COVID-19: Friendly neighbourhood heroes saving the day

Diksha Munjal Mumbai | Updated on April 01, 2020

From distributing food to the needy to taking care of the elderly, many good Samaritans emerge in time of crisis

“Whenever you set out to do something good for others, God clears the hurdles in your path and help starts coming in from all directions”, said 52-year-old Shivraj Ramdas Pandit. It was Tuesday evening and Pandit had just returned to his residence in Chembur, Mumbai, after spraying disinfectant in one of the housing societies in his locality with the help of his volunteer group’s foot soldiers.

It has been a series of sleepless nights for Pandit, who with his team is running a round-the-clock helpline to provide timely help to citizens during the lockdown. From tending to senior citizens to making and distributing free masks and sanitisers to police personnel, security guards, grocery vendors and destitute, his team of 70-80 active volunteers of the Chembur Welfare Brigade have been on their feet since the lockdown was imposed.

“Yesterday, a 90-year-old senior citizen who is a retired scientist from BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), called the helpline. He lives with his 85-year-old wife. Their domestic help had to stop coming to the house and home delivery of services was down as well. The couple had been surviving on biscuits for the last three days. We immediately went to their residence with food and made sure essential services are delivered to their residence from now on”, said Pandit, who is an interior designing consultant by profession and started the volunteer group 5 years ago. The female volunteers of the group are making cloth masks at home and have set a target of 10,000 masks. The group has also collaborated with the insecticide department of the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) and are making subsidised disinfectant spray for housing societies and public places in the locality.

It’s the second week of the 21-day nationwide lockdown, the city that never sleeps seems to have snoozed temporarily. As the most iconic defining features of the city like its crowded local trains, bustling streets and markets lay deserted and shut, what remains intact is the spirit of its people.

Meals for all

As the country grapples with the fallout of the 21-day lockdown, the people worst hit remain those who earned their living on a daily basis, migrant workers and those with no roof over their heads. Some Mumbaikars have opened both their hearts and kitchens to anyone who cannot fulfil their basic food requirements during this unprecedented crisis.

“It is a matter of survival, food cannot be denied to humans or animals come what may”, said Hardik, a freelancer from Bhandup in his twenties. Hardik, along with 8 of his friends from a local carpooling group, has started an initiative of distributing free cooked meals for lunch and dinner to the destitute, labourers, security guards and roadside dwellers in the areas of Bhandup and Mulund. They also feed the area’s stray cats and dogs regularly and are trying to get pan-Mumbai volunteers to do so. The food gets prepared at a local restaurant and raw materials are procured and provided by the volunteers. Currently, the group is able to provide lunch and dinner meals for about 150-200 people daily. “Yesterday we asked the people what they would like to have for the next meal and egg curry turned out to be the popular choice, so egg curry for dinner it is”, expressed Hardik in endearment.

Another such initiative is started by restaurant owner Dharmesh Gala and his circle of friends in Vashi, Navi Mumbai. Gala has opened up his restaurant’s kitchen to prepare free cooked food packages and has tied up with the local police and the NMMC (Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation) to distribute them to the area’s poor. The group also procures fruits, grains, water and masks and hands them over to the municipal and police authorities for distribution.

Local community network

Anticipating a potential lockdown situation looking at countries like Italy and China, some citizens started laying the ground for community-level initiatives and awareness even before the lockdown. One such citizen is 56-year-old college professor Hanif Lakdawala from the Mumbai Central area, who started the task by creating a network of local volunteers in neighbourhoods of Kurla, Agripada, Nagpada and Mumbai Central.

These volunteers are the students that he has taught in different colleges in the 18 years of his active teaching career. He then used his personal network of contacts and goodwill to coordinate with the local grocery and medical stores, plumbers, electricians and non-essential service providers.

“The volunteer in each neighbourhood gets a list of daily requirements of residents over WhatsApp and the collection and delivery follow. As far as essentials are concerned, shops are open, people, however, have other unprecedented requirements as well. The other day a volunteer got a call about a resident requiring urgent plumbing services, I sent my regular plumber and a volunteer from our team to their residence. Our volunteers also help medical stores by going and procuring medicines from suppliers. It is a local level network that is based on connecting service providers with those in need of services”, he said. Each volunteer gets an identity pass form the local police station before they join the initiative and wearing protective gear is mandatory. The spread of the initiative happens through WhatsApp groups, social media and word of mouth.

Farmers’ Markets

Multiple areas in the city are facing grocery supply chain problems due to transportation hurdles amid the lockdown. Local fruits and vegetable shops remain overburdened with demand and as a result, are selling groceries at inflated prices in some cases. Some citizens, actively participating in city welfare activities have taken it upon themselves to plug the holes in the supply chain. A team of individuals who organise the annual cultural festival in the Chembur area have joined hands with farmers from Nashik and Pune to arrange daily farmers’ markets at centrally located spots in the area.

“On one hand where local stores were overburdened and had staffing issues, farmers were worried as their produce was not getting pickup due to transportation hurdles. For instance, farmers in Nasik were unable to sell their produce of grapes as the vineyards were shut. So we decided to get permission from the local authorities to set up these stopgap markets so that groceries are easily accessible to residents”, said Apurva Padgaonkar, a restaurant owner from Chembur who is a part of the initiative. On being asked what motivated the group to take these steps, Padgaonkar expressed his attachment with his birthplace and said that if the residents of the city will not look after it, who will.

The farmers bring their produce from Pune and Nasik in their tempos and are given a schedule and allotted areas for the day. Social distancing and protective measures are strictly ensured and farmers wear masks and gloves and customers maintain distance in the queues.

Service to the elderly

The elderly belong to the high-risk category amid the Coronavirus outbreak and hence it becomes important that they stay indoors. Members of a non-profit group called Round Table India realised this pain point and started free home delivery of essentials to the elderly around the city.

“Many senior citizens in the city stay alone and are not able to take care of their essential requirements. So, we made a team of almost 30 people in different areas of Mumbai and delivered household groceries and medicines to Senior citizens who are staying alone. More than 500 deliveries were done in the last 5 days”, said Vickaash Agarwal, volunteer of the group for the Khar West region, who is a business owner by profession.

Many such initiatives have cropped up in the city amid the lockdown to help various sections of the population that are facing difficulties. Groups of citizens while taking protective measures, are fearlessly working towards providing civic welfare.

Published on April 01, 2020

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