Standing By: managing the issues of the pandemic from afar
It’s well past midnight in Victoria when I hear the unmistakable sound of a WhatsApp message. We’ve come to anticipate this sound late at night, or in the early morning hours before the sun comes up. It could be some of the children, or it could be Indu with news, questions, or she just wants to visit. I fumble a little to find the switch that will turn on the lamp because this is always a video call. I answer and the surface of my phone lights up with Indu’s face surrounded by smiling children. This time, Imran the key maker is there with his three children. The raw intensity of his personality leaps into view and he tells us, spittle raining from his mouth, his beard bobbing up and down with each gush of words, how the pandemic has ruined his key cutting business. During his quick rant he smiles and says he’s happy to see us. His arms twirl like a wind machine as he pushes his words out in quick bursts, and then just as quickly he’s gone, his white tunic flapping behind him as he pulls the red curtain aside and steps into the lane.
Once the chaos in the room settles, Indu reminds the children to study. I can see their eyes wander to their books or huddle around a tablet for their online lesson. It’s morning in Mumbai which means it’s typically noisy in the community. Beside her, curled around each other on the floor among the students, are her two sleeping daughters. For the entire length of the call, people flip back the red curtain to ask her questions about school fees and ration distribution, and sometimes they just want to gossip. When asking them to come back later doesn’t work, she hands the phone to one of the children while she deals with the problems at her door, and we chat with the them. We spot a few new faces in the room and we’re introduced to Iqra and her sister. Twinkle, Priyanka, Sneha and Nikita are waiting to show us the tablets we recently purchased for the children so that they can access the internet for their online classes. They hold a tablet up for us and turn it on. Rapid fire graphics fill the screen. The quick pace of the lessons and the colour popping off the screen is too much for us to follow. They laugh and give up, handing the phone back to Indu who’s still speaking with the person at the door.
Our inability to be physically present in Sakinaka until Covid becomes a memory is both sad and exasperating, but Indu is doing all that we would do if we were there. Two or three times a week, our video calls with Indu remind us just how competent and calm she is while all around her there are noisy interruptions amidst a room full children studying or playing, and parents interrupting. She recants the stories and the gossip and the needs most families have for just the basics such as grains, tea, rice, spices, and personal hygiene products. The scourge of the coronavirus has blighted their ability, many of them daily wage earners, to earn even the few rupees they used to earn to enable them to take care of their families.
Since March, with Indu’s help and her recruitment of willing assistants from the community, DWP has funded and distributed rations to a few hundred families, paid medical bills, begun the payment of school fees, assisted with rent, and sent Indu and a group of children on a fun mission to a mall to purchase the four tablets needed for online learning that the children will share. Many children’s don’t have access to a mobile phone or enough data to use to log in to online classes. The tablets work with the WiFi connection we recently installed in Indu’s home for families and students to access the internet during the prolonged lockdown of their schools.
Problems for the inhabitants of slum communities are intensified, magnified, and never dignified because of their crowded, unsanitary living conditions, and wages that don’t begin to compensate them for the work they perform even in the best of times. Indu’s home is where they know they're welcome when they need help, when they can’t feed their children, and when they’ve reached their limit. She understands the sadness, the frustrations, and the weariness present in all of the families. She allows them a place to vent with dignity and offers them the promise that we can offer help in some way.
While we wait for, and look forward to the video calls and text messages from Indu and the children, we have a lot of time to consider all that we’ll miss when we won’t be sitting cross-legged in their homes for the foreseeable future, consumed by the lives of so many. The comical problems of renting a flat in Mumbai for the months of our stay will be replaced by sitting in our own home, waiting for those video calls in the middle of the night. We’ll miss being in the community surrounded by mobs of children fuelled by innocent energy; their devotion to each other that makes our hearts swell. We’ll miss the toddlers who wait for us every morning to lead us by the hand through the lanes to Indu’s home. We’ll miss the families who invite us to be a part of their worst and best moments, who feed us, serve us the best chai at the right moment, and who nurse us when we don’t feel healthy. We’ll miss taking long walks through dusty streets to pay the school fees. We won’t be taking some of the younger children to school, or meeting them after school to walk them home, stopping for sugar cane juice and samosas. We might even miss the stray street dogs who slump in the shade during the day, barely noticing us, but when darkness arrives they’re ready to pounce, teeth bared and snarling. We’re usually rescued by a group of children who escort us out of the community armed with sticks to scare the dogs until we’re safely on the street.
For now, in our absence, Indu is minding our business. This is the only way forward for for a long while. We’ve always managed from afar when we aren’t in India, but the uncertainty of the end of Covid has made the problems that the families face seem more intense, more worrisome, and requires Indu’s unwavering, seemingly inexhaustible, assistance.
Take a look below at how her efforts, supported with your generous donations, have contributed to the community since April.
Ration Distribution to date:
218 families have received organized rations/cash
Since March Indu has purchased large quantities of grains, cooking oil, soap, spices, milk, tea and toiletries. Families line up to have their bags filled with nutritious food and personal hygiene products.
In lieu of rations, some families received 2000 rupees ($40) cash to purchase rations as needed. Indu is in charge of purchasing rations, distribution, and making the decisions about why and who would receive cash, or who would receive the ration packages, based on each families needs and the ease of assisting in a timely manner. The ration packages cost approximately 500 - 700 rupees per family ($10 - $14).
Cost of rations and cash disbursement to date: 114,500 rupees ($2284)
Medical Help (Doctor fees/medicine) to date:
Ashwini, Nikita, and Aagya visited doctors and received medicine for various ailments. We will be purchasing eyeglasses next week for a woman who lost her glasses months ago.
Cost of doctor’s fees and medicine: 7451 rupees ($149)
Cost of eyeglasses: 1500 rupees ($30)
WIFI installation at Indu’s home: unlimited wifi for 6 months/installation including wiring/router: 5000 rupees ($100)
WIFi installation at Nitish Patil home: 2300 installation + 500 monthly charges ($46 + $10)
(Nitish Patil’s family live in Sangarsh Nagar area in a government slum rehabilitation apartment. A decision was made to assist them with wifi to address the increased data expenses they faced with four brothers requiring data.)
Tablets: purchase of 4 tablets: $5999 + 915.10 taxes x 4 = 6914.10 rupees each ($138 each) Total (4 tablets + tax): 27,656 rupees ($553.12)
Earbuds (4): 1000 rupees ($20)
Indu’s Tuition Class needs to date:
Crayons/scissors/paper/stapler: 763 rupees ($15.26)
Nuts (to insure morning nutrition for approx. 30 to 40 children for approx. 2 months): 1550 rupees ($31)
Fun to date:
Aagya’s birthday party: 960 rupees ($20) (gift, cake, chips, pizza for more than 20 children)
Mall picnic: Indu took a small group of girls with her to purchase the tablets. They had ice-cream and fries at the mall food court. Cost of a bit of fun plus transportation to the mall: lunch for 7 people/650 rupees ($13); transportation to/from the mall for 7 people: 160 rupees ($3.20)
School Fees to date:
The payment of school fees is ongoing for the next many weeks until all fees are paid. There are numerous schools on our list which will take Indu some time to complete. For now, we’ve decided that until we’re sure the schools can carry on with their online model of teaching, or until schools reopen, we’ll pay fees for half the school term for each student. The remainder will be paid on assurance of classes being continued in some form. As per the school directive, partial or full fees must be paid immediately to enable the students to continue taking online classes. Indu has requested the schools give her extra time to pay the fees.
Fees paid to date (this list will be updated as fees are paid):
Nandchhaya Vidya Niketan School: 18 students/89,200 rupees ($1784)
KJ Somaya Junior College of Science and Commerce (Mumbai): 1 student/2555 rupees ($51)
Abhishek’s Academy: 1 student/3000 rupees ($60) this student paid half his fees and required help with the remainder.
Ashwini is a twenty year old girl living with her mother in a slum community (Chandivali). She recently started working at a jewelry factory which pays her 7000 rupees per month ($140). Before the lockdown her mother worked as a street sweeper for the municipal government and Ashwini worked at a sewing factory making napkins. They both lost their jobs when the during the lockdown in March. They were without jobs for months with no government assistance. We provide rations for them each month as well as medical help, but their landlord also wanted six months back rent or he would evict them. Indu met with the landlord and agreed to pay two months rent if he would allow them to stay in the single room home. The rent on their home is 5000 rupees per month. We paid 10,000 rupees to the landlord ($200) and gave them 500 rupees ($10) to fill their propane bottle used for cooking.
Water Pipe Installation for pipeline huts:
Numerous huts have been recently built along the pipeline. There was no water source nearby which made it necessary for the women walk to a distant source, fill many buckets, and carry the water on top of their heads back to their huts. A water pipe was installed to bring the water closer to their cluster of huts. Total cost of pipe and installation: 660 rupees ($13.20)
The assistance to the community will continue on as as needed basis. The ration distribution has been reduced for some families who’ve returned to work since the government allowed businesses to open despite the climbing Covid statistics in India. Some people have found work in their previous jobs, but their pay has been reduced with a thin promise of back pay once the factories and shops where they work are back to reasonable levels of commerce. Others are still struggling to find work. There are new families who approach Indu when she lines up to pay school fees, asking for help. She assesses their situation, does a home visit, and decides how we can assist them. Some families have packed up their belongings and left to wait out the virus with relatives in villages where the cost of living is less and can be shared among many.
Relief, care, and empathy is provided by the many, many people who support this community through donations. Your donations have surprised and humbled us and them, and provided desperate families with food, medicine and school fees. We're so grateful.
As always, if you’d like up-to-date information, you can email us (email@example.com) and ask us what’s up, or you can have a quick look at our Instagram or Facebook pages for daily/weekly updates.
Thank you, from the grateful families in Mumbai.