second important learning is the need for many more local collectives. 

While we are working in a focussed manner at UP, we tried our best to connect the calls we were receiving for help from people of different States, to those we know in their States – be it people from NGOs or networks. We also tried getting people we know to create similar collectives in their own places so that we could undertake a coordinated effort across different States to reach people. The learning we had from this is that the local collectives that are there are perhaps the solution if we want to effectively reach the most vulnerable in this crisis – simply because you cannot do this sitting in one place. 

The more local collectives are formed – be it at State or at District or at Block levels – the more strengthened our reach is to the most vulnerable. And this also strengthens the inter State and inter District coordination, which is important because people are coming (migrating) from different places and they want to go back to the place they came from. We got a lot of help in places where we were able to form local collectives. 

-Three-

The third important learning is the need to be prepared for what is to come. 

Our response during the lockdown is very temporary – we reached some people with ration, some people with masks. I feel we have to be ready with a long term rehabilitation plan in the coming days. Because the moment this lockdown is over, I feel, the most marginalized and most poor people, they will be needing help to survive in every way possible. So we will need to  prepare for this from now unlike how we were unable to prepare much before the lockdown.

We did not know the extent to which the crisis would go and the kind of help we would need to provide. But today, after 50-60 days, we can say that we have some clarity on the challenges that the most poor and marginalized, the most vulnerable people will be facing in the coming days. So we will need to prepare for that from now – prepare for what may happen in terms of what the situation will be or the challenges they will face – 15 days from now, 20 days from now or one month from now – so that when we reach that time, we have a proper plan in hand on responding to the crisis. 

What you can do to support the Collective – Support group Lucknow Covid 19

Direct Support

In terms of direct support to the collective, there is direct support needed for Ration and Sanitary Kits – there is a requirement for this as demand is on a daily basis. If someone can help us with this, it would be great. 

Support a Collective / Start a Collective

But I feel, more than this, the need of the hour is to support local collectives in whichever State and District we are in. We (collectives) really need the support of people. And if there are no collectives in that location, please take such an initiative,where you can discuss and collaborate with some like minded people and start a collective. Because people in every location need help today. So if you can take this up, it will be a great help because in the coming days, it is critical that State, District and Blocks have a network of collectives. 

If this network is LIVE, it will become easier for us to reach the people who need help the most. Today, when we receive a call for help from some other State or District, often our hands are tied. If such collectives are formed in other places, then definitely we will get further strengthened and once the collective is strengthened, we can reach more people who need help. 

Foster Networks & Collaboratives

And along with this, where there are such collectives and individuals who are working in other States, if we can all come together on a platform where we share our learning and best practices that have evolved, we can also learn from each other and become more effective, speedy and efficient in our reach. It is very important to have a mutual learning and sharing space. 

Some of this is thus of immediate requirement and some as I said we have to be ready with a plan – and how we come together and cross learn can be part of that plan – on how we can work better together. 

To know more and to support Khushwant and his work, you can write to him at khushwant@cms-india.org

As told to Shrirupa Sengupta, Associate Director, Swasti – The Health Catalyst.

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