Pandemic, lockdowns, and hunger

World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.   

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Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family

Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.

There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.

“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.

What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.

“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.

Rachana Singh in her kitchen

Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family

“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.

During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.

When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.

Ritu Gautam with her son

Covid, job losses and hunger  

As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.

In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic. 

While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family

It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.

Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.

Rachana Devi outside her one-room house

Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.

Rakesh Singh along with his mother and children. Read their story below

Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family

“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.  

Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.  

“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.

Putli Devi does not have money to refill her cylinder. She cooks on the chulha. Read her story below

Family 5: Putli Devi and her family   

In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.  

“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.  

For daily wage earners and migrant labourers, it’s a sense of Déjà vu

For more than a year, our lives have revolved around Covid. A pandemic fatigue had set in. But just when people were hoping to move on, the situation exploded in our faces. The second Covid wave has hit India hard. The country is reporting on average three lakh fresh Covid infections daily and rumours of lockdown are making people anxious and restless. Yet again, migrant workers and daily wage earners are crowding local train and bus stations to return home because bitter memories of the 2020 lockdown are still fresh in their minds. We bring to you five heart-breaking stories of those who had faced harrowing experiences during the lockdown last year. They shudder to think what is in store for them and others this year

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“Please take some. It’s from a good shop,” said Anil Shastri, 38, as he offered me some sweets. This was just before Diwali in October 2020. Shastri and his family, comprising wife Rekha Devi (32) and two children Priya (13) and Mayank (7), lived in a one-room home in a lane not far from where I live in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is tucked between rows of bungalows on either side and most of the occupants are daily wage earners. As Shastri and I spoke, his wife sat on the floor to make tea and his children settled in another corner of the house to do their homework.

“It’s a sad Diwali. I have not had a regular income since the lockdown was announced in March (2020). I am not touching my savings because it’s meant for school fees and medical emergencies, but I withdrew some cash to buy new clothes for my children and this box of sweets,” he said. Shastri worked as a priest and before the lockdown, people would call him home for religious functions. He would get paid in cash and sometimes in kind. The earning was decent but cyclic. He earned well during the festivals, but otherwise, it was a daily struggle.

However, on March 24, 2020, the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced, Shastri knew it was bad news. “The government should have given people like us some time, at least a few hours, to make alternate arrangements. This is a one-room set. We would have died because of heat and suffocation. It would have been impossible for me to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 per month and the electricity bill of Rs 1,500 without any income. Managing ration would have been another headache. So, the moment I heard the news at 8 pm, I fled from Lucknow.”

Shastri and his family left for Hardoi – a district 100 km away from Lucknow – on their motorcycle, with minimum belongings. “My parents and brother’s family live in a village near Hardoi. They have a small farming land. I knew I was not going to get any work so I decided to move back home for a few months so that I could at least feed my family. I drove non-stop for hours and reached at 2 am. There were police on the highway, and I even had to pay a small bribe to cross a toll naka.” 

Shastri and his family in their one-room set in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Shastri’s landlord was kind enough to allow him to pay the rent in trenches during the lockdown. The family returned in October 2020, just before Diwali. When I met Shastri then, he was looking at options, because in the absence of a regular income, it was becoming difficult for him to live in a city like Lucknow.

When the second wave hit India in April 2021, and rumours of a lockdown began surfacing, I went to meet Shastri to ask if I could help him in any way. The family was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The neighbours told me they have moved back to their village as Shastri was not getting any work. In fact, most of the homes in the lane were locked. While some have made the big shift back to their villages, some have left temporarily fearing lockdown.

Singh’s family, comprising his parents, wife, and a year-old son, lives in Samastipur. His wife was expecting last year and gave birth to a baby boy in March 2020. Because of the lockdown, Singh could not leave Lucknow and got to see his new-born only in June.

A few blocks away, Ram Prasad Singh, 33, a vegetable vendor from Samastipur in Bihar, who has made Lucknow a home for the past few years, sat dejected next to his cart. He asked me if a lockdown was going to be announced and whether he should go back home. When asked where he was last year, Singh said: “I was stuck in a room with five others for months. There was just one fan, no income, and no fixed ration. This time, I don’t want to make the same mistake. I will never forget that long journey back home — nearly 50 of us were stuffed in a bus that had a capacity of 35. I will also always remember the pangs of hunger that we would experience during the lockdown.

“We are poor but eating two square meals a day was never a problem. It was humiliating to ask for food packets. It was even more humiliating to eat that sub-standard food. I am not willing to go through similar humiliation this year,” Singh said.

Migrant labourers and daily wage earners crowding at Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi after chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a lockdown to tackle with the rising Corona cases. Image source: Twitter

Not willing to take a chance …

As India is reporting record-breaking fresh Covid cases daily during the second wave that has hit the country in April 2021, there is panic all around. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on April 21, said that a lockdown should be seen as a last resort, daily wage earners and migrant labourers are not willing to take a chance … not this time. The bus and train stations across major cities in India are witnessing similar scenes like last year – panic-stricken people, carrying minimal belongings, wanting to catch the first bus or train to go back home.

In 2020, a few days after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. Many set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles. While some reached home, some could not make it. Fatigue killed them. And then there were people like Shankar Yadav who were stuck in an alien state.

Shankat Yadav and 50 others were stuck at Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh last year for over a month

“We had to eat insect-laden, substandard food for a month”

“It was terrible. Even the most basic facilities like water and electricity were missing. There were many women and children with us. As it was close to a forest area, there were mosquitoes. We feared dying of Malaria or Jaundice and not Corona. The worst was the food. We were not even getting three meals a day. There were days when we had to wait until late afternoon to eat the first morsel of the day. At times they would send food cooked in the morning, which would go bad by the time it reached us in the noon because of the heat. On many occasions, there were insects in daal (pulses) and rice that was served to us,” said Yadav while talking about the month-long ordeal at Rajnandgaon.

Yadav, 24, who is originally from the Giridih district in Jharkhand, moved to Hyderabad in 2018. He runs a juice shop in Gachibowli corporate park in the city. Last year, when the rumours of a complete lockdown surfaced, Yadav and 50 others from various districts in Jharkhand, who lived together in an urban slum in Hyderabad, decided to return to Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the lockdown was announced when they reached Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh in a bus, and they all got stuck. They were taken to a government school, which was their home for the next 1.5 months.

He adds: “We are not rich, but we still manage to give decent food to our women and children. Yes, we were unwanted guests in Chhattisgarh then, but the least that the administration could have done was to treat us like human beings.”

Yadav and others reached their homes in Jharkhand after 1.5 months when the state government started plying buses for stuck migrant labourers. “We returned to Hyderabad in October. We had to. There was no income, but the owner was still asking for the stall rent. We had to dig into our savings to pay the rent. By the time, I went back to Hyderabad, I was penniless. I had to start afresh.”

Yadav is now panicking as the Corona cases are going up and there are again rumours of a complete lockdown. “This time I am confused. I am not sure if I should stay back here because if there is going to be a lockdown, I will have no income, but I will still have to pay the stall and home rent.

“I don’t want to start for home as I fear getting stuck like last time. You are more informed. I request you to tell me honestly if there is going to be a lockdown,” says Yadav.

Migrant labourers outside a bus station in Chhattisgarh. Image: Twitter

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now”

Like Yadav, Champa Marandi, 19, from Adivasi-dominated Surguja district in Chhattisgarh too has some terrible memories of the lockdown. Around 25 young boys and girls from different villages in Surguja had moved to Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh in October 2019 to work in a construction company as labourers. After the lockdown was announced, the work came to a standstill. Their contractor told them that the company was not in a position to pay them for long. Marandi and others didn’t have an option but to walk back home.

The distance between Srikakulam district and Sarguja is around 770 km. “Our parents were getting worried. So, we decided to start walking. We had one last conversation with our parents before we set off as we could not charge our mobiles after that. All we had were our backpacks and water bottles. While drinking water was not a problem as the villagers living in small hamlets along the highway were helpful, food was a major problem. “I think we got to eat one proper meal after two-three days. Some volunteers were distributing food packets along the highway, so sometimes we got to eat proper meals, but otherwise we survived on water and biscuit packets that were distributed by the CRPF jawans.

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now. We would keep walking all day long and exhausted, we would sleep on the National Highway,” Marandi said over the phone in her extremely frail voice.

Her village falls in a forest area, so connectivity is a problem. But Marandi was curious to know about the rising corona cases in the country and the lockdown rumours. When asked why she did not go back to Srikakulum after the lockdown, Marandi says: “The contractor never cleared our dues. We kept calling him. Ultimately, he switched his phone off. Our parents are upset. Also, they are worried. They will never send us back now. That was our only chance to go out and earn. The lockdown ruined it.”

Dev Yadav and Kedar Yadav (in black shirt)

“This was our last selfie together”

“I was close to my brother. But when we were getting his body back in an ambulance, the stench was so unbearable that, for the first time, I was not comfortable sharing space with him. We requested the authorities so many times to give us some ice, or at least a coffin box, but they just refused,” says Dev Yadav, 19, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, while talking about his brother, late Kedar Yadav, 32.

Yadav was among those unfortunate migrant labourers who passed away during the lockdown. They left for home but could not make it. On September 13, 2020, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Parliament that his ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown. Incidentally, over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states.

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to Coronavirus. The data was published in July 2020. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness, and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-Covid reasons.

Yadav died in an unfortunate road accident. A newly married Yadav had moved to Rajasthan to work as a construction labourer so that he could support his wife, parents, and younger siblings.

On May 15, 2020, in a desperate attempt to get back home, Yadav, along with other migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, who were also returning home, hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting sacks of cement. At 3 am on May 16, the truck collided with another stationary truck that was stationed outside a dhaba at a place called Mihauli in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the stationed truck had around 20 migrant labourers from Delhi. The collision was so powerful that both the vehicles overturned. At least 24 migrant workers died and 37 were seriously injured in the accident. Yadav was one of them.

“My brother had called us when he left from Rajasthan. He said he was coming in a bus and would be home by morning. At 4 am on May 16, I tried calling him, but could not reach him. I kept trying for two hours. At 6 am, we received a call from a policeman informing us about the accident and that my brother was seriously injured. We immediately hired a cab and left for Auraiya. But by 10 am, his name had started showing among those who had died,” says Yadav’s younger brother Dev.    

He adds: “We reached there at 3 pm. All the bodies were covered with cement, so it took us a while to identify him. We were provided with an ambulance to take his body back home, but the body was uncovered. We requested them to give us some ice or a coffin box as it was peak summer, but the authorities refused. I kept requesting the driver to switch the AC on, but he did not pay any heed. The stench was making us sick. Once we reached Gaya, we were asked to go to a police station to report a case of accidental death. Upon reaching there, we were told that our residence falls in some other police jurisdiction, so we were sent there. Then we were asked to go to a hospital to get his covid test done. Finally, at 10 pm, we reached the crematorium.”

Yadav’s wife has moved back to her parents’ place and the family is still coming to terms with the tragic loss. “We had clicked a selfie before he left. Little did we know that it was our last selfie together. I am still so numb with grief.” I know the situation is bad. People are again talking about a lockdown. I just hope no one has to go through what we went through last year,” said Dev.   

Ajjibaichi Shala … schooling grandmothers and fulfilling their long-cherished dreams

These grandmothers – all in the age group of 60 to 90 years – living in Fangane village in Maharashtra – had just one dream … to be able to write their names before they reached the end of their lives. Their dream came true in 2016 when Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, opened a school for them. Now, they proudly shun the thumb impression ink pad and put their signatures on ration cards and bank documents. These days, they are praying very hard for coronavirus to go away so they can go back to their school

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Sheetal More, 34, a school teacher, sounded a bit concerned when I spoke to her over the phone. The school where she teaches is shut since March in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and, given the situation, she is not sure when it will open next. She is a tad worried that her students – grannies in the age group of 60-90 – are going to forget what she had taught them before the nationwide lockdown was announced in March.

“They say they have been practicing at home. But that’s not going to be enough. I am the only teacher at the school and it has been challenging for me to teach them. Some can’t hear and some can’t see. So, I have to teach them individually. Plus, they tend to forget in two-three days, so I have to keep repeating. I am especially worried about slow learners! The other students would mockingly tease them for being slow when we used to have regular classes!” said More.

The school is shut now but the mornings have never been this busy for More. When the call went through at 10 AM, she was sitting along with her two children, both studying in the primary section of the government school in the village, and her mother-in-law. The children were practicing their Math assignment forwarded by their teacher on WhatsApp. Her mother-in-law, Kantabai Laxman More, 70, was writing English alphabets on her black slate. She had been listening to the entire conversation. So, when More handed over the phone to her mother-in-law, she said in a mock teasing tone: “I won’t lag behind! The only teacher in the school lives in my house! I can clear my doubts whenever I want! My friends don’t have this advantage!”

Teacher Sheetal More with her mother-in-law

There was a brief interruption in the interaction as the pressure cooker whistle went off and senior More instructed her daughter-in-law to switch the flame off.

All this was happening in a small village named Fangane, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. The village comprising 70 homes – majority farmers, only a few are employed in state government jobs — is home to Ajjibaichi Shala — a school for grandmothers, which was inaugurated on March 8, 2016, on the occasion of Women’s Day. Thirty “100% illiterate” grannies – all between 60 and 90 years of age – enrolled in the school. It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees. The colour matched with their red school bags. Before the pandemic hit, they would wear their saree-uniforms – most would drape it in Navvari style, a saree draping style in Maharashtra — neatly comb their hair, cover their head with the saree pallu, pack their bags and go off to school. Big bindis on their foreheads, anklets, and flowers in their hair … those were the only accessories they had.  

Gradually, the nondescript village started making news for being a progressive village that was trying to educate ajjis (grandmothers). These women never got an opportunity to attend school when they were young, most got married even before they turned 18, and have spent the better part of their lives managing their households, raising children, helping the men in the fields, and looking after their grandchildren. They had resigned to their fate but secretly yearned to read and to write … at least their name … before they reached the end of their lives.

So, when they got an opportunity, they grabbed it. The school was the brainchild of Yogendra Bangar, 44, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, who, in 2012, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village. He wasn’t very excited about it as it was an Adivasi region surrounded by mountains, and the village was considered to be very backward. He had two options – either to go with the flow and wait for the next transfer or be the changemaker. He chose the latter.

Keep swiping right to see some heartwarming images of Ajjibaichi Shala

“There were many problems like poor sanitation, no healthcare facilities, and lack of public transportation. After living in the village for nearly two years, I realized the major problem was the severe water scarcity. People had to walk for 2.5 kms to fetch water and their entire day revolved around this activity. I wanted to change this,” said Bangar.

In 2014, Bangar met Dilip Dalal, the founder of the Motilal Dalal Charitable Trust — an organization based in Ambarnath, Mumbai, which, along with many businesses, is also involved in charitable activities. “I told him about the water problem in the village and requested him to allocate some funds. He jokingly challenged me that if he gave me Rs 1 lakh, I would have to resolve the water problem in the village within a week. I accepted the challenge. The entire village dedicated itself to this task. Together, we dug the pits, laid the pipelines, fixed the corks, and within four days, each and every house in the village got piped water connection. Dilip jee was impressed!” said Bangar.

So, two years later, in 2016, when the Ajjibaichi Shala was to be set up, Motilal Dalal Charitable trust instantly came on board and helped with the uniforms, bags, school stationery, and basic books.

Yogendra Bangar with his students

“The village is like a close-knit family. After the water problem got resolved, we grew many fruit-bearing trees. We celebrate each and every festival with great enthusiasm,” said Bangar, adding: “On February 19, 2016, on the occasion of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Jayanti, we had organized a grand function. The children had prepared skits and musical events. The adults were reading religious verses. The ajjis werethere too, sitting in the last row, wearing brand new navvari sarees. After the event, a few of them came to me and said they regretted being illiterate and wished that they could at least read religious books and write their names.”

It affected Bangar. He instantly decided to open a school for the ajjis in the village. “I got so excited that I mentioned it to one of the local journalists who was there to cover the function. I told him that I would open the school after a month, on Women’s Day, but, at that point in time, it was just an idea. The journalist published this news and from the next day onwards I started getting calls from other journalists!” said Bangar.

However, answering these phone calls helped Bangar conceptualize the idea of a school for ajjis. When asked why grandfathers were not included, Bangar said: “This generation was born in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. There was a lack of awareness and financial problems in most homes. But, even then, men were sent to schools, and women were excluded.  Most of the grandfathers in the village could read and write, but the grandmothers were 100% illiterate. Besides, these women have struggled a lot. Their lives have revolved around managing homes, looking after their children, and working in the fields. And now, when the next generation has taken over, they often feel unwanted and unloved. Educating them was the primary task, but I also wanted them to laugh, socialize, make friends and enjoy life,” said Bangar.

It was first decided to give them green sarees as uniforms. But as most of them were widows and, as per the Maharashtrian tradition, they were not allowed to wear green, they were given pink sarees

The tagline for the school is “shikshanala vayache bandhan nahi” (age is no bar when it comes to education). The school was first set up in the living room of a farmer. But when they got a good response and many journalists started coming to the village to write about the ajjis, the school got a permanent address. Sheetal More, who had studied until class 10, was the most educated lady in the village back then and was unanimously chosen to be their teacher.

“Earlier, the students had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see,” said Bangar.

The schooling isn’t restricted to studying. These grannies also play games, like kho-kho. As per More madam, they are quite a handful. They giggle and pull each other’s legs while the class is on. They have been allotted a space to sit depending on their hearing ability and vision capacity, but they don’t follow these rules and go and sit with their friends. There are the quintessential backbenchers too, who, despite warnings, wipe their slates with their sarees. The grannies are particular about two things … no homework, and no exams. “The good part is that they never bunk. There is this ajji who came to attend the classes even though her son was getting married the next day and there were guests at home!” said More. 

However, whenever they behave and, more importantly, perform well, they are rewarded by the management. In 2018, they were taken on a two-day picnic to Wai in Maharashtra, also known as “Dakshin Kashi” as there are more than 100 temples in the city. “It was a lot of fun. It was after a long time I was going on a casual trip and, for the very first time, I was going with my friends,” said Parvati Kedar, one of the ajjis who attended the trip.

The ajjis were taken on a school picnic to Kashi

A lot has changed over the years. Bangar has got transferred to Murbad district, 15 kms from Fangane. He, however, visits the grannies regularly to know their progress and resolve their issues. More continues to teach at the school without charging a penny. Earlier, it was a batch of 30. Now they are 28. Two students, both in their 90s, passed away owing to age-related ailments. The other ajjis miss them but are glad that they learnt to write their names before they passed away.

To be able to write their names gave them the identity they were looking for all their lives. It was almost as if they were living, but never existed on paper and their thumb impressions always stuck out like a sore thumb. To get a sense of what putting their signature on bank documents or ration cards meant for them, I spoke to four ajjis over the phone.

Kantabai More, the mother-in-law of teacher More, got married when she was 17. She never went to school as her parents never had enough money. Her brother, however, was sent to school. “The primary reason I joined Ajjibaichi Shala was because I wanted to learn how to write my name; at least that. So, when I signed for the first time in my life, I felt very happy. It’s my wish to sign on the paper in the bank while withdrawing cash, but they are not letting me do that. They are saying it’s a lot of paperwork to change the thumb impression and letting me sign. But that’s fine. I am not complaining,” she said.

The story of her friend Parvati Maruti Kedar is no different. She does not know her age or at which age she got married. She was never sent to any school. Ajjibaichi Shala was her first formal education and she is happy with what she has managed to learn. “When I signed for the first time when I went to get the ration, my hands started shivering. But I felt really good. I feel proud of myself.”

Nirmala Kedar, an octogenarian student, said: “I couldn’t go to school as a child and remained illiterate all my life. But I didn’t want to die illiterate. I am happy that now I would be able to carry a few words with me when I die.” 

Sunanda Kedar, 70, her voice barely audible, said: “I can write my name. I have no regrets now. It was my only desire in life … to be able to write my name. I am happy that I have managed to achieve this.”

To be able to write their names has given them the identity they were looking for all their lives

The school is going to be shut until further notice. “The students keep asking me when will the school open as they are missing their friends and the atmosphere. But they are also aware that it can’t open till this disease goes away. They know they can’t sit next to each other,” said More. While teaching these grannies, she got motivated and cleared her high school exams and is presently pursuing her BA as an external student. Inspired by her, two other girls in the village are also pursuing their graduation.

The situation of the village hasn’t changed much though. The only school in the village is only until class five. Her kids are in primary now but later on they will have to travel 20 kms one way to attend secondary school, which is in another village. She has no idea how would that work out, but, for now, she is happy that she is sitting next to her children and her mother-in-law, and all of them are studying.

(Picture credit: Yogendra Bangar)

The taangawalas of Lucknow, a slice of Nawabi history, are on the brink of oblivion post lockdown

The tradition of pulling horse carriages has been in existence since the time the Nawabs used to live in Lucknow. These taangawalas make their living by ferrying tourists who come to visit the many historical monuments in the city. However, during the lockdown, they were forced to feed substandard fodder and grass to their horses as they were not earning. They exhausted all their savings to buy essentials like ration. In the absence of any tourists because of the pandemic, the taangawals these days are killing their time by chitchatting. They are worried that if the situation persists for long, their horses will have to eat substandard fodder permanently

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As I was waiting for Juggan Khan, 70, who has been riding a taanga in old Lucknow for the past 50 years, I couldn’t stop marveling at the grandeur of the Bara Imambada, which was right in front of me. Commissioned by Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, the construction of the Imambara started in 1786, when a devastating famine had hit the Awadh region. The Nawab’s objective behind commissioning the structure was to provide employment to people in the region so that they could tide over the crisis. Going by the grandeur of the Imambara, which also houses Bhool-Bhulaiyan, a series of labyrinth, and Shahi Baoli — a stepwell, one can only guess the number of people who must have toiled for years to build the Imambara.

As I waited for Khan at one in the afternoon next to a nariyal paani wala, as he had instructed, I also occasionally looked at the imposing, sixty-feet tall Rumi Darwaza, also built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula in 1784, and the 200-feet tall Husainabad Clock Tower, built in 1881 to mark the arrival of Sir George Couper, the first lieutenant governor of the United Province of Awadh.

Keep swiping right to see images of some of the historical monuments in Lucknow.

In short, walking along this stretch in old Lucknow is like flipping through the pages of a history book. The taangawalas of Lucknow are also a part of it. The tradition of pulling horse carriages has been in existence since the time the Nawabs used to live in Lucknow. The 30-odd taangas that are still in existence had been struggling to survive, but the pandemic and the lockdown have added a few more worry lines on the foreheads of the taangawalas, most of who are over 50 years of age.     

“This is Lucknow’s shahi safari and look at our plight. If it continues like this then you will not find a single taanga in old Lucknow and that will be the end,” said an extremely soft-spoken Khan. These taangas are a tourist attraction. The visiting tourists start their tour from the Bara Imambara. They make pit stops at the Rumi Darwaza, the clock tower and the museum, and end their tour at the Chota Imambara — built by Nawab of Awadh, Muhammad Ali Shah, in 1838. Though the distance between the two is around 1.5 kms, most of the tourists either opt for the e-rickshaws that have eaten into the business of these taangawalas, or the taangas.

Juggan Khan, 70, with his horse

As per the Indian tourist statistics, Uttar Pradesh attracted the highest number of domestic tourists in the country in 2019 (53.5 crore) and the state bagged the third spot in terms of arrival of foreign tourists. As many as 47.4 lakh foreign tourists visited Uttar Pradesh in the same year. As per the Uttar Pradesh tourism website, a total of 79,6521 Indian and foreign tourists visited the Bara Imambara in 2019. In contrast, 2020 was a dampener. And, as per these taangawalas, there is not going to be an uptick any time soon, something that is going to affect them badly as they are daily wage earners and their earnings depend only on the visiting tourists.   

“On an average, our daily income is between Rs 300 and Rs 500. On good days, we manage to give a ride to foreign tourists and they give us anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 per ride. But this happens rarely. And I am talking about the pre-lockdown time. Now, we spend most of our day chitchatting as there are no tourists,” said Khan.

While I was talking to him, three more taangawaals arrived. It was lunchtime for their horses. They had tied a bag full of fodder around the crest of their horses so that they could stretch their legs for a while. When asked how did they manage during the lockdown, Mohammad Shakeel, a 56-year-old taangawala said: “We managed to get ration from a few sources. Someone or the other helped. But mostly we got dry ration like flour and rice. One needs oil, spices and gas to cook that. Since we were not earning anything, we had to spend from our savings to buy these additional things. We were eating less, which was still fine, but the horses suffered. They needed their set quota of daily fodder. On an average, we have to spend Rs 300 per day to buy good quality fodder for the horses. During the lockdown, we were giving them substandard fodder. I also know a few taangawalas who were feeding grass to their horses. Some were also thinking of abandoning them.”

Mohammad Shakeel with his horse

The biggest problem, according to taangalwala Abdul Razzak, is that they are not registered or don’t have any official license to operate. “These taangas are a part of history. The government should take us under its fold if it wants us to continue. Ideally, the tourism department should give us a fixed salary, no matter how small, because we are a part of the tourism industry. What we do has a historical significance. Because we are not registered like most of the guides or tour operators are, we could not avail the financial help that was released by the government during the lockdown.”

The government had announced a Rs 20-lakh crore stimulus package in May and a Rs 2.6 lakh crore stimulus package in November. Besides, Uttar Pradesh was the first state to implement a policy for lakhs of people in the unorganized sector. In April, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had announced a Rs 1,000 monthly allowance each for those working in the unorganized workforce (like hawkers, vendors and cart-pullers) through direct bank transfers. However, these taangawalas slipped through the cracks.

“I am 70. I don’t understand the banking system too well. I have a small phone which I use only to make calls,” said Khan while narrating an interesting incident. Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Gulabo Sitabo released in April 2020. Set in Lucknow, the movie was shot in the city in 2019. In one of the shots, Khan got an opportunity to share the screen space with Bachchan. “He was sitting in a taanga. I had to sit in a taanga next to him and pretend as if I was riding it. Just that. It was a small shot which lasted a couple of seconds. In May, during the lockdown, a media organization did a story on the plight of taangawalas in Lucknow and mentioned that how I had shared screen space with Bachchan but had no money to buy fodder for my horse. When the director (Shoojit Sircar) read the story, he and a few others offered to help me financially. Someone from his office asked me to share my account details and my mobile number. The person kept asking me if I had some buttons in my phone (khan was referring to apps like Paytm and Google Pay). I was clueless. The person who had done the story helped me out and I suddenly had Rs 10,000 in my account!” said Khan.  

A still from the movie Gulabo Sitabo featuring Khan.

For Khan, it was a lottery. The others have not been as lucky.

“I love Raja (the horse). But I am not sure what will happen to him after I am gone. My children have already taken up other jobs. They work as craftsmen. They have seen my struggle. They don’t want to take this profession up. They have loved all the horses that I have had. They have looked after them. But I don’t think there are going to be more taangawalas in the family. They are keen to keep the horse only if the government offers some fixed incentive,” said Mohammad Ariz, another taangawaala, who was gearing up for his first ride of the day.

When asked if he remembers the names of all his horses he has had, Khan starts counting them. “Laxmi gave me a tough time. She was very chanchal. Raju was extremely lucky for me. He died accidentally due to electrocution right there. The one I have now is Bijli. We are still getting used to each other. She is probably unhappy with me as I couldn’t feed her properly during the lockdown,” said Khan, while patting Bijli’s back. 

Abdul Razzak with his horse

Khan being a veteran feels the taangawalas are a slice of history and an attempt should be made to preserve this tradition. “I have been coming here for the past 50 years. I have seen the city change. I taangas have also evolved from the time of the Nawabs, to the time when I starting riding, to the ones that you see plying now. We could have done something else to earn more money. But you don’t abandon your kids for money, do you? My family is keen on keeping the tradition alive,” said Khan.

Razzak pitches in and said: “My children and grandchildren are keen to keep the horse too. Let them. Allah has given us space in this world. He will ensure that my children and my horses don’t sleep on empty stomachs … ever.”  

The hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley stood completely deserted this whole year

Spiti — a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh – was barren this summer. It was peak season, but there were no tourists because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. It’s going to be a cold, dark, and long winter for the locals as tourists have been advised to give Spiti a miss until further notice. For homestay and hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals, who are dependent on tourists for survival, the pandemic has meant zero earnings. This story is like a postcard from Spiti … words and pictures telling you individual stories

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Scenic Himalayan lakes, 1,000-year-old monasteries, pretty villages, unexplored treks, surreal landscapes, harsh highlands, winding roads, dramatic skies, extremely warm people and apple-cheeked children … Spiti, a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh, is all this and a lot more.

Despite the inaccessibility and harsh weather conditions, Spiti Valley is on the bucket list of many travel and adventure enthusiasts, and usually, between March and June, the valley is packed with Indian and international tourists, bikers, trekkers, and adventure-seekers. This year, something unusual happened. The summer of 2020 was a black summer for the locals of Spiti Valley … a summer they are not going to forget for a long, long time.

“For the first time in the past 18-19 years, there were no tourists in Spiti during the peak season because of the lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Lara Tsering, owner of Spiti Valley Tours and Lara’s Homestay in Kaza — a town situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 12,500 feet above sea level, home to the world’s highest petrol pump. “I spent the whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. I don’t think people will travel anytime soon. The harsh Spiti winter will set in from October. I am expecting the situation to improve only next year,” he said.  

For homestay owners, hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals in Spiti Valley, the pandemic has meant zero earnings.

The valley — situated 415 kms from the summer capital of Himachal, Shimla, and 390 kms from the winter capital, Dharmshala, which is home to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile – is a research and cultural center for the Buddhists. The name Spiti means ‘The middle land’ (the land between Tibet and India), and the popular tourist destinations in Spiti are the Tabo monastery; one of the oldest in the world, Dhankar monastery, Ki monastery, Kibber Monastery, Pin Valley, Chandra Taal and Giu, famous for the 500-year-old mummy of a Buddhist monk, among others.

Largely untouched, tourism set foot into the Spiti Valley after 1992 when the valley opened up to the outside world. The valley, and the surrounding region, is one of the least populated regions in the country — the Lahaul-Spiti district has a population of 31, 564, and Kaza is the sub-divisional headquarters. The northern part of the valley is usually cut-off for eight months due to heavy snowfall and the southern part, which has access via Shimla and is a more popular tourist route, is shut periodically throughout the year because of snowfall.

The best time to visit Spiti is from March to June when the temperature ranges from 0-15-degree Celsius. Tourists avoid visiting Spiti during the monsoon months (July to September) as there are possibilities of massive landslides. Winters in Spiti are for the daring as the temperature dips to as low as -20 degrees Celsius because of the heavy snowfall. The locals, and those associated with the tourism industry, thus have a very small window to earn money through tourists.

Keep swiping right to see some stunning visuals from Spiti.

When Spiti Valley said no to tourists

Himachal is a much sort-after tourist destination. There are 3,350 hotels, 1,656 homestays, 2,912 travel agencies and 1,314 guides, 899 photographers and 222 adventurers registered with the state tourism department. The total bed capacity of hotels and homestay units is 91,223 and 9,144, respectively. While 1.72 crore tourists (Indian and international) visited Himachal in 2019, 1.64 crore visited in 2018.

In January this year, when the locals living in Spiti Valley – most dependent on the incoming tourists for livelihood — were gearing up for the upcoming tourist season, coronavirus had just started spreading its tentacles in the country. After a long and cold winter (October-January), when the business is bleak, the locals were looking forward to the peak season to pick up. They were optimistic as they were getting many booking enquires.

However, as the number of coronavirus cases started going up in February, people started cancelling their bookings. From March 23 onwards – the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced by the government – everything came to a standstill. The lockdown was extended twice after that and eventually ended in May end.

In July, the Himachal Pradesh government announced opening up the state for tourism with guidelines that tourists were required to follow. It was mandatory for the incoming tourists to show their COVID-19 negative report, furnished from any of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-recognized labs. They also had to pre-book hotels and stay at least for two days. However, by September, the state eased some of the guidelines and lifted the mandatory condition of carrying an e-pass or registration for tourists and also allowed inter-state travel.

However, the Spiti Tourism Society decided it would stay shut to tourists for the year 2020 and said no tourism activities, including jeep safaris, package tours, trekking and camping, would be allowed.

In a letter submitted to Additional Deputy Commission of Spiti, Gian Sagar Negi from Spiti Tourism Society said: “This decision is made considering the consequences of the pandemic on the high altitude region of Spiti Valley which has limited medical facilities, underdeveloped infrastructure and extreme geographical condition with our harsh winters and pre-existing medical condition of Acute Mountain Sickness.” The letter further states that social distancing would be tough in winters and patients would have to be taken out of the valley in case one such case emerges, further complicating the situation. The letter also urges travellers to cancel all travel plans to Spiti Valley this year to make it a safe destination for next year. A sanguine decision, but it’s going to hit the locals hard.

Lara Tsering, owner of Spiti Valley Tours and Lara’s Homestay, spent the whole summer cancelling bookings

“No help from the government”

“My cars are parked since March and the drivers are sitting at home doing nothing,” said Kamal Kishore, a tour operator who is based in Shimla, and organizes tours to Spiti. “There is no chance of Spiti opening for tourists this season. While some drivers went back to their native villages and are doing farming, most haven’t earned a penny this season and won’t until the next. Some tour operators gave them their salaries, but since we haven’t got any financial help from the government in the stimulus package that it had announced, we are also in a fix,” he added.  

Mahendra Singh, a driver, who is associated with one such tour operators, lives in Chandigarh. He usually ferries tourists to popular destinations like Shimla and Manali, but he looks forward to going to Spiti three-four times during the peak season. A couple of trips to Spiti help him earn more than the regular destinations. This year, he had to let go of Spiti, and he has no hopes of even Shimla and Manali opening fully for the tourists. “I have exhausted all my savings. Now I will have to look for a job. I don’t think the overall travel scene will improve anytime soon,” he said.

Jitendra Bharadwaj, who works with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) in Mumbai, is usually very busy throughout the year organizing tour packages. A chunk of tourists visiting Himachal come from Mumbai and Delhi. However, he has spent this whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. “Not just us, the entire tourism chain in Spiti, which includes hotels, tents and homestay owners, guides, photographers, porters and drivers, has taken a hit. Some of the local people own apple orchards or grow cash crops, so they have something to fall back on. But those who depend on tourism have been rendered jobless.”

Spiti Holiday Adventure is a travel platform that organizes treks, jeep safaris and adventure tours and treks in Spiti. When contacted, Nikhil Bhambure, business and communication head of the company, said: “Our revenues are zero since March and we had to dig into our savings to pay our staff.” He added: “The tourism scene in Spiti has picked up only recently. So, the locals still have the option to fall back on their traditional occupations like farming or transporting goods. It’s people like us, who are dependent on tourists, suffering. Being remote, don’t think Spiti will open up this year, not even for the winter tourists.”

Trekking and camping in Spiti is something that the adventure-seeking tourists from India and abroad look forward to. A small business-model runs around organizing these treks and camps. Often, guides, porters, horsemen, cooks and tent-owners accompany tourists on these treks. For Jagat Singh, who hails from Uttarakhand, and is a porter, such treks mean good business. “I live in Manali, but come to Spiti during the trekking season. Usually, I make good money, but, this year, I have earned nothing,” he said.    

Most of the locals in Spiti are dependent on the incoming tourists. Image: Lara Tsering

Those who run proper hotels in Spiti are facing bigger problems. It’s not easy for them to run and maintain their hotels in a remote location like Spiti. These hotels are not operational throughout the year. So, every time they open, the hotel operators have to spend additional money on maintaining their properties. As the business is cyclic, it’s inconvenient for them to hire permanent support staff. Most hotels have dedicated staff members who diligently return every season. But, in case they don’t, the hotel owners have to make alternative arrangements for the year.

“My cooks, cleaners, drivers and hotel boys come from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and even Nepal. This year none of them could make it because of the lockdown,” said Chhobyang Singhe, owner of the relatively high-end hotel Spiti Heritage Himalayan Brother, which is in Kaza. He had no option but to shut the hotel. He managed to come down to Dharamshala in the nick of the time, just before the lockdown was announced. He has two properties here, which he opened in July as the country started unlocking. He is banking on these two properties as the Kaza property “is going to be shut for a long, long time.”

As per Tsering Tsang, who co-manages the Sakya Abode hotel in Kaza, along with her husband, the coronavirus situation was never so grave in Lahaul-Spiti, but it was the locals who were wary of not letting outsiders in Spiti. “Most homestays might open, but they won’t get any traffic,” she said.  

Well, not all are complaining. Take Lara Tsering from Lara Homestay, for instance, who said: “The lockdown was a blessing for me. We are busy organizing tours throughout the year. The summer months are very hectic. The lockdown gave me an opportunity to explore Spiti, something that I had never done before. I went on solo trips and discovered new trails and walks.”

When these children living in Adivasi hamlets in Aarey, Mumbai, got smartphones, they danced with joy!

Just two months back, these children were staring at an uncertain future because they didn’t have a smartphone and were moving one step away from education with each passing day. After Mumbai-based journalist Sohit Mishra did a story on them, help poured in from India and abroad and he personally went back to Aarey and distributed around 85 smartphones. In this first-person account, Mishra talks about how because of the positive response that the story received, the journalist in him could sleep better at night and why there is a need to tell many such stories and do quality journalism during a pandemic

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Children living in some of the 27 Adivasi hamlets located inside Mumbai’s Aarey Milk Colony, the sprawling 1,300 hectares of forest land in the heart of the city, received a special gift in September.

In March, following the government’s order of keeping the educational institutes closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, schools and colleges across India began conducting online classes with the use of smartphones and computers. However, for children living in rural India, urban slums, and Adivasi pockets such as Aarey, this meant a long gap in their education. Many of these families didn’t have a basic phone or had just one smartphone in the family. Factors like poor network and connectivity added to their problems. While many citizens, NGOs, and voluntary organizations have stepped in to help such children either by giving them smartphones or finding alternative means to educate them, there are still many who haven’t attended a single class or touched their textbooks since the beginning of the pandemic.

Sohit Mishra, a Mumbai-based journalist, shares with ‘The Good Story Project’ this heart-warming first-person account of how people from across the globe stepped in to help children living in Adivasi hamlets at Aarey by providing them with smartphones after the story he did on them had the desired impact. He also writes about the importance of doing quality and responsible journalism, especially during a pandemic when there is pain, suffering, and anxiety all around. It’s noteworthy that airing of the story coincided with most of the primetime slots being dedicated to the coverage of the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor, and a section of society openly expressing its disgust over the over-the-top, TRP-driven coverage. Mishra’s story led to these children receiving the best Children’s Day gift, that too two months in advance. This is his first-person account. 

Journalist Sohit Mishra’s story (The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.)

In August end, when I decided to do this story, most of the schools across the country had resorted to online classes. I thought about children living in rural India and the urban poor who were getting impacted because they didn’t have smartphones. That’s when I decided to visit Aarey as I knew the financial condition of people living over there wasn’t good. Through my story, I wanted to raise an important point that if people living in heart of the financial capital of India were not able to afford a smartphone, then imagine the plight of children in the rest of the country. When I reached Aarey, I noticed that children were playing and because they didn’t have a smartphone, they were not studying at all. One of the girls I met, who was around seven-year-old, said her friends were able to study but since she was poor, she couldn’t. That made me very sad that a girl at her age was experiencing discrimination based on her financial status and she knew that she was denied education or wasn’t able to study as her family was not in a position to buy a smartphone. That’s when I decided to go ahead with the story.

I always knew it would be a good story, but I didn’t know it would go viral and so many people will come out to help. Initially, one of our viewers contacted me on Twitter and offered to help Shiksha, a class three student who featured in the story. Her mother had never been to school, but she named her daughter Shiksha. Things were going smoothly until the pandemic hit them and Shiksha’s educational journey suffered a roadblock because of the absence of a smartphone. Soon, help started pouring in from India and abroad and many people started sending smartphones for these children. Several senior journalists who wished to remain anonymous pitched in too. Bollywood actor Sonu Sood, who has been doing some incredible work since the lockdown, also sent some smartphones. It was incredible to receive courier packages every day and opening them at night after returning from work helped me sleep better.

Sohit Mishra (left) with the smartphone parcels. Children at one of the Adivasi hamlets showing their smartphones

I personally went back to Aarey to distribute these smartphones. In all, we have distributed around 85 smartphones. Our initial plan was a cover one Adivasis hamlet inside Aarey, but we ended up covering 12. The children were extremely happy after receiving the smartphones and were dancing with joy. Some of the parents had tears in their eyes and they assured that they would make sure that the children made the most of this opportunity. They said they never expected that anyone would help them. They could never have imagined that people would actually bother to send smartphones for their children. They said that this gesture has given them hope that the world can still be a place where their sons and daughters will be able to grow and prosper.

Personally, as a journalist, this story and the response to it, made me very happy. During the lockdown, I had covered that entire migration crisis. It was heartbreaking to see people on the streets, starving and not having a single penny on them to buy food. I was fulfilling my duties as a journalist by covering these stories, but I couldn’t do much to help them personally. But after the Aarey story, when people started sending smartphones and when I handed them over to the children, that was extremely satisfying for me. It motivated me to do my job with more responsibility and I was happy that as a journalist I could impact a few people and do my bit for society. 

The video is sourced from Mishra’s Facebook post.

The only positive emerging out of the ongoing pandemic, which is an unusual and unprecedented situation in itself, is the fact that people have gone out of their way to help others in need. Since the lockdown, there have been many stories of pain, suffering, loss, despair, hopelessness, and heartbreak. This has affected our society but has also made people more ‘giving’. I think the reason why people came out in large numbers to donate smartphones, even though the pandemic has affected all of us financially in some way or the other, was because somewhere down the line they could feel the pain of these parents. When there are so many crisis-ridden stories, people feel compelled to help those in need in whichever way they can.    

While we need more such people, we also need people who can question the government. After all, after announcing the closure of schools, it was the government’s responsibility to ensure that no student was left out.

Many journalists have done a fabulous job of covering the pandemic and the lockdown with maturity, empathy, and sensitivity. However, around the time the story came out, a section of media was busy covering the aftermath of the death of a Bollywood actor and that coverage dominated all the other news stories. As a journalist, that broke my heart a little. There were so many people who were staring at an uncertain future because of the pandemic, and their stories needed to be told. But it seemed as if no one cared. I think that’s why people liked my story and responded very positively to it. As journalists, it’s our responsibility to tell stories, but we must also do stories that can help people come out of dire circumstances. I am convinced that many such stories would be done in the future and the day is not far when people themselves would support journalism that serves them the news that matters and not garbage.

Sohit Mishra is a senior correspondent and anchor at NDTV India. The views expressed above are his own.