Responding to humanitarian crisis: Glimpses of lives from Northeastern Delhi

farah3Responding to the Covid-19 lockdown crisis of job loss, displacement and hunger, a group of citizens started a relief initiative, for emergency cash assistance to working class families, including those affected by the violence, in Northeast Delhi. The relief was via direct donor transfers of Rs. 3000 or Rs. 5000 (for especially vulnerable families) into bank accounts. The DIGNITY initiative concluded in July, 2020. Over 200 caring individual and institutional donors transferred nearly Rs 33 lakh in cash relief to more than 1000 families. DIGNITY was implemented entirely with the support of young volunteers – the future of a more compassionate nation.

Even as governments refuse to acknowledge the continuing humanitarian crisis, senior human rights activist Farah Naqvi shares here glimpses of lives from Northeast Delhi who were beneficiaries of the DIGNITY initiative:

  • The Edge of Survival NAHID AKHTAR |23 YEARS OLD |UNEMPLOYED |DELHI

Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh is a faint memory for 23-year-old Nahid. Even though it was home until seven years ago. Where she was schooled till class 9. Then her family migrated, as did many others, towards the big city. Delhi is where Nahid learnt bitter lessons of adulthood. In 2016 she got married. Just months later, she left a violent marital home. She and her husband separated. The precious inheritance of that lost marriage is her 3-yearold-daughter, Ayesha.

Nahid and Ayesha moved in with her parents, into their small rented accommodation in the Seemapuri resettlement colony in Northeast Delhi. This is where they now live, with her parents and her 3 younger siblings. Employment in the city was insecure. Her father sang with a group of qawwals at a nearby dargah (sufi shrine), for a small income. Then he got sick with hepatitis C, and could sing no more. The elder of two brothers, 21 years old, took over. And began supporting the family with his princely income of Rs. 8000, working at a local hair cutting salon.

farah4The family pooled their survival apparatus – the father had a smartphone, and the brother a bank account. Things were hard. Until suddenly, they got much worse. Covid-19 lockdowns exposed the knife-edge at which life was being lived. Nahid’s family had no income, no savings and no ration card. They subsisted on ration kits handed out by civil society organizations. They skimped on essential medicines. Her daughter went without milk. Her mother began to have bouts of depression.

With lockdown officially over, her brother started work again. But it is erratic. Once a salaried employee, he is now on daily wage. Some days there is no work. A learning centre, run by a local women’s organization, that Nahid joined before lockdown, has reopened. Nahid has restarted classes. She is desperately keen to skill herself, because she must find work. She needs to earn. Her family cannot exist for long like this – teetering forever on the edge of survival.

Nahid Akhtar received Rs. 3000, through her brother Naved’s bank account, on June 19, 2020. She was very relieved to get some money to buy essential medicines and food for the family. Nahid Akhtar has received no other cash support during or after the Covid-19 lockdown. We call on governments to ensure that all informal sector workers, whether or not they have restarted some work, get Universal Basic Income for the next few months and access to Universal PDS. So that working-class families like Nahid Akhtar’s can survive this crisis.

  • Shifting Rooms in Gali # 7 VINDYACHAL PRASAD |29 YEARS OLD |E-RICKSHAW DRIVER |DELHI

29-year-old Vindyachal Prasad came to Delhi around ten years ago. He thinks the year was 2009. With a heavy heart, but a young man’s hopes, he left behind his mother in Dumma Village in Sheohar District of Bihar. That is where he was born and schooled till class 8. His migrant journey, like millions of others, was about a less desperate life. More work, some money.

He promised to send his mother money whenever he could. In Delhi the family found themselves living in a gali (lane) of Khajuri Khas, a working-class neighbourhood in Northeast Delhi. Home was now one rented room. Then it was another, and then another. They lived the fate of the city tenant. Shifting, with belongings, at regular intervals. The only semblance of permanence was their gali. Each new room address had the same second line – Gali #7, Khajuri Khas, Northeast Delhi, 110094. This is where Vindyachal Prasad still lives.

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The city had its ups and downs. His wife had an accident and sustained a head injury. Medication and her mental wellness became a part of their life. He started driving an e-rickshaw. On good days his income was as high as Rs. 500. On even better days it was Rs. 600. Along the way, came children. Now there are 3 little ones. The eldest 5-year-old was enrolled in a local private school. He acquired tools of city survival. A smartphone and a bank account.

The ration card proved harder. He applied for one 4 years ago. But never managed to get it. Yet, food for the family, though basic, was always there. Until the Covid-19 lockdown. His bank account it turns out was more hope than actual savings. For there were none. With all earning stopped, Vindyachal’s life was reduced further to what it always was – the perilous existence of a daily wage earner. The family confronted hunger.

Dry ration kits, distributed by civil society groups, became a lifeline. He managed to get an e-coupon, the 3-month temporary ration card given by Delhi Government. But got only 2 rounds of ration, and no more. He borrowed from his landlord for other expenses. School fees for the 5-year-old went unpaid. Medicines for his wife were suddenly a luxury they could not afford. She went without. Sometimes she passed out.

Overnight, his mother in the village stopped getting anything. Now, lockdown is over. E-rickshaws ply again. But customers are few. For Vindyachal Prasad, really good day’s earnings are Rs 200. He needs to look for other work. What other work? And when? He does not know. His life is now like his rooms in Gali #7. In permanent flux. Insecure. Precarious. A life where future means one day at a time. July 20, 2020.

Vindyachal Prasad received Rs. 3000 in his bank account on July 10, 2020. He was thankful to finally be able to buy medicines for his wife, which cost over Rs. 1500. The rest went on food. Vindyachal Prasad has received no other cash support during or after the Covid-19 lockdown. We call on governments to ensure that all informal sector workers, whether or not they have restarted some work, get Universal Basic Income for the next few months and access to Universal PDS. So that workers like Vindyachal Prasad can survive this crisis.

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